Book Recommendations – Volume XI

“There’s nothing better than sitting under your favorite tree in a backyard or out on the balcony with the sun in your face reading an engaging and enlightening book. As I have mentioned previously, Summer is the best season for reading and since a lot of other summer activities are postponed or cancelled, why not catch up on some reading?”

There’s nothing better than sitting under your favorite tree in a backyard or out on the balcony with the sun in your face reading an engaging and enlightening book. As I have mentioned previously, Summer is the best season for reading and since a lot of other summer activities are postponed or cancelled, why not catch up on some reading? Regardless if the book is fiction or non-fiction, spending a few hours each day reading a good book can make the time pass by quicker and get rid of any kind of twiddle-your-thumbs moments that can happen when you don’t have a movie, concert, or sporting event to distract you. While live events may be out of order this summer, your bookshelf is dying to have you open up a book, sit down on your favorite couch or chair, and let your mind wander to an imaginary or a real place to pass the time.

  1. The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and The Case for Its Renewal by William J. Burns

William J. Burns might be one of the best diplomats the United States has ever had. With over thirty years of experience and having served in two of the most important regions of the world, Mr. Burns’s story is an example of the good that diplomatic efforts can do in resolving conflicts, promoting peace, and ensuring cooperation among both allies and adversaries. He is one of only two career diplomats to have ever earned the title of ‘Deputy Secretary of State’ and he gave advice and counsel to five U.S. Presidents and ten Secretaries of State.

Mr. Burns’s storied career includes Ambassadorships to both Jordan and Russia and he held numerous Assistant Secretary positions within the State Department during his three-decade tenure. He was partly responsible for ceasefire agreements between the Israelis and the Palestinians, for helping to eliminate Libya’s nuclear weapons program, and for helping to reset U.S. relations with Russia in the early 2010s. He also shares insights in this book that were previously not publicly known involving his views on the Iraq War, the Civil War in Syria, and of the Russian aggression against Ukraine at the end of his tenure.

This 400+ page memoir is simply a must-read for anyone interested in how diplomacy works and how vital it is to maintain within a government’s foreign policy. In a time now where it has been underinvested and mismanaged, Burns’s book illuminates how big of a difference it can make and how one man’s impact can be felt throughout an entire foreign policy apparatus due to his vigorous study of culture, languages, and history in order for him to be taken seriously. The book is not only educational but is also gripping in terms of his recall of major events throughout his diplomatic career as well as the written cables that explain them. It is a real page turner and should be required reading for any student of international relations and who hopes to become a diplomat in their own future career.

2. On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey by Paul Theroux

Cooperation, friendship, and understanding is important among friends, but it is even more important among your neighbors. The US-Mexico relationship has been fraught with mistrust and tension especially during the years of the Trump administration. The best way to do away with stereotypes and misgivings about each other is to visit the lesser known places of a country and visit the non-touristy areas. Paul Theroux may be the best living American travel writer today.

From his experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi in the 1970s to his trek in the American Deep South, Paul Theroux has traveled around the world over five decades and counting. His latest novel about his travels in Mexico is a must-read for Americans and anyone else looking to understand Mexico from an outside lens. While not an exhaustive take on the complex country and its people, Theroux’s book, somewhat observant and otherwise felt like you’re in the middle of his travels is both illuminating and powerful.

Paul Theroux is really a true traveler and even though this is the first of his travel novels that I have read, this one felt very timely as it was released in 2019 during a time of souring relations between the two North American neighbors. Theroux spares no miles or kilometers in seeing all of Mexico that he can. From the desert Region of Sonora in the North to the Mexico mundo of Mexico City to the Southeast of the country where he visits the Zapatistas, this is an extremely educational look at modern Mexico.

Theroux’s book highlights the issues that Mexico is going through from immigration from the Northern Triangle to the ever-present threat of the drug cartels to the hopes of Mexico’s indigenous populations who believe that they have been left behind as other villages and towns hollowed out while the economic gains went elsewhere. It’s not just the issues that Theroux shines a lens on but also the beauty of the country’s culture and its warm people. As an elderly traveler, Theroux is treated with great respect and even reverence as ‘Don Pablo.’

He is welcomed as a guest, kept safe by complete strangers, and invited to interview Mexicans who normally would not talk to foreign travelers. Theroux travels all the way from Massachusetts across the border where few Americans are found to cross. He does so in his own car on his own dime and does not travel with any security or any kind of companionship. He learns Spanish and teaches writing to Mexican students. He is a refreshing kind of traveler, one who remembers to show people through a human lens and to not deal with harmful stereotypes.

Overall, ‘On the Plain of Snakes’ is an excellent travel novel for anyone interested in learning more about Mexico’s people, its culture, its struggles, and its hopes for a better future.

3. Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World by Michele J. Gelfand

This book has been my favorite one of 2020 and I only heard of it through a weekly David Brooks column in The New York Times Opinion section. The differences and similarities between cultures and societies is a topic that has fascinated me for years. As someone who has lived in both loose and tight countries as Mrs. Gelfand so brilliantly classifies, it is fascinating to see her extensive research come into fruition and how these loose and tight countries affect our outlook on everything from celebrations to driving to health care to tattoos.

Tight countries are cultures where norms are preserved and breaking them is frowned upon. Societal cohesion is encouraged and straying from norms is open to punishment. Loose countries are cultures where norms are often broken and breaking them usually comes with a shrug or a lack of care. Why do Germans always stop at a red light even when its 3 AM? Why do Brazilian clocks never run on time? Why do Japanese trains always run on time? Why do Singaporean laws ban gum from being chewed?

These tight and loose differences do not just extend to countries but also to states, cities, organizations, businesses and even within us. This book of ‘tight and loose’ norms highlights how we feel about any subject and how that is reflected in how we act with others. There is no right or wrong answer as to whether living in a tight culture is better or if living in a loose culture is better. Mrs. Gelfand excellently points out in each chapter how they both have their advantages and disadvantages depending upon the norm being considered.

Our upbringing, our environment, our country’s history, etc. all have effects on how ‘tight’ a culture is or how ‘loose’ a culture is. There can also be changes to a culture depending if there are big events like a terrorist attack, a pandemic, a natural disaster, etc. Cultures can tighten or loosen depending upon what is going on in the country and how people are being affected by these natural or manmade shifts to our lives.

Having seen both ‘tight cultures’ and ‘loose cultures’ up close and personal, this book has been a revelation to me in terms of explaining what I thought about only in my theories that I concocted after traveling from country to country but never really expressing it as well as she has in this great book. Mrs. Gelfand has done extensive research across many countries and continents to explain why some countries have more ‘rule makers’ and why other countries have ‘rule breakers.’ In order for our own cultures to shift from one spectrum to the other, we have to first understand why the country’s culture is the way it is and if it can shift, what benefits are there to tightening up or loosening up depending on what is going on in our lives and in our society at the time?

Buttermilk Falls State Park

Camera: iPhone 8

Location: Buttermilk Falls State Park; Ithaca, New York

Ipanema

Camera: Samsung Galaxy J2 Core

Location: Ipanema Beach; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Waterloo

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CameraCanon PowerShot SX710 HS

Location: Waterloo, Belgium

Book Recommendations – Volume IX

What better way to enjoy the Winter season than by enjoying a few good books by the fireplace or in a coffeeshop. Whether its’ fiction or non-fiction, being able to sit down and read for an hour each day is one of the best activities one can do during those cold, winter months. The three books I have recommended cover very different themes and topics but each of them is worthwhile reads especially if you are into non-fiction. From Candice Millard’s vivid storytelling of President Theodore Roosevelt’s perilous journey to the Amazon, James Clear’s atomic habits to build a better life, and author Chris Hedges’ look into the dark underbelly of American society, each book is one that I thoroughly enjoyed and would recommend to anyone depending upon what kind of non-fiction they are looking to dive into.

1.) The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard

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In our current era where past Presidents settle into retirement by creating foundations, writing memoirs, and going on paid speaking tour circuits, it can be difficult to recall that there was a time when the American president would not stay still but rather seek out new adventures. President Theodore Roosevelt was just such a former President when he embarked on a perilous and physically strenuous journey down the Rio Duvida (River of Doubt) in the heart of the Amazon. In the aftermath of his election defeat in 1912, the former President did not stand idly by and settle into a quiet retirement from politics. Instead, he did what he did best and ended up taking upon himself an adventure that no other modern President would think of doing nowadays.

Still in the early days of the 20th century, it was still the age of exploration as explorers from the Western world would go to the lesser known parts of the world to make their mark on mapping areas and landmarks that had not been discovered yet. From Antarctica to the Himalayas to the Amazon, men like President Roosevelt were drawn to both the adventure and the notoriety but also to discover the flora, fauna, and newly discovered animal species, which had never encountered humanity before. This expedition’s success relied upon the men whom Roosevelt and his Brazilian counterpart, Colonel Candido Rondon, would bring on to make sure it was successful in its mission of mapping the extent of the mysterious Rio Duvida. Because of the courage, hard work, and perseverance that men including the former President’s son, Kermit, displayed, they were able to get through a series of trials and tribulations that would have broken lesser men.

Over the six-month period of 1913-1914 when the 19 Brazilian and American men descended the River of Doubt, they were faced with multiple challenges including diseases like malaria, perilous weather conditions, intense rapids, and murder among their ranks. President Roosevelt dealt with near misses to his life including a close encounter with a venomous snake as well as a ghastly injury suffered when trying to retrieve a loose canoe that caused a serious gash injury to his leg. The President flirted with thoughts of suicide after his injury and infection leading his son and counterparts to decide whether they should honor his wishes or to carry him the rest of the way’s journey. Because of their pledge to not leave any man behind including the President of the United States, Kermit and others pushed through the physical obstacles ahead of them to arrive at the successful end to their journey through perseverance and the belief in their mission to map the entire river.

Brilliantly told and remarkably intense in its description as a fast-paced tale of adventure, Millard’s ‘River of Doubt’ is an excellent book that details a harrowing journey of the 26th President, his son, the Brazilian colonel Rondon, and his courageous men. It is hard to believe that there was a time when an American president would go on a journey like this one well into his 50’s but that was the kind of man Theodore Roosevelt was. Because of his courage and his perseverance, the Rio Duvida was renamed Rio Roosevelt in his honor. This story reminds us of what it takes to push past our mental and physical limits and why we remember these tales to understand what true bravery looks like and how Presidents should act in the face of a great challenge.

2.) Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear

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‘Atomic Habits’ by James Clear is an excellent book on how to re-think our habits and our reliance on them based on our awareness of how they come to be, how they are implemented, and how to change or remove them based on their overall utility. As Mr. Clear explains, “Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.” We can only develop ourselves based on the habits we have on a daily basis. In order to change them effectively, small changes that lead to incremental improvements are what we should be aiming for. It’s not advantageous to change our systems of living overnight but rather to slightly shift our habits each day and start to see progress over a longer period of time.

One example is going to the gym for the first time. You may not stay for very long but if you are there for five to ten minutes and get through the initial hurdle of showing up, you can feel better about the progress you have made. Over time, you should start to feel more comfortable and attuned to going to the gym as well as staying longer once you get used to the new routine. I found James’s four-step process to breaking a bad habit or creating a good habit to be very persuasive in its argument. The ‘cue, craving, response, reward’ system is laid out in greater detail in his book but I believe that it’s an effective tool for developing better habits and eliminating bad ones.

Also, keeping track of both your bad habits and good habits will help you measure if you are making progress with either by understanding what habits you have on a daily or weekly basis. In order to better change our habits, we firstly have to be aware of them and classify them as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ based on their utility to our lives. For example, if you don’t floss your teeth, perhaps you have to make it attractive by highlighting the benefits associated with the action, putting the floss in a visible place on your bathroom counter so it’s visible, and then make it easy by not using mouth wash without flossing first to develop the system.

Mr. Clear’s book is easy to read, the system he advocates for is immensely appealing, and the four-step process is clear in its methodology. You cannot change your habits without doing it yourself but ‘Atomic Habits’ successfully gives its readers a vision of how you can do so while not making it overly complicated. The system is easy to follow and he incorporates outside materials like the ‘habit tracker’ to make it easy to start changing them while reading his book.

3.) America: The Farewell Tour by Chris Hedges

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Beyond the stock market, the unemployment rate, and even the gross domestic product, notable author and journalist Chris Hedges writes eloquently and profoundly about the state of America in 2019. He does this through excellent on-the-ground reporting from Anderson, Indiana to Atlantic City, New Jersey in an effort to understand how while Americans at the top of wealth and power are doing well, the rest of us are struggling to get by in this new gilded age of income inequality. Hedges pulls no punches regarding the societal ills that have been wrought due to political dysfunction and record income inequality in America by describing in great detail the effects of the opioid crisis, the recent rise of hate groups, increased reliance on gambling, pornography, and sadism to escape reality.

Our ability to combat these negative societal trends is nullified when communities are weak and the bonds that religion, union membership, and rotary groups provided have been cast to the side. In an age of increased atomization and loneliness, Hedges argues that the average person will not be able to build a better future for themselves or their families if they have no ways of accessing economic opportunities or through having deeper social connections.

This book is a true warning sign that time is running out and that we must start paying attention to the swirling negative political and economic trends going on because it is likely that the next generation in America will be worse off if serious changes are not made. By failing to combat income inequality, climate change, gun violence, the opioid crisis, and failing infrastructure, faith in both the economic and political system will continue to decline. When power is concentrated in the hands of the few, that prosperity is not going to spread around or ‘trickle down.’

While it may be a dark and disturbing book to some, Mr. Hedges is a student of history and is eloquent in describing what are the warning signs or symptoms when a society is on the verge of decline or overall collapse. From the Roman Empire to the Soviet Union, the warning signs were there in the forms of inept political leadership and an unholy concentration of wealth. Mr. Hedges warns that we are on the same path to potential ruin and that the societal hollowing out relating to increased suicides, the fall in overall life expectancy, and the epidemic of gun violence are the sad consequences of how we are failing the average American citizen in 2019.

What I enjoyed most about this book is the sheer effort that went into meeting with people across the country to get a sense of how difficult things are and what challenges they are facing. Mr. Hedges should be commended with focusing on the real issues that confront us as Americans and being a truth-teller when it is not always popular to do so. My hope after reading this dire book is that we are able to make the necessary changes and confront these systemic challenges before it’s too late.