Book Recommendations – Volume X

The Summer reading session is well upon us and there is no better time to dive into another edition of my book recommendations. Whether you are at the beach, at the pool, or lounging on a rooftop deck, you can take some leisure time to read a great fictional or non-fictional offering to indulge your mind or open your imagination. The three books I cover are all non-fiction, which is the category that my favorite books often fall under. I do hope to dive into some fiction books sometime soon, but I’ll save that for other post.

The three books I recommend vary from personal finance to progressive politics to self-help psychology, but they all are educational and thought-provoking in their own way. These books aren’t mindless reads, so you’ll have to pay attention and even re-read certain chapters twice or more to really get the gist of what the author is getting at. However, each of these three books have staying power and they would make an excellent addition to anybody’s personal book collection since the different lessons that these books impart are timeliness in nature. Without further ado, let’s discuss which books I enjoyed in this latest volume of recommendations.

1.) “Everything Is F*cked: A Book About Hope” by Mark Manson

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Following up on the tremendous attention and success gained from his previous New York Times best-selling book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, which dealt with unconventional yet powerful self-help advice, Mark Manson is back with an excellent follow-up book in tackling how to apply similar lessons to humanity as a whole. Whether its today’s turbulent geopolitics, the growing climate crisis, or the negative effects of social media, everything can seem to be f*cked nowadays and hopelessness as a condition of these events seems to be gaining steam.

Manson uses the teachings of Nietzsche, Kant, and other prominent philosophers to denote why humanity is facing these systemic problems and how they came to be based on our collective psychology as a species. He argues that having hope in of itself is a paradox and that it’s best to deal with life’s uncertainties and foibles as they come. Wishing for a better, happier, wealthier, and safer future is unproductive if you do not take actions in the present to create that more hopeful reality. Manson breaks down complex topics such as politics, religion, and even the future of artificial intelligence into digestible concepts on how humanity has gotten to be where it is currently.

One of the aspects I like most about Mark’s writings is that he doesn’t sugarcoat anything, and he allows you to draw your own conclusions based on the evidence he presents and the stories he tells. My favorite parts of Everything is F*cked focus on why treating people as means to an end is a selfish endeavor and how our feeling brain has a lot more influence on our thinking brain than we have been told. Also, in accepting what is ‘The Uncomfortable Truth’, as Mark cites in one of the first chapters is part of recognizing our innate humanity and what drives us collectively. This truth, while uncomfortable to all, is the main reason why we strive to do what we do in life, for better or for worse, and how we tend to live our lives denying that truth when it is staring us right in the face.

Instead of looking to politics or religion to give us hope, which tends to have its own set of consequences, it should rather be our own individual actions of being kinder, gentler, and more respectful of others that carry the day. We should not wait around for other people to change for you or be better to you. This book, like Mark’s first, is well worth a second and third reading to grasp all the lessons he lays out for the reader. Posing deep existential questions and acknowledging hard truths rarely covered elsewhere in the self-help genre, Manson stands out as one of my generation’s best authors and a good example of how to live a better life, not just for ourselves but for others as well.

2.) “Utopia for Realists: How We Can Build the Ideal World” by Rutger Bregman

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I really liked this book by Mr. Bregman for several reasons. Whereas most books today examine problems and investigate how they came to be, Bregman describes the possible solutions there can be to these problems and how life in the 21st century should be different from the past. Given the rise of automation, how interconnected we have become globally, and increasing efficiencies in the workplace, Bregman dares to ask how we can make life better for vast majority of people in our societies based on these factors.

Rutger Bregman does an extensive amount of research for this book and draws upon years and decades of datasets and public policy to make his three main ideas not only relevant but persuasive to his overall argument. Bregman’s ideas are not new and have been discussed before but in ‘Utopia for Realists’, he really examines each of his proposals individually from a public policy perspective and how the time is ripe to make them become a reality. Today, it seems like we have lost to the drive to implement big changes to both our economy and our society. Bregman asks his readers to think of the plausibility of the 15-hour work week, a Universal Basic Income for all, and an ‘open borders’ policy that would benefits people’s lives in numerous ways as he lays out diligently in each chapter of the book.

While some may not agree with these proposals politically, Bregman backs up his arguments with facts and evidence, as a good social scientist would. One of the things I did not know before reading his book was how close President Richard Nixon and the U.S. Congress came to passing a universal basic income in legislative form back in the early 1970’s. Giving people the chance to have basic economic security, the ability to live across borders without bureaucratic roadblocks, and having more free time for family life or to better themselves through personal hobbies, interests, or side businesses are related to his three main proposals. These societal changes, he says, would lead to greater fulfillment and happiness and benefit our collective mental health.

While his ideas may be unrealistic today, the way in which the job market is shifting and has become more efficient in terms of productivity over the past few decades, how automation and advanced Robotics may affect millions of jobs being lost, and how the demographic crunch in the Western world may lead to more liberal immigration policies to spur economic growth, the main proposals that Bregman focuses on could become a reality sooner rather than later. It’s not a question of if these utopian ideas could ever happen, it’s more about when they will happen and how they can be implemented successfully around the world.

3.) “I Will Teach You to Be Rich” (2nd Edition) by Ramit Sethi

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I will be the first to say that I have shied away from reading books on personal finance given that the advice given and the person giving it may not be reliable or trustworthy. However, based on the recommendations of other authors I like and how sensible his recommendations are from watching his videos, Ramit Sethi has delivered and recently updated one of the best personal finance books out there. For someone who is just getting started in thinking about optimal strategies for long-term savings and investments, Mr. Sethi breaks it all down from negotiating lower interest rates on your credit cards to how to find the best investment vehicles to deliver you a secure retirement.

If you are new to personal finance, this book is really meant for you. You don’t have to be an expert in 401ks, Roth IRAs, or index funds to make full use of this book. Ramit is not only an author but also provides an additional website, which offers a free blog, multiple courses to improve your finances, and career opportunities. His common-sense finance solutions garner millions of views per month and very positive media coverage. Ramit’s book does not make his readership feel guilty if they have made financial mistakes in the past. Instead, he offers tips and advice as well as personal stories from people he’s helped to get them out of trouble whether its credit card debt, student loan debt, etc. He wants his readers to figure out what exactly a ‘rich’ life is for them and what steps they can take to make it happen.

You are left reading this book feeling uplifted and ready to use his advice to improve your financial situation. You are also left wondering why Ramit’s book isn’t mandatory reading for high school students, given that we tend to neglect this kind of basic financial education for young people in the United States. Whether you are 18 or 28, it’s never too early to start thinking about your long-term finances. With Ramit’s well-written, digestible, and even humorous personal finance book, you are in good hands. He gives you actionable advice on how to greatly improve your finance in weeks instead of years and discusses in detail how many hours it will take you in setting up your savings, investments, and credit card debt payment options with as little of a hassle as possible. While Ramit can give you all the advice in the world, he leaves it up to you, the reader, to take actions yourself to improve your financial situation. Now that you have the knowledge based off his book, you’ll be ready to create a financially secure future for yourself and perhaps your family too.

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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.

‘Governing The World: The History of an Idea’ – Book Review

Governing the World: The History of an Idea by Mark Mazower is an illuminating and insightful history regarding the shaky yet continuous rise of internationalism that began with the Concert of Vienna in 1815. Mazower’s look at the emergence of global governance continues up until the wake of the Eurozone crisis with regards to the present needs of reforming the European Union in the wake of unpopular austerity measures and burdensome bureaucratic regulations from Brussels.

His book addresses ‘globalization’ different from previous books I’ve read in the past with regards to focus on ‘ideas’ themselves and the rise and fall of those ideas throughout the 19th and 20th centuries led by primarily politicians and philosophers such as Kant, Metternich, Mazzini, Marx, Lenin, Bentham, Wilson, the Roosevelts, etc. among many others who were driven in defining what the international system should look, act, and be like.

A consistent theme of this history of ideas and institutions from 1815 to about 2012 was how instrumental the ‘Great Powers’ in each era were in setting up the foundation of the international system whether it was the ‘Concert of Europe’, the ‘League of Nations’, or the ‘United Nations.’ In the wake of the Napoleonic Wars and World Wars I, II, the leading powers desired to create a ‘balance of power’ among the great nations yet whose actions could be backed up by a single hegemon such as the U.K., U.S. to set the rules and boost the institutions they founded. Mazower is clear in that the history of global governance evolved originally from the heart of Europe and then spread across the Atlantic as the title of global hegemon shifted from the U.K. to the U.S. with the emergence of Wilsonianism and the ‘fourteen points’ in the 1910s.

Whereas the origins of internationalism started out with a gentlemen’s agreement among the Great Powers of Europe to refrain from conquering each other in unending, bloody wars over territory based on religious and political aims, this shift has now ended up only two hundred years later encompassing the entire world over with 193-member states being represented from the People’s Republic of China to Tuvalu.

While the United Nations could be seen by some observers as a success story in terms of its inclusive nature and the ability for nations from around the world to have a voice regarding international issues, there are problems still today that plague the UN and its sister agencies and bodies. Whether it was how the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ doctrine could be implemented in different conflicts around the world with UN peacekeeping forces or the controversial over-usage of vetoes by the five permanent members of the Security Council to control the debate about their national self-interests, global governance increasingly mirrors national governance in being quite messy and imperfect.

Real questions remained in 2012 when this book was published and more so today regarding the vitality of the United Nations especially given the fact that the United States is responsible for 22 percent of the overall budget of the UN. In the 2nd half of the book, Mazower focuses on the differing approaches of various U.S. administrations towards the UN and how fundamentally the U.S. government, mostly during Republican administrations, were acting out of self-interest and would often go out of the way to create competing international bodies to marginalize the UN such as the IMF, the World Bank, and most recently the WTO. Often times, the U.S. has bypassed, ignored, threatened, and left UN bodies and have held themselves to a standard above those given to other member states which has caused a backlash among not only allies but also developing countries (see: International Court of Justice and U.S. nationals being exempted from its jurisdiction).

Similarly to how the League of Nations through the guise of British and French leadership failed to hold imperial ambitions in check between the World Wars, U.S. disengagement and disenchantment with the U.N. increasingly from the 1970s onwards and the rise of other ambitious states such as China, India, Brazil, etc. signals that there may be a shift towards a multipolar world where there is no true hegemon leading to more of a systemic anarchy within the international system in the near future.

By the end of Governing the World, Mazower sees serious needs for reform in not just the United Nations but also in the European Union, another leading international institution created during this period. Western-led international institutions are in real danger of losing relevancy, argues Mazower, due to a number of overlapping factors including rising political apathy, catering too heavily towards financial elites, and being unable to meet the lofty goals that they set for themselves. I didn’t even mention a resurgence in nationalism and populism around the world from Brazil to the Philippines, but you get the picture, right?

Much to the chagrin of internationalists, Mazower argues that the nation-state still remains the primary way for the average citizen around the world to receive or pay into ‘public goods’ so their attention will largely remain focused on what their President or Prime Minister is doing and not the UN Secretary-General or IMF Director. There are numerous challenges that face the international system currently and it remains to be seen whether the UN and numerous other bodies are ready to be able to tackle income inequality, climate change, financial crises, the threat of global pandemics in the rest of this tumultuous 21st century.

Overall, I thought it was refreshing to see his attention on the ‘Concert of Europe’ in Vienna and how he started this event as a jumping off point where leading powers would try to use regional and later international cooperation to prevent conflicts from emerging among nation-states. The lack of support given to bodies of ‘International Law’ remains as a consistent theme throughout this book and while ‘arbitration’ between nations was popular, it lost relevancy and hasn’t gained it back since.

Seeing ‘globalization’ through the ideas of influential thinkers from Immanuel Kant to Karl Marx to Henry Kissinger really paints a wholistic picture on how nation-states were driven by different belief and value systems. The clash between nations especially in the 20th century can be seen through the ideological lens (ex: Capitalism v. Communism). While I really enjoyed Mazower’s conclusion, I thought it could have been expanded upon a bit further especially with regards to the rise of private foundations, i.e. the Clintons, the Gates and other NGOs, and how that has affected larger institutional institutions which are now not as well funded. On that note, the chapters titled, “The Empire of Law” and “Science the Unifier” could have been shortened or condensed into one chapter. It took away from the timeline narrative of the book and didn’t relate well to the political history unfolding during the two centuries.

If you are looking for an interesting, comprehensive, yet digestible read regarding the tumultuous development of the international system over the past two centuries, then you will want to take a chance at reading Mr. Mazower’s Governing The World: The History of an Idea. The one question that we are left at the end of this over 400-page book is what will the international system look like for the rest of the 21st century? We shall have to wait to find out but there are numerous challenges and obstacles ahead.

Book Recommendations – Volume VIII

As always, the summer season is an excellent time to be catching up on personal reading. One of my favorite activities during the summer is to lie out in the park or at the beach and dive into some books that have piqued my interest. Whether you are a fiction fan or a non-fiction fan, there are a lot of excellent books out there to keep you occupied. My three choices for reading this summer deal with non-fiction topics yet I hope they peak your interest as well even if you are a fiction fan.

1.) “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow” by Yuval Noah Harari

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The follow-up to Harari’s first book, ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’ dives into the promise, the challenges, and the problems facing humanity as we go through the 21st century and beyond. ‘Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow’ looks at how human beings got to this point in our collective history and how we will need to come up with new solutions whether political, economic, or social to adapt to this current age of rapid technological and climatic change. Clearly, this book deals with more speculation on the part of Harari as he lays out a number of possibilities that could come about in this century and beyond, rather than solely focusing on past human history as ‘Sapiens’ did.

Harari devotes a large part of the book to the fact at how much progress has been made across humankind in terms of eradicating disease, famine, and also how war has been limited in a time of relative peace and prosperity. The question that Harari poses is what will humanity focus its efforts on now that we have been able to get past in large part major sources of human suffering in the form of disease, famine, and war. Mr. Harari makes the argument that humanity will focus a lot of its collective effort on artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, machine learning, etc.

The goal particularly of the rich and wealthy will be to conquer death and achieve immortality through various means that the author goes more into detail about. However, how will social harmony be insured as artificial intelligence, robotics, and machine learning wipe out a large percentage of human jobs over the next few decades? Will the rights of the individual be maintained when a large part of the population no longer are able to find work or where they can receive adequate educational training for the jobs of tomorrow?

Harari is a sociologist so the details of the actual engineering and technology that would need to occur to make this shift happen is lacking in the book. However, he poses urgent questions for policymakers, economists, and other leaders as to what will happen when ‘big data’ algorithms know us and our desires better than they ever have. How will the meaning of ‘work, leisure, and relationships’ change as artificial intelligence continues to advance? Increasingly, Mr. Harari concludes that humans and machines will complement each other in various ways whether its in education, technology, the workplace, etc. and there can be nothing done to avoid this shift from happening in our lifetimes. What remains to be seen is how human societies react to a future where people must adapt to these technological changes to survive, prosper and how man and machine will act as they merge together beyond what was considered possible just a century ago.

2.) “Us v. Them: The Failure of Globalism” by Ian Bremmer

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Ian Bremmer, a notable political scientist has written a new book on the populist resurgence in the United States and around the world. He tackles the failure of ‘globalism’ as an ideology and how unfortunately it doesn’t look like we will all be able to live and thrive in a truly borderless world without political, economic, and social differences getting in the way. The fear of the ‘other’ and the tendency for human beings to organize themselves in separate tribes whether it’s the form of nations, races, and religions takes precedence even today as the reaction to globalism.

Mr. Bremmer makes the argument that ‘globalism’ and ‘globalization’ are separate in their meanings as ‘globalism’ as a term is primarily political in nature while ‘globalization’ is primarily economic. Globalization will continue to expand and thrive because its’ practical for nations to engage in trade and finance at the international level to boost and grow their national economies. As long as it is economically advantageous for nations to trade and do business with each other, globalization will continue to be a mainstay in economic relations.

‘Globalism’ however has received a backlash from the rise of political populism primarily in the Western world (the U.S., the U.K.) but also in Eastern Europe (Hungary, Poland), and also in developing nations like India, Mexico, Turkey, etc. Issues of mass migration, cultural shifts in nations, growing income inequality have led populations to look towards protectionism and ‘strongmen-lite’ politicians to address these systemic issues. In my opinion, Bremmer correctly argues that while the world is collectively doing well in terms of economic growth and the subsequent rise in living standards, there is still a serious political recession going on with far left and far right politicians gaining stream in terms of popularity.

‘Us v. Them’ reflect the growing unease and anxiety that a lot of people have regarding ‘globalism.’ Besides the cosmopolitan populations that live in the major cities of the world and who have benefited from the cross-cultural exchange of peoples, trade, finance, etc., there are many others who feel threatened by the ‘other’ and how their country and culture may be changing as a result. Mr. Bremmer sees the happening of Brexit, the election of Trump, and the rise of strongmen around the world as a reaction to ‘globalism’, and how there are drawbacks in that many people feel left behind by their political and economic elites who enacted these policies without their support. ‘Us v. Them’ is something that has occurred throughout human history and to myself, it goes back to our fundamental nature of our willingness to divide ourselves into separate tribes and to look upon the ‘other’ with suspicion and fear.

According to Mr. Bremmer, political populism is not likely to go away anytime soon and the rise of automation, an increase in artificial intelligence, the weakening of the middle class in both the developed and developing world are likely to put continued pressure on weakening political institutions who may or may not be agile and forward-thinking enough to come up with satisfactory solutions to these 21st century issues.

3.) “Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World” by Suzy Hansen

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‘Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World’ by Suzy Hansen is a refreshing take on the way American foreign policy decisions have affected the U.S.’s relationships with certain countries such as Iran, Greece, Afghanistan, Turkey, Egypt, and specifically the people who feel that they have been negatively affected by those decisions. The average American is likely to be unaware of how large of a role the country has played beyond its borders and how some of those decisions have left deep, festering wounds in the people of those countries who were directly affected and still haven’t forgotten.

Ms. Hansen who came from a personal background similar to mine has lived in Turkey for over ten years and has traveled to the Middle Eastern countries such as Iran and Egypt looking for the perspectives of those citizens in regards to how America changed their countries, mainly for the worse. Her personal background growing up was very insular and she went to travel and live overseas in order to see her country differently.

From reading this book, it was refreshing to see Ms. Hansen do her research about the countries she was living in and visiting as well as interviewing many people in those countries to hear their stories and their perspectives. I believe that her book does a great job of enlightening Americans about negative foreign policy decisions made in the past that our country may not like to remember but is still forefront in many other countries’ perspective of the United States.

As Hansen left home and lived overseas, her innocence and that of America is stripped away because it’s a harsh truth to face yet it is one that we must all face is that America has not always done good in the world and there have been negative effects of past U.S. foreign policy decisions that heavily resonate with those peoples to this day. The key aspect of this mix of journalism and personal memoir makes this book stand out as a referendum on America’s role in the world, and how its likely to decline in the future. While our impact may lessen on our nations in the future, Hansen sees that as a possible good occurrence do the damage that has already been done.

My main critiques of this book is that while Ms. Hansen diagnoses that issues with U.S. foreign policy, I do wish there was an addition to the book where the author discusses how America can better its foreign relations in the future and to move forward positively with the countries she has become familiar with. However, to be fair, that would take a whole another book to diagnose how U.S. foreign policy should move forward. Also, I believe that this book was a bit too negative in its perspective on America and it could have been more balanced in its overall viewpoint. Ms. Hansen’s book pulls no punches and is a clear-eyed look on the blindspots of American exceptionalism and how our values have not always been well received beyond our borders.

Book Recommendations – Volume VII

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been lucky enough to do some good reading. Each of these three books are enjoyable, interesting and which hold different lessons about the state of the world and humanity at large. These three books come highly recommended from myself and are well worth the time invested to read them. If you are looking for a few books to read, as spring becomes summer, below you will see the 7th edition of my book recommendations which highlights Submission by Michel Houellebecq, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, and A World in Disarray by Richard Haass.

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1.) Submission by Michel Houellebecq is an enjoyable and humorous take on French politics in the 21st The French author is known for his edgy content and his nihilistic take on modern life. Houellebecq is not known for writing about satire and for those who are a fan of his works, this novel was a sharp turn away from the other topics that he usually focuses on. Personally, I haven’t read the other novels associated with this writer but I really enjoyed this satirical look at French politics.

The premise of the novel is that there is a new political crisis in France. In order to stave off a win in the 2022 French presidential elections from Marine Le Pen’s National Front party, the Socialist party and the center-right Union for a Popular Movement party are forced to align with a newly formed Muslim Brotherhood party led by its charismatic leader, Mohammed Ben-Abbes in order to achieve victory as a coalition. The main character, Francois, is a middle-aged Literature professor at the Sorbonne is going through his own mid-life crisis. While he enjoys teaching at the university and cavorting physically with some of his students, he struggles to find meaning in his life and is distraught at the loss of both of his parents. This is on top of the fact that the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood party will affect his ability to keep his full pension and be able to keep his job.                                                                                                                       

On top of the probability of losing his teaching job at the Sorbonne as well as the fleeing of his steady Jewish girlfriend, Myriam, who leaves France for Israel in the face of rising anti-Semitism, Francois contemplates suicide but decides instead to seek refuge in a monastery in the town of Martel. Ironically, Francois, after going through a self-imposed exile for a few weeks, comes to realize that the world didn’t end when the Muslim Brotherhood party takes power. Instead of fighting the changes going on at the Sorbonne, Francois is intrigued by the fact that if he converts or ‘submits’ to Islam, he will be able to still find a prestigious job, keep his lucrative pension, and be able to have a few wives chosen for him since polygamy had become legal in France. The main character, Francois, is a spectator to the changing political landscape rather than an active player.

While this book is known for being controversial, I find it to be full of slapstick humor in making fun of the main character’s overly dramatic take on life. Francois is a mere spectator whose desire for alcohol, food, and sex overrides any core convictions that he may have politically. Mainly, Houellebecq is making fun of French intellectuals who can’t be bothered to invest in them beyond their own hedonistic desires.

His take on the political situation in France is an obvious dramatization and I don’t believe that he was looking to ruffle any feathers. The rise of an Islamic nationalist party in France in 2022 would be completely unrealistic which is what the author was making clear in focusing on the political satire associated with that idea. Overall, it is a witty, entertaining novel, which tells us more about human nature than it does about the precarious state of French politics in the 21st century.

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2.) Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari is one of the best books I have ever read. In all likelihood, this is the kind of book that you can come back to multiple times and still enjoy it. This is not your average history book in that it focuses more on the big ideas and developments associated with each era of human history rather than diving into the endless details and events related to each period. Instead of a 4,000 page behemoth focused on human history, Harari does a great job in condensing the how and why of Homo sapiens into only 400+ pages.

While I was reading this book, it didn’t feel laborious at all and was a real page-turner. Harari’s main argument in the book is that the homo sapien (the modern human) were able to dominate the Earth because of our ability to cooperate and share with each other in large numbers. The downfall of pre-homo sapiens such as the Neanderthals along with various other extinct animals and plants was the result of the Cognitive Revolution, which occurred at around 70,000 BCE.

The exciting developments related to the establishment of shared human myths and imaginary mainstays such as money, religions, human rights, nation-states, etc. directly tied to Homo Sapien culture put sapiens on the path to long-term survival and flourishing. Harari convincingly argues that the history of humanity can be broken down into four parts: the Cognitive Revolution (the development of imagination), the Agricultural Revolution (the formation of collective societies), the Unification of humankind (the rise of empires and nations), along with the Scientific Revolution (the emergence of scientific knowledge) which is the stage where sapiens currently find ourselves in.

Harari believes that the rise of Homo sapiens as a species has had significant consequences on the planet we all inhabit as well as the harsh treatment of animals that has resulted from being at the top of the food chain. Also, while the Agricultural revolution led to the creation of large human societies and eventually sprawling empires, the shift from hunter gathering to farming caused the human diet and lifestyle to suffer as a direct result. Human beings after agriculture became less self-reliant and had to rely on a king, an emperor, or the state itself to provide food, water, and other necessities. Out of all of the developments in human history, the rise of agriculture was a fundamental shift in our thinking, which still affects us in the modern society we all inhabit today.

Overall, Sapiens is an excellent, informative, and timely read that I would recommend to anyone. It’s an easy book to pick up and a hard one to put down. I am currently reading another book of his, which is the sequel to Sapiens, this book and the one that follows it just shows how good of an author and intellectual that Mr. Harari is.

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3.) A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Older by Richard Haass is a refreshing take on the topsy-turvy world of international relations in this current period. Mr. Haass, who is currently the President of the Council on Foreign Relations, has advised previous U.S. presidents and worked as the Director of Policy Planning at the U.S. State Department during the Bush Administration, is an expert on world affairs who has published multiple books and this one in particular could not be timelier.

While the U.S. remains the most powerful country in the world both economically and militarily, it has started to lose ground in terms of its ability to sway world opinion and events due to failures of U.S. foreign policy in the early years of the 21st century. The lack of success in denuclearizing of the Korean peninsula, the rise of Iran as a regional power in the Middle East, and the mixed results of the East Asia ‘pivot’ from the Obama administration have created a worldwide power vacuum. Also, due to the long and costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, both U.S. prestige and values were harmed by these adventures in the Middle East. Haass argues correctly that the post-WWII order that the United States and its European allies helped create is fraying due to the failure of its leaders, institutions, and policies to maintain stability across the globe.             

There are real challenges to contend with that the United States won’t be able to solve on its own. The threat of climate change, the challenge of cyber-security, and preventing the spread of nuclear weapons require a unified approach that has been lacking between the U.S. and its European allies. The events of Brexit, the Trump administration’s ‘America First’ isolationist policies, and the great power rivalries going on between Russia, China, and India have thrown the world in disarray. The days where the U.S. could have great influence and sway over events around the world may be drawing to a close. Haass sees that the U.S. is just one of the great global powers and must be willing to cooperate, collaborate with other powers in order to achieve results when the main issues of today are multilateral in nature.

In order for the world to follow America’s lead, Haass aptly understands that we must get our own house in order first. The rising national debt, the ongoing problems with investing in education, infrastructure, and health care prevent the United States from acting as an example to the rest of the world. A dysfunctional political process as well as a President who doesn’t believe in leading the international, post WWII order are preventing the United States from realizing its full potential as a global power.

For anyone who is new to international relations, A World In Disarray, is an excellent take on the history of the international system after World War II and how did we get to this point where the world seems more chaotic and unstable than ever. Mr. Haass understands the limits of American power and that in order to lead on the world stage; the U.S. must undertake reforms to benefit our own citizens at home. In order to solve complex, multilateral issues, the U.S. must value diplomacy and the relationships that we have with our allies. Where the U.S. used to be the only global superpower, after the fall of the Soviet Union, America is just one of the great powers now. In order to solve the multilateral issues of the 21st century, the United States cannot do it alone and we must be willing to use effective diplomacy and other forms of soft power to create peace and prosperity.

Book Recommendations – Volume VI

As we go into the month of December, the winds start to blow, the snow starts to fall, and the cold begins to set in, it’s no better a time during the year to crack open a book to catch up on some reading. The three books I’ve read at this time and am highlighting in this ‘Book Recommendations’ post focus on current events. I tend to stay away from politics but these books do a good job of reflecting upon the political moment we are living in here in the United States.

All three of these books come from authors who have a wealth of life experiences and are considered to be experts in what they do. If you’re not into non-fiction books, you may want to skip these ones but if you want to understand more about the United States in 2017, you should give each of these books a honest read.

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1. The Retreat of Western Liberalism by Edward G. Luce is an excellent take on the current state of liberal democracy in Western countries. Due to growing income inequality, the failure of institutions to handle complex issues involving immigration, health care, infrastructure, etc. causes more and more citizens to doubt the benefits of the current democratic system. Luce pulls no punches and does a good job summarizing the pressing problems that ail the United States and Western Europe.

While not the cause of these problems that have been building up for decades, Donald Trump, Brexit, and the rise of far-right parties throughout Europe are symptoms of a virus that is weakening the fundamentals of liberalism. For every action, there is a reaction and the negligence shown by political and economic elites in the Western world has caused there to be a backlash against our system of governance. Luce believes that there has been a lot of doing away with the principles that made democracy work for the past couple of centuries. In the 21st century, the current political system has not adapted to technological, economic, and social changes that have occurred at a quickening pace. Unless more attention is paid to those men and women not succeeding in today’s globalized economy, there will continue to be political dysfunction within the democratic system.

Unless the Western countries can guarantee that political liberties and freedoms can go hand in hand with an economic system that works for the many and not the few, the status quo will not last. Mr. Luce is not hesitant in using the rise of authoritarianism in countries such as Russia, Turkey, and the Philippines to draw a distinct parallel as to an alternative form of government that is becoming more prominent. The Western system used to be an example of good governance to the rest of the world but is that still the case today?

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2. Tribe by Sebastian Junger deals more with modern psychology than modern politics but you can gain a lot of insight into what drives us as human beings from reading this book. Mr. Junger is a war correspondent that has covered the front lines for over a decade in America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. From his experiences, he was able to form the hypothesis that there are certain living conditions that bring out the best of us. When a person is surrounded by the members of the same ‘tribe’, usually about 20-30 people, who he or she has something in common with and for whom survival is not guaranteed but fought for every day, that goes back to our early days on the planet as hunter-gatherers.

Mr. Junger makes excellent points throughout the book that we started out thousands of years ago as a communal society moving from place to place and relying on each other to survive against the elements and against other creatures. He argues consistently that we may do best when we work with each other instead of against each other for a common goal or purpose. The alienation, individualism, and me-first culture in modern Western societies is out of line with our evolutionary history and may be the cause of the mental illnesses and anxieties that have been shown to be on the rise. Combat veterans who come home from war often miss the bonds of brotherhood that were formed from fighting for the guy or girl on the left or the right of you. They often miss the bonds created during battle that are impossible to recreate after re-entry into modern society.

The author uses an example from early American history when some English settlers would leave the colonial towns to join the Indian society, which was exactly like the tribal lifestyle, and the reverse would never be the same. There were no Indians who would leave their tribe to join the English settlers in their more modern colony set-up. In tribal communities where everybody has a say and where everybody has a role to play, it’s easy to make the argument that there would be less stress, less anxiety, and more purpose for those apart of it. Mr. Junger also brings up the example of Great Britain’s citizens during World War II and how only adversity would bring that modern society together.

A lot of Britons felt more patriotic and more cooperative each other during the war than compared to before and after the war. Adversity, struggle, and the fight for survival can be more meaningful to people than the safe and sanitized existences that make up the modern West. The time spent living through natural disasters like earthquakes or hurricanes can stir up people’s memories more than the average vacation or wedding. Tribe is an excellent, must-read book that pulls different elements of history, anthropology, and sociology to make a compelling argument that the average person should think deeply about.

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3. Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire – A 500-Year History by Kurt Andersen is not your average American history book. Mr. Andersen spends about 500 pages summing up 500 years of American history through the lens of what’s fantasy and what’s real. Fantastical thinking, Andersen argues, has been apart of American culture since the first pilgrims arrived on Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts. In order to understand what’s going on in the America of 2017, he does a good job of bringing out examples from past centuries to explain how we got to this unique point in our history.

The ‘fake news’, ‘alternative facts’, and other fantastical phrases that have become part of the national dialect are not outlandish in the sense that they have always been apart of the national character. Citing examples such as the extremes of Puritan beliefs, the Salem witch trials, P.T. Barnum and show business, the anything-goes ‘cultural revolution’ of the 1960’s, the spread of Hollywood and celebrity culture, etc., each century in America has brought about new fantasies to become part of the national fabric.

The individualistic nature of American culture has led to dreamers, believers, and magical thinkers being indulged rather than the other way around as done in other countries. The idea that you can be whom you want and believe what you want in America has become a national rallying cry, especially in recent decades. Our belief in the stuff of fantasy (ghosts, extraterrestrials, is the Earth flat?) has made America an international outlier among the industrialized nations.

Mr. Andersen argues that with the rise of Donald Trump and the excessive polarization along cultural and political fault lines that we may have hit a point of no return. The lines of fantasy and reality are becoming increasingly blurred whereas in our past, fantasy and reality were competing ideas in American society but never overtook each other to reign supreme. An amazing and timely non-fiction book that is an easy page-turner, Fantasyland is a must-read in 2017 and will help you understand how we Americans ended up here over the span of centuries.

Book Recommendations – Volume V

Similarly to the months to come during the heart of wintertime, the current summer season is a great chance to catch up on reading new books or books you have yet to finish. Whether you’re at the beach, hanging out in the backyard, or are going on a long road trip, reading a good book is a good way to pass the time.

My last ‘Book Recommendations’ post came in February so it’s time for another volume of recommendations for you to consider when it comes to your next book purchases. While you may not be interested in the same book genres or same authors as myself, I still encourage you to read a book before the end of the summer. Whether it’s through Amazon, your local mom and pop bookstore, or at a book fair, you owe it to yourself to put down the iPhone and pick up a good book instead.

1.) Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw by Mark Bowden (2001) is a non-fiction, and detailed take on the combined efforts by the Colombian and United States governments to bring down the infamous Pablo Escobar, head of the Medellin cartel. Mr. Bowden, known foremost for his take on the Battle of Mogadishu between U.S. special forces and Somali militants in the critically acclaimed novel, Black Hawk Down (1999) is a great journalist with over thirty years of covering recent events involving war, peace, and international affairs.

Mr. Bowden is a reporter and a journalist who does his research when it comes to Killing Pablo, and this book is a real page-turner. The author covers both the early years of Pablo’s empire to his international rise as the #1 drug kingpin in the world to his eventual downfall at the home of Search Bloc and Los Pepes. With many interviews from U.S. and Colombian government officials, as well as a lot of research into the terrible events that transpired in the 1980s and 1990s, Mark Bowden gives a comprehensive account of the manhunt for Pablo Escobar, and how his eventual death came to be.

There is often a lot of speculation and rumors surrounding the Medellin cartel that are unfounded which is why reading ‘Killing Pablo’ is a refreshing take on what really happened and who was involved in the drug kingpin’s demise. This is a great book if you’re interested in learning the true story behind the rise and fall of Pablo Escobar.

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Killing Pablo: The Hunt for The World’s Greatest Outlaw by Mark Bowden

2. Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans by Admiral James Stavridis, USN (Ret.) is an excellent and comprehensive look at each of the world’s major bodies of water, and how they each affect world geopolitics in different ways.

With over thirty years of experience in the United States Navy having commandeered every kind of amphibious vessel that you can think of, Admiral Stavridis has the life experience and intellectual background necessary to make this book quite a compelling read. As the only admiral in the history of NATO to serve as its’ Supreme Allied Commander, Mr. Stavridis is well poised to look at the state of the world through its’ largest and most valuable commodity, the oceans and the seas that make up over 70% of this planet.

If you’re new to geopolitics or don’t know much about the significance of the world’s oceans, Admiral Stavridis breaks down the history, the culture, and the geopolitical importance of each body of water throughout the book. From the Arctic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea, the author discusses who are the countries involved in the area, what should the role of the United States be, and how can we ensure that this body of water stays conflict free, and friendly to international commerce into the far future.

Since the release of this book in June of 2017, it has risen to the top of many best sellers’ lists and for good reason. In a geopolitical area that doesn’t get much focus, Admiral Stavridis reminds us of the sheer importance of the world’s oceans and seas. In a 21st century world filled with uncertainty and ambiguity, The admiral’s book is a clear-cut, well-reasoned take on the geopolitics of the oceans, and how their collective future is tied to each and every one of us.

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Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans by Admiral James Stavridis, USN (Ret.)

3. The Quiet American by Graham Greene is an exceptional book that is well written, has deep and complex characters, and involves a time period in world history that is often overlooked. The novel takes place during the early 1950s as the French Army is entangled in skirmishes and indirect conflict with the Vietminh. Meanwhile, the new presence of American aid workers including a young economic attaché, Alden Pyle, whose motives for being in French colonial-era Vietnam are considered to be suspect to the narrator, a British journalist named Thomas Fowler. Not only do the two men come into conflict regarding the future of Western influence in Vietnam but they also are at odds in a romantic triangle with a Vietnamese woman known as Phuong.

The two main characters, Fowler and Pyle, could not be more different in their outlook. Fowler is cynical about the West’s involvement in Vietnam, and is jaded by politics and war. Pyle is a young, idealistic, and naïve American who is reserved in his personal manners, but is unafraid to interfere in Vietnamese affairs by acting as a ‘third force’ to help bring change to the country by economic and military means.

Phuong is the young Vietnamese woman who is caught between Fowler and Pyle, as she is desired by both men but for different reasons. While Fowler regards her simply as his lover, Pyle wants to protect her. It is implied in the book that Pyle’s desire for Phuong is reflected in his desire to have a non-communist South Vietnam through any means necessary. Fowler does not go along with Pyle’s thinking and regards his belief in ‘American exceptionalism’ to be shortsighted.

An interesting novel and an engaging read, The Quiet American has become a mainstay in popular fictional literature and has been adapted into two major motion pictures, one in 1958, and more recently in 2002, which starred Michael Caine (Fowler) and Brendan Fraser (Pyle). This fictional novel is based off of real events in the 1950s when French colonial rule in Vietnam was coming to an end.

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The Quiet American by Graham Greene

While reading books during the summer season may seem like a chore to some people, for others, it’s a great time to kick back, relax, and dive into different genres, and characters that offer a refreshing reprieve from the humdrum of our busy lives.