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.

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Book Recommendations – Volume IV

Wintertime is often the best time to settle down with a cup of hot coffee / tea and open up a new book or fire up your Kindle to catch up on some reading. When it’s cold and snowy out, there is no better way to pass the time than to sit down with a good book in order to learn something new or to be entertained by a particular story. If you’re looking for some good recommendations, here are three books that I have read recently that I think avid readers would enjoy especially if you like non-fiction material. If you happen to read any of these three recommendations, please let me know what you thought of these books in the comments section below.

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1.) The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck by Mark Manson is a current New York Times bestseller and is not your typical self-development book. I have been following Mark’s writings for a couple of years now and I hold him in high regard. He has helped change my life for the better with his unconventional life advice and his second book is a great read. Contrary to some self-help books that advertise a philosophy of feeling good all the time and always being positive, Mark instead advocates for a more balanced approach to life. It’s important to embrace the negatives and setbacks in life because you’ll be a stronger and a more mature person for it.

It’s a common truth that not everything will go well in life so it’s better to make due with that than to have a ‘pie in the sky’ attitude all of the time. Mark asks the reader to think about the fact that going through negative experiences is actually a positive experience and can teach us a lot about ourselves. Having solely positive experiences without any adversity or setbacks is itself a negative experience as well because you didn’t struggle and fight for it, which means that it wasn’t that much of a big deal in retrospect. Learning from our past mistakes and our failures is just as important, if not more so, as having massive success according to Mark’s thesis.

The title of the book itself, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, doesn’t imply that we as human beings shouldn’t care about anything going on in our lives but rather that we should be more selective about the things that we can truly control and have some input in. You shouldn’t give a f*ck about everything, only the things that matter the most to you and that truly impact your life in some way. Overall, this book is a really thoughtful perspective on living one’s life in a mature and thoughtful manner and has some really practical advice for any demographic of reader.

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2.) Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath by Ted Koppel is a well-researched, thought out look about the cyber security challenges facing the United States especially when it comes to the national energy grid that makes it possible for Americans to live a 21st century lifestyle. I remember watching Ted Koppel on ABC’s Nightline when I was a child and he always impressed me with his ability to look at a story he was reporting on from all angles and do a thorough job with interviewing different people involved with the issue. This book written by Mr. Koppel is no exception. Mr. Koppel does great investigative reporting on what is being done and what isn’t being done to prevent such a cyber attack from happening.

With the increasing amount of focus being put on cyber security as it affects different businesses, individuals, and governments, this book is a must-read as it considers the areas in which we are most vulnerable to attack. Mr. Koppel looks at how we can address the current gaps in cyber security such as when it comes to our different energy grids across the United States and what should be done about it in order to prevent an attack from happening in the near future. Mr. Koppel interviews a wide variety of people involved with cyber security from the Secretary of Homeland Security to leaders of the Mormon church in Salt Lake City to ‘preppers’ across the U.S. who make it a lifestyle habit of preparing themselves and their families with emergency supplies and goods in case a cyber attack happens and the electric grid goes down.

The frightening possibility of a regional and national blackout happening in the United States is discussed in detail as to what would be the consequences and how long it would take for the electric grid to go back online. The current picture isn’t very rosy and a lot of work needs to be done according to Mr. Koppel. Hopefully, the policy makers and leaders of government take notice of this book as it is both a warning and a call to action for those people in power to do more about this situation and to help protect against such a potential disastrous scenario.

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3.) Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance was one of the most important books of 2016 for its’ insight into a part of the United States that rarely gets much in-depth coverage. This book is a mix of a personal memoir of Mr. Vance’s life who is a native of the hills of Kentucky and who grew up in southern Ohio and also a retrospective on the economic and social conditions that are affecting Appalachia to this day. Mr. Vance goes into great detail about the struggles of the white, working class, both self-inflicted and those wounds placed on them by economic decline and societal decay that’s out of their control. It’s a community that doesn’t get much fanfare but who still have a political impact as showcased in the recent 2016 election.

Even with a troubled family that both uplifts him and casts him down, Mr. Vance through his hard-work and intellect makes it out of Appalachia and was a member of the Marine corps, a law school graduate and now a successful writer. However, it could be argued that he is the exception and not the norm when it comes to the current state of Appalachian communities. Upward mobility can be hard to believe in for today’s America with stories like Mr. Vance’s becoming less and less common. For this course to reverse itself, economic vitality has to come back to forgotten regions like the Rust Belt and Appalachia. The current social malaise and dispirited communities may be able to improve if the local economy were to improve for families like the Vance’s.

You root for the people of Appalachia highlighted in this memoir who have been dealt a bad hand in life but still try to make the best of things and want to help their family members achieve the American dream, even if it appears out of reach to most. One such example that sticks in my mind from this book is ‘Mamaw’, Mr. Vance’s grandmother and one of the few steady and pragmatic influences in his life that helped make him who he is today. To change a community and a society, it starts with the family but it doesn’t end there. Families in these communities need a future and they need prospects, both educational and job-wise. Let’s see if this book has an impact as well on the policymakers, think tanks, and government leaders. It’s a must-read and I highly recommend it.

 

 

Book Recommendations – Volume III

After a five-month break, I’m back with another edition of “Book Recommendations.” I’ve had some free time on my hands lately which has allowed me to read these really great books. I would like to share my latest selections with my visitors and hope that you will check these books out for yourself.

Note: I have also posted the links to these books so you can check them out on Amazon.com. You simply need to click on the books’ images below in order to be re-directed to the Amazon page of the book itself. Enjoy.

1.) And Then All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades In The Middle East by Richard Engel, Chief Foreign Correspondent for NBC News

As someone who has studied the Middle East region extensively in college and has made a few trips to the region (Turkey, Israel, Jordan), I continue to enjoy learning about this tumultuous part of the world despite its rough past and present.

This book by Richard Engel is excellent because it comes from someone who understands the complexities and historical background of the region. He is also a great correspondent and storyteller who weaves his own history of working in the Middle East alongside the tumultuous events over the past two decades, which have fundamentally transformed the region.

Mr. Engel has been a foreign correspondent in the Middle East for over twenty years now. In this book, he clearly displays his vast knowledge of its’ history, culture, societies, and the troubles that continue to plague the region. Engel is fluent in Arabic, Italian, and Spanish. He has worked for NBC News and other major news organizations for over two decades. He re-tells his firsthand experiences and stories of starting out as a freelance journalist for the Agence France-Presse in the late 1990’s during the time of Mubarak’s Egypt. He goes on to discuss his experiences of working and living in Iraq during the collapse of Saddam’s regime and the subsequent U.S. occupation of Iraq.

In addition, Mr. Engel has also spent a lot of time covering the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and the recent civil war in Syria. Richard Engel has also endured some trauma during his career as he was captured and kidnapped by ISIS in late 2012. For the readers of his book, we get personal insight into the hellish situations he has been drawn into through his accounts of witnessing the deaths and injuries of many of his journalist colleagues over the past twenty years. This book is fundamentally a more personal story as he recounts how his 20 years of covering the Middle East had affected his marriage, his friendships, and his mental state.

What I like most about this book is that Mr. Engel gives you the historical background and the straight facts of what happened in the region and why it happened. You can tell that he was both physically and emotionally affected by the wars and insurgencies that he bravely covered for the U.S. media. More than anything else, it is a well-written account of what it means to be a journalist in a very difficult region of the world for journalists. Richard Engel doesn’t preach about what should have happened or what could have been different in terms of the politics but he simply relays his past experiences for those of us who want a more personal, firsthand account of what it is like to cover the Middle East.

2.) Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Cultural Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain

A world-renowned traveler, famous television show host, coolest American alive over 50 years of age. You can also add best selling-author to this list as if it wasn’t long enough. These are just a few of the titles that Mr. Bourdain has earned over the course of his life. However, most people forget that he was a very successful chef in New York City and elsewhere during the 1980’s and 1990’s. He is especially known for being the executive chef at the famed restaurant of ‘Les Halles’ in Manhattan, NY.

Due to his years in the kitchen, Kitchen Confidential is an in-depth, intriguing look into the actual process of how the food we eat in restaurants ends up on our plates. You may not feel very hungry after reading this book due to the expose on some food industry practices that could be considered unsatisfactory in terms of health regulations. I know now that I won’t ever order fish or any other seafood from a restaurant if it’s a Monday.

This book is an unfiltered look into life as a cook and Bourdain hilariously delves into stories from his past and the characters he encounters in the various kitchens he’s worked in. He discusses how he worked alongside drug dealers, degenerates, thieves, loose cannons, etc. in the kitchen but that didn’t detract from the excellent chefs that they made themselves out to be. If anything, Bourdain argues, their eccentricities and attention to details help make these people into great cooks.

Kitchen Confidential is also useful in that Bourdain gives tips and advice to his readers on how to cook and prepare food better. His advice ranges from what kind of knives are best to which simple gadgets make the most difference in having a decent kitchen to cook in. If you like his travel shows and his antics as a TV host, you will most certainly enjoy this book.

3.) Connectography: Mapping The Future of Global Civilization by Parag Khanna

The race to win the 21st century will not be a race between militaries, or of competing arms but of overall connectivity. Mr. Khanna argues that whichever country becomes the most connected to the global supply chains of trade, finance, technology, infrastructure, etc. will stand to benefit most in our current globalized world. A geopolitical strategist, consultant, and world traveler, Mr. Khanna displays his in-depth knowledge of international affairs and geopolitics from his past travels and from his extensive research.

From Ukraine to the UAE and from China to Nigeria, Mr. Khanna details how national borders are no match for the global supply chains that are increasingly emerging. Physical boundaries of geography are becoming less important than the priorities of developing high-speed rail lines, building intercontinental pipelines, expanding the World Wide Web, along with increasing energy outputs and resource trading among many different nations.

While some prominent figures in politics are advocating for resurgent nationalism and wall-building, Mr. Khanna understands that this perspective is detrimental in a world which is becoming more fundamentally connected. In the 21st century, countries and continents need each other now more than ever. With ten trillion dollars and growing being spent per year on infrastructure, transportation, energy, and communications, this trend is likely to continue unabated.

Among the notable ideas in this great book that Mr. Khanna highlights are the emerging North American Union with related maps in the book showing how the United States, Canada, and Mexico are becoming more interdependent. China is also connecting itself to many of its neighbors in Eurasia through gas, oil pipelines and freight rail networks.

In Connectography, Mr. Khanna gives us an in-depth perspective on the world’s growing interdependence and how its’ affecting our everyday lives. While there are numerous challenges to this worldwide trend, which are also highlighted in the book, Mr. Khanna strikes on a final note of optimism. Even with the difficulties and struggles of climate change, terrorism, civil wars, etc., only a more inclusive, connected global society can meet these challenges head on and succeed together.