Each year CFR.org editor Bob McMahon and I record a special episode of The World Next Week on our summer reading recommendations. Being sticklers for tradition, we did so again this year. We thought, however, that we would change things up this time around by expanding our discussion to include film and podcast recommendations. We were fortunate to persuade Gabrielle Sierra, an arts and culture journalist who does a terrific job hosting the CFR podcast Why It Matters, to join us for the conversation. As you can see from the list below and from listening to the podcast, the killing of George Floyd heavily influenced our choices.
Books We Recommend
Gabrielle suggested A Burning, by Megha Majumdar. This debut novel follows three people in India whose lives intersect after a terrorist attack on a train, with tragic consequences. Gabrielle said she blew through the book in just two days and found it to be “beautiful and timely and sad—and at times funny.” The novel echoes a lot what of we are seeing in India and elsewhere with the rise of nationalism, the ascendance of right-wing parties, and growing income inequality.
Bob recommended The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan. It explores the politics and psychology around what Americans eat. That exploration takes Pollan on a journey covering everything from the rise of Big Corn to the dizzying array of choices on the shelves of your local grocery store. Bob said he had been meaning to read The Omnivore’s Dilemma for a while—the book was first published in 2006. The recent quarantine, however, gave him both the opportunity and the push to do it. He not only had more free time, but the pandemic turned the security and safety of America’s food supply chain into front-page news.
I chose These Truths: A History of the United States, by Jill Lepore. I have read a lot of histories recently, including Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, David McCollough’s John Adams, and George Herring’s From Colony to Superpower, and I have just started Tim McGrath’s James Monroe: A Life. These are all terrific books well worth reading. I went with Lepore’s one-volume history of the United States as my recommendation both because it is such an impressive intellectual feat and because it is impossible to understand our present without knowing our past. Lepore’s sweeping narrative gives a more central role to slavery and its legacies, as well as to women, in the telling of America’s story. In doing so, she demythologizes our past and shows how successive generations have continually struggled, and frequently failed, to live up to the vision promised in the Declaration of Independence.
TV Shows and Podcasts We Recommend
Gabrielle selected the Netflix documentary The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, directed by David France. The film tells the story of Marsha P. Johnson, a transgender activist who cofounded the world’s first trans-rights organization. In 1992, her body was found in the Hudson River. Police quickly ruled her death a suicide and closed the case. Her family and friends, however, believed she had been murdered. Two decades later another activist launched a search for answers. Gabrielle noted that The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson is particularly relevant today as Americans question police treatment of members of marginalized groups. June is also LGBTQ+ Pride month, which commemorates the 1969 Stonewall riots, where Johnson was a prominent figure.
Bob recommended HBO’s Chernobyl. The miniseries dramatizes the coverup and consequences of the worst nuclear accident in history, the 1986 meltdown of the No. 4 reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in what was then the Soviet Union and now is Ukraine. Bob called the miniseries “gripping” and said it even taught him a few new things about the disaster. He sees parallels to how the Chinese government tried to contain and downplay the coronavirus outbreak.
I missed the memo that we were recommending documentaries and instead recommended the Radiolab podcast More Perfect. The show, which ran for four seasons, tells the stories of critical Supreme Court cases. Some of the cases are famous, others are obscure. But all of them have had a significant impact on our lives. The show makes the cases—and the lawyers and judges in them—come alive. More Perfect is the exact opposite of a dusty legal tome. And because I have trouble following directions, I also gave a shout out to one of my all-time favorite podcasts, The History of England. It’s recorded in a shed. How cool is that? And not content to stop there, I got Gabrielle to say that the episode of Why It Matters she is proudest of is “The Human Cost of Labor Trafficking.” Bob volunteered that the best open to a Why It Matters episode is the show on fast fashion entitled “Wearing the World Out,” which begins with Gabrielle rummaging around in her closet.
“Lighter” Summer Entertainment
Gabrielle discovered the Hulu series High Fidelity when she was looking for a break from the stress of the pandemic and quarantine. You may already know the story of Nick Hornby’s 1995 novel of the same name or have seen the 2000 film version that starred John Cusack. The series reimagines the story with Zoe Kravitz taking over Cusack’s role of a broken-hearted record store employee seeking out past partners to make sense of the present. As in the 2000 film, the soundtrack is fantastic. And since I was tossing out extra recommendations, Gabrielle shared a few of her favorite podcasts. In Reply All, hosts PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman tell the stories of people on the internet. Jane Marie does a deep dive into the world of multilevel marketing companies in season one of The Dream. And America Dissected with Dr. Abdul El-Sayed explores different healthcare issues like the anti-vaccine movement and, of course, the coronavirus.
Bob took a more somber turn, suggesting two documentary series that explore historic events that left Americans with enduring legacies. The first is Ken Burn’s The Civil War. Burns dug into archives of old photos and brought the rupture of the Union to life. In doing so, he set the standard for multi-episode documentaries. Bob’s second recommendation is Eyes on the Prize, which traces the U.S. civil rights movement. You can find it available for free on YouTube.
I split the difference between serious and light. I’m looking forward to watching Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway sensation that combines the Framers with hip hop. It debuts on Disney+ on July 3. As I mentioned above, I’ve just finished Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, which inspired Miranda to write his musical. I haven’t seen the show live or listened to the soundtrack, so I’m fascinated to see how the show tells the story of Hamilton’s life. One advantage to signing up to Disney+ to see Hamilton is that I will also get to watch The Mandalorian, the latest installment of the Star Wars franchise.
Other Books Worth Reading
One of the rules that Bob and I have observed over the years when taping the summer reading episode is that we can’t recommend books written by our CFR colleagues. I am not bound by the same pledge at The Water’s Edge. So if you are looking to learn more about the world and U.S. foreign policy, consider these terrific new books:
- Richard N. Haass, The World: A Brief Introduction.
- Alice C. Hill, Building a Resilient Tomorrow: How to Prepare for the Coming Climate Disruption, coauthored with Leonardo Martinez-Diaz.
- Mira Rapp-Hooper, Shields of the Republic: The Triumph and Peril of America’s Alliances.
And these previously published books that just came out in paperback:
- Alyssa Ayres, Our Time Has Come: How India is Making Its Place in the World.
- Thomas J. Bollyky, Plagues and the Paradox of Progress: Why the World Is Getting Healthier in Worrisome Ways.
- Elizabeth C. Economy, The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State.
- Scott A. Snyder, South Korea at the Crossroads: Autonomy and Alliance in an Era of Rival Powers.
- Paul B. Stares, Preventative Engagement: How America Can Avoid War, Stay Strong, and Keep the Peace.
Margaret Gach assisted with the preparation of this post.