2016 Reads: Five books for your last five weeks of summer

OpenCanada’s John Woodside recommends some of this year’s best political reads for those who can’t fully tune the world out — even on summer vacation. 

By: /
26 July, 2016
Reading in Sydney, Australia. REUTERS/David Gray
John Woodside
By: John Woodside

Freelance journalist

Well, Donald Trump officially secured the Republican nomination last week. So, if you’re like me, you might now be considering an escape from reality. Or, at the very least, an escape from coverage of the current U.S. presidential campaign. If so, here are five recently released books recommended for vacationing political junkies who are looking to stave off the nagging questions of how we got to this point and what happens next.  

1. The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between. By Hisham Matar

The Return cover

Jaballa Matar was a Libyan businessman and critic of the Qaddafi dictatorship in the late 1970s. The Matar family fled Libya and lived in Cairo until 1990 when Jaballa was abducted and returned to Libya where he was placed in Abu Salim, the notorious prison known for torture. His son, Hisham, never knew what happened to his father after his abduction, and this book is, in part, a story of coming to terms with that uncertainty.

The Return is a memoir that deals with Hisham’s return to Libya in 2012, in the wake of the revolution that ousted Qaddafi. Set in the brief period between the revolution but before the eruption of civil war, this story is told through conversations with the former inmates of Abu Salim, Matar’s extended family, and Seif al-Islam, the son of Qaddafi. 

The book is a gripping account of the effects of authoritarianism on society, and Matar’s attention to the minutiae — the hand gestures, the home decor, the relationship between parent and child — offers a glimpse into what living under a dictatorship is like. 

2. Bush. By Jean Edward Smith

Bush cover

With the looming possibility of a Donald Trump presidency, it’s easy to forget that the last Republican president was considered one of the worst in American history. This scathing biography of George W. Bush provides a useful perspective on contemporary American politics. It examines Bush’s decisions to launch two wars in the wake of 9/11, and author Jean Edward Smith writes that the Patriot Act, signed into law under the second Bush, “may be the most ill-conceived piece of domestic legislation since the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798.”

Bush is a portrait of a president that helps explain the link between disastrous policies and the roots of the revolt in the GOP that propelled Donald Trump to the forefront. Perhaps this is why Jeb was so easily trounced by the Donald. Smith is sometimes sympathetic to Bush, offering praise for his No Child Left Behind program, along with foreign policy initiatives like combatting HIV/AIDS in Africa. 

But, ultimately, Smith concludes that Bush was a uniquely ill-equipped president. As the last line of the book reads (spoiler alert), “Whether George W. Bush was the worst president in American history will be long debated, but his decision to invade Iraq is easily the worst foreign policy decision ever made by an American president.”

3. Blockchain Revolution. By Don and Alex Tapscott

Blockchain cover

If you care about the way the world is changing, then this book, as a window into a very timely issue, is a must. Blockchain technology, the code that underpins bitcoin and other digital currencies, is revolutionizing finance and is expected by some to dramatically change the economy in five to 10 years. It’s an open, distributed ledger, meaning that it exists across multiple devices so there isn’t a central database to hack. All transactions are verified, cleared and stored in a “block” that corresponds, and thus is validated by the previous block, creating a chain. Practically, this means if someone wanted to steal a bitcoin they would have to rewrite the coin’s entire history, a nearly impossible feat.

In this book, Don and Alex Tapscott set out to explore the impact that the blockchain will have on the economy. In 2014 and 2015 alone over a billion dollars was invested in blockchain startups, and they expect the investment to follow a similar trajectory as the dot-com boom in the 1990s. Because of this, it is entirely possible — likely even — that the financial system will be unrecognizable in as short as five to 10 years. Knowing what to expect is critical for anyone interested in how the world works. 

OpenCanada’s founding editor Taylor Owen recently wrote a full review of the book for Literary Review of Canada and argues that it could either be a corporate handbook for managing this change, or an anarchist’s manifesto for disrupting power, but, though the book attempts to balance those competing narratives, it’s impossible to be both. 

Regardless, the technology appears to be one of the most important digital frontiers yet and is well worth the time. 

4. The Assassination Complex. By Jeremy Scahill

Assassination Complex cover

In this book released in May, The Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill exposes the U.S. government’s drone program, revealing damning evidence that the policies do not align with what the Obama administration presents. The idea that drones are used as a more precise instrument of war that are only deployed when there is near certainty that the intended target will be killed, is a notion that falls far short from the reality, according to Scahill. Rather, he describes an over reliance on flawed intelligence gathering and the vast civilian toll of these drone strikes, all of which are supported by a massive leak of documents given to The Intercept, and presented in this book. Highlights can be found in a series The Intercept ran last fall, but the full book goes into much further depth.

It’s not exactly new to say that the drone program is flawed, but the evidence in this book is timely and urgent given that America’s next president will almost surely be more hawkish than Obama, and therefore likely to pursue an expanded drone policy. 

5. East West Street: On the Origins of “Genocide” and “Crimes Against Humanity.” By Philippe Sands

East West cover

This book traces the origins of the human rights movement, marked by the concepts of “Genocide” and “Crimes Against Humanity” — two concepts that now go so hand-in-hand it’s easy to forget that they were separately developed. Notably, Hersch Lauterpacht, who developed the concept of crimes against humanity, and Raphael Lemkin, who developed genocide as a concept, have similar trajectories. They were born only three years apart, both studied under the same law professor when living in Lviv, Ukraine, and they were both Jewish men who had their concepts realized during the Nuremberg trials.

Seventy years later, many communities around the world continue to face devastating crimes against humanity. Further, contemporary international norms like the Responsibility to Protect doctrine (R2P) rest on the foundations initially developed by Lemkin and Lauterpacht. This historical account is a useful read, offering a perspective of these two men simultaneously developing ideas to make the world a better place, during one of the worst atrocities in human history. 

The story of how these concepts became entrenched in the rhetoric of international relations is not only a fascinating tale, but one with ongoing relevance as horrific cruelty continues to plague the world. 

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