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?

“Get Action”

“Get action. Do things; be sane; don’t fritter away your time; create, act, take a place wherever you are and be somebody; get action.”

Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States, was unlike many of the men who came before him or who came after him who served as President. He was a truly unique individual in how much he was able to do during his life. While Roosevelt only lived to the age of 60 years old, looking at how much he was able to accomplish and what he was able to do with his life, you could easily make the argument that he lived the lives of five men put together. To put it simply, he was a man of action regardless of how strenuous and difficult that action may be.

When you look at Teddy Roosevelt, he wasn’t just President of the United States which is a massive accomplishment in its own right, but he was also Vice President, Governor of New York, Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Navy, Leader of the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American war, and a Harvard College graduate. On top of all of that, he was a noteworthy explorer who spent over two years in the Amazonian basin of Brazil, a hunter who herded cattle out in the Dakotas, and a historian who wrote several books including a military history titled, ‘The Naval History of 1812.’ On top of everything that he did, while he was boisterous and a bit cocky to a fault, he backed up his words with actions, and he did his best to maintain his integrity in everything that he did. Roosevelt was not a man who cut corners or looked for shortcuts. Once he committed himself to something, he made sure to give it his best effort.

While Teddy Roosevelt was a member of a wealthy family from Oyster Bay, New York, he struggled with adversity throughout his life. He had severe bouts of asthma and would suffer from attacks that were debilitating. Instead of staying still and not exerting himself, he found that being active, physically and mentally, would actually help to minimize his asthma and improve his spirits. Roosevelt was not a man who would go about and pity for himself ever.

He was home-schooled, naturally curious about the world, and self-educated himself in a number of subjects including taxidermy, geography, French, German, history, etc. Roosevelt to make himself physically stronger would take it upon himself to learn boxing and then rowing in his desire to keep himself fit and active. Roosevelt lost his father at a young age, which was an almost unbearable loss for him, but he used his father as an example of who he should strive to be in life in terms of his father’s morals, career, and his overall character. Also, when he was only 22 years old, Theodore Roosevelt lost both his mother and his first wife within a few hours of each other.

Losing your mother and wife in such a terrible manner would break a lesser man but while Roosevelt grieved in a manner that was natural, he knew that he must go on and that he must live up to the memory of those family members who passed before him. Theodore was not one to sit around and grieve forever but a man who desired to make the most of his life and commit himself to action. Even when he was almost assassinated in 1912 when he was campaigning for the Presidency a second time, he would read his speech and refused medical attention for over ninety minutes before seeking assistance with a bullet lodged in his chest.

What lessons can we draw in our own lives from the energetic and boisterous life of Theodore Roosevelt? There are many lessons to draw upon but the most important one that can just be summed up in two words is to “get action.” Roosevelt believed that man is most content in the pursuit of action whether its’ in the form of academia, physical exertion, public service, and military duty. Roosevelt’s life was made up of numerous actions that fit his various interests and he committed himself to these actions over a long period of time. When we read about Teddy, we admire how much he was able to accomplish and how possibly he could have done of all that. My take on it is that Roosevelt made the most of his time and committed himself to pursuits instead of lazing about and being distracted by idle pleasures.

How many of us can say that we would be able to do ½ or 1/5 of what Theodore Roosevelt was able to do during his life? Not many. In this day and age of Netflix, smartphone, video games, and virtual reality, it’s easier now than ever to not get action but to be lazy. You have to put blinders on and prevent yourself from being distracted from the technologies of today. While Roosevelt may have had a harder time accomplishing everything he did in the early 20th century compared to what he may have done in the early 21st century, his core personality, his priorities, and his spirit would not have changed. Roosevelt’s life is a testament to the power of taking actions in various pursuits and to push both your body and your mind to the limit.

He did not let his setbacks, failures, and limitations hold him back from becoming the great man that we recognize him as being today. He fundamentally knew that he was at his happiest and his most vibrant when he was putting himself to work. His hobbies, interests, and his professional career were his number one priority and he still managed to re-marry, raise six children, and explore the world from Brazil to Egypt. Did he have a leg up in life due to his family name and his wealthy background? Yes, you could argue that fact, but he made the most of the deck of cards he was dealt but still had the common decency and integrity to commit himself to public service and helping out his countrymen and women as well.

Roosevelt could have enjoyed his wealth, spent opulently on material goods and hedonistic pursuits, and sat back for the rest of his days but he was not that kind of man. Not only was he aware that he had one life to live but he knew fundamentally that every day counts and that every day matters. Luckily, he used his mental and physical prowess in the service of others whether that was in the United States Army, the Governorship of New York, or Office of President of the United States. Theodore Roosevelt put his energies and his time into productive matters and was able to do amazing things in his life. If Roosevelt were to give anybody a piece of advice today, it would be to simply ‘get action.’ Without action, there is stagnation and with stagnation, there is no future. Even if you are not successful in your actions, don’t ever be so discouraged that you do not try again or try something new.

Whether it was reading, writing, making speeches, hunting, traveling, Roosevelt was a man who embodied the human spirit when it is fully unleashed. He made the most out of this thing we call ‘life.’ If you are feeling down in the dumps and aren’t sure what to do next, just ‘do something.’ By doing something and sticking to it as a routine, you’ll get better at it and it may take you places in life that you never thought was possible to begin with. Taking any kind of action in your day to day life is the natural and healthy thing to do. Sitting in bed, lazing around, letting your mind and body wither away is no way to go through life.

When you commit yourself to getting out in the world in whatever way appeals to you, you move forward as a person and you develop yourself in various ways. You’ll fail, you may get hurt, and you will learn a lesson or two but at least you got yourself out into the arena as Theodore Roosevelt did. ‘Get Action’ are two words that can make a world of difference in one’s life. Make sure you make the most of the time for which you have been given.

The Wonder of Flight

Imagine a scenario where you were able to transport yourself back in time to the 1950s. You would be coming from the modern era and a time now where you can travel to your heart’s content if you have the means to do so. The 1950s, in contrast, was a decade before the age of commercial aviation had really blossomed and taken off, and where the average person could not board a flight to go halfway around the world, round-trip, for a couple hundred dollars. People of that era would think you’re crazy and out of your mind for suggestion that commercial aviation would either be that accessible or affordable.

However, that is where we are today in our modern society. We often take the chance to fly around our country or internationally for granted nowadays but for most of human history, there was absolutely no chance to fly to the next town let alone to Japan or Australia. Modern aviation can be considered one of mankind’s greatest successes and that is due partly to the Wright Brothers and the countless others who are skilled engineers and builders. The advances in flying will continue to make travel more efficient, faster, and more affordable.

While there is a growing disparity on numerous airlines in terms of how much you pay equaling the quality of services that you will receive as a result, it is good for us as travelers to keep it in perspective of how lucky we are to be in an age where at least the possibility of flight exists and how wondrous it is for the world to be connected so easily. You no longer have to board a ship for months on end to cross the dangerous Atlantic Ocean nor do you have board an extremely long train ride where the accommodations won’t be much better.

For example, you can travel across the continental United States in less than six hours thanks to modern aviation technology. Compare this to driving a car or bus across the country which would take a few weeks or your average Amtrak train which could take about a week or so and not be that much cheaper. The fact that we can be reunited with our loved ones or our friends within a day if they live across the country from us or around the world is a truly monumentous achievement in human history.

In addition to the simple fact that you’re now able to travel through the sky in relative comfort at over five hundred miles per hour, it’s easier now than ever to entertain yourself with books, movies, and music. On certain airlines, you can even connect to the internet if you need to get some work done. While they may not feed you a lot or feed you food that’s good or tasty, you have the option of snacking or eating a meal and you will definitely be hydrated with the help of flight attendants.

There has been a lot of bad press lately about certain airlines in the United States and the condition of airports here, and these criticisms are definitely warranted. However, instead of trying to tear down this form of transportation, I would hope that this industry continues to improve in terms of services offered, having affordable prices, and providing a comfortable experience by having airports that are both modern and efficient. It’s clear to me that not every airline or airport experience is going to be great but I consider myself lucky that I was born in an era and also have had the means to travel both domestically and internationally.

To me, the experience of going to an airport to go to a far-off destination that’s new to me is really exhilarating and fills me with a deep sense of adventure. While the airport security workers may be too overzealous, the check-in counter machine may not work, and we could be delayed due to unforeseen mechanical issues, the destination is worth the price involved with traveling anywhere new. Not everybody has had the chance to fly anywhere or to fly to multiple places so I actually look forward to arriving at the airport, checking in to my flight, and boarding the plane. Sometimes, you have to hope for the best and to expect the worst when it comes to flying.

While airports aren’t perfect, I love what they symbolize and what they stand for. The free movement of peoples from different parts of the world, converging in one central location, to then be whisked off to another far away destination is pretty cool. The airport is a place where people of all backgrounds, faiths, and creeds can come together for a shared purpose: the desire to travel.

In my opinion, the more airports a nation has, the more that nation signals to others that they are open to the world and are not afraid of it. Airports are the beginning point in the global exchange of ideas, beliefs, and economic opportunities, and it’s important to make sure that they accommodate both travelers and the workers themselves to make these impressive places run so smoothly 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Airports are like a living, breathing global city which represents an important piece of the economy, of society, and of human nature. You can see the good, the bad, and the ugly represented in any airport.

Once I have made it through security, through check-in, and have made it through the gate, a great sense of excitement washes over me. It is the truth that any trip that I have taken or will take in the future give me a strong desire to experience the unknown. I watch the plane take its place at our gate of departure and I observe the children, teenagers, businessmen, and elderly seniors board my flight. We, as passengers, may not have much in common at all besides the shared belief in the wonder of flight and how it can bring different breadths of humanity together under the same banner of discovering parts unknown.