Believe it or not, summer is here. If you're a voracious reader like some of us, you're most likely in need of a new (or a good, old) book to read. As we did last year, we asked our foreign correspondents to recommend a book they've read recently.
Burckhardt, a 19th-century scholar of German descent, describes the journey he took across Syria in 1809-11, taking the reader to many of the locations that are battlefields today. I’m enjoying dipping in and matching some of the towns and villages he visits to places I have been to or write about on a regular basis. He is rather too fond of listing the varieties of rocks and ruins he finds. But he also encounters an array of rebels, warlords and religious rivalries that make you realize the problems Syrians are confronting today wouldn’t be entirely unfamiliar to their forebears. It’s a free download on Kindle.
This is the latest in Tarquin Hall's hilarious mysteries featuring the portly, gourmandizing and spectacularly mustachioed sleuth Vish Puri, India's "Most Private Investigator." Hall's books bring to life the idiom, atmosphere and people of New Delhi and India with a large dose of affectionate humor, and what one reviewer called "wit and intelligent absurdity." Beautifully written, Hall does for India what Alexander McCall Smith did for Africa. The latest book involves Puri cracking a case involving the Indian and Pakistani mafias, Indian Premier League cricket, and a poisoned dish of butter chicken.
The English version of this book came out in 2009, and is still garnering readers because of its simple yet fascinating premise. In the tradition of Studs Terkel and other oral historians, the author chronicles the lives and thoughts of people in the lowest rungs of Chinese society: grave robbers, restroom attendants, human traffickers, dissidents. The author himself — a dissident poet imprisoned in the past — has an interesting personal story to tell as well, which is being released as a book this June called "For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet's Journey through a Chinese Prison."
I'll read anything by James Salter, a man who spent his 20s as a fighter pilot and now, at 87, might be America's greatest living writer of prose. His new novel tells the story of a young naval officer turned book editor, whose experience in war marks his entry into the world, the birth of his clear-eyed, and sometimes debilitating, self-awareness. Reading the novel on an embed with U.S. troops here, it was hard not to think of the thousands of men and women whose lives will begin anew once they return home, their final tours served, the thrills and complications of the civilian world lying ahead.
There are plenty of newer and higher-profile books about North Korea, but check their footnotes: They likely give heavy credit to Lankov’s one-of-a-kind collection of essays about daily life in North Korea. Lankov writes about cars and currency, traveling and social caste systems, spying and sex. The essays are breezy but dark-humored, always meticulously researched, and a great cure for the birds-eye stereotypes we hear most often when discussing North Korea.
This work of satire about a family and its military-minded patriarch in Tehran during World War II offers the most vivid rendering of Iranian social interactions I have ever read. Adapted into Iran's most beloved TV series ever, 40 years after its initial publication, the insights and humor of "My Dear Uncle Napoleon" still hold up.
I recently read Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories — the two short novels "Goodbye to Berlin" and "Mr. Norris Changes Trains." They aren't contemporary by any means — they were first published in 1939 and 1935, respectively — but they are a compelling window into the turmoil of Berlin in the years during Adolf Hitler's ascent to power. Isherwood's lightly fictionalized account of being a down-and-out writer in Berlin and the characters he encounters along the way make for great reading. (Also, they are required reading for any expat interested in Berlin. After more than two years in Germany, I was very delinquent.)
If you think reading books is fun, try being in one. Stephen Hunter, former Washington Post film critic and thriller writer extraordinaire, published this novel about the John F. Kennedy assassination in January. Plucky Kathy Reilly, Moscow correspondent for The Washington Post, accompanies Hunter's hero on a clandestine visit to KGB headquarters in search of long-ago intelligence files. They (we) get out alive. And that's only the beginning.
This slim volume was thrown together over the space of a few weeks in early 2000, just after Vladimir Putin became Russia's acting president. It's an authorized biography, mostly in the form of an extended conversation between the authors and Putin. As such it's a fascinating look at image-making, and, with the benefit of hindsight, you can find hints between the lines of a much less flattering counter-narrative.
Finally, there’s a book in English about the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez that captures both El Comandante’s gifts as a showman and the country’s disastrous slide. Carroll uses just the right mix of humor and in-depth reporting to vividly tell one of the world’s oddest stories – how a charismatic illusionist was able to not only maintain himself in power but remain immensely popular while the country he ruled for 14 years literally came apart at the seems. Other writers have fawned over Chavez. But Carroll came in with an open mind and left Venezuela after six years of reporting with a fascinating and deeply reported portrait that goes a long way to explaining the late leader’s messianic hold on his people.
I just finished reading, for the fourth time, the Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas. In my view, it is the world's best adventure story. Dumas lays out a drama of exotic places, cowards, heroes, revenge, excess, love and hate. I find new things every time I read it. And best of all, Dumas makes it all fun.
The book questions the earlier historical narratives of the events preceding the bloody India-Pakistan partition in 1947, which said it was a sudden, unfathomable event brought about by the politics of Muslims and the role played by the British colonizers. The author unearths archival records and oral histories from the four decades preceding Partition, and locates the early stirrings in the politics of a community that she calls the “Punjabi Hindus”. She writes that their political articulation and anxieties arose out of their peculiar position — of being a religious minority in the Muslim-dominated pre-Partition Punjab region; but at the same time, being a religious majority in the larger British India.
A big, fat, dare I say saucy, popular history of the universal city, in all its gore and glory. Montefiore is a wicked good writer with a great story to tell, from King David to Moshe Dayan, with walk-ons by Nebuchadnezzar, Mark Twain, Herod, Lawrence of Arabia and the Queen of Sheba. Plus: lots of concubines and crusaders, British toffs, wily Ottomans and Suleiman the Magnificent.
Love her or hate her, Margaret Thatcher was a towering figure in the 20th century and this book is a crash course on the Iron Lady in her own words. Obviously self-promotional at times, it nevertheless offers the ultimate insiders take on the Thatcher years.
Griswold traveled to Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia and other far-flung places to report on areas where Christianity and Islam collide. It's a well-written, revealing book filled with powerful stories that unveil the 21st century faultlines between two faiths that have experienced so much conflict over the centuries.
This is a fantastic piece of journalism from the early days of the Iraq war. And it's a good topic to revisit now, as Iraq again teeters on the brink of sectarian civil war. While most Iraq books from that period focus on the U.S. role, Shadid told the story of Iraqis as they experienced the sudden upheaval of a foreign invasion and the early harbingers of the turmoil to come. Shadid, a former Washington Post correspondent, died last year.
Hungry for more? Check out this list of great books our correspondents recommended last year.