It’s that time of year again: the snow is falling in different parts of the U.S. and elsewhere, the fire is crackling, and members of Just Security’s wonderful Editorial Board are here with book recommendations for the holiday reading and gift-giving season!
This year, we asked for books that informed our editors’ thinking or illuminated something about issues in the world, as well as books that brought joy, fun, relaxation, or other good energy into their 2022. The resulting recommendations include thoughtful analyses of international law, history, climate change, voting rights, peace and justice, outer space, and more. They also include books that celebrate the richness of human experience – family, nature and ecology, philosophy, humor, sports, culture – reminding us of the many ways that the questions of law and policy we explore on our pages shape our world and communities.
As we near the end of 2022, we would like to thank our Just Security readers and listeners for being a part of our community. We hope that you will continue to turn to us for commentary and analysis in the coming year. If you appreciate our work, please consider making a tax-deductible holiday donation to our non-profit (link).
Wishing a meaningful holiday season to all.
Beartown by Fredrik Backman. “Friday Night Lights” comes to Scandinavia in this story of a struggling Nordic community that pins its hopes on its youth hockey team. A wonderful book from one of my favorite authors.
Preparing for War: The Making of the Geneva Conventions by Boyd van Dijk. A great account of a classic (and decidedly human) negotiation. [Ed. note: Readers may also be interested in Hugo Slim’s review of Preparing for War, published in Just Security earlier this year.]
American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson. Spy novel narrated from the perspective of a female African American FBI agent who takes on an assignment in Burkina Faso while maneuvering through the “old boys network” in the FBI and CIA. Well-written and well-executed historical fiction.
Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict by Donna Hicks. An international conflict-resolution expert who has facilitated warring parties and worked alongside the likes of the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Hicks outlines her “10 essential elements of dignity.” In her exploration, dignity is a kind of counterpoint (though she doesn’t put it precisely that way) to the factor of humiliation that is at the center of so much conflict, interpersonal or otherwise. Dignity, which she describes convincingly as inherent, is different from respect, which is rather earned or granted. She makes a persuasive case that an awareness of what dignity means and its rule in human relations can be transformative, and she tells stories from the conflicts in South Africa and Northern Ireland, among others, to illustrate the concept. The book was first published in 2011 and updated with a short preface for the 2021 edition.
Is This Anything? by Jerry Seinfeld. The title refers to what comedians ask each other when they’re trying out new jokes, and this book compiles this champion of laughter’s voluminous catalogue of those that got the nod. After my all-too-frequent days of reading, chronicling, and editing the world’s darkness, I found it a refreshingly laugh-inducing refuge.
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer. I did a literal whoop of joy when I saw Kimmerer announced as a Macarthur Fellow this year. Her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, written back in 2015, is a salve for everyone who has been running around oblivious to the daily ebb and flow of the natural environment. While the book has an arc, each chapter stands alone enough that you can savor them one at a time. This is not a fast-paced, in-your-face book. It is a meandering stroll, with Kimmerer imparting her extraordinary knowledge to the reader in a way that is gentle and genuine. What results is a book that will stay with you long after you have finished the last page.
Locating Nature: Making & Unmaking International Law, edited by Usha Natarjan and Julia Dehm. This thought-provoking collection of essays has just been released by Cambridge University Press. Intentionally drawing on contributors who are not experts in international environmental law per se, it seeks to identify the anthropocentric assumptions upon which international law in general has traditionally been grounded. The chapters I have read so far are in conversation with the vibrant scholarship being done in other spaces to identify and deconstruct the role of empire in international law. In a world where the work of all international lawyers is and/or will inevitably be affected by climate change, Locating Nature is a good investment of your time.
Adil Ahmad Haque
The Last Colony: A Tale of Exile, Justice and Britain’s Colonial Legacy by Philippe Sands. In 1973, the United Kingdom deported the entire local population of Diego Garcia, an island in the Chagos Archipelago. The United States built a military base there, which it later used for its program of rendition and interrogation. This riveting book tells the story of the people of Diego Garcia, and the legal campaign to end British administration over the Chagos.
Nasty, Brutish, and Short: Adventures in Philosophy with My Kids by Scott Hershovitz. Kids ask deep questions. Philosophers can help. This delightful book starts with familiar conversations between parents and children about morality and reality, and guides readers along a highly accessible tour of contemporary philosophy.
Drone Strike – Analyzing the Impacts of Targeted Killing by Mitt Regan is a master work, perhaps the essential book on targeted killing. Prof. Regan takes on the hardest questions about targeted killing – Do targeted strikes have their intended impact on terrorist networks? Do civilian casualties fuel terrorist recruitment? – and answers them through an exhaustive look at expert research, including his own. The answers are likely to challenge the pre-existing biases of everybody in this space, and hopefully help us make smarter decisions about a tactic that is likely to remain a part of our counterterrorism strategy for years to come.
You Never Forget Your First by Alexis Coe is the most fun, illuminating, and myth-busting biography you’ll read on George Washington. Taking on a subject who has achieved mythical proportions, Coe documents his feats but also his failings, his personal foibles, and his confounding views on slavery. In the process, she lays bare the hagiography industry that has sprung up around Washington (and their weird obsession with the strength of George Washington’s thighs). But this is no take down book. It’s a human portrait of the man, and like a complicated family member, I came away loving him because of his complexity.
A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor is the memoir of a young Englishman who decides to walk from Holland to Constantinople in 1933. Staying in haylofts, castles, and paupers’ hostels, the protagonist comments on architecture, beer halls, and the sudden friendships of travelers from the point of retrospect. He later became an irregular soldier in Crete during WWII, and his memories of before, and after, turn this true journal-turned-book into a work of beauty.
What Hath God Wrought by Daniel Walker Howe is the magisterial, Pulitzer-prize winning history of America from 1815 to 1848. The Jacksonian period, as it is sometimes called, was our first age of populism. The similarities and differences between that era and our own are striking and worth pondering as we consider what heralded that age, what occurred as a result, and what can be done to repair and rebuild our own moment.
Poisoner-in-Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control by Stephen Kinzer. This is a truly astonishing story of the CIA’s notorious MK-ULTRA research program into mind control, and the strange man who ran it (and later tried to outrun himself).
The Women Are Up to Something: How Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgely, and Iris Murdoch Revolutionized Ethics by Benjamin J. B. Lipscomb and Metaphysical Animals: How Four Women Brought Philosophy Back to Life by Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman. As far as I know, it’s pure coincidence that these two collective biographies were published within a few months of each other. Anscombe, Foot, Midgely, and Murdoch were four remarkable mid-century philosophers who took decidedly contrarian positions to positivist orthodoxies, and in their very different ways revitalized ethics. They were intimate friends at Oxford, and outstanding personalities. Anscombe is best known as the pioneer of modern virtue ethics, for her polemic “Mr. Truman’s Degree,” and for editing and translating the later works of Wittgenstein, her friend and mentor. Murdoch was a celebrated novelist as well as a philosopher. For better or for worse, Foot invented the Trolley Problem, and Midgely became a late-in-life nature writer. Happily, the two biographies aren’t redundant, and both are a pleasure to read.
The Murder of Professor Schlick: The Rise and Fall of the Vienna Circle by David Edmonds and Exact Thinking in Demented Times: The Vienna Circle and the Epic Quest for the Foundations of Science by Karl Sigmund. While I’m on a philosophical roll, here is another pair of collective biographies of twentieth-century philosophers. This time, it’s the Vienna Circle, which founded logical positivism – and therefore stands at the opposite philosophical pole from the four women. A group of philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians, the Vienna Circle wanted to purge philosophy of metaphysical nonsense. They were mostly left-wing, at a time when universities were right-wing, “Red Vienna” was socialist, Austria was deeply conservative, and the Nazis were waiting in the wings. Both books are immensely readable, both as intellectual and social history – and, like the paired biographies of the four “metaphysical animals,” they aren’t redundant.
Fiction (or quasi-fiction)
When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut. Is this a novel or a history of modern science? Let’s say it is what history of science would look like if it were written by Gabriel Garcia Marquéz. The author tells us that the ratio of fact to invention differs from chapter to chapter, but it’s magic realism all the way through. Some might find the opening chapter too gruesome for bedtime reading – without spoilers, let me just call it the true history of cyanide. Don’t be put off: there’s nothing so grim in the rest of the book. The writing is gorgeous.
The Need for Better Regulation of Outer Space: A Collection of Stories by Pippa Goldschmidt. Goldschmidt is a British astronomer-turned-writer, currently living in Germany; this slim collection is her second book. Some of these stories are light and witty, some are darker, and several are based on true episodes in the history of science. (This year I seem to like thematically paired or tripled books, and strange-but-true episodes in the history of science has turned out to be a theme.)
Our Unfinished March by Eric Holder and Sam Koppelman. This book is a great look at the past, present, and future of voting rights. Holder and Koppelman help readers identify current tactics to suppress voting rights and offer actionable ideas to overcome anti-democratic efforts.
The Baseball 100 by Joe Posnanski. The familiar names are all here in this anthology of baseball’s greats, and so are other names that were obscured before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, like Oscar Charleston and Bullet Rogan. Each of the 100 mini biographies is a work of art.
Fionnuala Ní Aoláin
Legacies of War, Violence, Ecologies and Kin by Kimberly Theidon. This book is a meditation on transition, violence, the ecology and harm of war, wrapped in a deep understanding of the gendered pathways and consequences of armed conflict. Theidon’s text gives us a new way to conceptualize the harm of armed conflict, and the way the harms reside long-after the hostilities have ended.
The Practice and Problems of Transnational Counter-terrorism by Fiona De Londras is a must read for understanding the new global counter-terrorism order and its negative effects on the rule of law, good governance, and the integrity of the multilateral system.
Ada Limón is a sublime and visceral poet who evokes loss, belonging, the challenges of love and living and the capacity to see beauty in the natural world around you. Highly recommended is The Carrying: Poems.
Worldmaking after Empire by Adom Getachew. It offers a tremendous account of the vision of alternative global order (by comparison with competing U.S. and Soviet frameworks) imagined by anti-colonial activists in the twentieth century — and what happened to those possibilities. The book thus speaks powerfully to our own contemporary debates over globalization, inequality, and international politics, and serves as an essential reminder of the paths not taken.
Paradoxes of Nostalgia: Cold War Triumphalism and Global Disorder since 1989 by Penny Von Eschen. The book is a profound examination of how the collapse of the Soviet Union reentrenched American elite faith in the necessity and goodness of U.S. unipolar dominance. In the process, it grippingly explores the rise and fall of the American unipolar project as well as the long afterlife of the Cold War across the U.S., Russia, and various communities deeply affected by the conflict.
Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West by Catherine Belton. A deeply reported, and revelatory account of how Putin and his KGB colleagues prepared for the end of communism and set up a kind of deep state that persists to this day.
Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Masterpiece, had somehow not read it before now, engrossing.