Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan (Vintage)
Many great Americans actually cared about the Afghans but they were overpowered. This is how the "good" war went bad. From my new perspective, it's both depressing and inspiring.
Vali Nasr: The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat
A clear, blistering critique of Obama's foreign policy by a Mideast expert who used to work in the administration. It helped me appreciate how sanctions against Iran actually undermine long-term U.S. aims in the region. But shouldn't domestic considerations in foreign policy be a factor?
Richard Holbrooke: To End a War (Modern Library Paperbacks)
I read this memoir of the process leading to the end of the war in Bosnia during two weeks of traveling around the country. The ups and downs of the talks are fascinating. Not sure I'd like to negotiate with Milosevic.
Barbara Demick: Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood
These heart-wrenching stories put human faces on the tragedy of the Bosnia war and made me hug my wife and children a little closer. It's hard to square these stories with our tardy intervention in that war or stomach the unfolding disaster in present-day Syria. Gave me nightmares for the first time in years.
Steven Galloway: The Cellist of Sarajevo
Tells the story of the nearly 4-year-long siege of Sarajevo through the lives of four regular people. Loved the precise detail and spare writing. This is great example of fiction augmenting reality.
Teju Cole: Open City: A Novel
This fictional memoir of a Nigerian doctor wandering New York City and Brussels is almost free of narrative. That's fine, but the lack of characterization and endless, random and flat dissertations on everything from Borges to 9/11 made it a chore to finish.
Lawrence Wright: The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11
This narrative tracks the roots of Islamic terrorism and the many bungled attempts to thwart it. It's essential reading for anyone who thinks a military operation alone can do the job. And it's even better than Homeland.
Michael Woodford: Exposure: Inside the Olympus Scandal: How I Went from CEO to Whistleblower (2012)
This account by the British CEO of a top Japanese company who was pushed out after questioning fraud shows that the rot in Japan Inc. isn't all in the past. There are courageous Japanese individuals in the story but it's a depressing commentary on Japan today.
Neil Steinberg: You Were Never in Chicago (Chicago Visions and Revisions)
This love letter to Chicago may be the best book I've read about a single city. Written with a columnist's wit and research, Steinberg's memoir tracks the ups and downs of urban life along with the decline of the newspaper business. He's as provincial about Chicago as any proud resident of, say, Tokyo, London or any other world city. It's a joy to read.
Mark Bowden: The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden
This is no "Black Hawk Down" or "Killing Pablo." This book feels rushed and lacks Bowden's usual reporting since it mostly squares conflicting accounts rather than uncovering new information. Bummer.
Scott Martelle: Detroit: A Biography
This very readable history shows how Detroit went from wilderness to domination by one industry. I found myself wanting more about the city's culture and the political economy of the last 50 years, the decisions made and the paths not taken. "Biography" is a misnomer because it suggests more personality than this account and implies that the story has an end.
Peter Mountford: A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism
This is the rare novel that combines international finance, global development and a romance. The story of a young hedge fund analyst in Bolivia turns into a morality tale for our era. Anyone who has been bewitched by their time in a developing country will be very entertained.
Tracy Kidder: Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World (Random House Reader's Circle)
This story of one man's passion for the poor in Haiti, Peru, Russia and elsewhere is really about the sort of life each of us wants to lead. While we can't all take on a globetrotting mission, we should each ask what our life amounts to. One quote that hit home: "Among a coward's weapons, cynicism is the nastiest of all."
Buzz Bissinger: Father's Day: A Journey into the Mind and Heart of My Extraordinary Son
One of my journalist-heroes takes a cross-country trip with his adult son, rethinking his own personal and career choices along the way. It's beautifully written -- and you'll need lots of Kleenex.
David Lida: First Stop in the New World
Urbanization means more of the world will soon look more like Mexico City -- and this book shows why that's a good thing. David Lida provides a detailed ground-level view of the city, especially beyond the central districts that most visitors see. The author lavishes equal attention on the lives of all the folks who make the city: laborers, artists, taxi drivers, business people, politicians, police, bartenders, et al and shows how they solve problems in their own ways.
Anthony Shadid: House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East
This memoir is by a fantastic journalist who passed away this year covering the news in Syria -- and who happened to be the brother of one of my Seattle friends. Fashioned around the tale of rebuilding his ancestral house in Lebanon, it combines history of the region, stories about the lives and motivations of its current residents and reflections on his own personal and professional life. That's a lot to pull off in a slim volume, yet he does it with beautiful prose that kept me entranced until the last page.
Eliza Griswold: The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam
The 1,000-mile-wide band north of the equator in Africa and Asia is where Christianity and Islam meet and where the struggle for resources is greatest. Traveling across Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines over several years, journalist Eliza Griswold shows the cultural, environmental and economic forces motivating average people. The daughter of a leading Episcopal bishop, she reflects on her own upbringing and how religion shapes all of our world views. The lucid reporting and lively history provides nuance about critical parts of the world that often fail to even make headlines in the U.S.
Richard Ben Cramer: What It Takes: The Way to the White House
Anyone thinking of running for public office should read this first. A biography of the candidates who ran for president in 1988, this shows the tradeoffs required to participate in politics at the national level and the perils of media and political consultants. Men give up any hope of enjoying their young children, sacrifice their wives and contort their own lives and beliefs in order to try to change the direction of the country. It's fascinating and addicting stuff. But I keep thinking that there's got to be a better way.
Kenneth E. Morris: Unfinished Revolution: Daniel Ortega and Nicaragua's Struggle for Liberation
I've been fascinated by Nicaragua since I first visited a decade ago so I was really looking forward to reading this first book-length treatment of the country's revolutionary leader turned dictator. There's plenty of detail about the man and the country's politics here, but I don't understand why the author (who apparently never interviewed his subject) is so sympathetic. He excuses corruption, megalomania, disregard for public opinion simply because everyone in Nicaragua does it. I'd argue it's not enough to care about the poor; ideology aside, Ortega has blown a unique opportunity to get lasting results that would improve lives in this magical, heartbreaking country.