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Summer reads: Five books to understand the world in 2017

For those
who see summer vacation as a time to dive deep into topics of global importance, John Woodside
gives his recommended reading list.   

By: /
10 July, 2017
A woman arranges books at her open air book store in Skopje, Macedonia, May 9, 2017. REUTERS/Ognen Teofilovski
John Woodside
By: John Woodside

Freelance journalist

2017 has already seen an impressive amount of political books published, almost as if, after the shock of world events like the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump last year, authors have been responding to an increased desire on the part of readers to pick up a book and learn something.

Because getting through all the great authors and books worthy of unpacking would take you longer than just this summer, we’ve narrowed down a list of some of our top recommendations. These books touch on everything from the failure of mainstream parties to the CIA’s Cold War presence in Laos to the inner workings of jihadi networks.  

Two honourable mentions go to new works from Timothy Snyder and Naomi Klein. While their books are not listed below, you can read recent interviews with OpenCanada here and here.

Here’s our list of five books for your summer.

1. The Rise of the Outsiders: How Mainstream Politics Lost its Way. By Steve Richards


If there was ever a book for 2017, this is it. Though voters across Europe ultimately chose traditional candidates, the story of the year has been that outsider candidates from France’s Marine Le Pen to Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn have gained undeniable traction. Rather than traditional left vs right debates, many of this year’s elections have boiled down to insider vs outsider.

In his new book, political columnist, journalist and presenter Steve Richards explains that mainstream parties have largely failed to come across as genuine, which has created space for outsiders. Further, the failure of mainstream politicians to hold the wealthy accountable for the global recession laid the groundwork for today’s outsider wave. Rather than walking bankers from their corner offices to their prison cells, many mainstream candidates, in the UK at least, were able to pin the recession on Labour spending. This may be why the outsider wave has come nearly a full decade after the global economic crash of 2008.

While some, like FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver, have argued that Donald Trump
was the crest of this populist wave, and not the start of a new era of outsiders, it’s clear that understanding the impact of outsiders is essential to understanding today’s political climate. 

2. A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order. By Richard Haass


“The United States has to be wary of sudden or sharp departures in what it does in the world. Consistency and reliability are essential attributes for a great power,” writes Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, in A World in Disarray. At first glance Haass’ book may read as an indictment of Trumpism, but he expertly explains how global forces have led to the collapse of the old global order. Senator Tim Kaine recently covered similar ground in an essay for Foreign Affairs.

Haass comments on everything from the Arab Spring to the Peace of Westphalia, and convincingly makes the case that the global order premised on U.S. reliability has given way since the end of the Cold War. He argues that in the absence of another super power to check the United States, the world has fallen into a complex and rapidly changing multipolar world. Moving his analysis beyond textbook realism, he describes the instability of domestic politics, notably in the United Kingdom and the United States, and says that disarray at home leads to disarray in the world.

Not everyone will agree with Haass’ analysis, but his commentary on the modern political order is useful for IR junkies on either side of the spectrum. 

3. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. By Arundhati Roy


It has been two full decades since Indian author Arundhati Roy’s debut novel, The God of Small Things, but her latest work of fiction reminds audiences why she is a voice worth waiting for. In The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Roy examines partition in India through the lives of two compelling characters: Anjum, a transgender woman seeking refuge; and Tilo, an architect travelling to Kashmir.

Through the lives of these characters, Roy explores themes of Hindu nationalism and Kashmiri separatism, marked by specific historic events like the 1969 Gujarat riots where hundreds of people, mostly Muslims, were killed during one of India’s most deadly spats of communal violence between Hindus and Muslims.

In 2015, the Bombay High Court issued a notice of criminal contempt against Roy, claiming that she thought she was “above the law” with her political writings, but earlier this week the Supreme Court stayed those charges.

Roy’s novel is deeply political and offers the opportunity for audiences to engage with complex history in an accessible and compelling way. You can read an excerpt from The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

4. A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA. By Joshua Kurlantzick


American intervention around the world during the Cold War is well known, but it was the Central Intelligence Agency’s presence in Laos that Joshua Kurlantzick, also with the Council on Foreign Relations, unpacks in this stunning new book. Though the history Kurlantzick covers in these 300-plus pages has been public for a long time, he is able to paint a picture of the brutal 11-year campaign against Communist forces in Laos that has left a legacy of some
80 million unearthed bombs that continue to kill and maim Laotians each year.

If Vietnam was a massive, controversial military operation by the United States, Laos was its secretive CIA-led cousin. A 2017 reading of A Great Place to Have a War reveals the similarities between the U.S.’ efforts to defeat communism and the ongoing struggles against jihadism. For instance, the CIA-led mission from 1963-74 in Laos dropped two million tonnes of bombs on the country, largely in secret, just as Obama’s drone program in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere for years was conducted away from public scrutiny.

A Great Place to Have a War traces the history of the U.S. military action against Laos to show how the CIA became an agency that blurs the line between intelligence gathering and waging war. It’s a timely book that helps make sense of the world we live in now by casting a light on an under-acknowledged era of American history.

5. I Was Told To Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad. By Souad Mekhennet


In journalist Souad Mekhennet’s newest book, I Was Told To Come Alone, she takes readers into the world of radicalization, challenging audiences to understand ISIS militants as the individuals that they are. She expertly dissects the motivations of people who turn to extremism, from feelings of alienation to poverty, but complicates the common narrative that people slip from discontent to violence. She agrees with one militant that the world is unfair and that the discrimination he faces is real, though she remains wedded to the opinion that that is no justification for committing acts of atrocity.

With that said, she speaks with plenty of people who have taken up jihad. For some, the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan spurred their radicalization. For others, poverty and distrust of government made groups like al-Qaeda appealing. After speaking with a Belgian man who felt isolated in his community, she writes that “Farid believed he wasn’t accepted by Belgian society, so he saw no problem with stealing from or even killing Belgians and other Europeans. It was as if they weren’t real. Each side had succeeded in dehumanizing the other.”

Mekhennet has an important perspective on this issue. She is a Muslim journalist who grew up in Germany, and writes that this perceived dual identity made her distrusted by both sides. After the spike in Islamophobia after 9/11, colleagues would question whether she had any ties to terrorists because of her faith; meanwhile actual terrorists were similarly distrustful whenever she sought them out, because of her Western upbringing. But, as Mekhennet shows, even the simplistic dichotomy between Islam and the West is part of the problem. Only by recognizing that the two sides are not in conflict, that Western Muslims do in fact exist, can the imagined war between the sides be challenged.

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