Time for Strategic Europe’s annual summer reading suggestions! Carnegie Europe has asked a cross-section of diplomats, policymakers, and analysts to share their favorite books.
Florence GaubSenior analyst at the EU Institute for Security Studies
Local is the new international. Alexandre Najjar’s Le roman de Beyrouth (The Novel From Beirut) is a fictional account of Lebanese local history in the twentieth century, teaching you the Middle East in an entertaining way. It also makes you look like a local when you wander the streets of Beirut and throw in a casual “Did you know Pierre Gemayel had his pharmacy here?”
Bored of Tunisian politics? Pick up Gustave Flaubert’s Salammbô, which makes Carthage in the third century BC look like Las Vegas. Based on the story of Hannibal’s sister, the book is a North African spin on Flaubert’s much more known Madame Bovary with better costumes.
From Germany: Die Herren (The Gentlemen) by Angelika Schrobsdorff. Advertised as a “psychological-erotic novel,” the 1961 novel had to endure substantial censorship due to its amoral portrayal of a young woman. Surprisingly modern, it’s a bit of an intellectual postwar German Sex and the (destroyed) City. The newly released version has the censored elements in it, which are unsurprisingly tame by today’s standards.
From France: Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi (Ubu the King) is a hysterically funny, absurd, and pointless play that will make you laugh without knowing why. An excellent practice in this day and age.
Hollywood Wives by Jackie Collins. Because nothing relaxes a policy brain like mindless literature on decadence and drama. It has also enriched my English vocabulary in unexpected ways!
Kristina KauschNonresident associate at Carnegie Europe
Neo-statecraft and Meta-geopolitics: Reconciliation of Power, Interests and Justice in the 21st Century by Nayef Al-Rodhan. This is no beach material, and the title may be slightly off-putting. But it is a book I often come back to as it does a marvelous job in capturing the complexities of geopolitical theory in a manageable number of pages.
Embers by Sándor Márai. Written in 1942, this strangely gripping novel about a lifelong secret was translated into English only in 2000, leading to a posthumous Márai boom. Set on the eve of the outbreak of World War II, this thin little novel breathes an air of decay and unraveling that feels disturbingly topical.
Home Country (Germany)
Couchsurfing im Iran (Couchsurfing in Iran) by Stephan Orth (so far in German only). The title’s counterintuitive shattering of stereotypes is continued throughout this German journalist’s anecdotal, highly enjoyable travel report.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. The chick flick of classical literature.
Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944–1956 by Anne Applebaum—very important reading at a time when the next curtain is ready to be installed. And The Last Day of the Old World: 3rd September, 1939 by Adrian Ball—a chronicle of illusions, hesitancy, and bravery in one moment between peace and war.
Education nocturne (Educated by Night) by Luba Jurgenson. First written in French, then self-translated and rewritten into Russian, this novel about the Holocaust gives Russian literature a new example of how to write about the traumatic past using metaphoric language.
Home Country (Russia)
The Smoke of War: Volunteer’s Diary by Valery Aramilev. One of the most interesting analyses of Russia’s patriotic surge on the eve of World War I, this book offers perfect material to compare with Russia’s ideology and propaganda today.
Airship: Design, Development and Disaster by John Swinfield. A poesy of the disappeared breed of flying behemoths that dominated the skies in the late 1920s and early 1930s, symbols of an approaching globalized world that never came into existence.
Jamie SheaDeputy assistant secretary general for emerging security challenges at NATO
Authoritarianism Goes Global: The Challenge to Democracy, edited by Larry Diamond. The rise of illiberal powers has become one of the most worrying developments in global politics. This book gives an excellent overview of the challenge of new authoritarianism and provides many insights into how these regimes increase their control over their own societies. It is a wake-up call to established democracies to counter this virus in their own ranks before it spreads even further.
The Neapolitan quartet by Elena Ferrante. I have read the first two novels in this series, My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name, and fortunately still have the last two to enjoy over the summer. Describing the relationship between two women from childhood until advanced middle age, Ferrante gives a brilliant portrayal of the poorer and darker side of Naples in the 1950s and 1960s. Ferrante is not only brilliant at describing the complexity of social relations but also gives wonderful insights into friendship, love, jealousy, and even the abiding character of hatred.
Home Country (United Kingdom)
The House by the Lake: A Story of Germany by Thomas Harding. This is a very original history of modern Germany, told through the prism of a small house by a lake just outside Berlin. By recounting the stories of the five families living successively in this house, latterly owned by the author’s grandmother, from the 1890s right up to 2014, Harding is able to convey the sense of how the dramatic events in twentieth-century Germany affected the lives of individual Germans.
Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency by David Greenberg. When I served as the NATO spokesman in the 1990s, I was referred to as a “spin doctor” and even by then Serbian president Slobodan Milošević as “the king of spin.” So I greatly enjoyed reading Greenberg’s account of the efforts of various U.S. presidents since Teddy Roosevelt to get their message across to the American republic via the media. It is a very entertaining and well-sourced account, which reveals that there is no perfect strategy for handling the press and that even the greatest spinmeisters have had their bad days as well as their triumphs.
Maha YahyaDirector of the Carnegie Middle East Center
The Great Divide by Joseph Stiglitz—not so much foreign policy as policy. The book explores the impacts of inequality not only on the economy but also on democracy and globalization, with a passionate call for political reform. In some ways it sets the scene for understanding political developments in the United States and in some parts of Europe today. Also The End of Power by Carnegie’s own Moisés Naím, which really helps us understand the ways in which tectonic shifts in power are reconfiguring our world.
Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Angel’s Game and The Shadow of the Wind, with their hidden library in the labyrinths of Barcelona, a favorite city of mine. These books take us on a fantastical journey with a remarkable sense of place and character. Another recommended author is Jabbour Douaihy, who wrote June Rain, The Vagrant, and The American Neighborhood. His novels capture the nuanced realities of living in the run-up to and during Lebanon’s civil wars and their traumatic impact on a generation.
Home Country (Lebanon)
Rugged Paths by Tarek Mitri presents a firsthand account of the author’s two years as UN special representative to Libya and the trials and tribulations of building political systems and state institutions after the ouster of strongman leader Muammar Qaddafi while trying to manage conflicting interests, both local and international.
The novels of Jo Nesbø and Henning Mankell, both writers of Scandinavian crime thrillers.