There is almost nothing about the state of the world that doesn't seem a little rosier with good holiday music playing in the house. As I write, Bob Dylan's contribution to yuletide cheer -- his new album, Christmas In The Heart, is on and makes me smile. Next week at Occidental College, where I hold a chair in diplomacy, I will give my annual State of the World and gift advisory talk, offering thoughts on global developments of the past year and also providing on-the-spot guidance on holiday gifting for students and faculty.
Last year, I shared my gift advice with Huffington Post readers ("An Obama Holiday: What to Give a Progressive President and his Team"), so I won't repeat it. Thus far, the Obama administration has not turned out to be as progressive as many supporters had hoped; my recommendations, especially the reading list for the president and his cabinet, are still relevant.
I claim only one success from last year's gift advisory. Fran's Chocolates of Seattle, an Obama favorite from the campaign trail, are now the official chocolate of the White House. Fran is producing a line of smoked salted chocolate caramels in a specially designed box with the presidential seal for the White House, and they are served at dinners and given to overnight guests. The president is going to need a lot of them to keep up his energy now that he has become a War President. He can also keep up his spirits by playing Dylan's Christmas carols, especially the rousing polka "Must be Santa". Obama might want to invite Bob to sing at a White House holiday party. That would certainly be Change We Need.
In addition to Christmas in the Heart which is now our family's all-time favorite holiday album (Good-By Bing, Hello Bob), I heartily recommend Monsters of Folk, a first album from four young folk singers who got together initially to sing for an Obama campaign rally in Nebraska. At least that is the story I heard when my wife and I were in Omaha this fall to lecture. We learned a lot of Omaha lore, including stories about native son Warren Buffett and his quirks. I thought that I had discovered a little known group when I came across the Monsters of Folk. Excitedly, this less than musically hip dad, called his daughter who runs a record company in LA to tell of his great find. "Yeah, pops," daughter Julie replied, "I signed the group a few months ago and we just released their album." Well, I still recommend it. Good younger generation folk singers are a scarce commodity.
That's it for music and chocolate. On to my forte -- my favorite books of 2009. While inviting secretaries in the Oxy President's office to my talk, I made it clear that holiday goodies will be served and that I would talk about gifts, not just war and global warming. "I know you," one said with a laugh, "You will only talk about books, when I want to hear about diamonds" It's true that I mainly give books as gifts (as well as chocolates and Jackson Browne's ginger cookies). It's my nature.
In the non fiction category, I lean towards economic and political works, and this year is no different. My favorites for 2009:
• The Imperial Cruise--A Secret History of Empire and War, by James Bradley. The author uses a little known 1905 historical event--the 100 day diplomatic mission to Asia by Secretary of War William Howard Taft, accompanied by Alice Roosevelt, the President's celebrity daughter, and a host of Congressmen -- to illuminate Teddy Roosevelt's world view and America's first moves towards overseas empire. The book is filled with historical revelations and offers a different perspective on the origins of WWII from the common explanation that we were minding our own business when the Japanese suddenly attacked us at Pearl Harbor.
• The Hawk and The Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan and the History of the Cold War, by Nicholas Thompson. A grandson of Nitze and a writer for Wired magazine, Thompson has written a thoughtful and elegant historical description of the Cold War through the prism of the lives of Nitze and Kennan, friends and rivals who were both members of the US foreign policy establishment . As with Bradley's book, I learned new things about top American policy makers and found myself rethinking some of my views of the individuals. And like Bradley, author Thompson knows how to tell a good story.
• Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party, by Max Blumenthal. This book tells you almost everything that you need to know (and more) about today's Republican party. Max, son of Washington journalist Sidney Blumenthal, describes and analyzes the conservative evangelicals who dominate the Republican party. He uses the intellectual tools provided by such social thinkers as Eric Hoffer and Eric Fromm to examine the lives and thought of Newt Gingrich, James Dobson, Sarah Palin, and others and suggests how difficult it will be for the party to represent the majority of Americans. If you are wondering why there are almost no Rockefeller Republicans left in the GOP, read this book.
• Lords of Finance-The Bankers Who Broke The World, by Liaquat Ahmed. Named "Book of the Year" by the Financial Times, this surprisingly lively biographical history describes the key role that the central bankers from the New York Fed, the Bank of England, the Banc de France, and Germany's Reichsbank played in bringing about and prolonging the Great Depression. It is essential reading for understanding the debate over the current Recession and what reforms might be needed to create a better global financial system. Ahmed is a former investment banker who decided to make himself into an historian, and he has succeeded brilliantly.
• In Fed We Trust--by David Wessel, economics editor and columnist for the Wall Street Journal, is the inside story of Ben Bernanke, and his role in staving off another Depression. At the moment, Bernanke is up for confirmation for a second term as chairman of the Federal Reserve and he is getting attacked from the left and the right for his failings. If you want a truly fair and balanced view of Bernanke and a clear explanation of the inner workings of the Fed, this is the best single book to read. I had Wessel speak on the Oxy campus, and students told me it was one of the most informative talks on economics that they had ever heard.
• The Snowball--Warren Buffett and the Business of Life, by Alice Schroeder. If you can read just one biography of a business leader, this is the one. An almost but not quite authorized bio, the book provides a portrait of The Oracle of Omaha, quirks and all. Buffet is an investment genius; he is also an man with some odd habits. However, his values-based approach to investing has great merit and, as he has proved, works over the long term to produce great wealth. If anyone you know is thinking about a career in business, then give them this book as a kind of spiritual guide and perhaps a cautionary tale on living a meaningful life.
On the fiction side of the ledger, my favorite book of the year (and maybe of all time) is the Millennium Trilogy by Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson. The three books in the series--The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest-- gave me and my wife and most of our friends hours of pleasurable reading. We are still passing around the final volume in the British edition (it's not yet available in the U.S.). Larsson, who sadly died after finishing the series, was founder and editor-in-chief of a political magazine, and an expert on right-wing extremists and anti-democratic organizations. His magazine, Expo, was similar to Ramparts, the crusading West Coast journal of the 60s and 70s, and an editor of such a magazine plays a lead role in the novels. While drawing on his own experience and real life events involving the Swedish security services and big business, Larsson has created one of the more original and appealing heroines to appear in crime or thriller fiction in years. The series is perfect gift for family and friends who like their fiction grounded in the real world of politics and economics.
During too many plane rides and restless late nights, I read novels by detective fiction writers who set their stories in foreign countries. I like books where the writing is good, clean and crisp, the settings realistic, and where I learn something new. If the books below intrigue you as gifts, you can pick up others in the series.
• The Mao Case---the latest entry in the Inspector Chen series written by Qiu Xiaolong, a native of Shanghai, who came to Washington University, St Louis, to study T.S. Eliot, got his PhD in comparative lit, and stayed to teach and to write detective fiction. His elegantly written series is one of the best depictions of contemporary Chinese society that you can find.
• Bamboo and Blood--the third in the Inspector O series, improbably set in North Korea. Author James Church, a pseudonym for a former US government official, knows the country well and has managed to penetrate this isolated, difficult outlier in the international system. In recounting the fictional adventures of O, an inspector in the Ministry of Public Security in Pyongyang, he provides a better feel for life in North Korea than most think tank studies or intelligence reports.
• The Merry Misogynist--a Dr. Siri Investigation set in Laos, the sixth entry in this delectable series written by Colin Cotterill, a Brit who worked in Laos as an aid worker before becoming a full time writer. The protagonist, Dr. Siri, is the coroner for the communist run government. The books explore recent political history in southeast Asia, as well as the role of religion and culture in Laotian society.
• Dark Dreams-- the second in the Commander Jana Matinova Investigations, a new series by UCLA law graduate Michael Genelin who served as a consultant for the State Department in Central Europe, and who knows his way around Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, where his heroine serves as a commander in the national police force. The books serve as compelling introductions to the under side of life in post-Communist Europe.
• Hypothermia--book six in the chilly Reykjavik detective series by Arnaldur Indridason. The author's brooding hero is Erlendur, a detective in Iceland's capital, whose personal problems crop up as he tries to solve brutal crimes. One of the first novels in the series, Jar City, has been made into a good film and is available on DVD with English subtitles. Now that Iceland has suffered a severe economic meltdown, it will be interesting to see if Indridason turns to banks and financiers as a setting for an upcoming book.
• Buried Strangers--the second in a new series, the Chief Inspector Mario Silva Investigations by Leighton Gage, set in modern day Brazil. The hero is the chief inspector for criminal matters in the Federal police in the capital, Brasilia, but he ranges across the country from Sao Paulo to the Amazon in pursuit of the bad guys, often politically connected ones. Author Gage is married to a Brazilian and lives part of the year in Brazil. The books provide a primer on the politics and economics of an emerging regional super power, and offer an introduction to the contradictions of wealth and poverty in Brazilian society.
• The Samaritan's Secret--the third Omar Yussef novel, set in today's Palestinian territories, written by Matt Rees, an Australian who served for six years as Time's Jerusalem bureau chief. The books provide a thoughtful look at the contemporary Middle East, giving a voice through the aged hero, Omar Yussef, a teacher at a UN school, to the concerns of the Palestinian people as well as to the complexities of the region's centuries long disputes over land and religion.
OBAMA'S WAR AND FICTION
When Richard Holbrooke was first appointed special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, I suggested that he read James Michener's novel Caravans, a thriller with a State Department hero set in the Afghanistan of the 1950s. Predictably he told me that he had already read it, as well as the adventure novel Flashman about a British soldier fighting in the Afghan Wars of the nineteenth century (written by George MacDonald Fraser). It's almost impossible to one up Dick Holbrooke on anything, but I did recommend to him--and to other friends in the Obama administration-- two cautionary novels to read set in Pakistan:
• The Case of Exploding Mangoes, by Mohammed Hanif, a graduate of the Pakistan Air Force Academy, who left the military to take up a career in journalism. The book is a Pakistani version of Catch-22 (the famous Joseph Heller war novel), describing an investigation into the death of General Zia who was killed along with the US ambassador in a mysterious plane crash in 1988. The book is a useful introduction to President Obama's key ally in the struggle against Al Queda and the Taliban.
• Moghul Buffet--one of the few mystery novels set in contemporary Pakistan. The author, Cheryl Benard, knows the terrain and provides a detailed description of Peshawar, one of the most dangerous cities in south Asia. Benard offers up a disturbing portrait of the conditions of life for most Pakistani women. It is another valuable contribution from the editors of the Soho Press' international mystery series.
AND MY WIFE RECOMMENDS:
On the lighter side, my wife Sue's favorite new mystery author is our family friend, British journalist Martin Walker, who uses the setting of his summer home in the Bordeaux region of France to depict the adventures of Bruno, Chief of Police (the title of the first in the series), who roots out wrong doing while living well. The second book, The Dark Vineyard, explores wine and dark deeds. The novels would make great BBC films.
One of our family holiday pastimes is watching mystery novels that have been made into good films.
We pile on to our couch along with the dogs and one of the cats, get comfy, and tune into another county's social problems. The essential gift for friends and relatives who might enjoy detective films is a universal DVD player -- one that will play DVDs from all regions of the world. Many of the best detective film series are only available from Europe or Australia, and require a DVD player that can show them (they cost almost the same as US region players, so it's not a financial stretch).Once outfitted, you can order DVDs online from any country and enjoy them in the comfort of your own home.
This has enabled us to watch the Inspector Montalbano series based on the detective novels of Andrea Camilleri set in Sicily made by Italian broadcasting RAI which features a superb actor on whom Sue has a big crush, and a number of excellent series from Scandinavia, including films based on the Inspector Wallander books by Henning Mankell and on the detective novels of Helene Tungsten featuring her heroine Irene Huss, as well as great made for TV series from Denmark like The Eagle and Unit One. Australia also produces enjoyable series set in the Outback, as well as in Melbourne and Sydney. A Google search will turn up online stores, including Amazon UK and SBS in Australia, from which you can order the films.
STATE OF THE WORLD -- LATER FOR THAT -- GO SHOPPING
In my post next time, I will discuss the State of the World and talk about my students' report on Obama's First Year in foreign policy. For now, as someone--maybe it was George Bush-- famously said:" When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping". By shopping you are doing your bit to stimulate the economy and dig into the pesky ten percent unemployment rate. I'd rather that President Obama had invited folks to go shopping, than to the meaningless Jobs Summit this week at the White House.
PS HIP MUSIC UPDATE
I've checked in with my music industry daughter and have three Indie bands that deserve making the CD gift list: Sea Wolf (new album, "White Water, White Bloom"), Band of Skulls (new album, "Baby Darling Doll Face Honey"), and Grizzly Bear. All three played at the LA concert for the premiere of the new Twilight series movie--and Band of Skulls is a client of my daughter's company Shangrila Music.
All very cool. Check them out. The White House needs to do an Indie Band night and expand the Obama daughters' horizons beyond The Jonas Brothers.
In response to this post, I have been receiving advice from friends and readers on their favorite holiday albums. Some interesting suggestions: Sting's holiday album, "If On A Winter's Night"; a collection of jazz and R&B holiday classics--"Hipsters' Holiday"; and "The Best of B.B. King: Christmas Collection"
(I once hosted B.B. King when he sang at the Pori Jazz Festival in Finland). And there is always Elvis' "Blue Christmas" collection. Rock on.
Holiday Greetings to one and all from the Ambassadude.