Summer reading recommendations from ECFR staff


Anyone interested in the future of the European Union should read Wolfgang Streeck’s book Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism, which was much discussed in Germany when it was originally published in 2013 and has just come out in English. Streeck describes the financial crisis that began in the autumn of 2008 as merely the most recent stage in a longer crisis in democratic capitalism that goes back to the end of the post-war settlement in the 1970s. For Streeck, the paradigmatic case in the latest phase of this counter-revolution by capital is the EU, which he describes as a kind of Hayekian Utopia in which liberalised capital is immunising itself from democratic control.

The Embassy of Cambodia is a wonderful little short story about immigrants in north-west London, where the eponymous embassy is bizarrely located and where I (and the author) live – perfect holiday reading. The following line by the narrator may help foreign policy analysts to relax over the summer: “The fact is if we followed the history of every little country in the world – in its dramatic as well as its quiet times – we would have no space in which to live our own lives or to apply ourselves to our necessary tasks, never mind indulge in occasional pleasures, like swimming."
Hans Kundnani, Research Director

Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism
By Wolfgang Streeck (Verso, 2014)

The Embassy of Cambodia
by Zadie Smith  (Hamish Hamilton, 2013)

Perhaps sadly predictably, I am reading something on the Middle East. It is a book called The Good Spy: the Life and Death of Robert Ames by Kai Bird. It is a story of the beginning of the CIA and the post World War II-era and the story of a particular spy, Robert Ames. It is in a sense a nostalgic, sympathetic take on the good old days of spying when it was about establishing relationships, and human intelligence.
Julien Barnes-Dacey,  Policy Fellow with the Middle East and North Africa programme

The Good Spy
by Kai Bird (Crown Publishing, 2014)

For those who read Arabic, I would recommend Ahmad Saadawi’s novel Frankenstein in Baghdad, which won this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction. It is dark, a reflection on violence, on the daily life of Iraqis, and on their helplessness. But at the same time it is a sign that literature and art survived all of this darkness and all of this violence.
Myriam Benraad, Policy Fellow with the Middle East and North Africa programme

Frankenstein in Baghdad (Arabic only)
By Afhmad Saadawi (al Kamel 2013)

My rainy day summer read is Ronan Fanning’s Fatal Path, the story of the struggle by the Irish Parliamentary Party at Westminster to get the Irish Home Rule Bill onto the statute books by 1914. It was never actually implemented because of the outbreak of the First World War. By the time the war ended, militant Irish nationalism had replaced constitutional nationalism through the Dublin Easter Rising of 1916. Ireland became independent in 1922. A wonderful adjunct to the material published to commemorate the outbreak of the Great War.  

The book I’ll be taking to the beach is By-Line, published in 1967, selected articles and dispatches by Ernest Hemmingway as a newspaper reporter between 1920 and 1956 for the Toronto Star, Esquire and others. It’s fascinating to see his superb reporter’s eye for detail and watch his celebrated sparse writing style develop through the years. Some of his observations from his first trip to the Far East - six months before Pearl Harbour - will have an eerie familiarity for Asia watchers today!
Brian O’Connell, Press Officer

Fatal Path
By Ronan Fanning (Faber & Faber 2014)

By-Line Ernest Hemingway: Selected Articles and Dispatches of Four Decades
By Ernest Hemingway, edited by William White (Scribner 1967)


The American journalist and poet Eliza Griswold travelled to Afghanistan to collect and translate landays, a form of short spoken (or rather sung) folk poetry practiced by Pashtun women.

“God, you gave me eyes to see
but this cruel white-bearded goat is blinding me,”

is one poem in the collection. And one so perfectly masterful that it’s on the inside jacket cover:

“When sisters sit together, they always praise their brothers.
When brothers sit together, they sell their sisters to others.”

Griswold gives sparse exposition of the landays, explaining context, history, or cultural references a foreigner wouldn’t catch and also some background stories for the authors or the circumstances of the poem’s collection. And the book includes beautiful photography by Seamus Murphy. It’s an amazing insight to a hidden culture, hidden even from the women’s male family members. It’s beautiful and contemplative enough for a rainy day read, but a number of the poems are also fun enough – bawdy in fact – to be enjoyed on the beach.
Rachel Tausendfreund, Editor

I am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan
Translated by Eliza Griswold (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014)

I would recommend a novel by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi called The Colonel. It is an incredible depiction of the various incentives and motives for a revolution in Iran. It depicts the different actors and the different motives they were driving. The book shows how some of these aspirations were fulfilled through the removal of a dictator Shah whereas some were greatly undermined by the way the revolution morphed. It’s beautifully translated into English.
  Ellie Geranmayeh, Policy Fellow with the Middle East and North Africa programme

The Colonel
By Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, translated by Tom Patterdale  (Haus Publishing 2011)

A fun read, but not new: A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif. An ironized and quite funny tale of Pakistan's military dictator; Zia-ul-Haq's rise to power, rule and death.

A bit more serious: Wealth and Power: China's Long March to the Twenty-first Century. Orville Schell examines the lives of eleven influential officials, writers, activists, and the like whose contributions helped create modern China from the first Opium War to today. A well-written description of China's struggle with itself; and an explanation of the "Chinese Dream" as well. 

And for the very rainy days: The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited by Louisa Lim, on how "Tiananmen" plays out in today's society, and what it meant and means for individual people: soldiers, and victims, and many others.            
Angela Stanzel, Policy Fellow with the Asia and China Programme

A Case of Exploding Mangoes
By Mohammed Hanif (Random House 2010)

Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-first Century
By Orville Schell and John Delury (Random House 2013

The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited
By Louisa Lim (Oxford University Press 2014)

1913 is good for sunny and rainy days. And if you’re in the mood for fiction then I’d go for Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan – it brings back the Cold War flavour to perhaps capture a bit of today's Zeitgeist.
Dimitar Bechev, Senior Policy Fellow

1913: the World before the great war
By Charles Emmerson (Bodley Head, 2013)

Sweet Tooth
By Ian McEwan (Vintage 2013)

White Tiger by Arvind Adiga, is a great novel, still timely though it came out about six years ago. It uses sharp wit to show the effects of economic development in the global South. 

And for anyone into Arab stuff I’d recommend Youssef Ziedan's novel Azazel.
Andrew Hammond, policy fellow with the Middle East and North Africa programme

White Tiger
By Aravind Adiga (Free Press 2008)

By Youssef Ziedan, translated by Jonathan Wright (Atlantic Books 2013)

Clearly, Jack London’s Star Rover is a great read. A tale of the past lives of Darrel Standing, a man on death row in San Francisco in 1913. My favourite life is Adam Strang’s, a sea cuny stranded in South Korea, in the XVIIth century. Great for the dreamers.

For the shapers, then Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land is to be recommended. It’s a spot on analysis of the confusion of our times and our loss common purpose, as well as how to rebuild our fractured societies (from his social-democratic perspective).

Both might not be traditional beach reading, but very fitting if you go to the fiords and beaches of Iceland, or the Cantabric Sea.
Borja Lasheras, head of ECFR’s Madrid office

The Jacket (Star Rover)
By Jack London (Mills & Boon 1915)

Ill Fares the Land: A Treatise on our Present Discontents
By Tony Judt (Allen Lane 2010)

On the beach, I would recommend Now I Know Who My Comrades Are : Voices from the Underground by Emily Parker.  This short and pacy book introduces the reader to an army of bloggers and tweeters and shows how the internet is changing the future politics and societies in China, Cuba, and Russia.  It is a highly readable and thought-provoking book, but it presents only half of the story by looking at the world from the perspectives of the activists who are seeking to overcome isolation, fear, and apathy.  There is an equally fascinating account to be written about the other half of the information economy – how the internet is transforming the architecture of repression, and how market forces and political objectives combine in the new internet giants in China and other countries.

On a rainy day, I would recommend two thoughtful books on the future of democracy.  This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall — an event that led Francis Fukuyama to predict the end of history and the beginning of universal western liberal values. Ewan Harrison and Sara McLaughlin Mitchell argue in a new book — The Triumph of Democracy and the Eclipse of the West — that the spread of democracy has come at the very moment that the West is experiencing decline — and that the future will see a “clash of democratizations” rather than a westernization of the world.  Harrison and Mitchell argue that the Arab Spring should be seen as a “second struggle for independence” — throwing off the shackles of western-backed dictators in the same way that earlier generations rebelled against direct rule by the West. But there is paradox that the authors fail to spot - that these protesters are increasingly using western-style freedoms and technologies to reject the liberal tenets of the West.

Ivan Krastev’s brilliant book Democracy Disrupted: The Politics of Global Protest goes much further in showing how democracy itself is in crisis as people increasingly reject the idea of representative politics.  By studying the "Occupy" movements of the United States, Great Britain, and Spain and the protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Russia, Thailand, Bulgaria, Turkey, and Ukraine, Krastev shows how insurrections in democracies and dictatorships alike express a deep distrust in representative institutions. He shows how the protesters reject all formal organisations but have no vision of an alternative future. He shows that in the world of libertarian revolutions democracy will be endlessly disrupted to no end beyond the disruption itself.
Mark Leonard, ECFR’s co-founder and director

Now I know who my Comrades Are: Voices from the Internet Underground
By Emily Parker (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2014)

The Triumph of Democracy and the Eclipse of the West
By Ewan Harrison and Sara McLaughlin Mitchell (Palgrave Macmillan 2013)

Democracy Disrupted: the Politics of Global Protest
By Ivan Krastev (University of Pennsylvania Press 2014)

This summer I plan to read Edmund Fawcett’s recent book Liberalism: The Life of an Idea, tracing the interplay of the liberal thought and political practice in Britain, the United States, France and Germany from the early 19th century to today. I am also hoping to read William Easterly’s The Tyranny of Experts, the latest book by the pugnacious development economist, arguing that assistance given to undemocratic countries is wasteful as well as morally wrong.

Among recent novels I can recommend The Infatuations by the Spanish writer Javier Marias, an elegant, intelligent and discursive story about a murder, and about the ways we try to make sense of other peoples’ actions and our own. Despite the corpse this is hardly a conventional beach thriller, but it is thought-provoking and often funny.
Anthony Dworkin, senior policy fellow

Liberalism: The Life of an Idea
By Edmund Fawcett (Princeton University Press 2014)

The Infatuations
By Javier Marias, translated by Margaret Jull Cost (Penguin 2014)

It’s not a book, but I strongly recommend Timothy Snyder’s very long and interesting essay in the Frankfurter Algemeine Zeitung called “Putin’s Project” that is available both in German and English  It starts by looking at Ukrainian history but it kind of broadens out into a very interesting discussion about Germany’s role, Putin’s role, the relations between the two, and how for Germany Ukraine falls through the cracks for historical reasons.
Andrew Wilson, Senior Policy Fellow with the Wider Europe Programme

“Putin’s Project”
By Timothy Snyder in the Frankfurter Algemeine Zeitung 16 April 2014

For the beach read I would recommend a classic, George Mike's 1946 How to be an Alien. A must-read before/to avoid Brexit!

And for quieter days for those who have not read Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity Is Near - or, like me, tried but could not read Ray Kurzweil's How to Create a Mind, because it was unreadable scientific jargon - I recommend James Barrat's October 2013 Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era. It takes a few shortcuts and is occasionally too didactic or simplistic. But it is an eye opener for those who still see artificial intelligence as sci-fi and points to what developments await us. Barrat wrote "Our Final Invention". Google, Alibaba, Tencent, Facebook et al. are making it happen. We are still waiting for a European answer.
Edouard Tétreau, head of ECFR's Paris office

How to be an Alien
By George Mike (André Deutsch 1946)

Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era
By Jamas Barrat (Thomas Dunne Books 2013)


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