Friday, 4 April 2014

Art by Hokusai – “Fuji koryuu”

I was looking through some favourite pieces of art online, today, and I thought I’d share this one by Hokusai. Nowhere near as famous as his The Great Wave, but this is my favourite of his:

Hokusai-FujiSmokeDragon

Fuji koryuu

Thursday, 27 March 2014

“Young Money” by Kevin Roose (Grand Central)

RooseK-YoungMoneyInside the Hidden World of Wall Street’s Post-Crash Recruits

Becoming a young Wall Street banker is like pledging the world’s most lucrative and soul-crushing fraternity. Every year, thousands of eager college graduates are hired by the world’s financial giants, where they are taught the secrets of making obscene amounts of money – as well as how to dress, talk, date, drink, and schmooze like real financiers.

This is more than an exposé of excess; it is the story of how the financial crisis changed a generation-and remade Wall Street from the bottom up.

Young Money is one of the best narrative non-fiction books I’ve read in a while. It is also one of the best on Wall Street culture that I’ve read. This is largely because it is more focused on the characters involved, rather than the minutiae of trading and banking operations. While those things are, of course, widely misunderstood outside of banking circles, by focusing on the younger generation, Roose has drawn a fascinating insider account of this oh-so-well-guarded world.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Best of 2013: “The Story of America” by Jill Lepore (Princeton University Press)

Lepore-StoryOfAmericaThere aren’t many scholars of American history who continue to surprise me. But, in everything I’ve read by Jill Lepore – be it an article (academic or journalistic) or book-length – she has brought something new and interesting to the discussion, whether it is a new argument or interpretation, or merely a new sources and obscure (but always relevant and interesting) evidence. The Story of America is no different. This is easily one of the best history books of 2013, if not the last few years: accessible, engaging, always interesting and intelligent, but also (in its way) highly entertaining.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Mini-Review: “The Secretary” by Kim Ghattas (Times Books)

GhattasK-TheSecretary“A Journey with Hillary Clinton to the New Frontiers of American Power”

This is a tricky book to review. Sad to say, I was disappointed by it. This may have more to do with what I was expecting from the book. I didn’t realise that the subtitle (in bold, above) was rather more literal than I had thought. Here’s the official synopsis:

In November 2008, Hillary Clinton agreed to work for her former rival. As President Barack Obama’s secretary of state, she set out to repair America’s image around the world—and her own. For the following four years, BBC foreign correspondent Kim Ghattas had unparalleled access to Clinton and her entourage, and she weaves a fast-paced, gripping account of life on the road with Clinton in The Secretary.

With the perspective of one who is both an insider and an outsider, Ghattas draws on extensive interviews with Clinton, administration officials, and players in Washington as well as overseas, to paint an intimate and candid portrait of one of the most powerful global politicians. Filled with fresh insights, The Secretary provides a captivating analysis of Clinton’s brand of diplomacy and the Obama administration’s efforts to redefine American power in the twenty-first century.

Populated with a cast of real-life characters, The Secretary tells the story of Clinton’s transformation from popular but polarizing politician to America’s envoy to the world in compelling detail and with all the tension of high stakes diplomacy. From her evolving relationship with President Obama to the drama of WikiLeaks and the turmoil of the Arab Spring, we see Clinton cheerfully boarding her plane at 3 a.m. after no sleep, reading the riot act to the Chinese, and going through her diplomatic checklist before signing on to war in Libya — all the while trying to restore American leadership in a rapidly changing world.

Viewed through Ghattas’s vantage point as a half-Dutch, half-Lebanese citizen who grew up in the crossfire of the Lebanese civil war, The Secretary is also the author’s own journey as she seeks to answer the questions that haunted her childhood. How powerful is America really? And, if it is in decline, who or what will replace it and what will it mean for America and the world?

In general, I found this to be a weak book. I had expected a little bit more about the policy-making processes of Secretary Clinton and her foreign policy team. Strangely, though, and considering its supposed subject, the author seems to have had limited (or just press-gaggle-general) contact with Secretary Clinton. This means the book is very thin on policy, policy-making, diplomacy, etc. I’m confused about what this book was meant to be. It’s a moderately-interesting travelogue, in many ways. It doesn’t delve too deeply into the issues (those closer to Ghattas’s own interests and experiences are, of course, better presented and more eloquently written about). However, to just take my own academic interests as an example, Ghattas’s chapters and sections about US-China were rather bland. Considering the incredible importance of this bilateral relationship, little original material is presented. Despite being with the Clinton team at the Shanghai Expo, Ghattas draws on others’ impressions (e.g. Ezra Klein), and fails to offer much at all beyond a spectator’s view.

I have much higher hopes for HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, and Clinton’s upcoming new autobiography. I think these two titles will provide far more interesting and useful information, analysis and accounts for scholars and also those more casually interested in the making of US foreign policy.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Squirrel, Trapped Indoors, Seeks Alternative Food Hiding Place… Including a St. Bernard…

I found this via io9.com, but had to share it…

I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a patient, indulgent dog before. The whole scene is like a cartoon…

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

The State of American News Media

A great, recent editorial cartoon from The Economist’s KAL. Offered without comment, as I think it speaks volumes…

cwkal140127

The Lighter Side of International Affairs: US-China Relations in Fiction…

It is not uncommon for international affairs to influence popular culture. Whether it is in the form of movies, television shows, novels, or even comics, we can see events from around the world, and domestic politics creep in to the media we consume for fun. The events of 9/11 and the US response in particular has had a considerable impact on Hollywood and fiction. In the former, movies such as Green Zone, In the Valley of Elah, Hurtlocker, and Zero Dark Thirty (to name but four) have obvious connections to the Global War on Terror – as do the TV series 24, Splinter Cell and Homeland. In fiction, authors such as Vince Flynn, Brad Thor, Marc Cameron and many others, have produced multiple thrillers and long-lived, bestselling series that feature Middle Eastern/Islamic terrorists as antagonists. This is, of course, not a new phenomenon: the Cold War had plenty of impact on popular culture, as well (see, for example, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan novels and the Russian antagonists in James Bond films of the era).

Despite the importance of the US-China relationship, however, it doesn’t seem to have had as much influence on pop culture. True, you will sometimes see a mention, or a side-issue or event arise that mentions or highlights tensions (real or imagined) between the US and China – one example would be Season 4 of the aforementioned 24, at the end of which Jack Bauer is given to the Chinese for violating one of their consulates.

This year, however, there are at least two novels coming out that propose worst-case scenarios in the near future for the US-China relationship. In addition, as part of my current day-job, manuscripts are cropping up in literary agents’ inboxes that take a look at the current relationship or potential conflict-ridden futures, with Washington and Beijing squaring off against each other over resources, influence, or all-out warfare.

And so, taking a momentary break from the more serious content on the blog, and because I’m starting to notice them more often, I thought I’d share some information about a few of the novels that might appeal to those with an academic and/or intellectual interest in the US-China relationship and a taste for thrillers. In no particular order, here they are…

JepsonD-EmperorsOnceMoreDuncan Jepson, EMPERORS ONCE MORE

2017. China has bailed out the West, but the West have defaulted on their debt. Now someone is intent on making them pay... On the eve of a crisis summit for world economic leaders, two Chinese Methodist ministers are killed in an apparently motiveless execution in Hong Kong’s financial district. Detective Alex Soong is one of the first officers at the scene. Soong begins to suspect the crime is more than a senseless assassination and must race to thwart a conspiracy born from one of the bloodiest confrontations of China’s past, which now threatens to destroy a fragile world order.

Duncan Jessop is an award-winning director and producer of five feature films. He lives in Hong Kong. Emperors Once More is due to be published by Quercus Books in the UK, on February 27th 2014.

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Sam Bourne, AMERICAN WINTER

The United States have yielded to the People’s Republic of China – Beijing has written off trillions of dollars of US debt in return for a permanent military presence on US soil. America is now a former global superpower, dependent on and junior to China. And the evidence – cultural and political – is everywhere.

Madison Webb is a work-obsessed journalist who will do anything to get to the heart of a story; to expose lies and corruption. When her sister is brutally murdered, the police seem too eager to write it up as an isolated incident. Madison starts digging and uncovers a series of similar rape-murder cases.

As her investigation beings to attract the media spotlight, Madison draws the attention of some powerful people. And when she reveals the link between the victims, Madison will find out that the Chinese military makes for a terrifying enemy…

Sam Bourne is the bestselling author of The Final Reckoning, The Chosen One, Pantheon, and more. American Winter is due to be published by Harper on July 14th 2014 in the UK.

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GlassM-EndGameMatthew Glass, END GAME

End Game is a powerful geo-political thriller set in 2018 that describes the build up to a confrontation between the navies of the world's superpowers, US and China off the Horn of Africa. Two seemingly unrelated incidents – the massacre of US medical volunteers by an obscure guerrilla faction in an African war zone, and a corporate raid to undermine the share price of a New York based bank – set the wheels in motion.

The novel describes, with documentary precision and convincing authenticity, the responses of the US president and his counterpart in Beijing; the options tendered by the political advisers, financial watchdogs and military establishments on both sides; the actions of Special Forces on the ground and of the carrier groups despatched to the Indian Ocean, and the rising clamour of the world's media as the crisis escalates towards catastrophe.

The climax of the novel rivals and replicates the real life finale of the Cuban missile crisis 50 years earlier: the leaders on both sides recognize that the first shot fired will have lethal consequences. But how can they resolve the crisis without a loss of face that will sweep them from office and replace them with the hawks and hardliners who promote confrontation? Matthew Glass’s denouement is as compelling and ingenious as the build up that precedes it.

End Game was published in 2011 by Corvus books.

There are other novels that have featured the US-China relationship in one form or another. If you know of any others that are particularly noteworthy, feel free to share them in the comment thread, below.