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10 Good Reads 

Published on February 17, 2018        Author: 

It is the time of the year once more when I publish my pick from some of the books that came my way since my last ‘Good Reads’ listing. These are not book reviews in the classical and rigorous sense of the word, for which you should turn to our Book Review section. I do not attempt to analyse or critique, but rather to explain why the books appealed to me and why I think you, too, may find them well worth reading. They are listed in no particular order, except for the first one which is definitely my choice for the year.

Robert Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson, 4 Volumes (Alfred A. Knopf, 1982-2012)

I have a certain passion for political biography and like to think of myself as something of a connoisseur. Why it has taken me so long to finally sit down and read this much acclaimed treatment of Johnson might be because of its daunting length. A fifth and final volume covering his post-elections years in the Vietnam White House is eagerly awaited and apparently imminent. I am not going to prevaricate with the ‘one of the most’ formula. This is undoubtedly the finest of this genre that I have ever read. For those who might wonder why they should spend precious reading time on Johnson I would like to say that the “years” in the title are not just his years but a political and social history of the USA over half a century. Not many would be willing to set aside time to plough through all four volumes, though they amply repay the effort. But I most strongly recommend, as a second best, to read just Volume 4 (The Passage of Power). It essentially covers the period from Kennedy’s assassination to Johnson’s first year in office. It becomes a microcosm of the Johnson phenomenon. On the one hand, he was undoubtedly, and this is meticulously documented, entirely ruthless and politically (and in some measure financially) corrupt from his early days as a student through his days in Congress until his accidental ascent to the presidency. From those early days one gets the impression of a person interested in power (and winning, winning, winning) for almost its own sake. He understood the power of procedural command from his early elections in college politics until his commanding mastery as Majority Leader in the Senate. And the lessons we as readers learn about congressional politics remain illuminating, even essential, 60 years later, in understanding the tortured relations of, say, Obama and Trump with Congress. I would say an indispensable lesson. You don’t know what you don’t know until you have read such. And, of course, in our minds there is always the Johnson of ‘Hey hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today’.

Now comes the ‘On the other hand’ which makes both the personality of Johnson so intriguingly complex and our judgment of him so difficult. He grew up in abject poverty – no exaggeration. He pined for the ham sandwich at school but could only afford the cheese one. He and his family literally scratched a living out of the barren soil on which they lived. Like Clinton decades later, he grew up with and alongside a black and Hispanic population in the most natural way. The result was, his greed for power and avarice notwithstanding, a person with a huge and genuine commitment to social justice and, miracle of miracles for a son of Texas, bereft of that visceral racism, not mere disdain for but real disgust towards blacks, which was so present in the South (and not only the South) of that era and indeed has not been fully eradicated today. In his deep feeling for the poor, he made no distinction between black and white.

The result was that in his first months in office as the Accidental President, combining his commitment to social justice and a lifelong honing of his political prowess, he managed to achieve infinitely more than Kennedy, fluent and charming, had managed to achieve in three years as President. Infinite is the right word since Kennedy achieved close to nothing. And he did so whilst risking his chances in the elections to come in November of 1964. The passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – and he deserves the lion’s share of the credit – was epochal. And though he dropped what at the time seemed the centrepiece of civil rights, namely voting rights, true to his word to Martin Luther King, he passed that in his first year as elected President. His overarching Great Society legislation, the war on poverty and all that, though imperfect and still work in progress, changed America forever. In his domestic agenda he stands, in my view, equal to Roosevelt and, a matter of personal taste, more likable. It will be hugely interesting to see what Caro makes of Johnson’s Vietnam years in the pending final volume, though the impression given from his actions in his first year was that he was ‘out of it’, having neither an interest nor the experience to handle foreign affairs, and just ate out of the hands of those bright young mandarins he inherited from Kennedy, not least Robert McNamara. His sense of inferiority and mixture of disdain, fear and admiration for Bobby Kennedy are among the most riveting pages in the biography.

Caro manages what is rare in biography generally and political biography in particular, to demonstrate all along great empathy for his subject without confusing that with sympathy. He is sympathetic and antipathetic, praising and censorious in just the right measure.

I bought the four volumes in hard cover for a pittance on, quelle horreur, Amazon. This is not a good read – it is a compelling read.

Ludovic Hennebel, Hélène Tigroudja, Traité de droit international des Droits de l’homme (Editions Pedone, 2016)

No, I have not read all 1461 pages of this impressive work. It is, in mitigation, not the kind of book you read from cover to cover but one that you consult. And consult it I did, extensively, with great reward. It covers, take a deep breath: universal protection, regional protection, theories, foundations, interpretation, application, responsibility and remedies. It is a combination of both a Law Book and a book about the Law. Impressively researched, exhaustively referenced both to primary and secondary sources, surprisingly fluid to read, it gives in each of its sections the what, the why and the how of its topic. Here, too: not exactly a ‘good read’, but good to read.

Lauri Mälksoo, Russian Approaches to International Law (Oxford University Press, 2015)

There are IL books that one reads (or should read) not because they advance our own research agenda – to be processed into learned footnotes – but simply as a means of enhancing our general scholarly literacy, the way I know you all read EJIL or I.CON from cover to cover. Approach Mälksoo with this spirit and you will not be disappointed.

This is purely and simply a good read. It weighs in at just under 200 pages, and you can read it for pleasure in two or three sittings. You will learn an awful lot as well as become wiser – a good test for fine scholarship. The approach of Mälksoo is to explain the current Russian approach by an exploration of the preceding history or histories. I came to the book with a scant knowledge – what I had learnt from Nino Cassese’s illuminating International Law in a Divided World – which, for all its worth, did not purport to be Russia specific in its exposition of the Second World. Where one may have expected a story of ruptures and revolution one discovers some surprising continuities. Particularly insightful are the sections dealing with the relationship of international law to the domestic legal order, and I do not mean just in the technical sense of the issue.

Aldo Schiavone, Ponzio Pilato: Un enigma tra storia e memoria (Einaudi, 2016); Pontius Pilate: Deciphering a Memory (transl. Jeremy Carden, Liveright, 2017)

I have always been dismissive of the huge literature on the Trial of Jesus before Pontius Pilate. We have scant external sources on the Trial so that our main reference are the Gospel accounts according to which Pilate was but the executive arm of the Sanhedrin before whom the principal, perhaps only, trial took place. Why so much writing then on the Trial before Pilate? It is, I reasoned, a classical so-called Streetlight Effect: the proverbial looking under the streetlight rather than where the key actually dropped out of your pocket. Since most scholars were familiar with Roman Law rather than Jewish Law they wrote about that which they knew.

I have never read anything by Schiavone that was not both original and profound. This book does not disappoint. He does not fall into the Streetlight error. The appearance of Jesus before Pilate is central but not forced into a legal straitjacket. What’s more, the book – elegant and brief – explores the personality and the circumstances of his governorship as well as reconstructing the Passion and the events leading to the crucifixion. There is a tension between the Pilate we know from history and his figure in the Gospel narrative. Schiavone navigates that perfectly. If it’s a long time since you addressed your mind to those events which reshaped history and what we call today The West, and not long ago, Christendom, you could do better than read this book. More of an Easter read than a Christmas one, but a good read at any time.

Eduardo García de Enterría, Fervor de Borges (Editorial Trotta, 1999)

García de Enterría was, until his death in 2013 at the age of 90, a figure larger than life in Spanish public law and in law generally. He served as the Spanish judge for several years on the European Court of Human Rights and his list of accolades extends from here till further notice. It is in this capacity that I knew him and even had the privilege to work alongside him on the Committee of Jurists of the European Parliament for several years.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered, just recently, a little book he wrote on Borges the poet. The title of the book is a play on Borges’ own book of poems Fervor de Buenos Aires. Despite having read more than once all of Borges’ short stories translated into English – and it seems that all have been translated – I was simply unaware of Borges as a poet, though his volume of poetry, I have now discovered, exceeds considerably his fictions. There are, obviously, some translations, but as an excuse for my ignorance, far less known. When you finally approach Borges the poet you will discover another reason for the relative anonymity of his poetry outside the Spanish speaking world compared to his short stories. The poetry is difficult – uneven, something it is hard to say about his stories – and not immediately accessible outside the cultural context in which they are situated. In my view this must be true for some of his poems even for those within that culture. And this is the great virtue of García de Enterría’s little book: it helps enormously in learning to understand, appreciate and be moved by the poetry. García de Enterría is categorical in his tastes and judgments – but these are fine and sensitive. He works his way (and yours) through a handful of poems and, like a good curator of a museum or art critic, pours light so that you can see the light.

Guy Fiti Sinclair, To Reform the World – International Organizations and the Making of Modern States (Oxford University Press, 2017)

Full disclosure – I already read an earlier version of this book when presented as a doctoral dissertation, though I was not a member of the examining board, and, as you will all know, Guy Sinclair is the Associate Editor of EJIL. Since these are not book reviews, but my personal recommendations, and since I found this a particular rewarding read, I did not think I should refrain from offering this recommendation.

This is another example of a Law Book that is also a book about the Law, which in recent years has happily become the Gold Standard of doctoral dissertations. You will get chapter and verse on the manner in which International Organizations manage their competences and manage to expand such at times with creative hermeneutics. But the book goes well beyond that. Sinclair advances a veritable thesis: that in some ways IOs have been captured by a Eurocentric liberal (and to some extent capitalist) world view (this is my rendition of the thesis) and nobly (or perhaps otherwise) are not simply in the business of world peace, international cooperation, motherhood and apple pie, but also in the business of exerting influence, even shaping the ethos and telos, structure and function of modern states, the cooperation among which is their more traditionally perceived function, or in more recent times, their ‘governance’ function.

There is a very fine-grained and rich analysis of the way legal structure and political process of IOs combine to produce the effect claimed. And the book is elegant and readable, you can actually enjoy the reading.

Matthew Saul, Andreas Follesdal, Geir Ulfstein, (Eds.) The International Human Rights Judiciary and National Parliaments (Cambridge University Press, 2017)

I am usually rather sceptical about edited books for reasons I explained in a previous Editorial. The topic of this volume intrigued me since there is rather a dearth of research and writing on the role of parliaments in the human rights universe, a discipline dominated by court-gazing and hermeneutics. When there are interactive studies they tend to be about judicial interaction, international and national, or, in recent times the rich (oh, so rich one gets indigestion) on judicial borrowings and the like. I was put off by the Introduction by the three editors, which was the usual fare for an edited book: some slight prefatory words on the project and a roadmap of the various chapters, which, I have often suspected, is there for lazy book reviewers. I am glad I read on since the actual chapters, including, even especially, those by the three editors are excellent, and what I found lacking in the Introduction was to be found in the concluding chapter by Matthew Saul – an analytical framework, a critical vision and a normativity in just the right proportions. The book is still, as it proclaims, court-centric, but focuses on the interaction of courts, notably European but also the Inter-American, with parliaments as institutions rather than parliaments as authors of violative or otherwise legislation which come before them. This is an edited volume which has managed to follow a rather tight scheme covering the various aspects of parliamentary involvement in human rights. Indeed, perhaps the biggest gain for me was that not having ever thought about this systematically, I learnt not only about the interaction but about how to think about the role of parliaments in ways that were new. Appropriately, all chapters fully internalized the need to situate the law in political theory of democracy and human rights. Social scientists might complain about a certain lack of quantitative empirical analysis – but let them, then, pull their sleeves up and fill the gap. An important, useful and, otherwise it would not be here, a good read too.  

Bernard E. Harcourt, Exposed – Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age (Harvard University Press, 2015)

The topic is not new; indeed, we are inundated by cries of woe about the power of the digital corporate dinosaurs, the invasion of our privacy, and the use made by them of the data mined by our internet-dominated lives. The value of this book, which Benedict Kingsbury and I used in our Seminar on International Law and Google as one of the key texts, is the trenchant, if passionate (not altogether unjustified, though at a certain point perhaps somewhat excessive and even grating) manner in which Harcourt walks us through this labyrinth and explains and demonstrates its profound implications for polity, our sociality and the human condition itself.

What I found most appealing in the book was the way the author eschews an easy narrative of villainous (American) corporations and government agencies which are either asleep or captured with us, you and I, being the victims of such. He puts a mirror before us and shows how we are at times willing accomplices in the culture of exhibitionism and self-exposure which is a hallmark of the age. Yes, at times our options are foreclosed, but this is oftentimes but a fig leaf, a weak alibi for our own exhibitionist and voyeuristic appetites.

I am not sure if Harcourt’s strategies of ‘disobedience’ can amount to more than gestures. But even if trapped, he will not let us off the hook as being ultimately, in the democracies in which we live, responsible also for the very structures in which we are trapped.

A bracing read – but still very good.

María Elvira Roca Barea, Imperiofobia y Leyenda Negra – Roma, Rusia, Estados Unidos y el Imperio español (Siruela, 2016)

I am not sure if a ‘good read’ is appropriate in this case. And I am confident that once translated into English it will provoke a storm. The book cover lists the author as having worked for the Spanish Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientifícos and as having taught at Harvard. It is revisionist history of the Spanish Empire framed within a more general theory and phenomenology about the way empires, according to the author, provoke Leyendas Negras which could be rendered as ‘dark, malicious legends’. It has been a runaway best seller in Spain, subject to praise and harsh criticism (see for example in the XX Siglos blog the critique by Estaban Mira Caballos, 13 Sept. 2017). Roca Barea does not hold her punches. The Protestant European ‘North’ is one villain of the piece, Noam Chomsky another in her (in my view often insightful and in some respects original) discussion of Anti-americanism and there is more. With some shades of the Jamestown affair in our sister Journal of the History of International Law, Roca Barea invites us to reconsider downwards (not to whitewash) the scope and scale of Spanish atrocities in their conquest and rule over much of Central and South America and similarly of, say, the Inquisition in Spain – the conventional history characterized by her as Hispanophobia driven by, inter alia, Lutheran nationalism. She is at her best, I believe, not so much in the history and historiography of the Spanish Empire itself – about which one can cavil – as in her parsing of the texts and attitudes over the centuries, attacking such which, as she demonstrates persuasively, are marred, in an almost macabre twist of a twist, by distinct racist elements (the Spaniards as a degenerate race) whose moral fibre was corrupted – in a twist on a twist on a twist – by, surprise, surprise, Jewish influence. To my knowledge she is the first to subject such to critical analysis and in my view these parts of the book cannot be dismissed. It is the kind of book the intrinsic value of which will only be clear once it is subjected to the slow process of serious historical and historiographical analysis. This will not be easy, given the inevitable contemporary political mills for which the book has already become grist. I suppose that for many beauty or ugliness will be in the eye of the beholder rather than in the book itself. It is not exactly a ‘good read’ but, despite a certain polemical style, it is one that cannot tout court be dismissed as diatribe. Caveat Lector!

Claudio Rodríguez, Alianza y Condena (Ediciones de la Revista de Occidente, 1965); Alliance and Condemnation (transl. Philip W. Silver, Swan Isle Press, 2014)

Should Roca Barea leave a mixed taste in your mouth, Rodríguez would be the perfect dessert to wash it away. Although he won the Prince of Asturias Prize for Letters in 1993 (six years before his untimely death from cancer at age 65) Claudio Rodríguez is relatively unknown outside literary circles, even in his home country of Spain. I discovered him just this last year and am still under the spell. His poetry is personal and exquisite – in form, tonality and delicacy of emotion, though extremely powerful, even shocking at times.

Alianza y Condena (Alliance and Condemnation) is a good place to start since it exists, too, in a particularly felicitous bilingual edition translated by Philip W. Silver, Emeritus Professor of Spanish Literature at Columbia. Here are a couple of excerpts to whet your appetite:


CUalquier cosa valdría por mi vida

esta tarde. Cualquier cosa pequeña

si alguna hay. Martirio me es el ruido

sereno, sin excrúpulos, sin vuelta,

de tu zapato bajo. ¿Qué victoria

busca el que ama?



I’D take anything for my life

This afternoon. Any small token

If there is one. It’s martyrdom,

the calm, determined, unforgiving sound of your steps.

What victory do lovers seek?


 Mala Puesta

LA luz entusiasmada de conquista

Pierde confianza ahora,

Trémula de impotencia y no se sabe

Si es de tierra o de cielo. Se Despoja

De su íntima ternura

Y se retira lenta.


Faded Sunset

THE light, excited by conquest,

Loses confidence now,

Trembling with impotence. And we wonder

If it belongs to the earth or sky. It shrugs

Off its intimate tenderness

And slowly withdraws.


Enjoy and be edified!


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One Response

  1. Emmanuella Doussis

    Thank you so much for sharing .

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