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Nine books to help you dive a bit deeper this summer

Stefan Labbé puts together our annual recommended summer reading list,
featuring books on Trudeau’s foreign policy, women and the internet, climate
change, migration, and more. 

By: /
1 August, 2018
A woman reads a book at the shore of the Isar river in Munich, Germany, July 29, 2018. REUTERS/Andreas Gebert
By: Stefan Labbé

Freelance journalist

It’s mid-summer here in the Northern hemisphere and the Trump-laced news cycle continues at a furious pace. Social-media-driven news agendas bring a seemingly endless stream of bite-sized revelations. What better time, then, to take a step away from the headlines, not just to enjoy the sunshine but to immerse yourself in a story for longer than a few fleeting minutes?

With that in mind, we’ve curated a summer reading list to help you make sense of some of the world’s most intractable issues.

Here are nine books — all published recently — to slip into your beach bag this summer. 

1. Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore. By Elizabeth Rush


There’s no shortage of climate change stories that veer into the apocalyptic. But Rush manages to avoid pontificating on the future. Instead, she offers an empathetic portrait of how, even today, rising sea levels are sapping away people’s land from under their feet.

Originally a poet who spent most of her early writing career in Southeast Asia, Rush returned to the United States to report on climate change from the margins of American society. From a Florida neighbourhood once settled by escaped slaves to an Indigenous community on Louisiana’s drowning Isle de Sainte Jean Charles, Rising brings us stories of how forgotten communities are adapting, or not, to rising sea levels.

In a genre heavily laden with jargon, what really sets Rising apart is the author’s decision to balance the science of climate change with a writer’s sensibility. Rush accomplishes this by combining investigative reporting with memoir and full-chapter testimonials. Not only does this showcase climate change in the words of the people it affects most, it breathes fresh air into a beat as divisive as it is urgent.

2. The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq. By Dunya Mikhail


When ISIS swept through northern Iraq in 2014, the Yazidi people were targeted as infidels. Old women were buried alive, men herded into pits and executed, women and children sold into slavery to the highest bidder. 

Some of the stories in this book come directly from the women who suffered enslavement, others from one man, Abdullah, a beekeeper who leaves his farm in Sinjar to track down his sister and niece. And while he never finds the latter, Abdullah works with former cigarette smugglers and his old contacts among Syria’s honey merchants to reunite with his sister and shuttle what has since become hundreds of women, one-by-one, out of the clutches of ISIS.

In her review of The Beekeeper for the New York Times Book Review, Deborah Campbell writes, “Through interviews with those who managed to escape, Mikhail has created a searing portrait of courage, humanity and savagery, told in a mosaic of voices.”

3. The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life. By Lauren Markham


Twin brothers Ernesto and Raúl Flores grew up in La Colonia, a relatively peaceful town in El Salvador’s countryside. But when the twins turn 17, a murderous gang forces them to flee north in hopes of reuniting with their 24-year-old brother in Oakland. Markham traces their journey as they navigate the cutthroat and dangerous world of coyotes, deserts and border guards, only to face a haphazard legal process once they arrive in the United States.

Intimately reported, Markham paints vivid accounts of the migrants fleeing violence in Central America and the people who get left behind.

4. The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America. By Timothy Snyder


Snyder’s latest book on contemporary European history traces the recent rise of authoritarianism, state-sponsored fake news and hateful politics that has swept from Russia, through Ukraine and Europe, and into the United States.

To understand Putin, argues Snyder, we have to understand his ideas. Many of these can be traced back to one man, Ivan Ilyin, a twentieth century exiled Russian philosopher who developed his own Russian fascism. Putin loves this guy, a man who believed cosmic rays are the source of a nation’s power and that to establish national unity, Russia must identify and destroy anyone attempting to sodomize its virtue (in 2014, all Russian civil servants received a collection of Ilyin’s essays). 

“In this culture war, disinformation was critical,” writes Tim Adams in his review of the book for The Guardian. “Russian TV and social media would create a climate in which news became entertainment, and nothing would quite seem factual.”

We know where this is going.  

5. Un selfie avec Justin Trudeau. By Jocelyn Coulon


Written by a Liberal insider, this French-language book excoriates Justin Trudeau’s approach to foreign policy and reveals his bitter relationship with former Minister of Foreign Affairs Stéphane Dion. 

Coulon’s central argument is that the policies of Trudeau’s Liberal government have done little to break with the legacy of the Harper Conservative government. Trudeau has flip-flopped, contends Coulon, on everything from climate change policy to his enthusiasm around reinvigorating Canada’s diplomatic missions and international aid programs, particularly in Africa. “Every day that passes reveals the decreasing weight of Canada in the world,” Coulon writes. 

The rocky relationship between Trudeau and Dion exposes a more fundamental rift in the way the government is approaching Canadian foreign policy. As Marie-Danielle Smith put it in her story for the National Post, “Coulon describes Trudeau as a man ‘incurious about the affairs of the world,’ and a leader more influenced by surveys and media than by the advice of his ambassadors and diplomats.”

6. Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet. By Claire L. Evans


Reach back to the early days of tech and the public narrative usually dwells on young men with thick glasses, bad personal hygiene and a revolutionary idea.

In this corrective history of modern computing, Evans introduces us to the women — programmers, mathematicians and visionaries — who made the internet possible. While largely drawing on the stories of American women who pioneered computing in the last half of the twentieth century, Evans also introduces two important trailblazers: Ada, the Countess of Lovelace (widely considered to be the world’s first computer programmer) and Admiral Grace Hopper (the US Navy’s “Queen of Code”).

In an industry still dominated by men, women, Broad Band reminds us, have been there from the beginning. As Evans puts it, “We’re not ancillary; we’re central, often hiding in plain sight.” 

7. Directorate S: the C.I.A. and America’s secret wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan. By Steve Coll


Following up on Coll’s 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning book Ghost Wars, Directorate S picks up in the wake of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan. The breadth of Coll’s reporting is staggering, with hundreds of footnotes referencing interviews with US, Pakistani and Afghan officials, spies and soldiers. Equally impressive is the literary deftness required to bring a sprawling, 15-year-story together through a rich cast of characters.

“It is a complicated tale of counter-insurgency operations, high politics and low cunning,” writes Ian Black in his review for The Guardian. “It plays out in one of the poorest countries in the world, a graveyard for empires and a vicious battleground for regional rivalry. And it is truly, as [Coll] writes, ‘a humbling case study in the limits of American power.’”

8. Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World. By Suzy Hansen


Originally from a small town on the New Jersey shore, Hansen moves to Turkey in 2007 and is startled to see how different the US looks from the other side of the border. As US-led wars tear apart Iraq and Afghanistan, she lets slip her faith in American exceptionalism. “We cannot go abroad as Americans in the 21st century and not realize that the main thing that has been terrorizing us … is our own ignorance…” she writes from Istanbul, reflecting on her travels to Greece, Egypt, Afghanistan, Iran and the Mississippi Delta.

As one editor here at OpenCanada put it, “This book should be required reading for all Americans.”

9. Lands of Lost Borders: Out of Bounds on the Silk Road. By Kate Harris


Growing up in a small Ontario town, Harris nourished herself on the tales of explorers like Marco Polo and Ferdinand Magellan. But with so much of the world already “discovered,” she devotes herself to qualifying for a mission to Mars. Harris studies at Oxford and MIT, and even participates in a simulated Mars mission in the Utah desert. But somewhere between seeing the world through the plexiglass of a space helmet and a disdain for lab work, she sets out with her childhood friend on an 11-month cycling trip along the ancient Silk Road. Riding through the scorching heat of a desert plain and the thin, freezing air of the Himalaya, Harris meditates on the state of adventure and exploration, philosophy and the history of science. 

Borders, and how they obstruct both nature and humanity, run as an undercurrent throughout the book. Harris’s journey is the kind of story that makes you reevaluate your choices in life, instantly making you uncomfortable with staying put. But it’s her prose that vaults this book into a league of modern classics. Even acclaimed travel writer Pico Iyer came out of jacket-blurb retirement to comment on it.

“Kate Harris packs more exuberant spirit, intrepid charm, wit, poetry and beauty into her every paragraph than most of us can manage in a lifetime,” he writes.

Before you click away, we’d like to ask you for a favour … 


Journalism in Canada has suffered a devastating decline over the last two decades. Dozens of newspapers and outlets have shuttered. Remaining newsrooms are smaller. Nowhere is this erosion more acute than in the coverage of foreign policy and international news. It’s expensive, and Canadians, oceans away from most international upheavals, pay the outside world comparatively little attention.

At Open Canada, we believe this must change. If anything, the pandemic has taught us we can’t afford to ignore the changing world. What’s more, we believe, most Canadians don’t want to. Many of us, after all, come from somewhere else and have connections that reach around the world.

Our mission is to build a conversation that involves everyone — not just politicians, academics and policy makers. We need your help to do so. Your support helps us find stories and pay writers to tell them. It helps us grow that conversation. It helps us encourage more Canadians to play an active role in shaping our country’s place in the world.

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