stochastically best book
These are past suggestions from MR readers, pulled from the comments, endorsed by me only on a stochastic basis:
Michela Wrong, Eritrea
Rwanda: something Prunier, probably Rwanda Crisis though it stops in 1996
Uganda: Season of Thomas Tebo, though it’s fiction (is that disqualifying?)
Eastern Congo: Jason Stearns Dancing with Monsters (like China, the country is too big for one book)
The Government of Ethiopia – Margery Perham’s Ethiopian answer to Ruth Benedict’s Japanese The Sword and the Chrysanthemum.
Ethiopia: – Wax and Gold by Donald Levine – Understanding Contemporary Ethiopia (edited by E. Ficquet & G. Prunier
Pre-colonial Africa: The Scramble for Africa
For DRCongo, I recommend The Congo: From Leopold to Kabila by Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja. It does a great job of distinguishing between the dizzying array of political factions in Congolese history. It’s shortcomings are in culture and economics. Not a lot to choose from with DRC unfortunately!
From Genocide to Continental War, by Gérard Prunier
In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz was excellent, as was King Leopold’s ghost on the DRC.
Zimbabwe – The Struggle Continues: 50 Years of Tyranny in Zimbabwe by David Coltart
Great Lakes region: this was actually good https://www.amazon.com/Great-Lakes-Africa-Thousand-History/dp/1890951358/
On Australia: Robert Hughes’ “The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia’s Founding”
On Hong Kong: Gordon Mathews’ “Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong”
Tyler mentioned Joshua Jelly-Schapiro’s book on the Caribbean for the region, so how about Paul Theroux’s book about the South Pacific, “The Happy Isles of Oceania”?
And if Boston were a country: J. Anthony Lukas’ “Common Ground” J. Anthony Lukas
What about outer space? Best book on Mars? The moon?
A while back I requested random recommendations from readers about the best books to read about particular countries. I call them “stochastically best” because I have some faith in your judgments, yet without really trusting you one whit. Here is one of the two very last installments in that series, taken and collated from comments you all have submitted:
…or Australia it’s still Year of the Angry Rabbit:Bill Bryson’s Down Under for a casual read on an outsider’s perspective or Phillip Knightley’s Australia: A Biography of a Nation, Russell Ward, The Australian Legend
Turkey? I liked Crescent and Star by Stephen Kinzer.
I liked Hugh Pope’s Sons of the Conquerors: The Rise of the Turkish World
Norman Stone wrote a very readable short history of Turkey.
For the Philippines, either “In Our Image” by Karnow or “Touch Me Not” by Rizal
I thought this book on Cambodia was fantastic: Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land. The author won a Pullitzer Prize for his reporting on the Khmer Rouge.
On Myanmar: “Blood, Dreams and Gold: The Changing Face of Burma” by Richard Cockett
Indonesia…etc. for… Indonesia (Elisabeth Pisani)
I second this opinion. Pisani was illuminating for me.
For Thailand: “Thailand’s Political History: From the Fall of Ayutthaya to Recent Times” by B. J. Terwiel is a fresh look. Many of the other books I have read follow the same boiler-plate narrative that’s been published for decades. His work also brings to light some unique source material that is valuable to the discussion.
Michael King’s “A Penguin History of New Zealand”
The Search for Modern China, China – Age of Ambition by Evan Osnos
RE: #17 China Chinese History: A New Manual; Fourth (2017 “bluebook”) or Fifth Editions (2015 “greenbook”) by Endymion Wilkinson
Yeah, and for a more contemporary take, the late great Richard Baum’s Great Courses lecture series (2010), Fall and Rise of China, completes the picture (Still noting that Tyler speaking of books, Baum’s lectures are so elegant, that the transcripts serve as a wonderful book.). All and all, Endymion’s work is the best out there in the Chinese scholarship community.
If you collected all of Simon Leys essays on China that would be a very insightful book on the country – mostly touching on culture and politics. Beautifully and memorably written too. Simon Leys seems to me one of the most under-rated essayists of recent decades.
Pakistan, Breaking the Curfew by Emma Duncan
The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq by Hanna Batatu.
India: the Idea of India, Subaltans & Raj: South Asia since 1600, Richard Lannoy : The Speaking Tree
Does anyone have any opinion of India After Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha?
For India, one of my favourite books is “India: A History” by John Keay. It focuses much more on historical facts and events without passing judgement. I believe it is an extremely good and unbiased summary of Indian history from the Indus Valley Civilization to modern India.
While I haven’t found any properly good book that covers South India history, “A History of South India” by K.A. Nilakanta Sastri and “A Concise History of South India: Issues and Interpretations” by Noboru Karashima do address this topic.
I am on a Tamim Ansary kick, so I’ll propose “Games Without Rules” for Afghanistan.
Daniel Tudor’s “Korea: The Impossible Country” is a good read, which has chapters dedicated to antiquity and its influence on modern (South) Korea but mostly does concentrate on how the country is now and recent history. Tudor recommends “The Koreans,” since updated as “The New Koreans,” by Michael Breen, and “The Two Koreas” by Robert Carlin as “two foundational texts.” Barbara Demick’s “Nothing to Envy” is a fascinating book about what life in North Korea is like for ordinary North Koreans.
Burma / Myannmar: The River of Lost Footsteps
Haiti: Dubois’ Aftershocks of History? (though you’d know better)
Here are previous installments in the series.
What exactly does that title mean? It means they are your suggestions, and I kind of/sort of trust some of you, and I didn’t want to throw in all of my opinions. At the very least, I know a lot of these to be good, but I am reporting these recommendations from a distance. These are pulled from the comments section on my earlier post on the best book to read about each country, with my recommendations. So here are your contributions for Europe:
Roy Foster on Ireland.
James Hawes has just published what has been reviewed as an excellent short history of Germany. His previous book on Anglo-German relations before WW1 felt like a fresh and convincing re-interpretation of what is very well-trodden ground in political/diplomatic history.
Jonathan Steinberg’s “Why Switzerland”
For Poland, yes, Norman Davies’ God’s Playground is the best book in English.
Poland: A History by Zamoyski is concise, but probably too concise for someone not already somewhat familiar with Polish history.
For Scandinavia – The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia by Michael Booth.
One of the best books for understanding any nation, ignoring much of the history and most of the politics, is ‘Watching the English’ by Kate Fox.
Is it possible the best book for “getting” France is the Larousse Gastronomique? Because I already have that one also.
Czech Republic – “Gottland” by Mariusz Szczygiel. A description of the Czechs by a Pole. Will give you a lot of insight into the Czech character. I suppose a lot of Czechs will tell you The Good Soldier Swejk is the best book about Czechs, but that is self-serving.
Czechoslovakia: The State That Failed by Mary Heimann is also very good.
On Bulgaria: “Border” by Kapka Kassabova
The Basque History of the World: The Story of a Nation” by Mark Kurlansky
Simon Schama’s A History Of Britain
On Romania: “Along the Enchanted Way: A Story of Love and Life in Romania” by William Blacker or perhaps Robert D. Kaplan’s “In Europe’s Shadow”. I also liked Kaplan’s portrait of Oman in “Monsoon”.
My choice would be Iberia by Michener.
The Bible in Spain by George Borrow. Very old, very good.
Patrick Leigh Fermor on Greece, Crete – Mani…etc.
Netherlands: The Low Sky: Understanding the Dutch by Han van der Horst (De lage hemel in the original)
Netherlands, fun read, although a bit dated now (written 20 years ago?): The Undutchables by Colin White and Laurie Boucke
There are two good and readable historical books on Amsterdam (and, by extension, The Netherlands)—one by Russell Shorto and the other by Geert Mak. Both are available in English. A bit more highbrow than the other books mentioned.
On Spanish recent history I enjoyed Ghosts of Spain by Giles Tremlett. Specifically on Barcelona I’d recommend Robert Hughes’ Barcelona. Inside into Catalan physcho.
On Scandinavia: The almost nearly perfect people by Michael Booth
On Eastern Europe – Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder.
On the history of Russia you can’t beat ‘Internal Colonisation’ by Alexander Etkind.
And on English – wonderful AA Gill, RIP, ‘Angry Island: Hunting the English’
Spain – John Crow – Spain the Root and the Flower, Italy – Dark heart of Italy by Tobias Jones. Not sure these are the best, but they give an interesting psychological insight for the occasional traveller
Russia – big country so 3 books, not histories – War and Peace (Tolstoy), Life and Fate (Vasily Grossman), Everything is possible (Pomerantsev)…
Enjoy! Here are previous installments in the series.
This list is aggregating from my reader recommendations:
Jorge Castaneda “Manana Forever” on 21st Century Mexico isn’t as polished but it’s pretty informative.
“To count, the book must have some aspirations to be a general survey of what the country is…” Mexico: Riding, Distant Neighbors, — definitely. Being up to date is not that relevant for attempting to show “what the country is…”. As good or better: Octavio Paz, El laberinto de la soledad (The Labyrinth of Solitude) (1950) and Charles Macomb Flandrau, Viva Mexico! (1908)
El Laberinto also came to my mind as a better candidate on Mexico. And then there is Understanding Mexicans and Americans: Cultural Perspectives in Conflict (Rogelio Diaz-Guerrero and Lorand B. Szalay) originally published in 1991.
If you are going to go with a dated option for Mexico, Paz’ “Labyrinth of Solitude” is considerably better than “Distant Neighbors”.
El Nicaragüense by Pablo Antonio Cuadra (for Nicaragua)
On Mexico: Enrique Krauze’s book “Mexico: Biography of Power” has the reputation of “best book about [modern] Mexico,” but I’ve struggled to read it.
The textbook answer should be “The Peruvian Experiment Reconsidered” ed. Cynthia McClintock & Abraham F. Lowenthal.
My personal favorite is another book by McClintock (the aforementioned editor and GWU Professor of Political Science and International Affairs) titled “Peasant Cooperatives and Political Change in Peru.” Unlike the broad surveys of political and economic history given in the McClintock and Lownthal edited book, “Peasant Cooperatives” gives a great case study of agrarian co-ops and the socio-economic horrors of military rule.
On Nicaragua: Stephen Kinzer’s “Blood of Brothers: Life and War in Nicaragua”
On Guyana: “Wild Coast” by John Gimlette
And Michael Reid’s “Forgotten Continent” is a useful book about South America.
Here were reader recommendations: remember the ground rules, namely that the book must aspire to some degree of comprehensiveness:
Japan and the Shackles of the Past by R. Taggart Murphy.Japan and the Shackles of the Past is very good. David Pilling’s Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of SurvivalAlso, Japan through the looking glass, by Alan Macfarlane.While Richie is *the* famous foreign voice on Japan, Alan Booth’s “The Roads to Sata” is, to use Tyler’s favorite word, underrated and worth a read.
Confucius Lives Next Door: What Living in the East Teaches Us About Living in the West Paperback – March 28, 2000 by T.R. Reid
Good book about Japan by the WaPo correspondent. Funny.
Alex Kerr is another great writer on Japan, but this one is a bit dated although definitely still worth a read. His Lost Japan is my favorite.
The best book I’ve read about Japan, or at least modern Japan, is “Dogs and Demons” by Alex Kerr. It’s a fairly pessimistic book about how various postwar obsessions — material comfort, social harmony, and clear class identities — have created a surprisingly unambitious, overly conservative, deeply sclerotic country that has seen its brief glimpse as one of the world’s major powers unambiguously pass.
Modern: Bending Adversity by David Pilling is an excellent view on modern (deflation era) Japan.
Recent: Covering the Showa Period (1923-1989), the graphic novel “Showa” by Shigeru Mizuki is excellent. (I’m not usually a graphic novel reader, but this was amazing)-4 volumes.
Through 1867: A history of Japan by George Sansom (published 1958) is a three volume set covering -1334, 1334-1615 and 1615-1867.
There are a number of other enjoyable books as well (e.g., Road to Sata) but I would not say that they are representative or “must-reads”, regardless of how pleasant reading it may be.
I am not endorsing (or rejecting) those selections, merely aggregating them. That said, you should read them.
Here are reader suggestions, I am aggregating this information, do not think of these as independent recommendations from me:
Canada: A Story of Challenge by J. M. S. Careless
For Canada, read “A Fair Country” by John Ralston Saul, “Clearing the Plains” by James William Daschuk, and pretty much any of Pierre Berton’s books.
I recommend “Right Honourable Men” by Michael Bliss for Canada.
Yeah, Vimy is the standard “coming of a nation” book for Canadians – although too oversentimental. The underappreciated element of that book is some weird attempt to recover Hughes’ tarnished image as a proto-Canadian.
Definitenly recommend it to non-Canadians to get a sense of common denominator Canadian “nationalism”
I would second “A Fair Country” but suggest it as part of a field entry with Saul’s “Louis-Hippolyte-Lafontaine and Robert Baldwin”. Though neither works are above criticism, taken together they represent the best attempt available to answer the questions “Why, and how is Canada different from the United States (and western Europe).
Saul’s work is influenced by Harold Innis, particularly “The Fur Trade in Canada” (1930). This also remains worthwhile, if you feel robust enough to handle Innis’ drier-than-the-Sahara prose, and the fact that it is literally a history of the fur trade in Canada.
Canada is a hard one, esp because of the French/English duality — there’s by definition no single overarching narrative. There’s also no single overarching meta-narrative. But to get the sense of what’s up with English Canada, you could do worse than read George Grant’s Lament for a Nation, particularly the 40th anniversary edition with intro by, er, me. The issue isn’t that Grant got it right, it’s that the ways in which he was wrong, and why he remains so wrong influential, are crucial to understanding the anxieties of English speaking Canada. https://www.amazon.ca/Lament-Nation-Canadian-Nationalism-Anniversary/dp/077353010X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1515422833&sr=8-1&keywords=lament+for+a+nation
For Canada, I’d suggest “The Patriot Game” by Peter Brimelow or “Lament for a Nation” by George Grant.
Canada – “The Vertical Mosaic”
For Canada, I recommend “How to be Canadian” or binge watching TSN will suffice. Also check out, trailer park boys and corner gas.
The best book about Canada is “The Patriot Game” by Peter Brimelow. Though Brimelow is now a mostly fringe figure associated with the alt-right and white nationalism, for many years he was a perfectly respected mainstream Canadian journalist who wrote for all the big newspapers and magazines up here. As a Brit, he saw Canada with a certain degree of aloof detachment, and “The Patriot Game” was his effort to write a “Unified Theory of Canada,” that focuses heavily on how Canadian politics, and the “game” of manufacturing a sense of nationalism for a rather curious, anachronistic country (he famously called it “one of the toadstools of history” — that is, something that grew up unexpectedly) provides the essence of Canadian identity. Even as Brimelow’s own reputation has declined, it is still a very widely-quoted book, and was particularly influential in the life of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
As a Canadian, I’d like to know an answer to this question. Growing up, history seemed to be a series of microaggressions (e.g. Boer war, endless fur trade disputes). It would be nice to read a more overarching narrative!
Note that several other commentators expressed displeasure with the work of John Ralston Saul. What else might you recommend as the stochastically best book to read about Canada?
I will be aggregating information for some other countries and regions soon.