See our professors’ latest recommendations on books and podcasts to binge over summer break
With May Gray and June Gloom behind us, San Diego’s summer is in full swing. Whether you’re heading to the beach to cool off in the Pacific on these hot days or enjoying the community spaces in beautiful Balboa Park, our UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy (GPS) professors have you covered with book recommendations on a variety of topics — and even a few podcasts — worth your time.
I’m reading “Gilead” by Marilynne Robinson, about life and religion in small-town Iowa, and “River of Smoke” by Amitav Ghosh, the second in a trilogy of historical fiction about India during the Opium Wars. For those of you who read too much non-fiction in your “day jobs” or in school, it’s lovely to be reading some beautifully written fiction.
I am reading two books at the moment.
“The Frontier Army in the Settlement of the West” by Michael Tate provides a true deep dive into the role of the U.S. military in the process of westward expansion. I have been reading this work for a couple of ongoing projects aimed at understanding how the military has shaped the nation-building process in the U.S.
“Teaching White Supremacy: America’s Democratic Ordeal and the Forging of our National Identity” by Donald Yacovone provides extensive background on the curriculum wars that have raged in the American education system since the outset. The focus here is on the teaching of race and the foundations of white supremacist ideology. I have been reading this book as part of a few projects looking at the cultural and institutional foundations of racism in America.
My favorite distraction so far this summer has been “The Huberman Lab Podcast” on neuroscience, including new research on sleep, caffeine, meditation and the like.
On current events I’ve added to my podcast mix “Haaretz Weekly,” to cover democratic backsliding and protests in Israel.
The University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation (IGCC), where I’m affiliated, has added an excellent “Talking Policy” podcast, where I get educated by my colleagues.
The “Irregular Warfare” podcast, which I sometimes gently advise, does a great job covering new topics in conflict, bridging academic and practitioner interests.
I just read “The Orphan Master’s Son” by Adam Johnson. It’s more than a decade old at this point so I am way behind the times, but it felt like pretty perfect summer reading. It’s an engrossing story about the life of a street-smart and politically savvy young man trying to not only survive but thrive in North Korea.
I’m also currently reading “Less is Lost” by Andrew Sean Greer, the sequel to “Less.” This is another classic summer read that has a little bit of “ouch” factor for any academic or writer — the main character is moderately well known but suffers from raging impostor syndrome.
Three books on my summer list. The first two just completed and the third just started:
“American Rascal” by Greg Steinmetz. A colorful biography of Jay Gould, a 19th century robber baron, that shows why financial regulation is essential.
“The Scarlet Papers” by Matthew Richardson. A spy novel of stunning intellectual intricacy.
“Fragile by Design” by Charles Calomiris and Stephen Haber. A massive, ambitious political economy of banking systems around the world.
The last time Russia engaged in a phased general mobilization on the current scale was World War II, so this summer I am making time with Roger Reese’s “Why Stalin’s Soldiers Fought: The Red Army’s Military Effectiveness in World War II.”
As a Central Asianist interested in the stress that is put on non-Russian minority soldiers serving the Russian army, I am also tackling Roberto Carmack’s “Kazakhstan in World War II: Mobilization and Ethnicity in the Soviet Empire.”
As my family discovers the joys of bird-watching and backyard fantasy world-building, I am loving Helen McDonnel’s “H is for Hawk,” voicing dozens of characters from Brian Jacques’ “Redwall” series for Max and Eleanor at bedtime, and keep finding my “Wanderhome” book in Max’s bed.
Rafael Fernández de Castro
Julian Marias was an extraordinary Spanish writer who really got into the physiques of his characters. He died of COVID-19 recently at the age of 70.
These two books deal with international spying at the end of the Cold War. The protagonists are a couple named Berta and Tomás as the respective titles suggest. In the first book, Berta narrates the point of view of someone who is married to a spy. I found this to be a very interesting and refreshing take on the genre. In the second book, the spy himself tells his story and the brutal things he must do in order to survive and work towards a “higher” purpose.
I highly recommend these if you want to have a thrilling summer read.
“Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War” by Mary Roach. She writes about the massive amount of scientific research and engineering required to keep American soldiers high functioning in good health and (relatively) high spirits. It’s eye-opening and really, really funny. I never knew so much time and energy went into the development of actual stink bombs.
“Maniac of New York” by Elliott Kalan and Andrea Mutti is a graphic novel about how New Yorkers come to accept and live with a slasher movie type mass-murderer that pops up every few months to kill a handful people. It was first published in late 2021 and is a ham-handed, metaphorical commentary on pandemic response but also provides some interesting thought experiments on how we may tend to adapt to toxic behavior by trying to ignore it.
“For Profit: A History of Corporations” by William Magnuson covers the history of corporations since the Roman Empire. Magnuson convincingly argues that corporations have always been chartered for the “public good” and not just for profit. He also analyzes how they have gone astray from that goal in each period of history since.
“Tales of the Alhambra” and “Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada” by Washington Irving — his classic tale of his trip to Andalucia in the 19th century. Why am I reading it? Because we are planning our first trip to Andalucia in the fall.
Here’s what I’ve been reading:
“Solito” by Javier Zamora is an autobiography describing the author’s grueling migration from El Salvador to the U.S. as an unaccompanied minor.
“I Never Thought of It That Way” by Monica Guzmán is a journalist’s exploration into what prevents people who disagree politically from having constructive conversations with each other, and how we may overcome those barriers.
On my reading list this summer:
“How to Read a Book” by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren is like this ultimate guide that shows you how to read like a boss! Seriously, they break down everything from picking the right books to extracting juicy insights, so you can up your reading game and become a total bookworm extraordinaire.
“Sacred Foundations: The Religious and Medieval Roots of the European State” by Anna M. Grzymała-Busse. Anna is actually one of my dissertation advisers! I’m diving into her work to get inspired by her brilliant thinking and captivating writing style, in case I ever muster up the courage to write my own book. Plus, the book offers a captivating exploration of how religion and the medieval era deeply influenced the development of the European state.
I am reading Daniel Yergin’s “The New Map: Energy, Climate, and the Crash of Nations.” Its narrative provides a historical background that defines geopolitics and its implications on the current global economy. The book ties the issues covered in several courses at GPS together very well — energy, climate change, technology and innovation, economic development, international trade and investment, as well as international security and conflicts. It reaffirms how complex and interconnected the world has become over the past century, especially over the past decade.
Matthew Walker’s “Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams” is the book that made me change my sleeping habits. Why can’t insufficient sleep be compensated for by sleeping longer later? Why does going to bed too late or waking up too early detrimentally impact our memory and creativity? Why is snoozing the alarm clock bad for our health? These are some of the questions that the book provides answers based on scientific studies.
Here are the books I’ve read recently:
“Parable of the Sower” by Octavia Butler is about a young woman attempting to navigate an increasingly dangerous America in a dystopian future. Written in the early 1990s but set in the 2020s, this book imagines what it would be like for a young Black girl to live, survive and build community in a world rocked by societal and environmental degradation. This book was recommended to me by my colleague John Ahlquist.
“Babel: An Arcane History” by R.F. Kuang follows a boy who was taken from Canton to Oxford to work in the Oxford University’s Royal Institute of Translation in 1836. The novel reimagines a world where the British government exploits the magical properties of silver to prop up its colonial empire. It deals with issues of race, class, gender, colonialism and magic. I cannot do the plot of the book justice, so you’ll just have to read it.
“The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi” by Shannon Chakraborty follows a female pirate who embarks on a compulsory journey to save a young girl who was dragged out to sea by a group of evil mercenaries. The narrator recounts the many absurd circumstances that Amina encounters as a lowborn Muslim female pirate during the 12th century.
“The Dictionary of Lost Words” by Pip Williams is about a young girl, Esme, who falls in love with the etymology of words. In the early 1900s she is being raised by her father, a lexicographer working to create the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. During the course of their work, Esme begins to understand that the dictionary is biased; gender and class determine whose words are deemed important enough to be inscribed in the dictionary. Set against the backdrop of war and the fight for women’s suffrage, she sets off to rectify this specific injustice in the way she knows how.
David Grann, “The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder”
In August 1740, the British man-of-war The Wager along with seven other ships set off on an ill-conceived mission: capture Spanish ships loaded with treasure that were sailing off South America while evading capture or destruction by the powerful Spanish navy. As the flotilla rounded Patagonia and Cape Horn they were beset by storms. Boats were lost; most sank. The Wager, shipwrecked with just a fraction of its original crew that had survived, created an adult version of Lord of the Flies. As order disintegrated alongside the food supply and hope of survival, the crew broke into factions. Eventually most of them straggled home through a series of heroic sailings — in pulses of worn seamen, each with a different story of what happened. Grann, who also wrote “Killers Of The Flower Moon,” weaves a gripping nonfictional narrative of hubris, poor planning and shipwreck — along with a history of sailing and Britain’s aspiration toward naval hegemony. It’s a reminder of how changes in technology and governance combine to define national power and how governments, if they are to be great, must learn from their failures — in the case of The Wager, the failure to set clear and achievable missions and the failure to ensure that manpower was aligned with technology.