As we head into December and the days grow shorter or longer, depending on where you’re reading from, our wonderful Just Security Editorial Board members are back with book recommendations!
Similar to past years, contributors were invited to suggest a book that informed their thinking or illuminated something about issues in the world in 2023; a book that brought joy, fun, relaxation, artistic fulfillment, or other good energy into your year; or anything else recommended from the “read in 2023” pile, even if published in a different year. The selections below transport readers across times, places, and even planets; explore the human condition; and reflect – in ways direct and indirect – how many of the issues of law and policy we explore on our pages intersect with our ordinary lives. Whether for gift-giving or enriching your own reading life, we hope that you enjoy these thoughtful contributions.
As we near the end of 2023, we would like to thank our Just Security readers 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. As we are a non-profit organization, if you appreciate our work, please consider making a tax-deductible end-of-year donation (link).
Wishing a meaningful reading season to all.
Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R.F Kang immerses us in an alternative reality version of the early 19th century. The plot centers around a group of students, brought to Oxford from various parts of the globe, and follows them as they discover their education is paid in service to the engine of Empire. The book is a powerful indictment of colonialism (and a feast for any would-be linguist).
East West Street by Philippe Sands. This 2016 gem, a fusion of historical narrative and memoir, is a timely read this year on the 75th anniversary of the U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. An extraordinary feat of research, East West Street brings Lviv – intellectual home of both Raphael Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpacht – the recognition it deserves.
Adil Ahmad Haque
What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad.
A Day in the Life of Abed Salama: Anatomy of a Jerusalem Tragedy by Nathan Thrall.
[Editor’s note: Readers may be interested in Zinaida Miller’s recent Just Security article, “In Gaza, Catastrophic Violence of War and Slow Violence of Oppression Collide,” which also discusses Thrall’s book.]
The Morality of the Laws of War: War, Law, and Murder by Marcela Prieto Rudolphy. Winner, 2023 New Author Book Award, American Branch of the International Law Association.
The Quantified Worker: Law and Technology in Modern Workplace by Ifeoma Ajunwa. This excellent book considers how AI, data, and surveillance are changing the workplace, and whether the law is more equipped to help workers in this transition, or to provide for the interests of employers.
Notable Moons by Dave Gunton. This slim volume of poetry by my old friend is weird and elegant, a welcome respite from the heavier fare I consume in my day to day work.
State of Silence by Sam Lebovic. This is a brilliant and engaging history of the Espionage Act, a law that has distorted public discourse about war, foreign policy, and national security for more than a century.
Lives Other Than My Own by Emmanuel Carrere. A truly beautiful memoir and meditation connecting two superficially unrelated tragedies – the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka and the later death of the author’s sister in law from cancer. It’s mainly about compassion and generosity and courage.
For those interested in military intelligence and philosophy: M. M. Rowe’s comprehensive new biography J. L. Austin is remarkable in several ways. Austin, a brilliant and astringent Oxford don, was the founder of ordinary language philosophy – an approach that dominated British philosophy in the 1950s and well into the ‘60s. Among philosophers, linguists, and literary theorists, he’s known as the inventor of speech act theory. What Rowe reveals in dazzling detail is that during the war, Austin was among the most important intelligence analysts who made D-Day possible. This was not Bletchley Park code-breaking. It was map-out-every-square-inch-of-the-Norman-coast intelligence, which Austin compiled into an easy-to-use pocket-sized field guide titled Invade Mecum (distributed to every platoon leader).
This was a good year for histories of Oxford philosophy: Nikhil Krishnan’s A Terribly Serious Adventure: Philosophy and War at Oxford, 1900–1960 covers some of the same territory and personalities as Rowe’s, with a light, smart touch that shows why the adventure actually was serious.
I have a weakness for correspondences. This year, it was The Dolphin Letters, 1970–79: Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Lowell, and Their Circle, wonderfully edited by Saskia Hamilton. The letters cover an intense period, when Lowell unexpectedly deserted Hardwick and their daughter to marry the English novelist Caroline Blackwood – and then exploited the story of the breakup in his sonnet cycle The Dolphin, to the outrage of all their friends: Elizabeth Bishop, Adrienne Rich, Mary McCarthy. It doesn’t hurt that all of them are brilliant writers.
My two favorite books of the year:
The Sirens of Mars: Searching for Life on Another World by Sarah Stewart Johnson. Part history of science, part memoir of a planetary scientist, part reflection on the tenacity of life and why we care about it. It’s moving and wonderfully written.
Come to This Court and Cry: Secrets and Survival at the Last Nazi Trials by Linda Kinstler. This award-winning book blends a family mystery with a twisted tale of the Holocaust in Latvia and its legal aftermath. Kinstler investigates the murder of Herberts Cukurs — Latvian aviator, national hero, and Nazi collaborator — as she tries to unravel the secret history of her own grandfather. She has written a brilliant and deep exploration of historical memory and the law – or is it historical amnesia and the law?
Tyranny of the Minority: Why American Democracy Reached the Breaking Point by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. The Harvard political scientists who wrote 2018’s How Democracies Die are back with this study of how authoritarians in the United States are exploiting our institutions to advance their interests and eroding democracy in the process. This book is readable and eye-opening.
Tom Lake by Ann Patchett. I listened to the audio book, narrated by Meryl Streep. What a joy! Set on a northern Michigan cherry orchard, this book is a cozy page-turner about a mother’s glamorous past and the choices we make in life.
Fionnuala Ní Aoláin
My book of joy is from the island of Ireland, a continued reminder that home and the places that mean the most to us continue to give sustenance and meaning throughout our lives.
The Ghost Limb: Alternative Protestants and the Spirit of 1798 by Claire Mitchell. This book is a part-memoir, part historical telling of one strand of the conflict experience and identity in Northern Ireland recounted by a group of contemporary Northern Ireland Protestants. It traces the steps of the United Irishmen who worked for the unity of Protestant, Catholic and dissenter over two hundred years ago and finds that spirit alive today, existing alongside the unresolved contradictions of post-Brexit, post-peace treaty Northern Ireland. In a still divided post-conflict society, this is a book of generosity, unexpectedness and hope. It is a book about relationship to place, relationships between Protestants and Catholics, and so much more. For me, it illustrates that post-conflicts places are porous, unexpected, and that the beating heart of the promise for a shared future on the island of Ireland is alive and well. Lyrical, poetic, feminist in sensibility and words this was a joy to read.
The other books I have chosen for the other prompt are intimately connected to the human rights work I pursued this past year and places that I have been privileged to visit.
Lost and Found in Guantanamo: Don’t Forget Us Here by Mansoor Adayfi holds the raw and compelling story of the author, a then 18-year-old Yemeni rendered to the detention facility at Guantanamo, Bay Cuba and subject to a legally sanctioned regime of torture, cruel, inhuman and inhuman treatment until his release to Serbia in 2016. This book stands out for its testimonial and narrative quality, but its humor, its humanity and above all else its telling of the bonds of friendship and resilience that made life in the most inhumane of detention facilities livable. I recommend it because it reminds us of the enduring human spirit but also because it is a continuing indictment delivered in the unmistakable voice of one of the most harmed, and of the ongoing detention of Muslim men at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity by Philippe Sands. This book is both family memoir, meticulous legal history, and human rights genealogy wrapped into one. The book traverses the history and practice of holding individuals accountable for the most serious violations of international law and shows both the entrepreneurship and tensions that were encountered in creating a vocabulary of accountability in the second half of the twentieth century. At the heart of this story is a family (the author’s) and a city (Lviv) whose history of possession moves between being an outpost of the Hapsburg Empire, to western corner of Russia, to Poland, to a proud and independent Ukraine. It is the author’s commitment to unearthing both family history, intertwined with the extraction of human rights history – which cannot in this case be detached from the story of two singular men Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lempkin whose roots also lie in Lviv which holds the reader throughout this story. The book reads like a sleuthing novel and it was one of the reasons I could not put it down.
Enter Ghost by Isabella Hammad. A Palestinian British actress in London goes to Haifa to visit her sister, who is a professor at an Israeli university, and via the novel one experiences the sense of social, family, political/national dislocations and connections.
The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning, especially the BBC 4 production, available as an audio book called the Fortunes of War. Newlyweds Harriet and Guy Pringle are part of the British Council in Romania during WWII, and end up fleeing with the war’s advance to Greece and Egypt.