Thomas de WaalSenior fellow at Carnegie Europe
For my money, a good history book beats a good foreign policy book, and that’s the case with Stefan Zweig’s extraordinary memoir, The World of Yesterday. Zweig captures vividly the astonishing changes in era and zeitgeist that shook Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. A portrait of fragility and change that should be compulsory reading for those who forget that Europe’s darker side is never far away.
Francis Spufford’s novel Golden Hill (he is also an author from my home country) is a brilliant evocation of Manhattan in the eighteenth century, when it was still a small colonial town but was already feeling its independence from London and about to become a center of global capital, thanks in large part to the slave trade. It’s beautifully written, witty, and a page-turner.
Florence GaubSenior analyst at the European Union Institute for Security Studies
The St. George Hotel Bar: International Intrigue in Old Beirut—An Insider’s Account, by Said Aburish. I am a bit of a fan of the tactical level of foreign policy, I must admit. In this book, the wars of the Middle East are told through the prism of the St. George Hotel in Beirut (former Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri was killed on its steps, and spies met in its bar). In the end, foreign policy is about people meeting in a bar, isn’t it?
An Unnecessary Woman, by Rabih Alameddine. This story of a lonely literature-loving woman in Beirut is heartwarming and uplifting even if you don’t like literature, don’t know Lebanon, or are not a woman. A masterpiece.
From France: L’Arabe du futur (The Arab of the Future), by Riad Sattouf. A comic about a French-Syrian childhood in Libya and Syria; non-PC, funny, thoughtful, and clever.
From Germany: Die Konferenz der Tiere (The Animals’ Conference), by Erich Kästner. Ostensibly a children’s book, it is actually a stab at the failure of the international system to prevent war. Frustrated with the humans, all the animals gather at a UN-style meeting to achieve peace once and for all. An always-modern parable and must-read for diplomats who want to giggle for once.
Movie, TV Series, or Documentary
The obvious thing to write here would be West Beirut or House of Cards, but I’ll go with Dynasty. My dad wouldn’t let me watch this American TV soap opera in the 1980s, so I have nine seasons of shoulder pads and flying champagne glasses to catch up on.
Peter SpiegelNews editor at the Financial Times
In the last few months, recent geopolitical events have prompted me to reread books about the West in the prewar years in an effort to reorient myself to what it was like when nationalism, militarism, and balance-of-power politics ruled. I thought it might help to think about the world if the postwar international order begins to disintegrate. Much to my surprise, Barbara Tuchman’s classic The Guns of August really stands the test of time. It is the classic study of the tendency of political and military leaders to fight the last war and overestimate their own geostrategic position and strength.
Ahead of a recent work trip to Hong Kong, a colleague based there told me I had to read Noble House by James Clavell to get a sense of the business history of the place. Not a great work of literature, but a fun read for the long flight from Heathrow and back, and perfect for the beach. Enough of Clavell’s tales are based on true-life incidents to get a good sense of how the original home of capitalism’s Wild East came to be.
Home Country (United States)
Tom Wolfe has always been my journalism hero, bringing literary writing to journalism and a journalist’s eye to literature. His best work of fiction is The Bonfire of the Vanities, which captures mid-1980s New York City better than any work of nonfiction from the era (and it’s timely again, given a certain New Yorker stuck in the 1980s now lives in the White House). For nonfiction, I’ll always have a big soft spot for The Right Stuff, which is also newly relevant as a reminder of what it was like when American leaders called on the better angels of our nature to be great again.
Movie, TV Series, or Documentary
I know it’s trite, but any time The Godfather or The Godfather, Part II is on TV, I can’t not watch. Leave the gun; take the cannoli.
Maha YahyaDirector of the Carnegie Middle East Center
A reread of Understanding Ethnic Violence: Fear, Hatred, and Resentment in Twentieth-Century Eastern Europe by Roger D. Peterson. This book considers the role of emotions in twentieth-century conflicts and challenges conventional wisdoms such as ancient hatreds or fear used to explain them. Another is Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy (in Arabic), which provides a nuanced and painful but strategic overview of the evolution of the Syrian war and Syrian-led solutions for ending it.
The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud is a retelling of Albert Camus’s novel The Stranger but from the perspective of the brother of the man shot by Meursault on a hot day in Algeria. The book provides a brilliant and layered commentary on Algeria’s contemporary politics, the legacy of French colonialism, and religious politics.
A memoir rather than fiction, The Return: Fathers, Sons, and the Land in Between by Hisham Matar sheds light on the devastation wrought by the authoritarianism of former strongman leader Muammar Qaddafi on Libya through the anguish of a family history. Perhaps Matar best captures the sense of post-Qaddafi Libya as place that “is so burdened with memories yet full of possibilities”—possibilities that have since diminished as the country’s history threatens to unravel once more.
Home Country (Lebanon)
The novels of Hassan Daoud, who stitches his books into an intricate tapestry of life in a city suspended between past and present. His latest novels, Transfer Your Passion and The Penguin’s Song, capture the sense of isolation and the search for a lost love in the broken city of Beirut without getting caught up in the politics of post–civil war reconstruction. No Road to Heaven portrays the complex relations of individuals to religion, love, and passion in a context marked by traditions and customs.
Movie, TV Series, or Documentary
Movie: I Am Not Your Negro, directed by Raoul Peck. Focused on the novelist, playwright, and essayist James Baldwin, who passed away thirty years ago, the movie poses a profound meditation on the psychology of racial conflict in the United States and serves as an uncanny reflection on race relations today and the continued burden of history.
Music: Dorsaf Hamdani, a Tunisian singer with an astonishing voice who sings the songs of Barbara and Fayrouz in French and Arabic.