ECFR’s summer reading list – a safe haven for August

Welcome to your August reading list!

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The extraordinary events of 2020 brought about many significant changes to both our daily lives and global relations, keeping all of us at ECFR busy. No wonder we are all looking for a short escape in August. Hence, we invite you to find a safe haven in a variety of books, podcasts, movies, and TV shows that our experts have picked for your enjoyment. From space opera and international relations theory to perfume geopolitics, the suggestions listed below provide new perspectives on today’s world.

Happy reading, listening, and watching!

  • Humankind: A Hopeful History, by Rutger Bregman
    Recommended by Swantje Green
    A Dutch historian debunks accepted wisdom about human nature – arguing that it was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, not Thomas Hobbes, who was right all along.
  • “The Plot Against America”, by Philip Roth
    Recommended by Teresa Coratella
    Roth shows how easily an established democracy and its citizens can embrace a political system based on prejudice and discrimination.
  • Jojo Rabbit”, written and directed by Taika Waititi
    Recommended by Teresa Coratella
    Waititi perfectly merges tears, imagination, drama, and comedy in this second world war drama. Listening to (and singing) songs by the Beatles and David Bowie in German is the best thing you can do during a summer break.
  • “Half of a Yellow Sun”, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
    Recommended by Marlene Riedel
    If you have never heard of Biafra before, this novel will give you an insightful history lesson written in the most beautiful and graceful style. Read about the end of colonialism, ethnic allegiances, and questions about class, race, gender, love – and find yourself travelling through Nigeria this summer.
  • “Una teoría de la democracia compleja”, by Daniel Innerarity
    Recommended by Pawel Zerka
    An impressive treaty against the simplification of democracy from one of Spain’s – and Europe’s – most interesting contemporary political philosophers. Innerarity persuasively shows how democracy could be aligned with the complex character of the reality Europeans are currently living in. Be prepared for a long and complex read – but, for some, this should perfectly complement lazy summer days. (Only available in Spanish.)
  • “Sandworm: A New Era of Cyberwar and the Hunt for the Kremlin’s Most Dangerous Hackers”, by Andy Greenberg
    Recommended by Nicu Popescu
    Greenberg discusses an advanced persistent threat group (of hackers) targeting critical infrastructure. Provides a good explanation of why Russia is still different from other cyber powers, be they the United States or China.
  • “Maurice’s Strategikon: Handbook of Byzantine Military Strategy” and “Three Byzantine Military Treatises”, by George T. Dennis
    Recommended by Nicu Popescu
    Dennis provides a good reminder that history never stopped, and that some rules of inter-state behaviour are as valid now as they were more than 1,000 years ago. The book is also a good reminder of how an apparently weak and vulnerable power can survive for a millennium by being more successful at weakening its enemies than at strengthening itself.
  • “The Sphinx and the Commissar: The Rise and Fall of Soviet Influence in the Middle East”, by Mohamed Heikal
    Recommended by Nicu Popescu
    A brilliant book by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s friend and propaganda minister. It includes a great list of 25 do’s and dont’s in diplomatic dealings with Russia. Half of them are still valid, and half of them the complete opposite of Russia today.
  • “Hiroshima”, by John Hersey 
    Recommended by Rafael Loss
    Hersey’s monumental essay, to which The New Yorker devoted an entire issue, tells the stories of six survivors of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. Seventy-five years into the nuclear age, it remains a powerful reminder of the human costs of these weapons.
  • “The Golden Ratio: The Story of Phi, the World’s Most Astonishing Number”, by Mario Livio
    Recommended by Denica Yotova
    Sometimes it is good to zoom out and look at things from a completely different point of view. If Galileo Galilei was right to think that “mathematics is the language in which God has written the universe”, then this book gives readers a glimpse of this language and equips them with a brand new pair of eyes with which to perceive reality. Reading this book, one may become fascinated with mathematics and begin to question the very existence of anything other than numbers. “Our mathematics is the symbolic counterpart of the universe we perceive, and its power has been continuously enhanced by human exploration”, Livio writes.
  • “Der Duft der Imperien: Chanel No 5 und Rotes Moskau”, by Karl Schlögel
    Recommended by Dr. Anna Kuchenbecker
    German historian Karl Schlögel takes an unusual approach to European history by telling the story of two famous perfumes. The turmoil of the Russian revolution brought the formula of a fragrance that had been created for the 300th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty to Paris. It provided the basis for Chanel No 5 and its Soviet counterpart, Red Moscow. Polina Shemchushina, the wife of Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, headed the Soviet perfume industry; she later fell victim to a purge. Coco Chanel collaborated with France’s German occupiers. The book is a fascinating olfactory journey through Europe’s bloody twentieth century.
  • “The Expanse”, SyFy (Season 1-3)/Amazon Video (Season 4)
    Recommended by Andrzej Mendel-Nykorowycz
    Space opera meets international relations theory meets hard(ish) science fiction. Earth and Mars are locked in a cold war while the “Belters” of the outer worlds are bristling under the oppressive rule of the two planets. Meanwhile, a conspiracy involving alien technology threatens to push humanity to the brink of extinction. This nail-biter of a TV series explores all the factors that make cooperation between individuals and states difficult even where they have common interests and face common threats.
  • “Revolutions”, by Mike Duncan
    Recommended by Andrzej Mendel-Nykorowycz
    From the English Civil War to the Russian Revolution, this podcast provides a compelling and easy-going, but still exhaustive, narrative on the roots, ideas, international context, dramatis personae, course, and consequences of ten of the most important social and political upheavals in modern Western history.
  • “Devs“, BBC Two
    Recommended by Ulrike Esther Franke
    A truly brilliant take on the multiverse theory, fate, and what really, really powerful computing might achieve. One can watch this short series as entertaining – and visually stunning entertainment – or use it as the basis for deep philosophical discussions.
  • “The Power”, by Naomi Alderman
    Recommended by Ulrike Esther Franke
    What would happen if the power balance between men and women suddenly changed, and women became the physically stronger sex? That is the question that Naomi Alderman asks with this book – and the answer she finds is different from what many might expect.
  • “Is It Tomorrow Yet? Paradoxes of the Pandemic”, by Ivan Krastev
    Recommended by Mark Leonard
    This essay brilliantly shines a light on the paradoxes around the impact of covid-19 on European politics. Krastev shows why European elites risk getting covid-19 wrong by looking at it through the lenses of the last three crises – the refugee crisis, the euro crisis and the global “war on terror”. He points to the surprising potential of covid-19 to create a European moment – if Europe’s leaders read it the right way.
  • “No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison”, by Behrouz Boochani
    Recommended by Julia Ganter
    In this award-winning autobiography, Kurdish-Iranian Journalist Behrouz Boochani takes the reader on his own dreadful journey. Fleeing Iran, he arrives via several detours in an Australian offshore detention camp in Papua New Guinea, where he lives for six years. This book is very special on different levels – Boochani secretly wrote it on his phone in thousands of short messages addressed to his translator. It might not be the lightest of reading, but it certainly makes a lasting impression.
  • “Art of Persia”, BBC
    Recommended by Ellie Geranmayeh
    This series provides insight into the relevance of Persian art to today’s Iran.
  • “Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men”, by Caroline Criado Perez
    Recommended by Ellie Geranmayeh
    This book is rich with data on how women have been systematically left out in a world designed by men – in everything from city planning to peace agreements.
  • “Hillary”, Sky
    Recommended by Ellie Geranmayeh
    As the 2020 US presidential election approaches, this interesting documentary dives into Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016 and the road she took in American politics.
  • “Le Bureau des Légendes”, Canal+
    Recommended by Cinzia Bianco
    Le Bureau des Légendes is a French political thriller TV series created by Éric Rochant. Across its five seasons, the viewer follows the adventurous lives of agents of the DGSE (General Directorate of External Security), France’s principal foreign intelligence agency, during their missions in the Middle East, Russia, and Asia. Based on real accounts and the input of expert consultants, this series combines enticing story-telling with accurate depictions of the world of intelligence.
  • “Desert Kingdoms to Global Powers: The Rise of the Arab Gulf”, by Rory Miller
    Recommended by Cinzia Bianco
    While this book was written by an academic expert – Rory Miller of Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service in Qatar – it is one of the most readable and lively accounts of the rise of once-sleepy Gulf monarchies to gaining unprecedented influence on international affairs, and becoming an east–west hub for travel, tourism, sport, culture, trade, finance, and geopolitics.
  • “Savages” by Sabri Louatah
    Recommended by Tara Varma
    This four-part novel by French writer Sabri Louatah – published in 2011 in France and in 2018 in English – proved prescient in its treatment of identity and politics in France. It narrates the story of a family celebrating the prospect of a president of Algerian descent, in a socio-political thriller that questions what it means to be French today. The book is absolutely on point, clever and brutal on France in the 2010s – a true chef-d’oeuvre.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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