Must-Reads for 2017: World Crisis Edition

(Bloomberg View) -- Here are five titles that deeply impressed me of the 100 or so I’ve read this year. Each helps illuminate some aspect of global affairs, often in ways that can make us uncomfortable. The best books challenge us, and these are all in that category.

"Dark at the Crossing" by Elliot Ackerman. This National Book Award finalist, by a former combat Marine, White House fellow, CIA Special Forces operative and Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy graduate, revolves around a quixotic mission to the ambiguous border between Turkey and Syria. It doesn’t end well -- but the novel gives a military perspective on the way tragedy can, in the end, elevate our lives.

"Exit West" by Mohsin Hamid. In another novel that channels the Syrian disaster, the protagonists find a way to “exit west” by moving through a series of magical doors that take them from an unnamed war-torn region (Syria) to a refugee camp (Greece) then on to a Western city (London). The voyage of these modern Argonauts, often blackly humorous in the magical-realist style, brings us face-to-face with the worst humanitarian crisis of this decade.

"Leonardo da Vinci" by Walter Isaacson. Appraising not only the man but his times as well, Isaacson makes a compelling case that the unique element of Leonardo's character was not his undisputed genius but his immense curiosity. When you finish this book, you may well start carrying around a notebook like Leonardo did, to jot down ideas, discoveries, questions, ideas and little sketches (I recommend Moleskine). The masterwork of da Vinci was not the Mona Lisa, but the 17,000 pages of his eclectic and brilliant notebooks. They are full of sketches and ideas, and explain why there are echoes of Leonardo in Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs and all the innovators who transform our lives.

"A Legacy of Spies" by John le Carre. A tale about a lion in winter by a lion in winter, this novella takes the devoted reader back to the very best of le Carre: "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold." Picking up the plot line decades later, the story reflects how what we do in the prime of our lives can suddenly appear oh-so-wrong much later on. The "legacy" of the title includes legal action against the MI6 team -- including the legendary George Smiley -- brought by the children of those lost at the Berlin Wall undertaking a complex mission for the U.K. that, in retrospect, looks hard to justify. 

"Killers of the Flower Moon" by David Grann. Another National Book Award finalist by another Fletcher School graduate, "Killers" is a meticulously researched work of nonfiction. Grann, whose previous book was the best-seller "The Lost City of Z," describes the murders in the 1920s of Oswego Indians in Oklahoma -- whose only “crime” was to own land under which oil flowed. They were systematically assassinated until a nascent FBI takes on the case. A collision of race, money, power and the American West, it makes visceral the harm done to indigenous people by those who come to conquer -- a story as old as mankind and, sadly, a fundamental part of international relations today.

What are your best books of the year? I need some holiday reading!

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

James Stavridis, a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former military commander of NATO, is dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. His most recent book is "Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World's Oceans."

To contact the author of this story: James Stavridis at

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