“The Next 100 Years: a Forecast of the 21st Century” by George Friedman

Sometimes paying attention to what’s going on in the world at the moment will not shed any light on what will happen tomorrow. While our choices and actions may affect our immediate future, much greater forces – which lore often ascribes to “fate” – will shape the courses of our lives. According to George Friedman‘s The Next 100 Years, the same holds true for the future of international relations, which are shaped, similarly, by a concoction of geopolitical forces – specifically geology, geography, economics and demographics.

Friedman, beginning in the early 21st century, walks the reader through what he forecasts to be some of the major conflicts of the future. Citing Turkey, Poland, Mexico, and Japan as future contenders for regional hegemony, Friedman points to Eastern Europe, the Balkans, the Baltic states, the Caucasus, and the American Southwest as conflict zones. Considering the advances in military technology, Friedman also includes space.

Basing his “predictions” (which he prefaces humbly enough to make them palatable to the reader) on geopolitical factors and historical patterns, Friedman does a great job at inspiring the reader to think outside of the box about geopolitics, the balance of power, and the trends that determine the future. While his book does not prove what will happen in the world, it does prove one thing for sure – we cannot assume that what we expect to happen will actually happen.

Though the intellectual exercise does the reader a great favor in serving as a reminder not to get caught up in the hype of the most recent trends in the media, Friedman’s analyses fail to incorporate more dynamic transnational variables.

Specifically, I am referring to the role of disease in determining human history. Pathogens played  a large role in enabling Europeans to swiftly carve out the New World for their own interests. Malaria prevented the Dutch from being as successful at colonizing southern Africa as the French were in west Africa and the Maghreb. HIV/AIDS and Malaria have inhibited and continue to burden the growth of many African nations. If Friedman considers demographics to be so important in determining history, how can he possibly justify avoiding a discussion of the role of maladies that so powerfully sculpt demographic pyramids? It would have been interesting to see him try to factor this into his discussion or even to hear him explain why he did not.

“The Year of Magical Thinking” by Joan Didion

I’m not sure what to say about this book. In fact it’s taken me more than a month to publish this post. I’ve spent much time thinking about what to say and I’ve drawn the conclusion that there isn’t anything that I can say that would be able to encapsulate, summarize, or even describe a portion of what Didion (bio) has written. The subject of her work and the way in which she expresses her experience is with such natural logic and inherent tact that I cannot attempt to convey it without diluting it. What I can say, however, is that The Year of Magical Thinking is an intellectual yet pure expression of a universal human experience gravid with emotion, of an attempt to understand and adapt to those most final, irreversible, and destabilizing aspects of death and mourning.

It is important to know that despite the weight of the subject matter of this book, The Year of Magical Thinking is in no way dark and does not feel heavy. The hardest and saddest moments could only be so described because of the honesty of Didion’s writing, which, both directly and indirectly, discusses all the twists and turns that the mourning mind takes in its search to make sense of the world.

The Year of Magical Thinking is a book about the environment of death – mourning, grief, loss, and the inevitable questions of self that arise in this landscape. Reading the last line and closing the back cover with nothing more left to read was like getting hit with a wall-like gust of wind or plunging into cold water – not because of the plot but because of the thoughts that Didion conjures. The thought process that immediately ensues is akin to a philosophical and somewhat existential rumination.

Read and reflect.

“Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West” by Benazir Bhutto

Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West by Benazir Bhutto was probably one of the best book choices I have ever made. Other than for the unique historical significance of the woman, factors of my own certainly contributed a great deal to the personal import of reading Bhutto’s work. Without a doubt, Reconciliation has instilled in me a strong conviction that opportunities for democratic growth in the Islamic world must be more creatively and universally supported by both American civil society and American foreign policy.

Reconciliation is not only a good book for those who have spent too much time reading article after article about the Islamic world and following the debate on civilizational and ideological conflict. It is also a prime spot for beginners. The book presents, essentially, two stories. First, the book shows Bhutto’s theory; the argument that the essential obstacles to democracy in Muslim nations (particularly in Pakistan)  are the conflicts between democracy and dictatorship and between moderation and extremism – not the religion of Islam itself. Second, the book recounts Benazir Bhutto’s own struggle for democratization in Pakistan.

In her analysis of the obstacles facing Muslim democracies, Bhutto’s argument traces many perspectives on Islam, democracy, and the Western role in the Muslim world.  She assesses the history of democracy in Muslim nations from one end of Ummah to the other. In her assessment of the compatibility of Islam and democracy, she draws heavily on the text of the Quran, differentiates between religion and tradition, and identifies the conflicts within the Muslim community that bar its achievement of democratic momentum. Building her argument from the ground up, this historical overview allows Bhutto to access all readers on all levels of understanding.

Bhutto’s personal experiences are none other than inspiring. The corrupt political environment in Pakistan clearly forced her to adopt aggressively creative tactics to promote the Pakistan People’s Party and fight for democratic principles and enable equitable economic development. In Reconciliation, she employs this creative critical thinking to problem solving in the greater context of democratic development in the Muslim world – resulting an identification of the key target areas (education, gender equality, women’s economic empowerment, civil society, etc.) as well as a series of innovative proposals.

Enlightening and inspiring.

“Café Europa: life after communism” by Slavenka Drakulić

I recently finished reading a great book recommended by a friend of mine (who is very enthusiastic about the Balkans) called Café Europa, by Slavenka Drakulić. A collection of beautifully well-written, thought-provoking narratives and interrogative reflections on communist life in former Yugoslavia, Drakulić’s writing brings new life to some age-old questions about nation, society, and the identity of Europe.

All 24 essay/narratives and even the introduction (which reads beautifully and any person would be at a true loss for skipping it) are phenomenal. Drakulić can certainly write and it is no surprise that she has been compared to Duras, Beckett, and Camus.

The contents of her essays are also beautifully crafted – each with its own point of focus, its own short story or reflection that contributes to the greater discourse of the book on the whole. There’s no doubt that each reader will find his or her own connection with a few essays in particular. For me, I found myself most touched by “My Frustration with Germany”, “A Croat among Jews”, and “My Father’s Guilt”. I think these essays really show the difficulty, on both levels of the state and the individual, of dealing with the greater guilt and responsibility of a nation/people. I cannot agree more with the importance of remembering our own actions in history – good and bad – as both nations and individuals. Drakulić’s conclusion that both the nation and the self need to participate in the recognition of history reminds me of Joan Didion’s essay “On Self-Respect”.

Great book. Great author. I can’t wait to read another one of her works. Drakulić, for me, has also managed to breach my ignorance of the deeply complicated and poorly understood western Balkans. Ironically, I saw Ambassador Avni Spahiu of Kosovo speak this evening and I am feeling more and more drawn to the region. Maybe I should learn some BCS and some Albanian.

“Postcards from Tomorrow Square” by James Fallows

I recently finished reading Postcards from Tomorrow Square by James Fallows, which I found out about while reading Dreaming in Chinese by Deborah Fallows, his wife. James Fallows, a journalist for the Atlantic, moved to China for a few years and produced Postcards from Tomorrow Square as a collection of essays about various topics that struck him while he was there. Ranging from rural developmet, and internet censorship to cultural issues like the nouveau riche, Fallows addresses issues that would be of interest to those who have developed a curiosity about China.

I was entertained by Fallows relatively short and easily readable essays. However, reading this book in 2011 seems to be a little too tardy to absorb any profound learning from its pages – simply because I have the distinct impression that journalistic accounts of the “China experience” written before the Beijing Olympics in 2008,  by their nature, fail to take into account important developments in the issues that they once sufficiently addressed. Admittedly, I feel bit slighted by the fact that I waited until now to read this book and I have this unfortunate hunch that if I discuss the details of its contents with Sinophiles or Sinologists, I will come across as a recently buried time-capsule.

In an effort to not be overly dismissive, however, I will say that I found his assessment of the way that Americans view China to be quite accurate and still very relevant. Fallows asserts that Americans don’t really understand China’s trajectory and drastically overemphasize the “threat” that it poses to what Americans feel is (but do not refer to as) a sort of Pax Americana. In the same vein, most Americans fail to see the significant progress and accomplishments that have been made in China during its unprecedented push for development. Fallows points specifically at environmental regulation and China’s efforts to actively deal with environmental degradation as it happens (whereas Fallows claims that no other industrialized nations have engaged in this degree of environmentalism during industrialization).

“The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan

Beginning with the simple question of what to eat for dinner, in the Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan launches into an analysis of his relationship to food and the multiple incarnations of the American food industry. Set up almost like a diary of this inquisitive, personal experience, or project, Pollan’s first adventure is with industrialized food, his second with organic food, and his last with what, while some folks call it “slow food”, one could call pre-industrial food.

Pollan is smart. Each chapter will impart upon the reader a bunch of information about aspects of the food economy that the reader most likely never knew; interesting facts about nutrition and industry; as well as new ways of intellectualizing one of our most quotidian processes – eating.

Of all the sections, I found his discussion of the corn-based food system in the United States to be most enlightening. Mostly, this was because it seemed to directly answer my curiosities about food that I have not, through my passive relationship with the food I eat, cultivated into questions. Yet, I do think (though one could argue it would require a whole other book) that a more in depth look the direct relationship between the corn-based industrial food system and many American social issues – such as food deserts, poverty cycles, and even crime – would have made his work slightly more poignant and a stronger tool in politics of food-activism.

The section on organics and his interest in “pastoralism”, or sustainable agriculture, was necessary and I entirely understand his fascination and his admiration for this small movement. However, seeing as it immediately followed his section on industrialized food, I couldn’t help but feel that some questions about how this new system could be put into practice went unanswered. Perhaps this is because no-one yet knows how to take this system and apply it to our economy at this point in time. However, I couldn’t help but feel, at times, that Pollan’s critique of industrial food systems and preference for pastoralism is founded on a bias against industrialism and international economics in its contemporary form as petrol-dependent.

Overall, the Omnivore’s Dilemma is a great read and it has opened a whole new field of interest for me. Since Pollan, I have wanted to read more about food and I have certainly become more interested in food-problems both in America and on a more global scale. Some questions that arise have to do with food supply, famine, entitlement, how food goes from comestible essential to commodity, ecology, urban farming, etc. etc. etc. In other words, the Omnivore’s Dilemma has, in a way, sparked my interest and inspired me to learn more.

“Somewhere Inside” by Laura and Lisa Ling

After reading Euna Lee’s The World Is Bigger Now, I thought it would be appropriate to read Laura Ling‘s account of her parallel experience as a journalist in captivity in North Korea. Laura Ling’s book, Somewhere Inside, is co-written with her sister Lisa Ling in order to show both Laura’s experience in captivity and Lisa’s experience at trying to help her obtain freedom. The authors take turns telling their perspective on the story and each section is woven together in a way that is not too confusing for the reader, despite the constant back and forth.

While being held captive and not knowing her future for such a long time, Laura Ling’s account is of course personal in nature but much less so than that of Euna Lee. This is because Laura had a very different experience than Euna due to her sister’s, Lisa’s, contacts in the United States. In the communication-vaccum that is U.S.-DPRK relations, the Laura-Lisa connection became the primary way that Pyongyang communicated what it wanted from Washington in order to release the journalists.  In this sense, Laura’s book certainly supports some of the findings in Robert Egan’s Eating with the Enemy, particularly the concept that Pyongyang tries to communicate with the United States through somewhat unconventional channels.

Laura’s book also describes the criminal proceedings and the disposition of the court in a bit more detail than Euna. However, it is clear that it does not provide nearly the level of detail that it could have. There must be some cautious reason for Laura’s not divulging more about this process.

One thing I did think was funny, was the spelling of Korean names. There’s a point at which one of the guards that was watching Laura during her captivity changes names entirely from Kyung-hee to Hyung-hee and then back again. Though this hardly presents a problem to the reader, I didn’t really expect to encounter such a basic editor’s error.

Comparatively speaking, if I had to choose which account I preferred best from Euna Lee and Laura Ling’s books I would have to choose the latter. The reason is that Euna Lee’s book is much more personal and, for some reason, she seems to have been kept in the dark regarding the political process that surrounded her captivity, while Laura was more privy. In addition, her sister Lisa’s perspective helped to explain much more tangibly the way that the entire fiasco unfolded and was eventually resolved. All in all, I think I learned more form Somewhere Inside.