What Foreign Policy Staff Read in 2016
Writers and editors share some of the best books they read this year.
From novels set in India to exhaustive histories of World War II to the story of the hunt for a man-eating tiger in the Russian Far East, Foreign Policy staff read books this year that made us laugh, cry, and rethink how we see and understand survival, innovation, and some of the 20th century’s most pivotal military battles. Below, select FP writers and editors share some of the best books they read this year — and why they think you should pick up copies of them too (even if they weren’t necessarily published in 2016).
James Palmer, Asia editor
Disrupted: My Misadventures in the Start-Up Bubble, by Daniel Lyons
This has been the year that proved that everything people liked in the 1990s — the internet, the Clintons, the triumph of American capitalism — is actually awful, especially the internet. Disrupted wasn’t my favorite book of the year, but it’s the one I’ve found myself referring to most often in conversation. On the surface, it’s a funny, sly memoir of being out of place — too old, too cranky, and too skeptical — but beyond that, it’s an exposé of how unsustainable, absurd, and corrupt the world of “tech” is.
“Tech” is very different from actual technology. “Tech” means Uber, losing nearly a billion dollars a year, bulldozing their way through regulations thanks to a virtual blank check from investors. The mix of venture capital and the belief that apps can solve everything is, as Lyons shows, financially and socially dangerous. Like “finance” in the run-up to 2008 (and, well, finance today), it’s a ticking time bomb that will cover us all in shrapnel when it explodes.
Alicia Wittmeyer, Europe editor
The Orientalist, by Tom Reiss
This book tells the incredible story of Lev Nussimbaum, a descendent of shtetl Jews who grew up wealthy in pre-World War I Baku, Azerbaijan, escaped the Soviets by fleeing to Weimar Germany, reinvented himself as a Muslim prince and then wrote, among other things, the great Azerbaijani novel, under the pen name Kurban Said. (That novel, Ali and Nino, which is about a Muslim boy and a Christian girl who fall in love, coincidentally was made into a movie this year.) The Orientalist, which was published way back in 2005, is first and foremost, a story of an amazing life, one that intersects with the historical currents of the time in dramatic ways. But, as Reiss tells it, it is also the story of a person who, at a time when the world was embracing dangerous racisms and nationalisms, embodied in his person a determination to not succumb to a desire to eliminate complexity — which sadly, is a theme that feels even more relevant today, more than a decade later.
Reid Standish, associate editor, digital
The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival, by John Vaillant
Set in the wilderness of the Primorye region, on Russia’s far eastern border, Vaillant tells the tale of the hunt for a gigantic man-eating Amur tiger. Against the backdrop of the social and economic fallout of the collapse of the Soviet Union, The Tiger is as much a man vs. beast story as it is about the tumult and uncertainty of life in post-Soviet Russia — a mix of Moby Dick or Jaws with Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan. Vaillant’s work of nonfiction recreates the extraordinary series of events that took place in 1997 and the team of trackers — usually charged with protecting wildlife from poachers — now dispatched to hunt down the tiger. Like most well-made man vs. nature stories, the beast itself is out of sight, but never far, and Vaillant’s narrative successfully captures the drama and tension of this adventure into the wild.
Solving the mystery of why the Amur tiger — known as a fearsome predator, but never one of people — went rogue is the central thrust of the book. What changed for the tiger to acquire a taste for human flesh? What could have thrown off the balance between man and nature? Vaillant’s book is not a political story — Moscow and the inner workings of the Kremlin are far from the minds of the characters. But in a time of rising fear and a lack of understanding between Russia and the West, this book provides a much-needed exploration of the changes that have taken place inside the world’s largest country — even if only in one of its furthest frontiers.
Ty McCormick, Africa editor
City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp, by Ben Rawlence
In a year in which the refugee crisis dominated the headlines but too often drifted out of focus, obscured by its own unfathomable enormity, this book offers a piercing and at times disarmingly intimate account of life in the world’s largest refugee camp. Home to more than 300,000 mostly Somali refugees, the Dadaab complex in northeastern Kenya is, in Rawlence’s words, an “open prison in the desert.” Residents are forbidden to work or even to leave the camp without special authorization. “And through our tax contributions to the U.N., we all pay billions of dollars to keep them there,” he writes. The depth of this tragedy is revealed through the personal narratives Rawlence weaves together in the book. There is the football fanatic, the cynical drug addict, and the tenacious student who dreams of winning a university scholarship. In all of them, we recognize a little bit of ourselves. And through reading their stories, it becomes a little harder to deny that under different circumstances any one of them could be us.
Kavitha Surana, editorial fellow
Migrant, Refugee, Smuggler, Saviour, by Peter Tinti and Tuesday Reitano
Migration issues in Europe often break through the news cycle at the most dramatic and tragic points: Refugees charging through barbed wire as border police try to keep them out, or a drowned child washed up on the shores of the Mediterranean. But the journey in search of safe haven and economic opportunity begins long before boarding a boat to reach Europe’s shores. Tinti and Reitano’s book is a must-read for anyone trying to understand the mechanics of the migration crisis in a wider perspective. By focusing in on the conflicted role of the smuggler (who often doubles as a savior for those he is transporting), Tinti and Reitano shed light on one of the most under-examined facets of the ongoing crisis: A multibillion dollar industry of criminal networks that function as a last resort for people in dire circumstances when few legal migration pathways exist. The book isn’t just rigorously researched and packed with fascinating details, but clearly benefits from a reporter’s eye, weaved throughout with gripping first-hand accounts. While Europe’s leaders often respond to the “refugee crisis” with calls to tamp down on the flow of “illegal migrants” and the “traffickers” who abet them, Tinti and Reitano reach beyond those stale labels to help readers understand the nuanced incentives driving the migrant industry.
Cameron Abadi, deputy editor, online
Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran, by Laura Secor
This should be the first book anyone reads about the Iranian reform movement. It’s a survey of its entirety, from the idealistic anti-colonial intellectual debates that inspired the Islamic revolution, to the political struggles to establish a genuinely new and just political order, to the more recent attempts, in the form of the Green Movement, to protest against the oppressive order that was ultimately established.
Whether or not Secor intended it that way, her book also feels like the last book on this subject one should ever have to read. There are still self-identified reformist politicians in Iran committed to incrementally improving the system, but it’s hard not to judge their broader project a tragedy. The questions posed by the original revolutionaries, and the subsequent reformers, were, and still are, worthy; are notions of liberty and justice really worthy of the name if they don’t emerge from the societies expressing them? But the answers they gave — and the central political space they afforded to God, and thus to political authoritarians in their own midst — hardly seems salvageable. Secor shows that the Iranian reformists didn’t just fail to square the circle they drew; she shows they never had a chance to succeed.
Brian Stout, copy editor
A quarter-century removed from the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and as observers anxiously wonder what the near future holds for the U.S. role in the world, it’s worth revisiting the life and career of President George H.W. Bush. The first President Bush’s steady leadership through uncertainty has been largely taken for granted. While Ronald Reagan’s ideological clarity and soaring rhetoric have made him a conservative icon, it was his successor who had the more onerous responsibilities — and remarkable accomplishments — of managing the Cold War’s waning moments. Bush’s foreign policy was pragmatic yet resolute, defending American interests and values simultaneously without sacrificing one for the other. Meacham attributes this to the personal traits imbued in him early on: private ambition, public self-effacement, and a sense that with great privilege comes great responsibility. As a biographer, Meacham is judicious, drawing mostly from years of audio diaries and interviews with his subject. Presenting his sweeping portrait of the 41st U.S. president with a novelist’s prose, Meacham’s compelling book reveals an often distant man in whom readers will find a surprisingly sympathetic character.
Keith Johnson, deputy managing editor, news
The Fleet at Flood Tide: America at Total War in the Pacific, 1944-1945, by James D. Hornfischer
The decisive moment of the Pacific War wasn’t at Midway or Guadalcanal, but rather, the full mobilization of the U.S. war economy that Japanese Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto warned about before Pearl Harbor. That finally came together in the Central Pacific island-hopping campaign, exemplified by the assault on Saipan. Hornfischer places the campaign, wonderfully depicted as all his naval histories are, within U.S. strategic goals in the Pacific, especially the need for bases for B-29 bombers. Also noteworthy and welcome: the attention Hornfischer pays to the logistics challenges of the long-distance Pacific war.
Emily Tamkin, staff writer
Swing Time, by Zadie Smith
Zadie Smith’s latest novel is the story of two girls — both half black and half white — who grow up together and then grow apart. One is a naturally talented dancer who is unable to make it passed her past. The other grows up to be the personal assistant to a white pop star who, almost on a whim, decides she wants to build a school for girls in West Africa. The story swings back and forth between their pasts and presents.
But it’s also the story of diverse pockets of London, and of the inequality that nevertheless persists in them, and of people who make it out of the places from which they come, and the people who don’t. It’s about inequality, and injustice, and people who have never known either, and people who will never know anything but. And it’s all set to infectious rhythm of Smith’s prose. Pair with her post-election essay/speech, “On Optimism and Despair,” and you have a powerful antidote to so much of what was asserted in and by 2016.
Benjamin Soloway, assistant editor
Leg Over Leg, or the Turtle in the Tree: Concerning the Fariyaq, What Manner of Creature Might He Be, by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, edited and translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies
I haven’t read many novels in translation from Arabic. What better place to begin than at the beginning? Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s picaresque, somewhat maniacal “four-book opuscule,” published in Paris in 1855, may be the first of its kind in Arabic, according to the New York Review of Books. The text is worth the expedition it demands: a ramble through Lebanon, Egypt, Malta, Tunis, England, and France — with detours in the form of musings, rhyming passages, and in some memorable instances, protracted catalogues of “rare” words for genitalia and their uses — and through much of the protagonist’s life. Al-Shidyaq’s commentaries on love and language — and on places, the people who populate them, and their customs — are quite singular, and his delight in language offers a glimpse, however pale in translation, of the richness of a classical Arabic beyond the reach of most readers this edition will attract.
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