from The Water's Edge

What’s Worth Reading This Summer?

Shoppers peruse books in the Passage Jouffroy in Paris Reuters/Mal Langsdon

June 19, 2017

Shoppers peruse books in the Passage Jouffroy in Paris Reuters/Mal Langsdon
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CFR.org editor Bob McMahon and I recorded our annual summer reading episode of CFR’s “The World Next Week” podcast last week. Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, senior fellow for Women and Foreign Policy and best-selling author of Ashley’s War and The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, joined us for the conversation. As you would expect in a summer reading podcast, we discussed books we have read and ones we plan to read. We also talked about what we plan to watch and listen to this summer. Since this was our first summer reading special with a new administration, we also recommended books for those working inside the White House.

Gayle’s picks were:

What She Has Read. The Wisdom of Finance: Discovering Humanity in the World of Risk and Return, by Mihir Desai. Finance can be intimidating. So Harvard Business School professor Mihir Desai set out to humanize it. He draws upon literature, films, and history both to explain finance and to highlight its nobility.

What She Plans to Read. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness: a Novel, by Arundhati Roy. India is a society in transition. Roy’s novel depicts characters struggling with their many identities as well as their daily lives. At first their storylines are separate, but they slowly come together to explore what it is like to be marginalized and how we can all come to accept others

Gayle also plans to read Souad Mekhennet’s I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad. Mekhennet is a Washington Post correspondent. Like Gayle, she has spent much of her career reporting on war and extremist groups. In I Was Told to Come Alone, she tells what it is like to seek out interviews with some of the world’s most wanted terrorists. If you’re interested in understanding the challenges that journalists face tracking down stories in far off places, Bob suggests another read: Baghdad Without a Map and Other Misadventures in Arabia by Tony Horowitz.

Gayle is also excited about Liza Mundy’s Code Girls. It tells the little known story of how roughly ten thousand female codebreakers helped the United States to prevail in World War II. Code Girls is due out in October.

What She Plans to Watch. AMC’s “Halt and Catch Fire.” Now on its fourth season, this series documents the early days of the tech boom in 1980s Texas. Gayle also looks forward to watching EPIX’s “Berlin Station,” which is about an American spy in modern-day Berlin.

What She Thinks the White House Should Read. The Federalist Papers. James Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton penned eighty-five essays advocating for the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. You won’t find a better statement of the principles of America’s political system. Gayle recommends the Federalist Papers partly because it is “worth going back to see where it all began” but also because the debates that the framers grappled with more than two centuries ago are still relevant today.

Bob’s picks were:

What He Has Read. Redeployment, by Philip Klay. Those who fight America’s wars often have too little connection with those who stay home. Marine Corps veteran Klay attempts to bridge that divide by exploring how the Iraq and Afghanistan wars affected those who fought, both on the frontlines and when they returned home. Through twelve short stories, he humanizes their confusion, grief, and pain. Redeployment won the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction.

What He Plans to Read. Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann. In the 1920s, the discovery of oil made members of the Osage Indian tribe in Oklahoma rich—very rich. It also made them targets for murder. When local authorities failed to find the perpetrators, J. Edgar Hoover’s young FBI was brought into the case. Grann’s expert telling of the investigation to solve two dozen murders provides a glimpse into both the early days of the FBI and the treatment of Native Americans a century ago.

What He Plans to Listen To. All Things Considered, a BBC Wales weekly podcast on religion hosted by Roy Jenkins. Each week Jenkins bring clerics, scholars, and laypeople on his podcast to discuss questions like: What is the Holy Spirit? What is the role of women in religion? Why do people fast? 

What He Thinks the White House Should Read. Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, by Sam Quinones. Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death in Americans under 50. Yes, you read that right. The leading cause of death. Dreamland offers a gripping account of how the opiate crisis began and why it has hit many of America’s small towns so hard.

My picks were:

What I Have Read. Profiles in Courage, by John F. Kennedy. JFK won the 1957 Pulitzer Prize for telling the stories of eight senators who bucked their constituents and fellow party members to vote their conscience. Almost as soon as the book debuted, questions were raised about how much of the writing was Kennedy’s. (We now know that his assistant at the time, the wonderful Ted Sorensen, wrote most of it.) And historians and others have quibbled over the accuracy of his histories. All of that aside, Profiles in Courage remains a fascinating rumination on what members of Congress owe their constituents, their loyalty or their judgment. It’s a great read for an age in which the country is deeply polarized and lawmakers buck party and constituent sentiment at their peril.

What I Plan to Read. Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, by Mark Bowden. The author of Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War details the Battle of Hue—the fight to liberate Vietnam’s imperial capital after it was captured by North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces during the Tet Offensive. Bowden spent four years interviewing 112 Americans and forty-two Vietnamese who fought in the battle. Karl Marlantes, author of two classic books on the Vietnam War himself, Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War and What It Is Like To Go To War, calls Hue 1968, “an extraordinary feat of journalism.”

What I Plan to Watch. Dunkirk, a film directed by Christopher Nolan. Set for release on July 21, 2017, Dunkirk depicts Operation Dynamo, the greatest rescue effort in history. Things didn’t look good for 400,000 British and French troops in late May 1940. Advancing German troops had cut them off from the rest of the allied armies, surrounding them at Dunkirk, a small port city northeast of Calais on the French coast six miles from the Belgian border. Then hundreds of small, private ships joined the British Royal Navy to stave off an epic defeat and change the course of the war. Nolan has directed The Dark Knight, Interstellar, and the unforgettable Memento. So he knows his stuff.  

What I Think the White House Should Read. Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department, by Dean Acheson. Along with Harry Truman and George C. Marshall, Acheson was one of the architects of the postwar international order we know today. Acheson’s memoir brilliantly explains why the United States rebuilt Europe, established the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and championed freer trade. At a time when the White House openly doubts the value of the liberal international order, it’s worthwhile to recall what life was like without it.

You can find past summer reading lists here, here, here, here, and here.  

Corey Cooper assisted in the preparation of this post.

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