Books

Must-Reads of 2017: Challenging Fashionable Thinking

Recommended reading on U.S. dominance, the Vietnam War and the role of GDP.
Photographer: Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images

Among the books that made an impression on me this year, one central theme is that they challenge assumptions and fashionable ideas. Or they are pre-war German detective fiction. 

"Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes America's Role in the World," by Robert D. Kaplan 

In this narrative based on a road trip across the U.S., Kaplan offers a tonic for those despairing at the country's standing in the world. He explores the role geography has played -- and is playing -- in shaping America's destiny and world leadership. The book also resonates as I explore the vastness and majesty of the American West with my Colorado-born wife. It's the end of Kaplan's journey in San Diego, and the sight of the Pacific Fleet at anchor, that hammers home an often overlooked fact: America is really the only two-ocean power. China may be trying to boost influence in the Indian Ocean, but it has no coastline or territories there. And no nation, despite China's gains, is close to the ability to project power across the seas that the U.S. enjoys. No other military power can undermine us. But we can undermine our own global role. We are trying hard. 

"Hue 1968: A Turning Point in the American War in Vietnam," by Mark Bowden

In this year of Vietnam retrospectives, Bowden reminds us that the conflict wasn't always the tropical jungle war of popular lore. Some of the fiercest fighting was urban, house-by-house, street-by-street. If the Tet Offensive was the pivotal event of the war in terms of U.S. politics and policy, then the battle for Hue was the pivot of the pivot. Again, contrary to popular mythology, the temperature in Vietnam wasn't always sweltering, either. Fighting in Hue, the old imperial capital and the third-largest city in South Vietnam, was conducted in cold, fog and drizzle. Bowden, the author of "Black Hawk Down," shows a particular skill in this book to zoom in and zoom out, to range from the struggle for a particular building all the way through factional political tussles in Hanoi. We in the West tend to be familiar with the political dynamic in Washington at the time, less so differences of opinion within the North Vietnamese Politburo.

"The World After GDP," by Lorenzo Fioramonti

Gross domestic product is overrated and, according to Fioramonti, a dangerously flawed way of looking at economic progress. Putting this book on the list might sound sacrilegious coming from an economics writer and editor, but as I have written, every assumption could use a good kick of the tires. Fioramonti does this with narratives ranging from the ruins of the Pacific nation of Nauru that once had soaring gross domestic product to the austerity missteps of the euro crisis early this decade. I would go a step further: Focusing on GDP growth in the U.S. of around 2 percent for much of the past decade would lead you to miss the steadily tightening labor market. No wonder the major economies are ending this year in relatively strong shape.

"By More Than Providence: Grand Strategy and American Power in the Asia Pacific Since 1783," by Michael J. Green.

The big takeaway is the reminder that Japan has almost always been the principle focus of American power in the Pacific, either as opponent or, more often, ally. Other forces, like China, go in and out of fashion. Japan, with its American military facilities and still considerable economic heft, is at the core of U.S. ability to project power. Like Kaplan's "Earning the Rockies," Green emphasizes that the U.S. has always been a Pacific power. History shows that the U.S. cannot just turn away from that role. Despite the lip service given to the importance of Asia, the American political class still has an Atlantic view of the world or, at least, a subtle bias. Green also gently pushes back at the idea that the Obama "pivot" to Asia was something especially new. He points out that his former boss, George W. Bush, attended every APEC meeting, unlike Bill Clinton, who skipped a couple.

"Singapore: Unlikely Power," by John Curtis Perry

My experience as a Bloomberg News bureau chief in Southeast Asia two decades ago made me a fan of Singapore. Unlike, say, Malaysia, there wasn't such a chasm between where the country saw itself and where it actually was. Singapore worked, and still does. Perry dispels the myth that this was a uniquely British creation. There's a fascinating narrative on how central the island and the Straits settlements were to a Chinese-based economic system long before Stamford Raffles came on the scene. As the island rose again, the author tells the story of Albert Winsemius, a Dutch industrialist and kind of consigliere to Lee Kuan Yew. Winsemius appears as the second-most-important person in Singapore's modern history, aside from Lee himself. Yet few Singaporeans I have met know much, if anything, about him. This book should be compulsory reading for locals as well as those with an interest in economics and Asian affairs.

Reconsidered: "Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis," by J.D. Vance

Given all the continued commentary about this book, even though it was published in 2016, it's important to add a dose of reality. While J.D. Vance's story about the community in which he grew up has been hailed as presaging Donald Trump's rise, Vance himself is pretty ambivalent about this interpretation. Or, at least, he was during the campaign. As late as October 2016, Vance told me, Scott Lanman and Kate Smith on the Bloomberg "Benchmark" podcast that Hillary Clinton would win Ohio, where a large part of the book is set, and win the election. So let's be careful in our rush to identify Trump explainers.

"Prussian Blue (A Bernie Gunther Novel)," by Philip Kerr

The latest installment in Kerr's series about Gunther, the fictional survivor of Verdun who became a Weimar-era police detective and later private eye, military intelligence operator and sometime fixer for the Nazi official Reinhard Heydrich. This novel combines parts of Gunther's postwar retirement as hotel clerk in France with recollections of a 1939 murder Heydrich wanted him to solve at Hitler's holiday estate in Bavaria. In the process, it's hoped Gunther will find dirt on Heydrich rival Martin Bormann. Gunther is no Nazi apologist; his allegiance to the Social Democratic Party and the idea of Weimar run through this book and others in the series. He is just trying to make it through to the next day, next month, next year. As Gunther himself remarks, he ought to be dead by now. One can't help but feel Gunther is starting to run out of runway. Kerr promises another installment next year. I think it's time to learn more about his time in the trenches and develop the hinterland of this German Philip Marlowe a bit more. Maybe then he can really retire. (I can't help but wonder what he would make of the current coalition-wrangling in Berlin!)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Daniel Moss at dmoss@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net

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