Category Archives: Current Affairs

About Time I Read It: The J Curve by Ian Bremmer

The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and FallBack in 2010 while TV channel surfing I happened to land on PBS in the middle of Charlie Rose interviewing a geopolitical thinker/writer named of Ian Bremmer. Bremmer had just written a book called The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations ? and the two of them discussed recent global economic developments and China’s rise as an international power. As I sat watching the interview I found myself intrigued by Bremmer’s insights and vowed to read his recently published book. Later that year I did. But sadly, as much as I valued Bremmer’s take on the state of the world I never got around to reading more of his stuff.

Fast forward to this past summer, I happened to stumble across Bremmer’s Facebook page and Twitter feed. Watching his posted videos and reading his tweets rekindled my appreciation of him. (He’s also probably the only international mover and shaker with a muppet created in his own likeness.) So much so when I discovered my public library had an available copy of his book The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall I snatched it up. Unfortunately, it took me a bit longer than it should had for me to make it through his book because I kept getting distracted by other books I was reading at the time. Eventually, I  made my way through it. Overall, I enjoyed it even though I did have one minor problem with it.

That problem, which believe me isn’t a fault of Bremmer’s. The J Curve was published in 2006, making it a decade old. Therefore, the whole time I was reading the J Curve I kept asking myself how relevant his book could be. After all, much has changed since 2006. We’ve seen both the Arab Spring and the coming of ISIS. Dictators like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Cuba’s Fidel Castro and North Korea’s Kim Jong-il have all passed away. (Chavez and Castro’s deaths could lead to greater openness in their respective countries. On the other hand, it looks like Kim Jong-il’s death has led to even more oppression and insanity.) Lastly, in recent years we’ve experienced a global rise in old school nationalism with the passing of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. But in spite of all this, happily, I can say yes, The J Curve is still relevant to today’s world.

the-j-curve_blanksm

The J Curve – Stability versus Openness

Bremmer, in his book The J Curve addresses that age-old question we, especially those involved in the fields of international politics and diplomacy have been asking for years: how does an authoritarian regime liberalize without becoming so unstable it descends into chaos resulting in political fragmentation or worse, yet another authoritarian regime. According to Bremmer, it’s no easy challenge. (Throughout the book he refers to this relationship between political stability and openness as something that can be plotted on a graph, hence the term “J Curve.”)  Over the years, Western nations like the United States has preferred to isolate authoritarian regimes like Iran, Cuba and North Korea with sanctions and censure in hopes of promoting regime change. In Bremmer’s opinion such measures end up being counter productive because the more isolated and impoverished the citizens are in these countries become, the easier it is for those running these regimes to manipulate the masses and thus stay in power. In The J Curve Bremmer looks at different authoritarian countries which succesful liberalized like South Africa, imploded like Yugoslavia and Iraq, and liberalized, imploded and then returned to authoritarianism like the Soviet Union/Russia.

My only knock on this book, really in reality is an unfair one in that it’s 10 years old. But like I said earlier, for a book a book that was published a decade ago it still feels relevant. The portions discussing challenges facing Saudi Arabia, Israel, and especially China look spot on even 10 years after he wrote them. Perhaps because of it’s relevancy after reading the J Curve I’m now inspired to read more of Bremmer’s stuff. So with that in mind, don’t be surprised if you see more of his stuff like Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World and Every Nation for Itself: What Happens When No One Leads the World reviewed on my blog.

Leave a comment

Filed under Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, China, Current Affairs, East Asia, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Economics, Europe, History, Indian Subcontinent, Iran, Israel, Latin America/Caribbean, Middle East/North Africa, Turkey

Girl at War by Sara Nović

Girl at WarAfter reading one excellent novel set in the former Yugoslavia I was definitely in the mood for another. Right after finishing The Wolf of Sarajevo I found myself cruising my public library’s online catalog when Sara Nović’s 2015 novel Girl at War caught my eye. Reading the book’s brief description, I was happy to see Nović’s novel is set in the small Balkan nation of Croatia. I was even happier to see Girl at War received a ton of accolades, including being named a finalist for LA Times Book Prize. Feeling optimistic I helped myself to an available copy. Before long I was whipping through Nović’s novel at a fast clip and much to my satisfaction enjoying every bit of it. I’m happy to report Girl at War is an outstanding debut novel and worthy of the praise it’s received.

Girl at War begins one hot and humid day in the Croatian capital of Zagreb. The year is 1991 and Yugoslavia has yet to fragment into a patchwork quilt of nations. Like the proverbial calm before the storm, before long 10-year-old tomboy Ana Jurić will experience the horrors of war once Croatia declares independence and the Serb-dominated Yugoslavian National Army and their allied paramilitaries attack the newly independent nation. From there the story shifts to 2001 with Ana a college student in New York City. Suffering from PTSD and probably some from of survivor’s guilt, she feels disconnected and unsatisfied to the world around her. With her relationship with her boyfriend Brian mediocre at best, the only person she shares a meaningful connection to is one of her college professors. Sensing Ana is not just a refugee, but more importantly also a survivor he supplies her with books by Primo Levi and W. G. Sebald, individuals like her who suffered the horrors of totalitarianism. But deep down, Ana knows she must confront the ghosts of her past and face her old fears. She must return to Croatia.

Like I said at the beginning, this is a terrific novel. Luckily for me I picked a great piece of fiction as a follow-up novel to The Wolf of Sarajevo. Please consider Girl at War highly recommended.

9 Comments

Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, Fiction, History

The Wolf of Sarajevo by Matthew Palmer

The Wolf of SarajevoTo me there’s nothing like taking a chance on a book you knew nothing about but in the end you thoroughly enjoyed. Recently, I noticed my public library had an available copy of Matthew Palmer’s The Wolf of Sarajevo. Knowing only that it’s set in Bosnia and therefore applicable to Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I grabbed it. (Being the cynic that I am, I tried not to put too much stock in the favorable comments on Amazon.) After just a few pages I was completely sucked  in. The Wolf of Sarajevo is one of this year’s early pleasant surprises.

Published last may, The Wolf of Sarajevo is set in present day Bosnia. Even though today’s headlines are all about North Korea and the Middle East, (or President Trump’s train wreck Presidency) back in the 90s the war in former Yugoslavia, especially Bosnia was all over the news. While the fighting might have ended decades ago, old wounds haven’t fully healed and the young nation limps along held together by an uneasy peace between Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims. Just when it looks like a landmark peace agreement is about to be struck, a deal that could finally fully heal the fractured nation as well grant it membership in the EU, Bosnia’s Serb leader suddenly and inexplicably pulls out. The State Department’s man on the ground Eric Petrosian, along with Danish EU rep Annika Sondergaard are at a loss why, but after doing a little investigative work soon learn a shadowy figure with the nom de guerre Marko Barcelona is pulling strings behind the scenes. His goal isn’t just to scuttle the peace process but reenergize simmering animosities and ultimately plunge Bosnia and probably the entire region into another round of bloody warfare.

Holy cow what a fun novel. I found The Wolf of Sarajevo fast-paced, intelligent, dark and at times, even wickedly funny. (Perhaps for those reasons it reminded me a bit of Chris Pavone’s outstanding 2012 debut novel The Expats.) Palmer knows Bosnia and its history and none of this should be a surprise since he spent 25 years in the State Department, much of it in the former Yugoslavia. Believe me, I have no problem recommending this terrific page-turner.

3 Comments

Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, Fiction, History, International Crime

In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine by Tim Judah

Probably the coolest thing about Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge is it makes a person read books set in, or about countries all over Europe. That’s always been fine with me. Over the years it’s discovered a ton of great books that who knows, had it not been for the European Reading Challenge I might never had read. And trust me, when is that ever a bad thing?

My quest to find yet another book to read for the challenge led me to Tim Judah’s 2015 book In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine. Until it was overshadowed by the tumultuous American election, the conflict in Ukraine seemed to always be in the news. So, when I found an available copy at my public library I helped myself. After a few fits and starts I eventually made my way through it, finishing it last night just before bed.  While perhaps not a page-turning, nevertheless it’s probably the best book out there when it comes to showing just how complex and, well, horribly messed-up the situation has been in Ukraine. Judah travels from one end of the country to another interviewing an almost endless series of people who’ve been involved in, or at least significantly impacted by the ongoing conflict. Like many wars, civil wars and combinations of both, the roots of today’s conflict go deep into the past. As Ukraine struggles define itself as a distinct nation state and plot a political trajectory somewhere between East and West, it must deal with a restive eastern population as well as a resurgent Putinist Russia that sees Ukraine as traditionally part of it homeland.

I’m a sucker for good, on the ground reporting like this. In Wartime reminded me of other books written about Easter Europe like Misha Glenny’s The Fall of Yugoslavia: The Third Balkan War, Lawrence Scott Sheets’ 8 Pieces of Empire: A 20-Year Journey Through the Former Soviet Union and last but not least Askold Krushnelnycky’s An Orange Revolution: A Personal Journey Through Ukrainian History. Of course, since I am a sucker for this kind of writing, you’ll be sure to see a more books like this featured on my blog in the coming year.

6 Comments

Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History

Dark Money, Days of Rage and A Burglar’s Guide to the City

I hate doing catch-up posts but with 2016 almost over, I gotta start wrapping things up. Thankfully, the three books I’m featuring in this post are all excellent. Please consider them highly recommend.

  • Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer – After listening to Jane Mayer’s interview on NPR and hearing one of my good friends rave about this book, I figured with 2016 an election year I better get my hands on a copy as soon as possible. Once one became available through my public library I snapped it up. Not only is Mayer’s book a detailed expose of the Koch family’s shadowy empire, but it’s probably the best book around that shows how rich uber-conservatives use their vast resources to manipulate the political process. From backing far-right think tanks and policy institutes to funneling massive amounts of campaign money into state congressional and gubernatorial races to funding ultra-conservative “law and economics” departments at the nation’s premier law schools, these powerful right-wing billionaires and their allies cast a deep shadow across America and its institutions. Beyond a doubt, reading Dark Money will forever change how you look at the nation’s political system.
  • Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence by Bryan Burrough – Last April in the Books supplement in the Sunday New York Times I read a review of Burrough’s Days of Rage. Intrigued by what I read, I made a mental note of the book and hoped to eventually read it someday down the road. That day finally came a few weeks ago, when cruising through my public library’s online catalog I saw there was an available copy of Days of Rage. I took a chance on Burrough’s 2015 book and my goodness I’m glad I did. Today, when we think of domestic terrorism we think of extremely reactionary groups: Islamist, anti-government, white supremacist or Christian Identity. But from the early 1970s through as late as the mid 80s those doing the bombings, assassinations, kidnappings and other acts of politically motivated violence were all on the far left: Weather Underground, Symbionese Liberation Army, Black Liberation Front and the Puerto Rican separatist organization FALN. All of them detested the current state of the world and saw violence as the preferred means of bringing about the changes they so desired. In the end, they achieved nothing and wound up being little more than historical footnotes. (Ironically, these groups’ only legacy was an indirect one. The FBI would come under fire for how it battled groups like the Weather Underground. As a result the Bureau would have to play nice and be respectful of civil liberties when investigating suspected terrorist organizations.) This is a terrific book and compliments well other books that touch on this era like Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan,  Andreas Killen’s 1973 Nervous Breakdown: Watergate, Warhol, and the Birth of Post-Sixties America and Brendan I. Koerner’s The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking.
  • A Burglar’s Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh- When a good buddy recommended this book with the incredibly cool title of A Burglar’s Guide to the City I simply had to take notice. As soon as a library copy became available I grabbed one. I burned through it in no time because it’s fun as hell to read. Just as Dark Money will forever change how you look at America’s political system, this book will forever change how you look at building security. You’ll lean the best burglars are incredibly resourceful and will stop at nothing. This book is full of great stories like the bandit who liked to rob McDonald’s restaurants just after closing time by entering through the roof; a 19th century architect who hobnobbed with New York City’s rich and famous, asked to see the blueprints of banks and then painstakingly concocted elaborate plans to rob them late at night; and the 14-year-old boy in Lodz, Poland who hacked the city’s tram network. Manaugh also shows how the criminally inclined are using social media to find the best time to burglarize a home (just wait until the owners post their vacation pics on Facebook) as well feeding erroneous data to Waze in order to create traffic-free getaway routes. Trust me, this book is a lot of fun.

5 Comments

Filed under Current Affairs, History

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger

Tribe: On Homecoming and BelongingOne Sunday morning two decades ago while channel surfing on a cable-less TV I stumbled upon an episode of CBS Sunday Morning. Either out of curiosity or boredom, I found myself drawn into one of the show’s news stories, specifically that of a young up and coming writer enjoying his first taste of literary success after his first book was recently published. The more I watched, the more I started to learn his book told of an unlucky crew of fisherman tragically overwhelmed by a monstrous Atlantic storm.
That book was The Perfect Storm and that young up and coming author was Sebastian Junger. Fast forward 20 years, and even though I own two of his books I’ve never read a word of his stuff. That is until now.
Recently, my book club voted to read his latest book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. Why we voted for Tribe is beyond me, although I suspect both the author’s reputation and the book’s short length of 200 pages might have been contributing factors. Luckily for me, I found an available library edition and quickly went to work on it. Because it’s so short I finished it off in no time. Even though Junger’s book didn’t rock my world, it still made for stimulating reading. To me anyway, I saw Tribe as Junger’s opportunity to weigh in on the current state of American society. Taking examples not only from history but also from other fields like psychology, Junger examined the challenges we in America face in trying to maintaining a strong sense of community, as well as keeping the rich and powerful accountable to the rest of us (think of the recent financial crises). Lastly, in a significant portion of the book which to me seemed only marginally related to rest of it, Junger asks how do we in America effectively and compassionately help re-integrate our nation’s war veterans back into society.
I saw the book as a kind of extended op-ed piece. While some book club members railed against it, I thought it was OK and welcomed the authors sermonizing on community, war and accountability. In spite of the book’s shortness, I still managed to learn a thing or two. All the stuff about white settlers preferring to live among Indians, even after being captured was new to me. (Although I suspect Junger might have romanticized things a bit. For a fuller and I suspect more historically accurate handing of this subject I highly recommend Linda Colley’s  Captives: Britain, Empire, and the World, 1600-1850.) In discussing the deadly Springhill coal mine collapse in Nova Scotia in 1958, during the course of their underground ordeal different types of leaders emerged among the trapped men. Depending on the circumstances sometimes macho, take-charge kind of leaders would assert their leadership while other times it was the more nurturing and supportive ones.

Again, I saw this as a kind of extended op-ed piece. I found Tribe, both in style and perhaps in purpose reminiscent of Malcolm Gladwell’s stuff like Outliers and David and Goliath. I also found similarities with other books I’ve read, specifically War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges, Dark Age Ahead by the late Jane Jacobs, Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right by Thomas Frank and lastly Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future by Neil Postman.

Leave a comment

Filed under Current Affairs, History

The Next Pandemic by Ali S. Khan

The Next Pandemic: On the Front Lines Against Humankind's Gravest DangersBesides being a sucker for prison memoirs, books about books and Jewish history, I’m also a sucker for books on disease. So it shouldn’t be anyone’s surprise when I heard a book was soon to be released called The Next Pandemic: On the Front Lines Against Humankind’s Gravest Dangers I keenly kept my ears and eyes open, hoping an available copy would soon magically appear at my public library. Then, as luck would have it, in what seemed like no time thanks to the good people at my public library I was able to secure a copy of Ali S. Khan’s newly published book. After letting it set unread for a week or so I finally dived into it and before I knew it, found myself engrossed in Khan’s globetrotting adventures battling outbreaks of Ebola, anthrax, SARS and other nasty plagues. When it comes to reading about disease the nastier the disease the better. So with that in mind, Khan’s book was a hit with me.

It’s one thing to write a book on emerging diseases. It’s another to recall ones career traveling the world fighting those diseases. But Khan’s book takes it one more steep. Throughout his book Khan shows us not just the science of the outbreaks but the human element impacted by them, and in some cases contributing to them (case in point the Chinese government’s early refusal to acknowledge the SARS outbreak, not to mention America’s slow and inadequate response at the start of the global AIDS pandemic). With the overwhelming number of these new diseases emerging from developing world locations in Africa and East Asia, it’s crucial those in the developed world work closely and on an ongoing basis with health workers on the front lines, not ignoring them until the horrible disease of the month starts making headlines back in the United States and suddenly Americans start feeling threatened by a possible epidemic on their doorstep.

The Next Pandemic makes a great companion book to David Quammen’s Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human PandemicNathan Wolfe’s The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age and Sonia Shah’s Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond.  With yet another book on nasty diseases under my belt, don’t be surprised if I go in search of another one. Of course when I find my next one, you’ll all read about it on my blog.

2 Comments

Filed under Current Affairs, Science