Dec 21, 2011

FP’s Favorite Reads of 2011



FP's Favorite Reads of 2011

23 great books about the world, chosen by Foreign Policy's editors and bloggers.

DECEMBER 16, 2011


Tide Players: The Movers and Shakers of a Rising China, by Jianying Zha

In 2005, feisty Chinese writer Jianying Zha led Paul Goldberger, the New Yorker's architecture critic, on his first tour of Beijing. "He looked very intently for several days, and then one day told me that Beijing reminded him of Houston. It broke my heart." So Zha writes in the introduction to Tide Players. The lively book is organized around profiles of six Chinese entrepreneurs and intellectuals striving to "surf the currents" of a fast-changing nation. Most of them live in Beijing. Fortunately, as Zha's witty portraits reveal, the character of the city is determined far more by its people than its buildings, and Beijing in 2011 most certainly is not Houston. What the city and the country will look like in, say, 2031, however, is up for debate. —Christina Larson, contributing editor

Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner

I can't say this novel helped me understand Spain's deficit woes or electoral politics, but as a thoughtful and often funny account of a confused American living in Madrid, it was well worth its short, mostly plotless 180 pages. Aside from drinking and smoking, the narrator, a young American poet on a fellowship in Spain, spends his days thinking about art, literature, women -- and the inadequacy he feels in each of these areas in a country where he only haltingly speaks the language. Most memorably, he takes to the streets just after the Madrid train bombings of March 2004, stricken by the horror of the attacks but feeling out of place amid the politicized protests that follow. He is left wondering what purpose reading and writing literature serve in historical moments and why he should write at all. Lucky for us, Lerner has found reason enough to turn out a compelling book of his own. —Margaret Slattery, assistant managing editor


Bonus Reads

FP's own family and friends have turned out a number of great reads this year: Charles Kenny, our weekly "Optimist" columnist, produced Getting Better: Why Global Development Is Succeeding to much deserved acclaim in 2011; he even has Bill Gates plugging him these days. FP blogger Dan Drezner's book, Theories of International Politics and Zombies, which started life as a memorable blog post on, is both a terrific primer on competing schools of thought in international relations and a brilliant send-up of the turgid prose and ponderous clichés that unfortunately dominate all too much writing about foreign affairs. And Peter Bergen, editor of the AfPak Channel as well as a great partner of ours at the New America Foundation, has written The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and al-Qaeda, a must-read chronicle of a decade of war. —Susan B. Glasser