318 books directly related to politics 📚

All 318 politics books as recommended by authors and experts. Updated weekly.

Book cover of The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time

The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time

By Hunter S. Thompson

Why this book?

After Carter left office, it was hard to remember what made him so exciting when he first became a national figure in 1976. In his patented “gonzo” style, Thompson’s flattering and entertaining articles on Carter in this collection shed light on what made Carter compelling and cool. Thompson's stature among young journalists was so great at the time that his coverage of Carter helped make him president.

From the list:

The best books about the life, character, and presidency of Jimmy Carter

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Book cover of The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia

The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia

By Peter Hopkirk

Why this book?

Filled with larger-than-life characters risking life and limb in the quest for empire, Hopkirk recounts the contest between Britain and Russia for influence in remote inner Asia in the 19th century. Appropriate derring-do abounds as spies and soldiers traverse steppe, mountains and desert in search of glory, only to become entrapped in the ultimate folly of imperial designs. Hopkirk’s sharp eye for the epic would make Kipling proud.

From the list:

The best Asian history books for a Sunday afternoon

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Book cover of Democracy in America

Democracy in America

By Alexis de Tocqueville

Why this book?

And no such list is complete without Alexis de Tocqueville's classic from the 19th century, Democracy in America. Weighing in just two pages short of Don Quixote's 937 (paperback both, the ECCO Grossman Quixote translation and the Penguin Gerald Bevan de Tocqueville edition), Tocqueville ponders a question most of us contemplate and plenty of us act on: "Why Americans are so restless in the midst of their prosperity..."

From the list:

The best books to understand the America between New Jersey and Oakland

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Book cover of The Roman Revolution

The Roman Revolution

By Ronald Syme

Why this book?

Considered a controversial masterpiece, this book has helped reveal far more than many realize. It examined the fall and overthrow of the Roman Republic and the re-establishment of the monarchy centered on the life and career of Octavian, who became Augustus, the first emperor. Syme, a much-respected scholar of ancient Rome, was immensely skilled in the use of prosopography, the technique of examining and tracing genealogical connections between the various leading families of republican and imperial Rome. He showed that republican Rome was ruled by an oligarchy, in this case, where a small group of powerful people, related by blood,…

From the list:

The best ancient history books that challenge assumptions

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Book cover of Lion of Jordan: The Life of King Hussein in War and Peace

Lion of Jordan: The Life of King Hussein in War and Peace

By Avi Shlaim

Why this book?

Perhaps the biggest surprise of King Hussein’s epic life is that he died in his own bed of natural causes and at a relatively advanced age––Hussein of Jordan always assumed he would die from an assassin’s bullet. Incredibly, his long reign had a happy ending: Hussein surmounted enough tragedies and challenges to fill the Book of Job––he witnessed his grandfather’s murder, his father went insane, his beloved cousin was shot, the wife he adored went down in a helicopter crash––yet steered his country and the people of Jordan to safe harbor through five decades of war, revolt and revolution. This…

From the list:

The best books on modern monarchy

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Book cover of Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam

Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam

By Frances FitzGerald

Why this book?

I loved this book because Fitzgerald is a journalist, not a historian, so her writing is vivid, fluent, and readable. This is so much more than a history of the war. She plunges into the complex story of Vietnam’s history and culture, setting the stage for America’s unfortunate involvement and the subsequent tragic events.
Fitzgerald first went to Vietnam in 1966, and, when this book came out in 1972, it was the first history of Vietnam written by an American. The New York Times called it “A compassionate and penetrating account of the collision of two societies that remain untranslatable…

From the list:

The best books on the Vietnam war and what it all meant

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Book cover of How Long Will South Africa Survive?: The Looming Crisis

How Long Will South Africa Survive?: The Looming Crisis

By R.W. Johnson

Why this book?

R W Johnson, an international commentator on South African affairs, first wrote a book with this question in 1977. It provided a controversial and highly original analysis of the survival prospects of the apartheid regime.  Now, after more than twenty years of post-apartheid ANC (African National Congress) majority rule, the situation has become so crucial that he feels the question must be posed again. He moves from an analysis of Jacob Zuma’s corrupt rule to the increasingly dire state of the economy, and concludes that South Africa under the ANC is fast slipping backward. Twenty years of ANC rule he…

From the list:

The best books to understand modern South Africa

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Book cover of Guilty Men

Guilty Men

By Cato

Why this book?

This is really a pamphlet rather than a book and can be read in less than an hour. But, as a denunciation of Appeasement, it’s foundational to Britain’s understanding of its history. Written anonymously by three journalists, including future Labour leader Michael Foot, it’s both brutal and wildly unfair. As all polemics should be.

From the list:

The best books on sidelights on British politics

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Book cover of Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire

Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire

By David Remnick

Why this book?

I’m recommending this because if have any interest in Russia but haven’t yet read it, you simply must. No, really, listen: You must. David Remnick writes like Muhammad Ali boxed: with grace, power, and an unfair amount of skill. This is a deeply researched, carefully crafted, incredibly absorbing account of the final days of the Soviet Union. Never mind the “tomb” title; the book is filled with colorful characters and delicious slices of life, all captured during a time of historic upheaval.

From the list:

The best books about the Russian people

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Book cover of The Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties

The Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties

By Robert Conquest

Why this book?

No book exposed the horrors of Josef Stalin’s purges more graphically and with greater power than Robert Conquest’s epic, The Great Terror. The book chronicled how a paranoid Stalin, convinced his power was threatened by his rival Leon Trotsky and his allies, unleashed a wave of terror by his country’s NKVD—a forerunner of the KGB--  that decimated the Soviet leadership and its military with millions of Russians executed or marched to Siberian prison camps. While Stalin’s henchmen staged mock “trials” in Moscow, marked by phony confessions, extracted by torture, liberal apologists in the West sought to justify Stalin’s lunatic…

From the list:

The best books about Russian espionage

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Book cover of The Haldeman Diaries: Inside the Nixon White House

The Haldeman Diaries: Inside the Nixon White House

By H.R. Haldeman

Why this book?

There was no one closer to Richard Nixon as Watergate unfolded than his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman. Every evening, Haldeman dictated an audio diary that is an essential source for understanding the Nixon presidency and the chain of events that led to its unraveling. While Haldeman admired Nixon, he was also well aware of his faults. He records the triumphs, failures, and personal quirks of his boss on an almost minute-to-minute basis. I think that Haldeman has it right when he concludes that Nixon did not know about Watergate in advance, in the sense that he did not order…

From the list:

The best books to understand Watergate

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Book cover of The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson

The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson

By Robert A. Caro

Why this book?

Imagine you’re Vice President Lyndon Johnson on Nov. 22, 1963. The Secret Service just hustled you into a secure room at the Dallas hospital where doctors are desperately trying to keep President John F. Kennedy alive after an assassination attempt. What’s going through your mind? If Kennedy dies, what are your next steps? Robert Caro found out. Pulitzer-winner Caro is the greatest historian of our lifetime—and a brilliant, accessible writer who makes it impossible to put down a 700-page nonfiction book. The Passage of Power is the fourth of a planned five-volume biography of Johnson, the man who helped turn…

From the list:

The most well written political biographies

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Book cover of The Athenian Experiment: Building an Imagined Political Community in Ancient Attica, 508-490 B.C.

The Athenian Experiment: Building an Imagined Political Community in Ancient Attica, 508-490 B.C.

By Greg Anderson

Why this book?

At the very end of the sixth century BCE, the Athenians took a leap of faith and turned their city into the first democracy – or proto-democracy, anyway: much tweaking went on over subsequent decades. In terms of European history as a whole, this has probably been the most important event to come out of ancient Greece. It has of course been much studied – so it is remarkable that Anderson’s book is filled with fresh insights into the background of the “Athenian experiment,” what actually happened, and why. The results are often surprising. Above all, he demonstrates that it…

From the list:

The best books on ancient Greek history

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Book cover of Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea

By Guy Delisle, Helge Dascher

Why this book?

The Canadian animator offers a revealing account of his two-month trip to North Korea to oversee a cartooning project. In deceptively simple words and drawings, Delisle gives us a front-row view of this complex, enigmatic totalitarian society. Everyday life in Pyongyang is rich fodder for this hilariously grumpy author. What’s it really like living in North Korea? Read this book and weep—and laugh. 

From the list:

The best memoir-based graphic novels

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Book cover of My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel

By Ari Shavit

Why this book?

My Promised Land is beautifully written, a story deeply informed by the author’s family history and the body of knowledge he built as an influential Israeli journalist. Shavit loves the place of his birth but doesn’t retreat from hard questions. He tells a powerful, poignant story of a state-created out of tragedy, and the brutal reality of what Jewish statehood has wrought for yet another disinherited group. There are no easy answers and Shavit offers none. But he presents the complexities and frustrations with intellectual rigor and literary grace.

From the list:

The best books for insight into the Israeli Palestinian Conflict

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Book cover of War with Russia?: From Putin & Ukraine to Trump & Russiagate

War with Russia?: From Putin & Ukraine to Trump & Russiagate

By Stephen F. Cohen

Why this book?

For readers following coverage of Russia in the American press, this treatment of recent US-Russian relations will be a revelation. Historian Stephen Cohen, while never downplaying the serious shortcomings of Russia under Vladimir Putin, provides a much-needed correction of the widespread idea that the dangerous decline of US-Russian relations is simply the fault of one man. Cohen meticulously chronicles the many American missteps since the end of the Cold War that any Russian leader would have had to consider acts of U.S. aggression. I love this book because it holds a mirror to American views of innocence and benevolence and…

From the list:

The best books on Russia in Western eyes

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Book cover of A Force So Swift: Mao, Truman, and the Birth of Modern China, 1949

A Force So Swift: Mao, Truman, and the Birth of Modern China, 1949

By Kevin Peraino

Why this book?

President Truman sends George Marshall to China in December 1945 on a special mission to unify the Communists and Nationalists and create a non-Communist China. Marshall returns to the US in early 1947. The mission has failed. Had he been truly neutral as a broker, could the mission have succeeded?

From the list:

The best books on modern Asia

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Book cover of Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815

Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815

By Gordon S. Wood

Why this book?

Gordon Wood is the foremost authority on the American Revolution and the Founding. In his contribution to the Oxford History of the United States series, he provides a masterful introduction to the history of the Early Republic. Prodigious research and profound insights deriving from it will enlighten readers for generations.

From the list:

The best books on the USA in its formative years (1789-1845)

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Book cover of Prelude to Civil War

Prelude to Civil War

By William W. Freehling

Why this book?

Though venerable, Freehling’s book remains the standard treatment of this early episode in America’s convulsive sectional crisis. Informed by impeccable research, Freehling depicts the growing tension that pitted hardline states’ rights advocates against resolute nationalists, almost to cause a civil war three decades before it finally happened. Vivid portrayals abound with numerous characters, including the volatile Andrew Jackson and the doctrinaire John C. Calhoun, brought to life in a gemstone of the narrative art.

From the list:

The best books on the USA in its formative years (1789-1845)

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Book cover of The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788 - 1800

The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788 - 1800

By Stanley Elkins, Eric McKitrick

Why this book?

Exhaustively researched, this books illuminates the brief time in early U.S. history when Federalism dominated American politics. It remains the standard source on the Federalists’ political philosophy, the understanding of which is crucial to comprehending everything political that follows it.

From the list:

The best books on the USA in its formative years (1789-1845)

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Book cover of Deep Roots: How Slavery Still Shapes Southern Politics

Deep Roots: How Slavery Still Shapes Southern Politics

By Avidit Acharyo, Matthew Blackwell, Maya Sen

Why this book?

I love this book because it’s political science at its best; it uses a lot of great data to study how history affects us in the present; it shows us how hard change is and also what makes it possible. It’s depressing and hopeful and super smart. It’s social science but it’s also very readable.

From the list:

The best books on why American politics are terrible and what to do about it

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Book cover of James Madison: Writings (Loa #109)

James Madison: Writings (Loa #109)

By James Madison

Why this book?

Though this collection spans Madison's career, his letters during the War of 1812 show a cinematic transformation in his leadership style and views on his power as president. 

Because of his pivotal role in securing the U.S. Constitution, President Madison often deferred to Congress as a co-equal branch of government. He was overly trusting with his cabinet members. But the burning of the White House and the U.S. Capitol lit a fire of urgency in him and changed him, like the hero of a movie. After the burning of the White House on August 24, 1814, Madison carefully documented his…

From the list:

The best books in their own words from the War of 1812

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Book cover of Afterlives of Chinese Communism: Political Concepts from Mao to Xi

Afterlives of Chinese Communism: Political Concepts from Mao to Xi

By Christian Sorace, Ivan Franceschini, Nicholas Loubere

Why this book?

The fact that the edited book collects more than 50 world’s renowned scholars in the field is itself unique and worth reading. The other feature of the collection is that each scholar focuses on one topic, or one theme, such as class struggle, global Maoism, or poetry. In other words, each and any reader can find his or her topic of interest. “The masterful ensemble of essays challenges us to learn from China’s socialist past – its visions, accomplishment, and mistakes – as we contemplate our possible futures” as commented by one reviewer
From the list:

The best books to understand modern China

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Book cover of The Dynamics of Chinese Politics

The Dynamics of Chinese Politics

By Lucian Pye

Why this book?

Lucian Pye’s parents were American missionaries in China, and the author was born in northwest China. He was a sought-after China expert in his lifetime. He had a deep understanding of China and its politics, which meant he understood the CCP, and the book includes references to Hong Kong in the days when Hong Kong was a British colony but something was rumbling.
From the list:

The best books about the Chinese Communist Party and Hong Kong

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Book cover of Communities of Resistance: Writings on Black Struggles for Socialism

Communities of Resistance: Writings on Black Struggles for Socialism

By A. Sivanandan

Why this book?

A. Sivanandan was a key intellectual of the Asian and African-Caribbean working-class movements in Britain during their insurgent heyday from the late 1960s to the late 1980s. The essays collected in this volume, written between 1982 and 1990, are about how those movements were disaggregated and undermined – laying the ground for today’s racist Britain. The son of a rural postal clerk from the hinterland of a minor colonial territory, Sivanandan fled Sri Lanka after the anti-Tamil pogroms of 1958 and arrived in London as a refugee. The socialism the book advocates is poetic, loving, joyful, and centered upon the…

From the list:

The best books on racism in Britain

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Book cover of Latin America and the Global Cold War

Latin America and the Global Cold War

By Thomas C. Field, Stella Krepp, Vanni Pettinà

Why this book?

An edited collection, Latin America and the Global Cold War actually does what the field of Cold War studies has talked about for decades—decentering the Cold War. Breaking with the long-standing idea that Latin America was merely the backyard of U.S. imperialism, the 14 contributions show how deeply Latin American countries were connected to other parts of the Global South. Bringing together junior and senior scholars from three continents, the volume is a refreshing and a much-needed eye-opener for all historians of international relations.

From the list:

The best books on Cold War history published recently

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Book cover of MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed Bin Salman

MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed Bin Salman

By Ben Hubbard

Why this book?

The assiduous New York Times reporter digs deeply into the persona of the Saudi crown prince, and is rewarded with many anecdotes. Unsurprisingly, most are anonymous. A revealing one is: “One foreign official recalled that the prince’s leg never stopped bouncing during their meeting, making him wonder if the prince was nervous or on some sort of stimulant.”
From the list:

The best books to understand modern Saudi Arabia

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Book cover of Mistreated: The Political Consequences of the Fight Against AIDS in Lesotho

Mistreated: The Political Consequences of the Fight Against AIDS in Lesotho

By Nora Kenworthy

Why this book?

A big mistake in much radical analysis is to characterize problems in dualistic terms that externalize responsibility from Africa (Rodney, of course, is wide open to that critique). Thus, colonialism is not just irredeemably bad but simple to identify and directly related to white skin. The end of formal colonialism provided new targets in sometimes caricature form: black-skin-white-mask neocolonialism and neoliberalism, notably. Such things undoubtedly exist. However, Kenworthy’s brilliant, gob-smacking analysis of the unintended consequences of life-saving technologies reveals levels of complexity and complicity that belie easy dualisms. How does something that promises liberation from mass suffering and death (anti-retroviral…

From the list:

The best books for thinking about social justice in Africa

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Book cover of Understanding Contemporary Ethiopia: Monarchy, Revolution and the Legacy of Meles Zenawi

Understanding Contemporary Ethiopia: Monarchy, Revolution and the Legacy of Meles Zenawi

By Gérard Prunier, Éloi Ficquet

Why this book?

Ethiopian society has gone through radical changes and transformations during the last century – and which continue into an uncertain future. The medieval-style empire of Haile Selassie was toppled by a Marxist dictatorship in 1974, which in turn fell to an alliance of northern peoples who set up a federalist system in 1991, which is now showing signs of tension. This collection of sixteen essays by some of the best-known authorities in their fields, outlines the political history and economic changes. It also tells about the arrival of Pentecostal churches, the growth of militant Islam, and the adaptation of the…

From the list:

The best books on the ancient Christian faith of Ethiopia

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Book cover of Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin's Russia

Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin's Russia

By Timothy Frye

Why this book?

The most recent book on the list, Timothy Frye’s Weak Strongman brings together many of the different factors and perspectives from previous readings. Rather than playing to contemporary stereotypes of the omnipotence of the Russian political system and its leader, Frye explores the limits of Putinism. It highlights the importance of maintaining a positive image for Russian public opinion, and how that weighs into the various policy tradeoffs and strategic decisions made by the Kremlin. These more distant, theoretical questions are couched in prescient and timely discussions of Putin’s enduring popularity, the prospects for Russia’s resource-based economy, the role of…

From the list:

The best books for understanding Putinism

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Book cover of Portraits of the Queen Mother: Polemics, Panegyrics, Letters

Portraits of the Queen Mother: Polemics, Panegyrics, Letters

By Catherine de Medicis, Leah L. Chang, Katherine Kong

Why this book?

From her arrival as a fourteen-year-old bride to her death as queen mother fifty-five years later, Catherine de Medici was praised as a devoted wife and mother and able ruler but also condemned as a foreigner, a poisoner, and murderer of Protestants. This rare collection of primary sources translated into English allows readers to become familiar with the sources of such positive and negative assessments of this controversial queen. The letters included here, selected from her many volumes of correspondence, reveal her concerns as a mother and as a political figure.

Excerpts from Venetian ambassadors' gossipy reports bring to light…

From the list:

The best books on the power, sex, and influence of women in early modern France

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Book cover of The Transformation of European Politics 1763-1848

The Transformation of European Politics 1763-1848

By Paul W. Schroeder

Why this book?

This masterful analysis of European foreign policy encompasses a period slightly larger than the life of Napoleon, but the core of the book is the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. On first reading this I was struck not only by the depth and breadth of Schroeder’s knowledge, but also by his uncanny ability to question standard interpretations and to present an original and oftentimes provocative evaluation. This book made me think about how best to write history. Elegantly written, this is an accomplished tome that will be read by students of foreign policy for many years to come. 

From the list:

The best books about the Napoleonic Wars and their impact on Europe

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Book cover of The Secret War Against Hitler

The Secret War Against Hitler

By Fabian von Schlabrendorff, Andrew Chandler

Why this book?

In this gripping memoir, Fabian von Schlabrendorff recounts his way into the heart of the German conspiracy against Hitler. After the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, he fell under the influence of Colonel Henning von Tresckow, “a natural enemy of National-Socialism and one of the most outstanding figures in the German resistance.” Working as a team, Tresckow, Schlabrendorff, and their co-conspirators planned to kill Hitler during a visit to the eastern front in March 1943 with a bomb camouflaged as three wrapped bottles of liqueur. As recounted in Schlabrendorff’s memoirs, he and Tresckow concocted several other assassination attempts with…

From the list:

The best books on covert operations to make your blood boil

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Book cover of The Elimination: A Survivor of the Khmer Rouge Confronts His Past and the Commandant of the Killing Fields

The Elimination: A Survivor of the Khmer Rouge Confronts His Past and the Commandant of the Killing Fields

By Rithy Panh, Christophe Bataille, John Cullen

Why this book?

Filmmaker Rithy Panh does not like the word trauma. He prefers to describe the after-effects of what happened to his Cambodian family as “an unending desolation.” Ever since the Khmer Rouge were driven from power in 1979 and he survived as a teenager, he has not stopped thinking about his family and trying to understand Comrade Duch, a man Rithy regards as “The Commandant of the Killing Fields." Mao and Stalin, Nazism and the Nurenberg Trials, and The Hague all hover at the edges of Rithy’s consciousness. He describes dispossession; dehumanization beginning with the annulment of names; demonization of education…

From the list:

The best books on trauma and recovery

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Book cover of The Comedians

The Comedians

By Graham Greene

Why this book?

Three American men meet aboard a ship destined for 1950s Port-Au-Prince. These men, each of whom is a small-time big shot with inconsistent backgrounds, arrive in Haiti as “Papa Doc” Duvalier consolidates power. Much of this timeless story takes place in and around a darkly mysterious hotel that caters to an ebbing flow of foreigners. I say “timeless” because over half a century has passed since Greene wrote The Comedians, and the country of Haiti remains a mystery to that small subset of Americans that has deigned pay attention to it.

From the list:

The best novels set in the Caribbean

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Book cover of A Child of Hitler: Germany in the Days When God Wore a Swastika

A Child of Hitler: Germany in the Days When God Wore a Swastika

By Alfons Heck

Why this book?

Heck’s plain-spoken memoir of his indoctrination into Nazism as a young boy and his time in the Hitler Youth and the German military is powerful and honest. Long after he’d left Germany as an adult, Heck continued to grapple with his own complicity in the regime and his fervent beliefs in its goals. The Hitler Youth was particularly adept at tapping into young boys’ yearning to be heroes. Heck explains the lingering effects of his indoctrination, noting that, “Despite our monstrous sacrifice and the appalling misuse of our idealism, there will always be the memory of unsurpassed power, the intoxication…

From the list:

The best personal books about German complicity and resistance in WW2

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Book cover of Eleanor Makes Her Mark

Eleanor Makes Her Mark

By Barbara Kerley, Edwin Fotheringham

Why this book?

This delightful picture book opens with Eleanor Roosevelt’s firm footing in the White House. Then it transports us back to her childhood, where we see the foundation for that footing: Eleanor cultivating her own character, way before she met her husband. The wonderful backmatter asks children how they might make their own mark, to enhance their lives…and the world.

From the list:

The best picture books about women who shaped history

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Book cover of Innovative State

Innovative State

By Aneesh Chopra

Why this book?

The author of this book, Aneesh Chopra, became the first chief technology officer of the United States government in 2009. Prior to that, he was the Secretary of Technology for Virginia and managing director for a health care think tank. As CTO for the US government, Chopra led the administration’s attempts to create a more open, tech-savvy government. In this book, he draws on his experience and interviews with policy experts and tech insiders to show how government can establish a new paradigm for the internet era, one that allows us to tackle the most challenging problems, from economic…

From the list:

The best books to understand what modern governments can and should do for their citizens

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Book cover of China's Civilian Army: The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy

China's Civilian Army: The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy

By Peter Martin

Why this book?

Many analysts have noted a more aggressive or assertive international posture by China in recent years, sometimes termed “Wolf Warrior Diplomacy” after a Chinese action movie from 2017 where a Chinese former special forces soldier defeats an American adversary. This book explains the origins and evolution of China’s diplomatic corp and how it has always been run on military lines, including having a twinning arrangement for diplomats where they are required to report on their partner if they become “ideologically impure.” Martin explains the reasons for China’s more assertive foreign policy in recent years, including through the weaponisation of trade…

From the list:

The best books on China’s global and African strategies

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Book cover of The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State

The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State

By Elizabeth C. Economy

Why this book?

Those of us who study Chinese history know that the global dominance the West has enjoyed over the last couple of hundred years is a mere blip on the radar to scholars and leaders in China. That’s what makes China so fascinating to me and drives me to write so many novels set there and to teach Daoist arts like tai chi and qigong. China was long known as the Middle Kingdom because it really was the social, cultural, and military center of the world. This author, a well-known scholar, policy expert, and now member of President Biden’s “China Team”…

From the list:

The best books to better understand and appreciate China

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Book cover of Everybody Talks About the Weather...We Don't

Everybody Talks About the Weather...We Don't

By Ulrike Meinhof, Luise Von Flotow

Why this book?

When respected journalist Ulrike Meinhof abandoned her middle-class, job-holding lifestyle to join a group of revolutionaries she’d been covering as a reporter, she was talked about as if she’d been kidnapped. But her own writing reveals a far more devastating reckoning with notions of social class, privilege, and the urgent need for cultural change. 

From the list:

The best quasi-memoirs by women (that are secretly about money)

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Book cover of I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump's Catastrophic Final Year

I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump's Catastrophic Final Year

By Carol Leonnig, Philip Rucker

Why this book?

This book by two Washington Post Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters contains even more behind-the-scenes looks than most at what happened during Donald Trump’s last year in the White House. Leonnig, a national investigative reporter, and Rucker, senior Washington correspondent, details nuggets such as South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham telling Trump a couple of days before January 6 that Pence couldn’t change the result and pointing out how Al Gore hadn’t tried doing that when he actually won the popular vote - but lost the Electoral College - in 2000. Trump replied that Gore wasn’t smart enough to pull such a move.…
From the list:

The best books on the January 6th Capitol attack

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Book cover of How Far From Austerlitz?: Napoleon 1805-1815

How Far From Austerlitz?: Napoleon 1805-1815

By Alistair Horne

Why this book?

As a St Helena Lullaby puts it, quoted by Horne at the start of his scholarly but eminently readable book, "How far is St Helena from the field of Austerlitz?" Horne is a brilliant historian and he crafts a compelling book tracing Napoleon’s career from its apogee on the field of his greatest victory to its nadir with his exile to St Helena, far out in the south Atlantic. But we don’t just get the events, we get to experience the slippery nature of success, as Spain swallows troops and Russia decimates the Grande Armée. We see this through Napoleon’s…

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The best books for getting inside Napoleon Bonaparte’s head

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Book cover of North of the DMZ: Essays on Daily Life in North Korea

North of the DMZ: Essays on Daily Life in North Korea

By Andrei Lankov

Why this book?

As a Russian, Lankov has a particular affinity for North Korea; he intuits how such economic systems work. A historian with some of the best work on the politics of the 1950s, he has more recently turned to projects interviewing refugees including on the economy of the North. He introduces the country’s weird political system, but also analyzes daily life, from personal status badges to schools, food and surviving in the underground market economy as well. 

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The best books on the North Korean economy

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Book cover of What's the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America

What's the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America

By Frank Thomas

Why this book?

The fact that the capitalist class organizations, with their use of capital strike and flight, lobbying, funding right-wing “grassroots” organizations, think tanks, media, and Chicago school intellectuals, wanted to drive economic policy in a certain direction does not inevitably lead to the conclusion that they would have succeeded in achieving these goals. Neoliberal policies could not have been implemented in even a nominal democracy without at least a modicum of support from its victims. Remarkably, large sections of the American electorate vote for and support policies that favor the very business class that has profited from their economic decline. This…

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The best books exploring class warfare and that the wrong class is winning

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Book cover of Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture

Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture

By Alison Landsberg

Why this book?

I really appreciate Alison Landsberg’s focus on the fact that all of us, regardless, of race, gender, or ethnicity, are able to experience empathy for people whose experience is historically different than our own. I find this argument especially important in an era of alarming race essentialism, such as the protest against a painting of Emmett Till because the artist was White.

From the list:

The best memoirs and books on the politics of memory

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Book cover of The Last Hurrah

The Last Hurrah

By Edwin O'Connor

Why this book?

James Curley, former Boston mayor, Massachusetts governor, and jailbird – not in that order – was as grand a politico as Huey Long or LBJ, and O’Connor’s novel based on his career holds its own with the classic romans à clef on those two. Frank Skeffington was also a self-made populist, but O’Connor’s book centers on big-city politics and ethnic tensions, which were more immediate to me – I grew up in New York City. Skeffington, a charmer, considered himself innately decent, an honorable man forced to play a dirty game, which made one of my father’s maxims echo: Beware…

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The best books on political bosses

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Book cover of A Short History of Brexit: From Brentry to Backstop

A Short History of Brexit: From Brentry to Backstop

By Kevin O'Rourke

Why this book?

This book provides the clearest and most accessible overview of the background of Brexit. I found it a highly reliable source of information on the historical context and it helped me understand the complexity of the various economic and political aspects of Britain’s membership in the EU from an unbiased and objective standpoint.

From the list:

The best books that reveal the truth about the origins, issues and passions that were aroused by Brexit

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Book cover of The Good Germans: Resisting the Nazis, 1933-1945

The Good Germans: Resisting the Nazis, 1933-1945

By Catrine Clay

Why this book?

This is a more recent book. It was published in 2020, the same year as mine, so I couldn’t use it as part of my bibliography. Nevertheless, I have enjoyed reading it, it offers invaluable personal accounts by ordinary Germans as well as aristocratic Prussians who shared an utter contempt for Hitler’s propaganda and showed an astonishing courage in the face of the overwhelming brutality of the Nazi regime, resisting it and staying true to their values.

From the list:

The best books on the German Resistance during WWII – what schoolbooks don’t tell you

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Book cover of Twilight Struggle: American Power and Nicaragua, 1977-1990

Twilight Struggle: American Power and Nicaragua, 1977-1990

By Robert Kagan

Why this book?

Penned by a conservative scholar who held a high-level Latin America foreign policy position in the Reagan administration, I don’t always agree with Kagan’s logic or evidence. But he is a fantastic writer and gives readers a riveting, albeit controversial, first-person account of the Reagan team’s adversarial relationship and interventions in Marxist revolutionary Nicaragua. 

From the list:

The best books on U.S. involvement in Latin America

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Book cover of The Twisted Road to Auschwitz: Nazi Policy toward German Jews, 1933-39

The Twisted Road to Auschwitz: Nazi Policy toward German Jews, 1933-39

By Karl A. Schleunes

Why this book?

When the Nazis came to power, they were viciously antisemitic, but they had not planned a genocide of the Jews. By 1942, that genocide was their driving purpose. What changed? Schleunes argues that pressures within the Nazi Party and the circumstances of World War II induced an increasing radicalization of the Nazis’ plan for the Jews, culminating in the Holocaust.

From the list:

The best books on Nazi Germany and the Holocaust

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Book cover of All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror

All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror

By Stephen Kinzer

Why this book?

The true story of how in 1953, the CIA, aided by the British, conspired to overthrow Iran’s democratically elected prime-minister – an incident which is now considered to have led to the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Kinzer has a storyteller’s instinct and this book reads like a thriller, weaving a gripping story around the intrigue, skullduggery and the personalities involved.

From the list:

The best books to understand modern Iran

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Book cover of Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

By Neil Postman

Why this book?

When Neil Postman wrote this book in 1985, few realized how brilliantly it would predict our present media-saturated times. Postman foresaw how the blurring of news and entertainment would eventually turn politics into theater; how the allure of quick and sensational news bites would diminish our ability to focus on serious, sustained issues; how glitzy if appealing entertainments would shrink our attention spans; and, most dangerous of all, how the immersion in “amusements,” a seemingly benign and enjoyable process, would have dire consequences for human happiness, well-being, education, journalism, and politics. We highly recommend this book because navigating the road…

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The best books on navigating the road to the good life

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Book cover of Moscow, 1937

Moscow, 1937

By Karl Schlogel

Why this book?

Karl Schlögel’s masterpiece, Moscow,1937, is a gripping study of Moscow at the peak of the Stalinist Great Terror. With short chapters and a multitude of illustrations, the book leads the reader on a panoptic tour of every aspect of the city’s life in this year of mass arrests and waves of executions. Step by step, Schlögel builds a convincing case that as the Communist regime struggled to get a grip on the chaos unleashed by the regime’s own collectivization and industrialization drives, its reflexive response was to resort to political violence. The murderous frenzy that resulted changed the society…

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The best books on modern Russian history

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Book cover of All the Kremlin's Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin

All the Kremlin's Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin

By Mikhail Zygar

Why this book?

Of course, it takes more than one man to run a country, and in All the Kremlin’s Men, opposition journalist Mikhail Zygar expands that scope to examine various important figures within Putin’s inner circle. From good friends to politicians, important bureaucrats, and oligarchs—and in many cases, the lines between those categories are very much blurred. Zygar builds on a decade’s worth of interviews and investigative journalism to give a rare, behind-the-scenes look at Russia’s elites, how they relate to one another, and to Putin. The book presents an immensely readable history of post-Soviet Russian politics, moving the chronology forward…

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The best books for understanding Putinism

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Book cover of The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution and the Fate of the Empire

The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution and the Fate of the Empire

By Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy

Why this book?

It’s impossible to understand the Revolutionary War by looking at it only from the American perspective. O'Shaughnessy’s detailed and readable book offers abundant insights into the men on the losing side — King George, the Howe Brothers, Lord Germain, and other significant players. By connecting personalities to important decisions during the war, he shows how human strengths, weaknesses, quirks and prejudices shape history.

From the list:

The best books about the American Revolutionary War from five different perspectives

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Book cover of The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America

The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America

By Russell Shorto

Why this book?

Chronicling the early days of the Dutch presence in Manhattan, New York, the book is full of rich stories from the earliest days of the colony; encounters with wildlife, Indians, and other Europeans. I have read this book three times, captivated by the multi-ethnic beginnings of New York, a characteristic that defines the city even today. Tidbits like how facets of the Dutch language have been incorporated into English, such as the words “boss,” “cole slaw,” and “cookie.” The orange colour in the New York Mets uniform is an homage to Dutch heritage. What if the Dutch had been able…

From the list:

The best books to contemplate for a time

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Book cover of Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, & the Great Depression

Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, & the Great Depression

By Alan Brinkley

Why this book?

This groundbreaking and wonderfully written study of two “protest” leaders during the Great Depression of the 1930s in the United States shows us what happens when truly hard times hit ordinary people, and what sort of leaders they then turn to. Brinkley brilliantly chronicles the rise of Louisiana politician Huey Long, the “Kingfish”, from obscurity in the poor Jim Crow south to becoming, by the time he was assassinated in 1935, the most significant political threat to the popular President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Long’s calls for wealth redistribution, contempt for traditional elites, and disregard for democratic institutions, make him an…

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The best books on leadership and history

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Book cover of Stalin's Drive to the West, 1938-1945: The Origins of the Cold War

Stalin's Drive to the West, 1938-1945: The Origins of the Cold War

By R.C. Raack

Why this book?

Like Sebag Montefiore and Mawdsley, Raack was the first diplomatic historian to re-evaluate Stalin’s foreign policy in light of documents which became available after the collapse of the USSR in 1991. He exploded numerous myths about the supposed Soviet interest in “collective security” in the 1930s, showing that this was mere projection on the part of French and British and Czechoslovak statesmen who saw what they wanted to see in Stalin’s foreign policy, which was just as territorially “revisionist” as that of Italy, Germany, and Japan, just as expansionist – but better camouflaged.

From the list:

The best books on Stalin and the Second World War

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Book cover of The Queen: A Biography of Elizabeth II

The Queen: A Biography of Elizabeth II

By Ben Pimlott

Why this book?

This is another biography of the current queen that shows how the monarchy works. It differs from Sarah Bradford’s biography. Pimlott was a historical expert on the labour party during the twentieth century. He brought to his book all the skepticism about the crown that people on the political left traditionally have in Britain. Perhaps surprisingly, then, he comes out admiring Elizabeth II. He sticks much more narrowly than Bradford does to political crises in which the queen had some noted or decisive influence.

From the list:

The best books on the modern British monarchy

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Book cover of France Since 1945

France Since 1945

By Robert Gildea

Why this book?

The leading British interpreter of French history from 1940 produced this valuable guide to a period of major transformation in French history. Gildea has cogently argued that French politics reflects long-lasting divisions that play out in different mileux.

From the list:

The best books on the history of France

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Book cover of Migration in the Time of Revolution: China, Indonesia, and the Cold War

Migration in the Time of Revolution: China, Indonesia, and the Cold War

By Taomo Zhou

Why this book?

Migration in the Time of Revolution pushes the international history of the 20th century into a new and exciting direction. Using the Chinese diaspora in Indonesia as a lens, Taomo Zhou elevates citizens to agents in international relations. On the basis of Chinese archival research and oral history, she explores how Indonesians of Chinese descent lastingly influenced the diplomatic relations between their home country and divided China during the Cold War.
From the list:

The best books on Cold War history published recently

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Book cover of The English People at War in the Age of Henry VIII

The English People at War in the Age of Henry VIII

By Steven Gunn

Why this book?

Rather than examining Henry VIII’s wars as military engagements or part of international politics, this book looks at the impact war had on the English people. How were towns and villages affected by the need to provide men for the royal army? What was the impact of war on trade and agriculture? How were ordinary men persuaded to enact the violence required by war, and what was the physical and mental impact on them? How were wars justified and linked to a sense of Englishness? Originally given as a series of lectures, the chapters are connected but can be dipped…

From the list:

The best books on everyday life in Tudor England

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Book cover of The Congress of Vienna: Power and Politics After Napoleon

The Congress of Vienna: Power and Politics After Napoleon

By Brian E. Vick

Why this book?

It was not just the generals and heads of states that convened in Vienna to make the world safe after Napoleon. Brian Vick excavated all kinds of archival and material evidence to show how artists, composers, entrepreneurs, writers, fashion agents and other unofficial opinion-shapers worked to turn the Congress of Vienna into a success, and helped to create a new international system in Europe. Vick even lists the Congress’s items of merchandise, memorabilia (be it snuffboxes or teacups adorned with royal portraits) that were sold enthusiastically in the narrow streets around the Hofburg and elsewhere in the capitals throughout Europe.…

From the list:

The best books on how Europe waged peace after Napoleon

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Book cover of The Path to Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson I

The Path to Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson I

By Robert A. Caro

Why this book?

This book is the first of four on LBJ by Caso (and, we're waiting on the fifth and final volume), the series is spectacular, though the Path to Power is my favorite. No one goes deeper in researching his subject than Caro, and he’s quite simply the most dazzling non-fiction writer in the world. LBJ is a fascinating study in how someone will do whatever it takes to acquire and use power, with absolutely no regard for ethical considerations.

From the list:

The best presidential biographies

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Book cover of Richard Nixon: The Life

Richard Nixon: The Life

By John A. Farrell

Why this book?

In order to understand Watergate, you first have to understand Richard Nixon. This is the best, single-volume biography that chronicles Nixon's life in a balanced and fair way that gives us great insight into his character and motivations. Published in 2017, it is a model of its kind. Farrell attempts neither to vilify Nixon nor to defend him, but to explain him, in the context of his times. He gives us the extraordinary story of the self-made man from a struggling Quaker family in California who rose to the top through his own efforts - and then threw it all…

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The best books to understand Watergate

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Book cover of The English Atlantic in an Age of Revolution, 1640-1661

The English Atlantic in an Age of Revolution, 1640-1661

By Carla Gardina Pestana

Why this book?

Between 1640 and 1660, England, Scotland, and Ireland experienced civil war, invasion, religious radicalism, parliamentary rule, and the restoration of the monarchy. None of that will surprise historians of Britain, but they may not realize the impact of these events on Britain’s new colonies across the Atlantic. Some of them remained loyal to the king until his victorious opponents sent the first major Transatlantic expeditionary force to subdue them. 

Pestana shows how war and rebellion in Britain increased both the proportion of unfree labourers and ethnic diversity in the colonies. Neglected by London, several of them developed trade networks;…

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The best books on the 17th Century

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Book cover of The Fate of Africa: A History of the Continent Since Independence

The Fate of Africa: A History of the Continent Since Independence

By Martin Meredith

Why this book?

The breadth of Meredith’s book makes it a true masterpiece. He covers the political history of virtually every African state from independence through the end of the century. Each chapter is as compelling as it is brutal.

From the list:

The best books about rulers behaving badly in Africa

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Book cover of Tibet in Agony: Lhasa 1959

Tibet in Agony: Lhasa 1959

By Jianglin Li, Susan Wilf

Why this book?

For years, the Dalai Lama was courted by Beijing in efforts to incorporate Tibet into the new Chinese Communist State. Drawing on official Chinese documents and memoirs and interviews with Tibetan emigres, Li pulls together a dramatic account of the maneuverings, miscalculations, and events during a critical period that culminated in an uprising in Lhasa that was violently crushed by the People’ Liberation Army, leading to the dramatic flight of the Dalai Lama to India. The account provides fresh new light on a dramatic failure of Chinese policy whose consequences are felt to the present day.

From the list:

The best books about China from the Mao years through Tiananmen

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Book cover of The Destruction of the European Jews

The Destruction of the European Jews

By Raul Hilberg

Why this book?

There are several major histories of the Holocaust. Each has strengths and weaknesses, but they offer the reader an in-depth view of the events described in this work. The most influential of these histories is Raul Hilberg's The Destruction the European Jews: Revised and Definitive Edition, a three-volume study has also been condensed into a one-volume college edition. It provides an unequaled insight into how the Holocaust was perpetrated. The work is considered magisterial by many scholars of the  Holocaust. Hilberg used German documentation as his major source. He has been criticized by scholars for what they consider an…

From the list:

The best books about the Holocaust and the horror it inflicted

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Book cover of Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography: From Grantham to the Falklands

Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography: From Grantham to the Falklands

By Charles Moore

Why this book?

Impressively researched, elegantly written, and sprinkled with dry humor, Moore’s account is an even-handed portrait of a remarkable woman who turned her sex and her humble background from handicaps into assets, and used her outstanding political skills to become a driving force in twentieth-century British history.  The author addresses his polarizing subject’s inconsistencies, and her bizarre yet conventional personality, to present a multidimensional picture of Britain’s first female prime minister.

From the list:

The best biographies of women who made a difference in modern European history

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Book cover of The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers

The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers

By Richard McGregor

Why this book?

The Chinese Communist Party is a mystery and this book is the best journalistic guide to try to understand it. This book inspired my reporting in China. It made me understand that the party is at the heart of every important decision made by Beijing though its decision-making is rarely visible. Written by a former Financial Times reporter, the book documents the big role the party plays in everything from picking the CEOs of China’s biggest firms to revamping the military.

From the list:

The best books on China by Western journalists

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Book cover of The 12-year Reich: A Social History Of Nazi Germany 1933-1945

The 12-year Reich: A Social History Of Nazi Germany 1933-1945

By Richard Grunberger

Why this book?

No one can understand the German Resistance to Hitler without first understanding Nazi Germany — its ideology, its institutions, and its psychology. Grunberger’s concise but comprehensive study of Nazi Germany organized topically provides essential insight into the society in which those who opposed Hitler lived. This book is more valuable than any chronological history of Nazi Germany and exposes just how pervasive and insidious the National Socialist corruption was.

From the list:

The best books on the German resistance to Hitler

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Book cover of The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War

The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War

By Michael F. Holt

Why this book?

A lifetime of research on and writing about the latter span of America’s formative years yield Michael Holt’s masterpiece, a detailed, lively look at the resurgence of federalist philosophy and its consequences. In a fascinating exposition, Holt fashions something resembling Shakespearean tragedy wherein the most well-intentioned politicians cannot stem the tide of sectionalism.

From the list:

The best books on the USA in its formative years (1789-1845)

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Book cover of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Ohio Short Histories of Africa)

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Ohio Short Histories of Africa)

By Pamela Scully

Why this book?

When one hears “African president”, one tends to imagine a man in power. What about women in power? This is one of the rare biographies dedicated to an African female president, and one that is easily accessible to a broad readership. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first female president of independent Liberia, is a fascinating figure. She is a shrewd politician who understands the gendered dynamics of African politics, but also of the international economic scene (she worked for the World Bank and the United Nations before becoming president). Still too little is known about African women in or around the…

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The best books on African presidents and their history

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Book cover of Iranophobia: The Logic of an Israeli Obsession

Iranophobia: The Logic of an Israeli Obsession

By Haggai Ram

Why this book?

Haggai Ram was one of my Master’s thesis advisors. In this book, he shows how the idea of the Iranian threat was developed, partly as a process of Israeli self-reflection. Iranophobia is indispensable for the reader who would like to know about the roots of animosity between Iran and Israel, the history of the imagination of Iran and Israel vis-à-vis The West, and critical gaze on Zionism and Jewish Statehood in the Middle East. This book exemplifies the importance of looking beyond filters of mythmaking and the political tendencies of history writing and being on the lookout when reading contemporary…

From the list:

The best books on Jewish histories of the Middle East

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Book cover of Theodore Rex

Theodore Rex

By Edmund Morris

Why this book?

Theodore Roosevelt is another presidential figure that has received a great deal of scholarly attention. I ultimately selected Theodore Rex for two reasons. First, it’s one of the few books that focuses solely on the presidency, meaning it offers an unrivaled, in-depth examination of his years in office. Second, it’s such a page-turner. I started reading a specific section to better understand one cabinet interaction and I found myself still reading many pages and many hours later without even realizing it. Morris fully captures TR’s oversized personality in an extraordinarily colorful way.

From the list:

The best books about American presidents

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Book cover of The Age of Eisenhower: America and the World in the 1950s

The Age of Eisenhower: America and the World in the 1950s

By William Hitchcock

Why this book?

After Eisenhower left office, he was routinely ranked in the bottom ten on the presidential rankings. Now, he’s regularly voted into the top five. This book helps explain why Eisenhower deserves to be at the top, why he left such an indelible mark on the nation, and why the second half of the 20th century was the age of Eisenhower. It’s also beautifully written and a joy to read.

From the list:

The best books about American presidents

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Book cover of Dear Leader: My Escape from North Korea

Dear Leader: My Escape from North Korea

By Jang Jin-Sung

Why this book?

Jang Jin-Sung was Kim Jong-Il’s poet laureate, assigned to a division permitted to consume censored foreign materials. His life is about as good as life can get in North Korea – until one of the foreign magazines he has lent to a friend goes missing, and Jang must flee his home country or face retribution. Dear Leader is fascinating because it’s a book written by a genuine insider, a man who, until his own neck was on the line, served the regime more-or-less happily. To be honest, Jang is not a particularly likable narrator, but there’s an honesty and an…
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The best non-fiction books about North Korea

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Book cover of Telling the Truth: China's Great Leap Forward, Household Registration and the Famine Death Tally

Telling the Truth: China's Great Leap Forward, Household Registration and the Famine Death Tally

By Yang Songlin, Baohui Xie

Why this book?

The accepted wisdom about the Chinese Great Leap Forward from 1958 to 1961 both in and outside of China is that the Great Leap Forward famine death toll was 30 million. This book challenges this wisdom. The book’s argument is based on the research of Professor Sun Jingxian who is a mathematician, who, after having examined the domestic migration pattern during the period, comes to the conclusion that the famine death toll was about 4 million.
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The best books to understand modern China

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Book cover of The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York

By Robert A. Caro

Why this book?

The Power Broker is thought of as one of the best biographies of all time, having won the Pulitzer in 1974. Author Robert Caro traces the steps city planner Robert Moses took in implementing his vision of New York City, oftentimes at the detriment of the communities he served. It continues to be a lesson in what not to do when designing for the future. 

From the list:

The best books about the future of design and sustainable living

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Book cover of Accidental State: Chiang Kai-Shek, the United States, and the Making of Taiwan

Accidental State: Chiang Kai-Shek, the United States, and the Making of Taiwan

By Hsiao-ting Lin

Why this book?

How did Taiwan become the country it is today, how did it become the Republic of China? Hsiao-ting Lin, a leading Taiwanese historian and an archivist at Stanford’s Hoover Institute, convincingly argues that the Nationalist state in Taiwan under Chiang Kai-shek came about in large part from happenstance. The book draws on both English- and Chinese-language archival materials, including newly released official files and personal papers to explain what happened to Taiwan in the crucial years following World War II; it also examines what didn’t happen but might have, such as the island being placed under temporary American trusteeship. Accidental…

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The best books on Taiwan’s history

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Book cover of What You Are Getting Wrong about Appalachia

What You Are Getting Wrong about Appalachia

By Elizabeth Catte

Why this book?

A welcome and necessary antidote to J.D. Vance’s drivel, Elizabeth Catte shatters stereotypes about Appalachia with a sledgehammer then crushes the pieces to dust under her feet. Contrary to much of what you hear and read about the place, Catte’s Appalachia is diverse, creative, entrepreneurial, energetic, and smart. The problem isn’t in Appalachia. The problem is outside it.

From the list:

The best books on Appalachia (for people who aren’t from Appalachia)

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Book cover of The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge

The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge

By Calvin Coolidge

Why this book?

This book is the forgotten classic of presidential writing—a blockbuster in its own time and a model for how modern political memoirs could be better. Coolidge was a stunningly good writer. (The New York Times called him “the most literary man who has occupied the White House since 1865.”) In his autobiography, he included many memorable stories, including one about his son, Calvin Jr., and his summer job picking tobacco. “If my father was president,” one of the laborers told him, “I would not work in a tobacco field.” “If my father were your father,” Calvin Jr. replied, “you…

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The best books written by American presidents

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Book cover of Queen, Mother, and Stateswoman: Mariana of Austria and the Government of Spain

Queen, Mother, and Stateswoman: Mariana of Austria and the Government of Spain

By Silvia Z. Mitchell

Why this book?

Mariana of Austria (1634-96) has long been underestimated. Regent for her young son, Carlos II, last Habsburg ruler of Spain, she is reputed to have been pig-headed, incompetent, and not very bright. The famous Velasquez painting showing her in a skirt too wide to fit through a door and hair stretching out like an accordion has not helped her reputation. But Silvia Mitchell has mined the archives and produced a wonderful revision of this queen’s regency, showing how, over the course of her regency, Mariana led the Spanish monarchy into transformative military and diplomatic alliances with the English and the…

From the list:

The best books that restore vilified early-modern European queens and noblewomen

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Book cover of Napoleon: The End of Glory

Napoleon: The End of Glory

By Munro Price

Why this book?

The accomplished historian of France across the years of Revolution, Empire and Restoration, Munro Price brings all his arsenal of erudition, archival acumen, and intellectual insight to bear on the last crisis of the empire. His attention to detail, his sensitivity to character and motivation make for one of the most penetrating, illuminating accounts of the implosion of support for Napoleon among the French elites ever written. No non-French scholar had picked through the complex politics of late Napoleonic France with as much skill or precision. Price delivers all this in elegant prose, the sign of a subtle historian.

From the list:

The best books on Napoleon and an era that shook Europe to its core

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Book cover of A. Lincoln: A Biography

A. Lincoln: A Biography

By Ronald C. White Jr.

Why this book?

It’s the best cradle-to-grave biography of Lincoln, quite an accomplishment, given that over 16,000 books have been written on him. The book goes deep on a special interest I have in our 16th president: his long and winding faith journey. White’s passion for his subject serves to energize the reader.
From the list:

The best presidential biographies

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Book cover of Being Nixon: A Man Divided

Being Nixon: A Man Divided

By Evan Thomas

Why this book?

Although Nixon has been our most disgraced president, pre-Trump, he (like LBJ) is a marvelously complicated study of a person with major strengths and weaknesses, and a refusal to be defeated by any obstacles or setbacks. Thomas is discerning in his understanding of what made his subject tick—which is quite an achievement.
From the list:

The best presidential biographies

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Book cover of A Full-Value Ruble: The Promise of Prosperity in the Postwar Soviet Union

A Full-Value Ruble: The Promise of Prosperity in the Postwar Soviet Union

By Kristy Ironside

Why this book?

A Full-Value Ruble is economic history at its best. Using Soviet archival materials for both the Stalin and Khrushchev periods, Kristy Ironside shows how indispensable money was to an economy that, for ideological reasons, aimed at abolishing it. But a strong ruble (and not just any currency) did not mean that the underlying economy was strong. Using money as a lens, the author provides the reader with a multi-faceted view of Soviet urban and rural daily life in peace, war, and reconstruction.

From the list:

The best books on Cold War history published recently

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Book cover of The Human Rights Dictatorship: Socialism, Global Solidarity and Revolution in East Germany

The Human Rights Dictatorship: Socialism, Global Solidarity and Revolution in East Germany

By Ned Richardson-Little

Why this book?

Ned Richardson-Little explores the mostly forgotten history of the human rights discourse in a Communist dictatorship. Believe it or not, East Germany tried to pose as a promoter of human rights in international and domestic affairs. It spent much effort and many resources on constructing an alternative to Western-dominated human rights debates. Even if Communist Germany disappeared in 1989/90, its warped human rights discourse beforehand had exerted a major influence on dissidents and their increasing opposition to the authoritarian police state in which they were living.

From the list:

The best books on Cold War history published recently

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Book cover of Edward III

Edward III

By W. Mark Ormrod

Why this book?

A magnificent example of the possibilities of historical biography from an author whose life was cut tragically short. Ormrod writes with a balance of passion, precision, and wry humour. Edward III reigned in the shadow of the deposition of his father, while his own military triumphs in the Hundred Years War set an example his successor, Richard II, found impossible to emulate. Alongside a wealth of detail, Ormrod reveals the pressures of kingship during the extraordinary turbulence of the fourteenth century.
From the list:

The best books on the late medieval crisis: war and plague in Britain and France

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Book cover of Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago

Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago

By Mike Royko

Why this book?

There’s nothing about the blues or indeed any music at all in this. Mike Royko might well have been a blues fan, but he was primarily one of the best political columnists of the era, working for Chicago’s Daily News, Sun-Times, and Tribune from the Sixties through to the Nineties, and winning a Pulitzer Prize. His forensic account of the corrupt, scandal-prone but invincible party machine run by Mayor Daley, who had just been re-elected for his fifth term in office when the book came out in 1971, is merciless, shocking, and often hilarious. To a young outsider like…

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The best books about the blues, Chicago, and the Chicago blues

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Book cover of The Other Eighties

The Other Eighties

By Bradford Martin

Why this book?

If Andrew Hunt’s book covers swaths of American popular culture to reveal levels of public dissent, Martin’s book takes a similar approach, but with a particular focus on grassroots activism. Across the U.S., activism took many forms. The Nuclear Freeze campaign, with its simple call to halt the arms race, inspired (in June 1982) the largest public protest in American history. Others rebelled against Reagan’s painfully slow response to even recognize the AIDS epidemic, while on college campuses students rallied against Reagan’s policies towards apartheid-era South Africa. Martin’s examination of how various strands of feminism reacted to the conservative backlash…

From the list:

The best books on the Cold War in the 1980s

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Book cover of Beyond Coloniality: Citizenship and Freedom in the Caribbean Intellectual Tradition

Beyond Coloniality: Citizenship and Freedom in the Caribbean Intellectual Tradition

By Aaron Kamugisha

Why this book?

Kamugisha, is an able representative of a new generation of scholars who offers a contemporary examination which presents some of the theoretical issues and ideas that inform Caribbean studies and history. The reader will get a good sense of some of the major historical contributors who have shaped Caribbean history, philosophy, and culture as they attempted to move “beyond” the colonial experience.

From the list:

The best books on Caribbean reparative justice

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Book cover of With Enough Shovels: Reagan, Bush, and Nuclear War

With Enough Shovels: Reagan, Bush, and Nuclear War

By Robert Scheer

Why this book?

If Jonathan Schell’s Fate of the Earth examined the scientific, ecological, and social impacts of nuclear war, Robert Scheer’s With Enough Shovels is a direct inquiry into the Reagan Administration about their initial thoughts on the subject. Those thoughts, frankly, are frightening. As the title implicates, then-Deputy Under Secretary of Defense T.J. Jones literally suggested that surviving thermonuclear war was easy: “Dig a hole, cover it with a couple of doors and then throw three feet of dirt on top…it’s the dirt that does it…if there are enough shovels to go around, everybody’s going to make it.” Comments by Reagan,…

From the list:

The best books on the Cold War in the 1980s

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Book cover of Detroit: An American Autopsy

Detroit: An American Autopsy

By Charlie LeDuff

Why this book?

Love him or hate him, it’s undeniable that LeDuff is a tremendously charismatic writer. A Pulitzer Prize winner, a breathtaking reporter, and a denizen of Detroit for decades, this is one of the most compellingly written books on Detroit ever.

This book has a Mustang eight-cylinder engine on it, and I hoovered this up over just a couple of hours. If you want a barn-burning page-turner of a tale, showcasing Detroit as its most broken and beautiful, this is the one for you.

From the list:

The best books about why Detroit is the most interesting city in the US

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Book cover of Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers

Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers

By Daniel Ellsberg

Why this book?

Arguably the most famous national security whistleblower in U.S. history, Daniel Ellsberg became a household name for releasing the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret military study of the Vietnam War, in 1971. Secrets is a fascinating account of how a quintessential Washington insider became the archetypal outsider and, as a result, faced the prospect of decades in prison for passing national security information to the press in the public interest. Ellsberg’s story reveals how the decision to “blow the whistle” is often long and fraught, while knowing the wrath of the state that awaits. A series of plot twists gives a…

From the list:

The best books on U.S. national security culture and the exposure of secrets

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Book cover of The New Autocracy: Information, Politics, and Policy in Putin's Russia

The New Autocracy: Information, Politics, and Policy in Putin's Russia

By Daniel Treisman

Why this book?

How is it that political strongmen—from Putin in Russia to Hungary, Venezuela, Peru, and beyond—are able to impose their authoritarian control without the mass bloodshed of dictatorships past? UCLA Political Science Professor Daniel Treisman—along with Russian economist Sergei Guriev (Sciences Po)—have developed a New Autocracy model suggesting that individuals are less concerned with democracy per se, and more with competent government. Leaders, accordingly, use mechanisms of media manipulation and selective suppression to build the image of government competence. In this edited volume, Treisman and his co-authors demonstrate convincingly that this framework better explains political outcomes—including the annexation of Crimea—than alternative…

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The best books for understanding Putinism

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Book cover of Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy

Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy

By Caroline Kennedy, Michael Beschloss

Why this book?

In the year after JFK died, Jackie sat down with the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., to record her recollections of life with her husband. They came soon after the events they recall. She trusted Schlesinger, who was a special assistant in the White House to her husband. The recordings give a special sense of who she was because you can hear her voice. They are also time capsules of another era when smoking and drinking were more common. You can hear ice cubes in glasses and cigarettes being lighted.

From the list:

The best books on the life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

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Book cover of How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy

How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy

By Jenny Odell

Why this book?

Our attention is a precious - and overdrawn - resource. This counterpoint to the appeal of attention economics helped me think about how to allocate my attention with intention. Partly self-help guide, part political manifesto, Jenny rails against the hustle culture of modern capitalism and provides a way of thinking beyond productivity, efficiency, and the supremacy of technology. As advertisers and media companies continue to find new and better ways to harvest attention it behooves us to consider what we want to do ours, and remind corporations that it is a rare and valuable thing. What you pay attention to…

From the list:

The best books on how valuable your attention is

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Book cover of How We Survived Communism & Even Laughed

How We Survived Communism & Even Laughed

By Slavenka Drakulić

Why this book?

In How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed, Slavenka Drakulić details the everyday indignities of living under communist Yugoslavia, including thin toilet paper and no access to luxuries such as strawberries or fruit juice. Her essays show the impact of high politics on everyday living but also how communism failed – to produce washing machines, manufacture tampons, or meet the needs of its citizens.

From the list:

The best books on the end of the Cold War

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Book cover of 1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe

1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe

By Mary Elise Sarotte

Why this book?

Writing about the end of the Cold War, Mary Sarotte argues the fall of the Berlin Wall was not inevitable and that the United States was not the dominant player. She focuses instead on the West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s drive for German reunification and a new architecture for post-Cold War Europe. More significantly, her book was one of the first to treat 1989 not as an endpoint in international relations but as a beginning.
From the list:

The best books on the end of the Cold War

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Book cover of An Excess Male

An Excess Male

By Maggie Shen King

Why this book?

An exploration into the future consequences of China’s one-child policy, I discovered An Excess Male by accident, finding a battered second-hand copy in a local Berlin bookstore. And what a find! Maggie Shen King’s novel skillfully weaves together the narratives of its four protagonists, all of whom are part of — or about to join — a single group marriage. With this future China housing far more men than women, such marriages are increasingly common, yet the novel doesn’t limit itself, as it also explores the status of closeted gay men and people with autism. It’s a horrifyingly real and…

From the list:

The best novels exploring polyamory and non-traditional love

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Book cover of The State in Africa: The Politics of the Belly

The State in Africa: The Politics of the Belly

By Jean-Francois Bayart

Why this book?

This extraordinary book forces anyone who attempts at studying African politics during the post-colonial period (‘on the postcolony’ in Achile Mbembe’s term) as well as in the late Cold War to (re)consider the role of Africans in the shaping of post-colonial Africa. The author uses various examples to nuance the dilemma of the African state-building process. The notion of ‘the politics of the belly’ derived from a Cameroonian saying, not a Bayart’s creation, as many in the West would think of it.

From the list:

The best book on contemporary Africa and the legacy of late colonialism

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Book cover of How Democracies Die

How Democracies Die

By Steven Levitsky, Daniel Ziblatt

Why this book?

These two authors are experts in comparative politics, and this book turns that lens on the US. I think this is important because it takes us out of the “US is different” mindset and because it is clear that threats to democracy are a global phenomenon. This book puts the US case in that context and shows us just how shaky our democracy currently is and why. 

From the list:

The best books on why American politics are terrible and what to do about it

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Book cover of The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia

The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia

By Masha Gessen

Why this book?

Winner of the National Book Award, this non-fiction tour de force is as vivid and gripping as a novel. The Russian-American journalist and biographer of Vladimir Putin relates how seven decades of communism damaged the Russian psyche so profoundly that Putin was able to build his own 21st century authoritarianism on a foundation of cynicism and powerlessness. Gessen uses Orwell’s concept of “doublethink” to explain how Russians, then and now, could remain obedient to a system that they did not really believe in.

From the list:

The best books about totalitarianism (not written by George Orwell)

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Book cover of The Italian Wars 1494-1559: War, State and Society in Early Modern Europe

The Italian Wars 1494-1559: War, State and Society in Early Modern Europe

By Christine Shaw, Michael Mallett

Why this book?

What would a world awash in mercenaries look like? Like medieval northern Italy, which was the Afghanistan of its day. Back then, mercenaries were how you fought wars, and anyone who could swipe a check could wage war no matter how absurd or petty. Aristocrats, city-states, and popes routinely hired mercenaries. When I wrote The New Rules of War, I spent three months digging through the archives in Florence, Bologna, and other city-states to understand how the dynamics of private warfare worked. For those who want a feel of the times, try this rare book by famed historian Mallett.…

From the list:

The best books on mercenaries from a former military contractor

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Book cover of States and Power in Africa: Comparative Lessons in Authority and Control

States and Power in Africa: Comparative Lessons in Authority and Control

By Jeffrey Herbst

Why this book?

Jeffrey Herbst also looks at the past and present of the African continent, and ecology and demography also come into his story. But his main subject is the specific nature of power and state in Sub–Saharan Africa and the inter-relations between the two. He traces this defining aspect of Africa’s reality through several centuries and presents it within the global context by drawing in experiences of self-organisation of power and state in other continents and regions. Continuity is for him the key to understanding the precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial past and even the future of the continent.

From the list:

The best books to understand “what is wrong” with Africa – and what is right

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Book cover of Abraham Lincoln, His Speeches and Writings

Abraham Lincoln, His Speeches and Writings

By Roy Basler, Carl Sandburg

Why this book?

Abraham Lincoln famously had little formal education but was capable of sophisticated logical thinking in his arguments. He credits his ability to form his arguments to his encounter with Euclid’s writings about geometry. He felt in awe by the notion of “demonstration” and went on to apply that notion to his compelling arguments about the injustice and hypocrisy of slavery. 

From the list:

The best books to help you to think logically

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Book cover of The Savage Freud and Other Essays on Possible and Retrievable Selves

The Savage Freud and Other Essays on Possible and Retrievable Selves

By Ashis Nandy

Why this book?

Those who know the field of religious violence may find my choice of Ashis Nandy’s book of essays to be a peculiar one since it deals with a variety of issues besides religious violence. But one of his essays, “The Discrete Charms of Indian Terrorists,” is worth the price of the book. In it, Nandy describes the remarkably civil behavior of young Sikh activists who hijacked an Indian plane in the 1980s. He then goes on to disagree with Gandhi that terrorism necessarily absolutizes a conflict, and he rejects the common perspective, especially in the West, that terrorism is always…

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The best books on religious violence

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Book cover of The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability

The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability

By Peter Kornbluh

Why this book?

The 1973 coup in Chile violently destroyed the freely elected Marxist government of Salvador Allende and installed the brutal 17-year dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. For years afterward suspicions swirled that the U.S. was behind the event. But evidence was largely anecdotal. What is so impressive about this book is Kornbluh’s persistence deploying the Freedom of Information Act to obtain thousands of classified documents related to the coup. Kornbluh connects the dots and reveals the smoking guns. Through facsimiles of actual cables, telexes, and phone memos (many still highly redacted) this dossier allows you to draw your own conclusions about…

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The best books about covert ops in Latin America

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Book cover of Gandhi Before India

Gandhi Before India

By Ramachandra Guha

Why this book?

We all know the Gandhi in sandals and white khadi robes, but how did Gandhi become Gandhi? Guha narrates the remarkable transformation of Gandhi from a timid, London-trained lawyer into a bold, inventive activist advocating for the rights of the Indian immigrant community in South Africa. This engaging, meticulously researched book describes the emergence of Gandhi’s intertwined philosophy and politics, which together reintroduced nonviolence as a potent force to the tumultuous twentieth century.

From the list:

The best, most inspirational books about nonviolent leaders

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Book cover of The Black Door: Spies, Secret Intelligence and British Prime Ministers

The Black Door: Spies, Secret Intelligence and British Prime Ministers

By Richard J. Aldrich, Rory Cormac

Why this book?

I am fascinated by how different countries approach intelligence, both from how they organize intelligence activities and how intelligence informs policymaking. These various approaches highlight there is not a common approach to intelligence and help explain why simple definitions of intelligence are insufficient at capturing various intelligence activities and organizations. The Black Door looks at how British Prime Ministers have used intelligence and their relationships with intelligence organizations over the past century. A well-written account by two thoughtful and prolific scholars, the reader will appreciate how British Prime Ministers have used intelligence to not only understand the world but to…

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The best books to appreciate the history, personalities, and activities of intelligence services

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Book cover of Hitler (Harvest Book)

Hitler (Harvest Book)

By Joachim C. Fest

Why this book?

This remains the outstanding full-length biography of Hitler, not least because it is brilliantly written; it is also extraordinarily prescient.

Fest’s portrayal of the Nazi leader, the first to be written by a German, shows how any human society, no matter how cultured or educated, if far enough degraded and humiliated will be willing to listen to a banal, humourless bully whose singular obsessions were to pick at Germany’s war wounds and delegate the slaughter of the blameless minority he deemed responsible.

In Fest’s hands, Hitler emerges as no freak of nature with god-like powers, no monster beyond our comprehension…but…

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The best books on 20th century conflict

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Book cover of Man Without a Face: The Autobiography of Communism's Greatest Spymaster

Man Without a Face: The Autobiography of Communism's Greatest Spymaster

By Markus Wolf, Anne McElvoy

Why this book?

Markus Wolf is generally considered the greatest Spy Master of the Cold War. He was in charge of intelligence for the Stasi (East German Intelligence Service) that was focused primarily on the enemy on the other side of the Berlin Wall. The Stasi was incredibly successful, having placed up to 1,000 East German agents into high places in the German government. This is a tale of espionage devised and executed by the best. Wolf was the inspiration for the famous “Karla” character in John Le Carree’s novels

From the list:

The best real espionage stories from the perspective of an ex undercover KGB agent

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Book cover of China and Africa: The New Era

China and Africa: The New Era

By Daniel Large

Why this book?

The ascent to power of Xi Jinxing in China in 2013 heralded a new era in China’s overseas engagements and in its domestic politics and economic policy; what Elizabeth Economy has called the “third revolution.” This fascinating book by Large brings the story of China’s engagements in Africa up to date. It is packed with fascinating details and analysis and shows how China’s interests on the continent are shifting from being primarily economic to being more geopolitical. It is a detailed and nuanced analysis of the changed nature of relations. 

From the list:

The best books on China’s global and African strategies

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Book cover of The World According to China

The World According to China

By Elizabeth C. Economy

Why this book?

Liz Economy’s grasp of international relations is compelling and insightful as she sets out to explain how China sees itself in the world, especially in the light of the pandemic. Looking to recover its past glory and status, China under Xi Jinping has seized both on what he sees as the West’s economic and political failings, and China’s own accomplishments and size to advance new agendas. At home, a leftward lurch resembles a throwback to the Mao era. In the world, China wants to reshape global institutions to reflect better its interests and to get others, for example in The…

From the list:

The best books on understanding modern China

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Book cover of Hidden Hand: Exposing How the Chinese Communist Party Is Reshaping the World

Hidden Hand: Exposing How the Chinese Communist Party Is Reshaping the World

By Clive Hamilton, Mareike Ohlberg

Why this book?

While it’s important to get a grip on what’s going on inside China, it\s also essential to appreciate how China presents itself and tries to influence the world and a second but rather different book that does this is this one. But instead of looking at China from an international relations point of view, these authors look at how the Communist Party uses agencies and institutions to not only influence politicians, think tanks, universities, and businesses in other countries - which is by no means unique - but also to interfere, which is more exceptional. 

This book makes a number…

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The best books on understanding modern China

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Book cover of Inside the Third Reich

Inside the Third Reich

By Albert Speer

Why this book?

Albert Speer was the German leader who appeared sorry for what he did at the Nuremburg war crimes trial. I was a teenager when I came across the book at a public library and rediscovered it a few years ago in a used bookstore. Yes, Speer was determined to show himself in the best possible light and minimize his crimes. However, Inside the Third Reich remains one of the most clear portraits of Hitler and his circle in their everyday life.

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The best books for understanding Nazi Germany

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Book cover of Peril

Peril

By Bob Woodward, Robert Costa

Why this book?

There is probably no journalist in Washington more revered and connected than Bob Woodward. From his Watergate fame five decades earlier, the Washington Post legendary reporter and editor has continued his eye-opening, impressive work. Peril is his final book in a trilogy on the Trump administration. He and fellow Post journalist Robert Costa interviewed more than 200 administrative players who provide this account with the deep-sourced material that Woodward fans have come to expect. 

While numerous interviews are off the record and the focus of the book is more on officials than foot soldiers who carried out the attack, the…

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The best books on the January 6th Capitol attack

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Book cover of The Coming of the Third Reich

The Coming of the Third Reich

By Richard J. Evans

Why this book?

Evans is the world’s foremost scholar on Nazism, a really difficult title to earn given the strong competition in a very crowded field. In this book, he reviews the 1920s and early 1930s in Germany, and how a toxic mix of revanchism, militarism, and German supremacism combined to create not just a Fascist state, but the most radical of several European Fascist states and one that was dead-set on revenge against the democratic powers and the Soviet Union that Nazis blamed for internal unrest that brought down the German Reich in 1914-18.

From the list:

The best books on the batshit-crazy history of Nazi Germany

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Book cover of A Vietcong Memoir: An Inside Account of the Vietnam War and Its Aftermath

A Vietcong Memoir: An Inside Account of the Vietnam War and Its Aftermath

By Truong Nhu Tang

Why this book?

This fascinating book provides insight into the mind of a cultured, erudite Vietnamese man who grew up in French Indochina. Truong Nhu Tang, simultaneously a South Vietnamese government official and a clandestine Viet Cong urban organizer, has inspirational encounters with Ho Chi Minh in Paris and Viet Minh guerrillas in the jungle. Captured by South Vietnamese police in 1968, he was released to the North in a US-Viet Cong prisoner exchange. After the War, becoming disillusioned with political repression and economic mismanagement by the new communist government, he escapes from the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and ends up living in…
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The best books for understanding America and her enemies in wartime

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Book cover of The Gate of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and Their Revolution

The Gate of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and Their Revolution

By Jonathan D. Spence

Why this book?

Recreating the experience of a variety of Chinese literary figures whose lives collectively spanned most of the 20th century, Jonathan Spence helps his reader to understand how and why individuals from across the political spectrum were drawn to the goal of recreating a strong and unified China, and were willing to sacrifice themselves—and fight against each other—in its pursuit. A cultural rather than a political history, we nonetheless begin to understand the power that politics has to shape lives and constrain the possibilities open to individuals, especially during times of significant upheaval. 

From the list:

The best reads for understanding geo-politics and the rise of the nation state in China from the late Ming - 20th century

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Book cover of The Age of Reform

The Age of Reform

By Richard Hofstadter

Why this book?

A classic book by one of our country’s most eminent historians, The Age of Reform traces the interplay between American politics and the clashing forces within American society from the time of Jefferson to the time of Franklin Roosevelt. In between, the great social movements – pro-and anti-slavery, populism, progressivism, the New Deal – all play out on a vast canvas. Religion is not the centerpiece of Hofstadter’s narrative, but it’s there throughout, sometimes on stage and at other times in the background. I’ve been recommending this book to my students for years.
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The best books on economics, religion, and society

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Book cover of Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

By Walter Isaacson

Why this book?

The Benjamin Franklin most of us know—from the bullet points of our schooling to the placid face on the one-hundred-dollar bill—is a stick figure compared to the flesh-and-blood Ben Franklin who leaps from the pages of this book like a Tasmania devil. Yes, Franklin is one of the more famous of our founding fathers, but he’s lesser known for being the father of a bastard, William Franklin, who fathered his own bastard, William Temple Franklin, who went on to become his grandfather’s secretary in the decades Ben Franklin spent in England and France as America’s diplomat before and during the…

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The best history books to evoke “who knew?”

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Book cover of Envoy to the Promised Land: The Diaries and Papers of James G. McDonald, 1948-1951

Envoy to the Promised Land: The Diaries and Papers of James G. McDonald, 1948-1951

By James G. McDonald

Why this book?

President Truman appointed James McDonald to be the first U.S. Ambassador to Israel. McDonald’s diaries of 1948-1951 offer fascinating insights into the key events surrounding the establishment of the Jewish state. The diaries offer revealing and astute observations of the personalities and policies of Truman, Secretary of State George Marshall, British Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin, the Jewish Agency’s leading foreign policymaker, Moshe Shertok (later Moshe Sharett), and leader of the Jewish Agency and future Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. McDonald was that unusual American diplomat who, in those years, supported Zionist aspirations. The McDonald diaries are required reading for anyone seeking…

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The best works that address major issues related to the history of the establishment of the State of Israel

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Book cover of A Most Enterprising Country: North Korea in the Global Economy

A Most Enterprising Country: North Korea in the Global Economy

By Justin V. Hastings

Why this book?

The title of this book is doubly surprising. Is North Korea enterprising? And North Korea “in the world economy”? Isn’t it the hermit kingdom? Hastings picks up a theme that was central to our work on the famine: that the socialist sector in North Korea has undergone a secular decline while households and entrepreneurs have constructed a complex market economy that is partially above ground, partly below it. But Hastings goes further, showing how that market economy is integrally tied to China. And the book has the added attraction of focusing attention on lucrative black markets that range from amphetamine…

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The best books on the North Korean economy

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Book cover of The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un

The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un

By Anna Fifield

Why this book?

Ana Fifield is a top-flight journalist, and this is the most detailed biography of Kim Jong Un to date. Fifield has interviewed everyone who could possibly be interviewed, going back to teachers in a Swiss boarding school for insights into Kim Jong Un’s psyche. But why would such a book get mentioned in a list on the Korean economy? Because North Korea is best understood as a monarchy, and the court economy is non-trivial. Among many other details, Fifield provides insight into the lavish lifestyles of the family and the small circle of insiders that are at the core of…

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The best books on the North Korean economy

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Book cover of The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study

The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study

By Stefano Harney, Fred Moten

Why this book?

I first read The Undercommons in a virtual reading group during the early months of the COVID pandemic and was quite taken by its poetics and unfolding conceptual terrain. Beginning with an analysis of academia as a significant ideological state apparatus, Moten and Harney also discuss multiple forms of state violence and capture in racial capitalist formations. From the notion of the settler-capitalist garrison responding to “the surround” of the colonized and marginalized, to the connection between policy and policing, to the logic of reified colonial conquest, to logistics and professionalization, The Undercommons is a meditation on methods of state…

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The best books on the state and state repression

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Book cover of The President's Man: The Memoirs of Nixon's Trusted Aide

The President's Man: The Memoirs of Nixon's Trusted Aide

By Dwight Chapin

Why this book?

Dwight Chapin joined former Vice President Richard Nixon’s staff in 1962, in connection with his unsuccessful California gubernatorial run. He functioned as Nixon’s personal aide for the next decade, spending hours and hours as his “body man.” I knew and worked with Dwight for the four years of Nixon’s first term as president, but worked on domestic policy initiatives and never had the “face time” with the President that he did.

Dwight’s book reflects fifty years of musings about one of our greatest presidents, yet one who resigned in disgrace because of Watergate. His stories, his insights, and his understandings…

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The best recent books about Richard Nixon

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Book cover of The Nixon Tapes: 1973

The Nixon Tapes: 1973

By Douglas Brinkley

Why this book?

Because of the secret taping system that recorded Nixon’s conversations from February 1971 to the system’s exposure in July 1973, President Nixon’s time in office is better documented than that of any other president, before or since. But the system itself was hardly ideal for researchers. Separate recorders were placed in the Oval Office, as well as in the Cabinet Room, the President’s EOB hide-away office, and even in Aspen Lodge at Camp David. The result is some 3,700 hours of recordings, almost haphazardly located on dozens of four-inch tape reels. Professor Luke Nichter is the nation’s foremost authority on…

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The best recent books about Richard Nixon

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Book cover of The Greatest Comeback: How Richard Nixon Rose from Defeat to Create the New Majority

The Greatest Comeback: How Richard Nixon Rose from Defeat to Create the New Majority

By Patrick J. Buchanan

Why this book?

Pat Buchanan joined Nixon’s staff in 1966 and was the conservative guru on his White House staff throughout Nixon’s terms in office. Totally written off for dead after his 1962 loss to Edmund “Pat” Brown as California’s governor, Nixon remerged to be sworn in as our 37th President in January 1969 – and Pat was with him every step of the way. This book is Buchanan’s insider account of how that recovery was planned, executed, and ultimately achieved. Its stories reflect lessons and insights for everyone interested in national campaigns. I served alongside Pat in the Nixon White House,…

From the list:

The best recent books about Richard Nixon

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Book cover of Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer--And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class

Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer--And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class

By Jacob S. Hacker, Paul Pierson

Why this book?

Hacker explores the connection between America’s present yawning inequality and the deliberate decisions made by key political figures throughout the last 50 years. While off-shoring and technological innovation have contributed to the ever poorer job prospects and conditions for the poor and working-class, he argues that our government is just as much to blame. We could have taken action to protect these constituencies but rather defended the interests of corporate America and the radical rich (his term for wealth conservative donors such as the Koch Brothers). The book is very well-researched and easily digestible.

From the list:

The best best books to understand the American political system

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Book cover of The Political Economy of Central America Since 1920

The Political Economy of Central America Since 1920

By Victor Bulmer-Thomas

Why this book?

It is very rare for economists to write clearly and intelligibly for lay readers. It is even rarer that the complexities of the Central American economies are lucidly explained at both macro- and micro-levels, with a critique that is profound and alternatives that are viable. Although some things have changed in the last thirty years, it is simply not possible to understand contemporary Central America without knowledge of its previous political economy.

From the list:

The best books on Central American history and politics

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Book cover of The Gay Place

The Gay Place

By Billy Lee Brammer

Why this book?

Brammer’s novel has resonated throughout my career, warning of almost inevitable disillusionment with a political powerhouse. Brammer had served as a top aide to Lyndon Johnson, on whom he based Arthur Fenstemaker, a star as bright as Penn Warren’s Willie Stark. The Gay Place spoke to me even more directly, focusing on minor politicos and their ambitions, frailties, and humanity. And the book drove home, through a pervading sadness, the anomie that rises from disillusionment. Brammer’s “Flea Circus” metaphor continues to amuse and bum me.

From the list:

The best books on political bosses

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Book cover of Huey Long

Huey Long

By T. Harry Williams

Why this book?

I began reading Williams’s biography as research for a recent historical novel, scanning passages listed in the index. Soon enough, I was gulping whole sections and chapters; I couldn’t stop reading the thing.  Williams reminded me how exuberant political narrative nonfiction can be and taught me as much about writing as about Huey Long. He showed ways to showcase characters’ traits and tells, portraits-in-miniature, in a “God is in the details” vibe. He showed how to set a story in its historical context while also using history as a mirror for contemporary times. And, through Long himself, Williams made me…

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The best books on political bosses

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Book cover of Governing the Soul: The Shaping of the Private Self

Governing the Soul: The Shaping of the Private Self

By Nikolas Rose

Why this book?

Nikolas Rose’s exceptional book Governing the Soul expanded Foucault’s arguments, focusing on how government networks were created in collaboration with psychological specialists in the 20th century to create unique webs of expertise that helped individuals to manage and govern themselves. The result is an excellent exposition of the theory of governmentality. Rose begins with a discussion of how the Second World War encouraged new forms of ‘psychological warfare,’ where strength of mind could be assessed and selected to create the most successful fighting subjects. This created a group of professionals who also advised on the organisation of labour forces…

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The best books on the making of the modern self

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Book cover of Brexit: Why Britain Voted to Leave the European Union

Brexit: Why Britain Voted to Leave the European Union

By Harold D. Clarke, Matthew Goodwin, Paul Whiteley

Why this book?

I enjoyed reading this comprehensive and convincing account of how people voted in the Brexit referendum. It has an approach rooted in political science and makes effective use of surveys and election results to provide an understanding of the identity of people living in what later became referred to as the ‘Red Wall’ seats – former Labour areas that switched to Conservative often over Brexit. It gave insights into the attitudes and beliefs of those who really had felt left behind.

From the list:

The best books that reveal the truth about the origins, issues and passions that were aroused by Brexit

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Book cover of Latin America's Cold War

Latin America's Cold War

By Hal Brands

Why this book?

Lucidly written and soberly considered, Latin America’s Cold War is one top-five pick for a host of reasons, not least of which is that it forces us to consider that the usually potent Uncle Sam did mean that Latin American actors did not have influence, for good or ill. Rightist Latin American militaries, for a searing case, had their reasons for combatting leftist guerrillas, not just serving Washington’s bidding. 

From the list:

The best books on U.S. involvement in Latin America

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Book cover of 1861: The Civil War Awakening

1861: The Civil War Awakening

By Adam Goodheart

Why this book?

The outbreak of the Civil War was not a single event as simple as the firing on Fort Sumter or reducible to a clear clash of ideologies. In this erudite yet intensely readable book, Goodheart captures with equal brio the grand sweep of events and the maneuvering of political men South and North, and – most compellingly of all – the dawning of the war in the lives of men and women both famous and unknown, from New England Transcendentalists, to the fiery abolitionist orator Abbey Kelley, to the wily lawyer-turned-soldier Benjamin Butler, whose clever legal maneuver early in…

From the list:

The best books on the American Civil War from a popular historian

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Book cover of Shah of Shahs

Shah of Shahs

By Ryszard Kapuscinski

Why this book?

Written in a powerful journalistic style, this short but compelling book tells of the last years of the Shah’s reign, focusing in painful detail on the brutality of Savak, his secret police force, his detachment from his subjects, and setting the scene for the inevitable revolution that would seal his downfall. The fear on the streets is palpable.

From the list:

The best books to understand modern Iran

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Book cover of Churchill

Churchill

By Clive Ponting

Why this book?

Left-wing historian Ponting has his detractors for what many regarded as a critical revisionist approach to Churchill’s life. However, there is no denying the depth of his research. Furthermore, far from coming over as an overt critic, his study is far more balanced than often thought.

From the list:

The best books on Winston Churchill and which book to start with

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Book cover of Lincoln

Lincoln

By David Herbert Donald

Why this book?

Abraham Lincoln is both vitally important to our history and a fascinating subject, and this book is, by far, the best single-volume biography of the president. Donald was an outstanding researcher and a Pulitzer Prize award-winning biographer. This book deals thoroughly and convincingly with all the issues that spark debates among historians.

From the list:

The best books on politics and race in the Civil War era

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Book cover of Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South

Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South

By Stephanie McCurry

Why this book?

McCurry’s book opens up the remarkable story of angry white southern women using their power to make the Confederate and state governments responsive to their wartime needs. McCurry writes about women householders from families disrupted when mostly non-slaveholding farmers were drafted to fight a war for slavery while wealthier plantation owners were exempt. Building on her original work on southern yeoman families and the way gender shaped their practices and ideas, McCurry depicts the political actions and riots that women organized, that sprung from their shared ideas of community justice
From the list:

The best books to open doors to Early America

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Book cover of Putin's Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?

Putin's Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?

By Karen Dawisha

Why this book?

The late Karen Dawisha offers the best account so far of Putin's early career and the connections and corruption that paved his path to power. Her historical examples of Putin's greed and connections with organized crime shed important light on the way Russia is ruled today.
From the list:

The best books on contemporary Russia

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Book cover of The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I

The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I

By Stephen Alford

Why this book?

Although Elizabeth I has gone down in history as the iconic ‘Gloriana’, the longest-reigning and arguably most successful monarch from the Tudor dynasty, as queen she never enjoyed the luxury of feeling secure on her throne. This brilliant non-fiction book explores the many plots that swirled around the Virgin Queen’s throne – and the intricate spy network that helped thwart them all.

From the list:

The best books about life in Tudor times

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Book cover of Nicholas and Alexandra: The Classic Account of the Fall of the Romanov Dynasty

Nicholas and Alexandra: The Classic Account of the Fall of the Romanov Dynasty

By Robert K. Massie

Why this book?

This classic tale of the last Romanovs is both a meticulously researched history and a sweeping personal saga. Massie and his wife were the parents of a son who suffered from the same condition as the last Russian heir to the throne: hemophilia. His empathy for their personal lives makes this a poignant and ultimately devastating read.

From the list:

The best books on the last Romanovs

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Book cover of Jefferson's Treasure: How Albert Gallatin Saved the New Nation from Debt

Jefferson's Treasure: How Albert Gallatin Saved the New Nation from Debt

By Gregory May

Why this book?

Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and their secretary of the treasury, Albert Gallatin, did as much as Alexander Hamilton to create the unique blend of capitalism and democracy that is the United States of America – a story that more Americans ought to know.

From the list:

The best books on lesser-known figures in the American Revolution and early years

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Book cover of Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam

Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam

By H R McMaster

Why this book?

This book started as a master’s Thesis by then Major McMaster, who was attending the U. S. Army War College, it became an extremely important history book that exposes the Johnson Administration’s early miscalculations and failures in this war. Specifically, it addresses “Johnson, McNamara and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. and the Lies that led to Vietnam”. Any American who has not studied the war will be shocked to realize what took place leading up to the combat phase of the war, and their actions and inactions that ensured the negative outcome of the war. Herbert Raymond McMaster (born July…

From the list:

The best books about the Vietnam War from a Marine infantry officer who fought there

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Book cover of My Nine Years as Governor of the Territory of New Mexico, 1897-1906

My Nine Years as Governor of the Territory of New Mexico, 1897-1906

By Miguel Antonio Otero

Why this book?

I’m not usually a fan of political memoirs (I tend to be skeptical of the authors), but this one is an enlightening read in terms of understanding the sorts of structural and governmental prejudices that Hispanic people faced in the early twentieth century as exemplified by New Mexico’s long struggle to obtain statehood. Otero was from a prominent New Mexican family and was the governor of the territory from 1897 to 1906. New Mexico was acquired as part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in the aftermath of the Mexican-American war in 1848, but it didn’t become a state until…

From the list:

The best books on the USA by Hispanic writers who everyone should know

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Book cover of Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington

Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington

By Ted Widmer

Why this book?

This book rocked my world. Imagine this: Congress is meeting to ratify the election of a new president. But half the country doesn't want the new guy; in fact, there are armed thugs wandering around the streets of Washington, making noise about insurrection. The rumors of violence are so disturbing that the police force is put on high alert, and the Vice President, carrying the election paperwork, is assigned extra security. Sound familiar? This was the situation in 1861, as Abraham Lincoln was readying himself for his trip to the Capitol to take office. The book follows his train ride…

From the list:

The best nonfiction books that read like a novel

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Book cover of Wellington: The Path to Victory 1769-1814

Wellington: The Path to Victory 1769-1814

By Rory Muir

Why this book?

Speaking of which, this is the first of a two-volume biography of Wellington and is no doubt the most exhaustive and the most up-to-date biography of the man and his career. I’ve personally always found Wellington to be a fairly unlikeable character and there is nothing in this biography that made me change my mind. However, Muir’s familiarity with the sources and the archives enables him to integrate the personal, the military, and the political into this thorough examination of the man that ultimately defeated Napoleon.

From the list:

The best books about the Napoleonic Wars and their impact on Europe

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Book cover of We Have Been Harmonized: Life in China's Surveillance State

We Have Been Harmonized: Life in China's Surveillance State

By Kai Strittmatter

Why this book?

Frankly, it makes me squirm to recommend this book, but it’s a topic we Americans need to understand better. Under Xi Jinping, China has expanded its use of surveillance cameras and begun a “social credit” system to track people who are—and aren’t—following the rules. Kai Strittmatter, who reported from China for a leading German newspaper for more than a decade, relies on strong research and concludes that China is Orwellian. And yet, most Chinese citizens I know do not feel watched and oppressed. I’m eager to get back to China to judge for myself. Published in September 2020.

From the list:

The best books to understand China today

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Book cover of Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin

Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin

By Clifford G. Gaddy, Fiona Hill

Why this book?

You may recognize Fiona Hill from her damning testimony in the first impeachment of President Donald Trump in the Ukraine scandal, at which time she was senior director for European and Russian affairs at the National Security Council. Prior to that, she—along with co-author Cliff Gaddy—were two of the top minds on Russian politics at the Brookings Institute.

Together their book, Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin goes beyond the standard biographies of Vladimir Putin’s rise from the streets of Leningrad to the KGB to the Kremlin. More importantly, it highlights the variety of roles that Putin plays in the…

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The best books for understanding Putinism

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Book cover of Paris in the Fifties

Paris in the Fifties

By Stanley Karnow

Why this book?

While not strictly a book on fashion in Paris, it is a wonderful exploration of all things French after World War II, and one of those things was the Christian Dior couture house. Karnow arrived in Paris in 1947 to study, and soon landed a gig writing for Time magazine. One of his assignments was a cover story on Christian Dior, whose company, in less than a decade, had become so successful it was known as the General Motors of Fashion. In the Dior chapter, Karnow beautifully evokes the mechanisms and machinations of a French couture house, and shows…

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The best books about fashion in Paris

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Book cover of Salvador

Salvador

By Joan Didion

Why this book?

An account of El Salvador’s era of “disappearances” from one of the best non-fiction writers of her generation. Didion interviews the president, visits smoldering body dumps on the edge of San Salvador, and captures the atmosphere of revolution, civil strife, and Soviet-American rivalry that afflicted El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala in the 1980s. Essential reading for understanding the scars that continue to plague the region today.

From the list:

The best books on Central America

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Book cover of Blind Ambition: The White House Years

Blind Ambition: The White House Years

By John W. Dean

Why this book?

Dean's book is essential to understanding the psychodrama that led to the unraveling of the Watergate conspiracy. An ambitious lawyer picked to serve as White House counsel at the age of thirty-one, Dean feared that he was being set up to take the blame for Watergate. He was the first Nixon aide to appreciate the legal perils of the cover-up and the risks he was being asked to run. In order to save himself, he had to exit the conspiracy, betraying the president who was relying on him to throw a blanket over the scandal. In this 1976 memoir, Dean…

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The best books to understand Watergate

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Book cover of These Truths: A History of the United States

These Truths: A History of the United States

By Jill Lepore

Why this book?

Jill Lepore is a distinguished historian and staff writer for the New Yorker. In this volume, she focuses on the ideals of political equality and civil rights that shaped America. Deeply attuned to the struggles that have shaped the United States, the book offers a sweeping lyrical introduction to American history.

From the list:

The best books on the real history of America

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Book cover of Death as a Way of Life: From Oslo to the Geneva Agreement

Death as a Way of Life: From Oslo to the Geneva Agreement

By David Grossman, Haim Watzman

Why this book?

In novels and non-fiction, Israeli author David Grossman has spent much of his career writing about the failed struggle for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. This series of essays, written over a period of years, chronicles moments of good will and hope on both sides, constantly undermined by sectarian passion and extremist opposition to peace. 

From the list:

The best books for insight into the Israeli Palestinian Conflict

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Book cover of The Anatomy of Fascism

The Anatomy of Fascism

By Robert O. Paxton

Why this book?

Fascism and Communism purported to explain all social and political phenomena and, on that basis, justified their authoritarian or totalitarian rule. The term ‘fascist’ tends to be loosely applied to intolerant and autocratic political behaviour, but the outstandingly lucid, and highly readable, book by Robert Paxton not only surveys fascism in practice – in Mussolini’s Italy, Hitler’s Germany and in fascist movements and parties in many different countries – it also shows what its distinctive components are. What he calls the ‘mobilizing passions’ of fascism include the glorification of war and violence, expansionism, racism, a fixation on national solidarity, rejection…

From the list:

The best books on authoritarianism and totalitarianism

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Book cover of Black Software: The Internet & Racial Justice, from the Afronet to Black Lives Matter

Black Software: The Internet & Racial Justice, from the Afronet to Black Lives Matter

By Charlton D. McIlwain

Why this book?

Black software, McIlwain writes, “refers to the programs we desire and design computers to run. It refers to who designs the program, for what purposes, and what or who becomes its object and data.” The book is a much needed examination of the role that Black entrepreneurs, engineers, designers, and users contributed in building the internet.

From the list:

The best books on the origins of the tech industry

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Book cover of Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China

Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China

By Ezra F. Vogel

Why this book?

Deng Xiaoping is the most important person in contemporary Chinese affairs. It was under his time as the paramount leader of China that modernization started in earnest. He judged policy effectiveness on whether it worked or not. His story is engagingly told by historian Ezra Vogel.
From the list:

The best books about the Chinese Communist Party and Hong Kong

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Book cover of The Spanish Labyrinth: An Account of the Social and Political Background of the Spanish Civil War

The Spanish Labyrinth: An Account of the Social and Political Background of the Spanish Civil War

By Gerald Brenan

Why this book?

This book was originally published almost immediately after the Civil War and provides an extraordinarily rich—and yet very readable---account of the many conflicting forces that led up to the war. It is an indispensable introduction to that history.

From the list:

The best books on anarchism and revolution in the Spanish Civil War

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Book cover of The Kurdish Spring: A New Map of the Middle East

The Kurdish Spring: A New Map of the Middle East

By David L. Phillips

Why this book?

After World War I, the great powers who carved up the Middle East should have by all rights given the huge population of Kurds there a state of their own. But the new Turkish republic made sure they didn’t, and as a result of this historic betrayal, Kurdish people have lived as a minority in several Middle Eastern countries, whose dictatorial governments persecuted them brutally and often still do. Phillips, a longtime champion of Kurdish human rights, surveys their condition and traces their current evolution into a vibrant political community, arguing for international recognition of their right to self-determination.

From the list:

The best books about Rojava (Kurdish region of Syria)

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Book cover of Rojava: Revolution, War and the Future of Syria's Kurds

Rojava: Revolution, War and the Future of Syria's Kurds

By Thomas Schmidinger

Why this book?

Schmidinger, a Viennese political scientist and specialist in Kurdish studies, focuses on the Kurds’ particular oppression in Syria, where they are the largest ethnic minority. He explains the historical events that led to the Rojava Revolution of 2012 and the new institutions created there, up to the book’s publication in 2017. It is highly readable, sympathetic, and grounded in deep knowledge.

From the list:

The best books about Rojava (Kurdish region of Syria)

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Book cover of The Kurds of Northern Syria: Governance, Diversity and Conflicts

The Kurds of Northern Syria: Governance, Diversity and Conflicts

By Harriet Allsopp, Wladimir van Wilgenburg

Why this book?

This analysis traces the momentous social and political transformation of northeastern Syria brought about by the Rojava Revolution. It is grounded in a thorough knowledge of the literature on Kurdish politics and the Syrian war. At the same time one of the co-authors, a journalist based in Erbil, had unprecedented access to officials in the self-administration as well as civilians on the ground. The first-hand research and interviews are a pillar of the book, which explores the prospects for Kurdish autonomy with realism and nuance.

From the list:

The best books about Rojava (Kurdish region of Syria)

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Book cover of Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion

Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion

By Harold Holzer

Why this book?

When newspapers were the only medium before radio and TV and the internet, they were omnipresent in their own way, and highly partisan. They played dirty, and Lincoln did too. He knew that his careful words would have no impact unless he could get them printed in at least some of the papers he favored, bribed with access and rewards, or helped outflank their (and his) rivals.

From the list:

The best books on Abraham Lincoln, his life, and his words

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Book cover of The Life of Andrew Jackson

The Life of Andrew Jackson

By Robert V. Remini

Why this book?

A good place to start for understanding the Battle of New Orleans is a biography of the central character. A life-long student of Jackson, Robert Remini in this work provides a distillation of his 3-volume study on Old Hickory. Readers will learn about Jackson’s contentious early life and rise on the Tennessee frontier, his remarkable success as a general in both the Creek War and the War of 1812, and his postwar career, culminating in his presidency.

From the list:

The best books to understand the Battle of New Orleans

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Book cover of Anti-Politics Machine: Development, Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho

Anti-Politics Machine: Development, Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho

By James Ferguson

Why this book?

Many people get involved with Africa through their concern for its’ poverty and with a genuine desire to help “develop” Africa. Ferguson’s analysis shows how counter-productive this is without an understanding of the ways in which African society differs from western society. Much social theory is generalizations based on interpretations of western development. These ideas are then projected into Africa on the basis that the more they are like us, the more developed they will be. I hope these five books help you un-learn this perspective and embrace the originality and genius of Africa.

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The best books to read to understand Africa

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Book cover of Making Hong Kong China: The Rollback of Human Rights and the Rule of Law

Making Hong Kong China: The Rollback of Human Rights and the Rule of Law

By Michael C. Davis

Why this book?

Before Hong Kong people embraced the Sino-British agreement to cede Hong Kong’s sovereignty from Britain to China, China promised the people of Hong Kong they would enjoy a high degree of autonomy under the ‘one country, two systems’ framework so that their way of life and its socio-economic and political system would remain unchanged for 50 years, This ended in 2020, before the halfway point of the promised 50 years, when China imposed a National Security Law on Hong Kong that criminalized actions or speeches that people in Hong Kong were free to pursue hitherto. Davis provides a meticulous account…

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The best books on Hong Kong’s history and politics

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Book cover of Castlereagh: Enlightenment, War and Tyranny

Castlereagh: Enlightenment, War and Tyranny

By John Bew

Why this book?

John Bew’s biography of Clement Attlee is superb, this biography of Castlereagh, “perhaps the greatest of all Britain’s foreign secretaries” (Andrew Roberts) is even better. Castlereagh is a Regency politician’s Regency politician; he fought a duel against the devious Canning and when informed he was popular, replied that unpopularity was “more convenient and gentlemanlike.” He also, with Liverpool’s help and support, designed a peace settlement that lasted in essentials for 100 years, based on principles of legitimacy and lack of vengefulness that his successors at the 1919 Congress of Versailles would have done well to follow. Bew writes beautifully; this…

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The best books on Regency politics

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Book cover of Helen Suzman: Bright Star in a Dark Chamber

Helen Suzman: Bright Star in a Dark Chamber

By Robin Renwick

Why this book?

This is a heart-warming true story of the courage of one woman you have probably never heard of but you need to. A woman of great courage and integrity who took on the South African apartheid regime and for a while as a liberal was the only opposition member (and I think the only woman) in the racist all-white parliament. Some are naturally courageous, some have courage thrust upon them. Nelson Mandela and the ANC took on the racist regime from outside, Helen Suzman almost single-handedly took it on from within parliament. A real hero.
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The best books on how the world works

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Book cover of A Government of Our Own: The Making of the Confederacy

A Government of Our Own: The Making of the Confederacy

By William C. Davis

Why this book?

At the risk of being immodest in selecting one of my own books, this is the only scholarly investigation into the creation of the Confederacy and its infant days in Montgomery, Alabama, prior to the move to Richmond, VA. The story is peopled with dynamic characters, high ideals, low motives, and a host of surprises from what the Confederate founding fathers created and how they went about it. Secession was bound to be tried at some time in our history, and the way these men went about it, and how they sought to remedy what they saw as the shortcomings…

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The best books on the politics of the Confederacy: the inner world of the 'Lost Cause'

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Book cover of The Shadow of the Sun

The Shadow of the Sun

By Ryszard Kapuscinski

Why this book?

I prefer to read books whose focus lingers long enough on a conflict to uncover its complexities and contradictions. But in this instance, despite The Shadow of the Sun sometimes reading like a backpacker’s travel memoir, I couldn’t put it down. Spanning four decades and much of Africa, the narrative begins in the newly independent Ghana of the nineteen-sixties when the hopes and aspirations of a continent are alive on the streets of Accra, and continues through to the troubled times of Eritrea and Ethiopia in the mid-nineties and many coups and wars in between. Kapuściński’s writing covers the mundane…

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The best books about the tragedy of war

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Book cover of A Promised Land

A Promised Land

By Barack Obama

Why this book?

Most twenty-first-century presidents write autobiographies after leaving office, but not all autobiographies are created equal. A Promised Land gives an honest, unflinching view of the presidency. Obama is straightforward about his goals, successes, mistakes, and lessons learned the hard way. Whether or not you like him or agree with his policies, this book will give you a behind-the-scenes look at the presidency in a way that few others books can provide.

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The best books about American presidents

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Book cover of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty

Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty

By Bradley K. Martin

Why this book?

A mammoth volume, and yet somehow an unputdownable page-turner. It’s the best available overview of North Korea’s first, and most influential, leaders, Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il, and the society they created. It’s clear, measured, and detailed – and even though it’s fifteen years old, as an explainer, it’s a necessary foundation for any layperson trying to get to grips with the dynamics behind the headlines.
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The best non-fiction books about North Korea

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Book cover of The Early Roman Expansion Into Italy: Elite Negotiation and Family Agendas

The Early Roman Expansion Into Italy: Elite Negotiation and Family Agendas

By Nicola Terrenato

Why this book?

This book rewrites the story of how Roman imperialism got started. It is written by one of the best archaeologists in the field, and it shows. It is brilliantly illustrated, and it explains the world into which Rome emerged. Instead of the traditional story of virtuous Roman heroes and bold wars of conquest, it shows why other Italian peoples decided to join up with Rome. We get a sense of how other Italians saw things. And we understand how the ruling families, Roman and Italian alike, came together and built a state that would conquer the Mediterranean in all their…

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The best new books about the Roman Empire

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Book cover of Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power

Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power

By Andrew Nagorski

Why this book?

As the title suggests, this is a compendium of American visitors’ impressions of Nazism in the 1930s. Their reactions varied from confusion to rage to applause, but Nagorski notes that, sooner or later, most came to the realization that Germany was “a society undergoing a horrific transformation in the name of a demented ideology,” and feared the implications for humanity. Another useful reminder of the essential role of solid, independent journalism, and of the methods by which seemingly decent people and entire societies can be devoured by hatred and tribalism. It seems, sadly, that we need a lot of reminding…

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The best books by and about eyewitnesses to the rise of Adolf Hitler

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Book cover of Sovereignty and Authenticity: Manchukuo and the East Asian Modern

Sovereignty and Authenticity: Manchukuo and the East Asian Modern

By Prasenjit Duara

Why this book?

One of the first scholars to write a full-length monograph on Manchukuo, Duara delves into the Chinese and Japanese writers who viewed northeast China under Japanese occupation as a means to envision their own Pan-Asianist ideals. He analyses this in the context of a broader "East Asian modern" in Manchukuo, and utilizes political and literary sources to unearth previous connections with previous iterations and currents of Chinese nationalism tied to the Pan-Asianism of the early twentieth century.
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The best books on Manchukuo (Manchuria)

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Book cover of War and State Formation in Syria: Cemal Pasha's Governorate During World War I, 1914-1917

War and State Formation in Syria: Cemal Pasha's Governorate During World War I, 1914-1917

By M. Talha Çiçek

Why this book?

Based on a wide array of archival sources, the book discusses the Ottoman governance of Greater Syria during the First World War. During the war, the Ottoman government-appointed Cemal Pasa, one of the chief names of the ruling Committee of Union and Progress, as the commander of the Fourth Army and the military governor of Ottoman Arab provinces to lead a campaign against in the British-held Suez Canal. However, in addition to the military aim of this appointment, there was also a political and social one that can briefly be summarized as further centralization of the state through the “iron…
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The best books on the Middle East during the First World War

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Book cover of George Washington: The Political Rise of America's Founding Father

George Washington: The Political Rise of America's Founding Father

By David O. Stewart

Why this book?

This book delivers a full appreciation of Washington’s unique and unappreciated political skills which led to his being the unanimous choice for leading the American military during the Revolution, the Constitutional Convention, and two presidential terms. The author makes the Father of our Country come alive as a human being who was always a cut above his colleagues.
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The best presidential biographies

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Book cover of Home Rule: Households, Manhood, and National Expansion on the Eighteenth-Century Kentucky Frontier

Home Rule: Households, Manhood, and National Expansion on the Eighteenth-Century Kentucky Frontier

By Honor Sachs

Why this book?

Following in the footsteps of scholars, such as Kristen Hoganson, who have put a new gender spin on well-chronicled events, Sachs takes a familiar story—the story of America’s first frontier—and tells it in a fresh and compelling way by emphasizing how manliness and mastery shaped public policy and household relationships. Life in the west was risky and chaotic. Settlers coped by celebrating domestic order and by demanding the right for men to rule their own households. This patriarchal ideal, however, often led to violence, both outside the home and within. The individuals Sachs spotlights like, widow and powerful businesswomen Annie…

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The best books about Kentucky history

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Book cover of Colour Bar: Movie Tie-In: A United Kingdom

Colour Bar: Movie Tie-In: A United Kingdom

By Susan Williams

Why this book?

London 1945: the heir to the largest tribe of Bechuanaland (Botswana) arrives in Britain. Seretse Khama, an urbane 24-year-old was welcomed into the elite world of Oxford. But when he fell in love with Englishwoman Ruth Williams, the full force of colonial power was brought to bear to prevent their marriage. 

It has personal resonance for me because when I met Atam, in 1964, Smethwick was in the grip of a racist campaign. Atam and I volunteered to help the sitting Labour MP, Patrick Gordon Walker combat the Conservative Peter Griffiths’ campaign. The slogan was, ‘If you want a nigger…

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The best books about mixed relationships

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Book cover of No Votes for Women: The New York State Anti-Suffrage Movement

No Votes for Women: The New York State Anti-Suffrage Movement

By Susan Goodier

Why this book?

It’s easy to forget that many women, as well as men, actively opposed women’s suffrage. Susan Goodier details the anti-suffrage movement in New York State, but her analysis of its motives, victories, and ultimate defeat reveals much about the philosophies and implications of conservative movements nationwide. This is a fascinating study of the women who joined together in a political movement to keep women out of politics. A highlight is how these women fared after the vote was won.

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The best books on the fight for American women’s suffrage — the movement’s good, bad, and ugly

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Book cover of Eisenhower: The White House Years

Eisenhower: The White House Years

By Jim Newton

Why this book?

This is a deft, economical, and readable biography of Eisenhower's years in the White House, when the Cold War was at its most tense and dangerous, and how it wasn't inevitable that it would stay cold. Eisenhower, in fact, it could be argued, put his stamp on the style and tenor of the Cold War like no other U. S. president.
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The best books on the Cold War from a journalist who lived it

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Book cover of Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877

Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877

By Eric Foner

Why this book?

If most Americans are like me, Reconstruction is vaguely remembered from high school history classes as a time when corrupt and incompetent Carpetbaggers and Scalawags reigned while the South struggled to recover from the devastation of the Civil War. Historians have rescued Reconstruction from this neglect and misunderstanding, revealing it as a second American revolution – but one that failed. It was a time of stunning progress in the rights of Black Americans, a reconceptualization of the role of government in society, and staggering violence to preserve white supremacy. Pulitzer Prize-winning Historian Eric Foner’s book is the Bible for this…

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The best books for understanding white supremacy

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Book cover of America Reformed: Progressives and Progressivisms, 1890s-1920s

America Reformed: Progressives and Progressivisms, 1890s-1920s

By Maureen A. Flanagan

Why this book?

There are many books on the reforms of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era—this one is the best.  Flanagan, who writes clearly and engagingly, centers this work on four themes: politics, social justice, economics, and foreign policy. Every chapter features lively stories and helpful illustrations. While Flanagan certainly includes excellent coverage of vital federal and state reforms, she is particularly effective in her coverage of how every day Americans, including women and various minority groups, responded to the problems confronting society.

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The best books on the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (1877-1920) in U.S. history

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Gilded Age and Progressive Era

By William A. Link, Susannah J. Link

Why this book?

If you’re tired of historians spoon-feeding you their interpretations of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, this great selection of the period’s documents provides an unfiltered look at what people were thinking and doing at the time in their own words. The documents are arranged thematically with four or five per section: The New South; The New West; Native Americans; Big Business; Gilded Age Society; Working People, Immigrants in the Industrial Age; Populism; The Coming of Jim Crow; Labor Protest Rebuilding American Institutions; The Political System; Imperialism and Anti-imperialism, and the Debate about World War I. This is a user-friendly…

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The best books on the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (1877-1920) in U.S. history

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Book cover of Inside the Kingdom: Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists, and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia

Inside the Kingdom: Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists, and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia

By Robert Lacey

Why this book?

Better known these days for his writing on the palace dramas of the British royal family and being the historical adviser to the Netflix series The Crown, Lacey previously wrote the 1981 doorstopper The Kingdom: The History of Saudi Arabia to 1979. That was the year of the seizure by Sunni extremists of the Grand Mosque in Mecca as well as the Iranian (Shia) revolution.

This latest volume, published in 2009, looks at Saudi Arabia and the transition which was already taking place before the current King Salman took the throne and before anybody had heard of MbS.

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Book cover of Graphic Satire in the Soviet Union: Krokodil's Political Cartoons

Graphic Satire in the Soviet Union: Krokodil's Political Cartoons

By John Etty

Why this book?

Soviet satire is often overlooked or dismissed as purely propaganda. John Etty offers a refreshingly updated look at a key Soviet publication and provides the casual reader with an introduction to the colorful and humorous content in the USSR’s premier satirical journal. He explores how content was created, revealing a collaborative process that could involve everyone from the head of the party to everyday readers. While there was oversight and interference from state censors and political authorities, and self-censorship in the 1930s due to repression, Etty reveals that editors and creators had a great deal of creative freedom.

Etty also…

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The best books on Soviet social history

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Book cover of Australia

Australia

By W.K. Hancock

Why this book?

A classic written on the eve of the Great Depression on the political culture of the British settlers in the great south land, with its commitment to egalitarianism, to bureaucratic process, and to protection all round, with restricted immigration and protective tariffs building ring-fences around ordinary workers’ standard of living. Hancock does not wholly approve of the result, which he sees as encouraging mediocre conformity. Written with verve and a sardonic eye.

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The best politically engaged books about Australia

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Book cover of Farewell to the Party of Lincoln: Black Politics in the Age of F.D.R

Farewell to the Party of Lincoln: Black Politics in the Age of F.D.R

By Nancy Joan Weiss

Why this book?

Nancy Weiss traces how Black Americans, who traditionally voted Republican, abandoned the Party of Lincoln for the Democrats during the Roosevelt era. By 1932, Black dissatisfaction with the GOP had surfaced and centered on Herbert Hoover’s mishandling of the Great Depression. Although Hoover still won Black votes, Black Americans crossed over to support FDR in key electoral districts. Roosevelt’s New Deal economic programs neglected to remedy Black poverty and inequality but the President’s progressive reputation made him popular with many in the Black community. Creative campaign strategies targeting the Black community increased Black support for FDR and solidified the Democratic…
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The best books on Black Americans and the Roosevelt era

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Book cover of Days of Hope: Race and Democracy in the New Deal Era

Days of Hope: Race and Democracy in the New Deal Era

By Patricia Sullivan

Why this book?

In a pathbreaking examination of the New Deal and race, Patricia Sullivan does a deep dive into how the Roosevelt administration’s policies played out and, in most cases, failed Black people. While that story is a disappointing one, she also shows how the era created opportunities for a biracial coalition of Black and white progressives to come together to push for a vision of a revitalized American Democracy based in racial equality. Sullivan offers compelling accounts of the dynamic leadership provided by the NAACP, Black New Dealers, and Black activists in challenging American racism as they worked with white allies.…
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Book cover of Detroit: I Do Mind Dying: A Study in Urban Revolution

Detroit: I Do Mind Dying: A Study in Urban Revolution

By Dan Georgakas, Marvin Surkin

Why this book?

The name “Detroit” too often conjures images of poverty-porn: gorgeously crumbling buildings, post-apocalyptic urban decay, lost souls wandering cracked streets. Detroit: I Do Mind Dying shatters this image with unfettered energy. It chronicles the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in the auto plants of the 1960s-1970s, a refreshing reminder of the power of intersectional labor organizing; a raw look at the racism of the mainstream labor movement; and a very human chronicle of the struggles and flaws of courageous everyday workers at this critical time and place in history.
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The best books about labour and workers fighting against all odds

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Book cover of Cambodia's Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land

Cambodia's Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land

By Joel Brinkley

Why this book?

Cambodia, Joel Brinkley writes, is the most dangerous country in the world. The first one falls in love with it, then it breaks one’s heart. Cambodia’s Curse is a book of two tales. Brinkley’s retelling of the war years is a little revisionist but the chapters on the post-war reconstruction, the dirty politics, the lack of opportunities for ordinary people, and the venality of the government that remains in place to this day rightly and masterfully lay the blame for countless missed opportunities to create a more equitable society both into the hands of the international community’s attempts to create…

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Book cover of The Apple of His Eye: Converts from Islam in the Reign of Louis IX

The Apple of His Eye: Converts from Islam in the Reign of Louis IX

By William Chester Jordan

Why this book?

In his unsurpassed, informative, and intrinsically interesting study, Jordan reveals how France’s Louis IX settled over a thousand Muslims in France after his first Crusade during the thirteenth century. Jordan writes beautifully and through his careful research, engaging style, and polished prose, a forgotten world that few had imagined to even exist comes vividly alive.  

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The best books from Medieval European history to contemporary Japanese literature

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Book cover of Hitler's Lost State: The Fall of Prussia and the Wilhelm Gustloff Tragedy

Hitler's Lost State: The Fall of Prussia and the Wilhelm Gustloff Tragedy

By Tim Heath, Michela Cocolin

Why this book?

A detailed and terrifying account of the German civilians' plight as they were overwhelmed by the vengeful Russians - and of the Russian sinking of the German liner the ' Wilhelm Gustloff' resulting in some 6,000 civilian deaths, the worst maritime disaster ever.
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The best books on the rise and fall of the Third Reich

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Book cover of The Paranoid Style in American Politics

The Paranoid Style in American Politics

By Richard Hofstadter

Why this book?

The most influential book on conspiracy theories, by any measure, published in 1966. Its title shouts Hofstadter’s thesis: A longstanding strain in American politics is marginal, dangerous, and a manifestation of political paranoia. Although countless op-ed writers have reduced his thesis to equate conspiracy theory to a paranoid mind, Hofstadter offers in the book’s first half more than simple social psychological analysis of the far right of the 1950s and 1960s, which included Joe McCarthy, Barry Goldwater, and the John Birch Society.

One of the preeminent mid-twentieth century U.S. historians, Hofstadter wrote wonderfully, engaged in big ideas, and if his…

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The best books to understand conspiracy theories

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Book cover of Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine who Launched Modern China

Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine who Launched Modern China

By Jung Chang

Why this book?

Jung Chang, best known as the author of Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, here turns her considerable creative skill to the story of the woman who rose to the height of power in one of the world’s most important empires. Cixi’s trajectory from concubine to mother of the Tongzhi Emperor reminds us how sexual and reproductive labour are often critical to women’s access to power. 

Chang locates Cixi’s personal experiences, enjoying extreme luxury in secluded palaces yet displaying keen interest in the outside world that China was forced to confront, against a grand narrative of extraordinary changes to…

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The best books to make you think about women and power in history

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Book cover of Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism

Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism

By Mahmood Mamdani

Why this book?

This is one of the most compelling books written on Africa. The author insightfully and thoughtfully reassesses the predicament and plight of the African continent with regards to socio-cultural development, institution-building, nation-building, and state-building. The book – both challenging and stimulating as it is – proves to be a somewhat difficult read as the author alternately targets scholars of African studies more than students of Africa as his main audience and recipients.

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The best book on contemporary Africa and the legacy of late colonialism

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