Editor’s Note: As in previous years, EJIL’s Book Review Editor, Isabel Feichtner, invited our Board members to reflect on the books that have had a significant impact on them this year. In the following days we will present some selections here on EJIL:Talk! They include books, not necessarily published in 2016, but read or reread this year, and found inspiring or enjoyable. These editors’ choices are not intended to be a prize in disguise, but rather are personalised accounts of the reading experiences of our Board members. We begin with our Editor-in-Chief’s selection.
As is now our custom, I list 10 of the books I read during the last year which stood out and which I do not hesitate to recommend to our readers. The law books – seven in all – are actually all relatively recent. Though typically I list the books in no particular order, I make an exception this time for the first in the list, Philippe Sand’s East West Street.
Philippe Sands, East West Street (Knopf, 2016)
East West Street is simply a must read; forgive the cliché for a book which is the opposite of cliché. It is both a Law Book and Book about the Law, as the subtitle indicates: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity. But it is so much more. It has novel-like qualities (and a very fine novel at that) in weaving together the lives of its various protagonists as well as being an altogether not kitschy personal roots exploration of the author, Philippe Sands himself. He is not only author but decidedly one of the protagonists. It is not exactly a page-turner – that would actually diminish the quality and achievement of Sands, but despite its considerable length, it is hard to put down. You will learn a lot, become wiser and be moved in more ways than one. Last year I sang the praise of Sebald. Sand’s book has Sebald qualities and there is no higher praise in my evaluative vocabulary.
Mario Vargas Llosa, Travesuras de la niña mala (Alfaguara, 2006)
Travesuras de la niña mala by Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa was an easy choice, even if I typically prefer his essayistic writing to his novels. It is a very traditional novel in style – which is one of its attractions. You will not be struggling with post-modernist experimentation, which is wonderful when it works (not often) and awful when it does not (frequently). The story begins with the first love of a 14 year-old (the dates, at least, correspond to Vargas Llosa’s own time line). It is no less than marvellous the ability of a 70 year-old to describe with such delicate and empathetic precision the mental world of the young protagonist – el niño bueno – whose enduring love affair with the complex and compelling niña mala the novel tracks. Not a ‘masterpiece’ but a piece of wonderful writing by a master that will stick in your mind.
Patrick Pasture, Imagining European Unity Since 1000 AD (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015)
Imagining European Unity Since 1000 AD is an expensive book – and sadly so because it deserves to be much more widely read than will be the case with this price tag. Patrick Pasture combines history with historiography in a compelling narrative that has a strong critical, at times even acerbic, tint. It is learned, impressively so, without being boring for even a single page, and it is subversive since it shows the dark sides of the noble quest for peace – an inbuilt tendency of the integration project to suppress diversity and to dominate. The current circumstance of Europe gives it a particularly sharp edge. A good read.
Ricardo de Ángel Yágüez, ¿Es Bello el Derecho? (Civitas, 2016)
¿Es Bello el Derecho? by Ricardo de Ángel Yágüez is the kind of book that one does not, even should not, read cover to cover in one gulp. It is a smorgasbord that one can savour not only from the author’s own thoughtful reflections on the aesthetics of law but no less from his inspired and instructive anthology of academic and artistic illustrations of such. As a ‘nomist’ I have always seen the beauty of Nomos (as well as its ugliness and insufferable boringness) in its content – otherwise how could you work your way through even one page of the 7000-page Talmud? As a common law lawyer I once referred to procedure as the poetry of the law, perverse as that may sound. There is much evidence in this book to show that I am not alone in such thinking. But I never contemplated a legal aesthetic in the manner we associate such with beaux arts. Well here is a correction to that.
Olivier Dupéré, Constitution et droit international (Institut Universitaire Varenne, 2016)
Books resulting from a journée d’études, this one taking place at the University of Bordeaux back in 2013, are usually uneven in quality, poorly edited, if at all, and creaky in the mutual fit of the various contributions. Count this one as something of an exception. I cannot assess how it will be judged by our French colleagues, but, if like me, you yourself are creaky in your overall grasp of the historiography of French public law thinking in the 20th century, you will I expect, like me, find this book not just illuminating but close to indispensable. It is also one of those rare cases where reproduction of some elements of the discussion in the journée d’études actually makes sense and enhances the overall utility and even pleasure of the book. Another good read.
David Bellos, Georges Perec: A Life in Words: A Biography (D.R. Godine, 1993)
This recommendation is a two-for-the-price-of-one. If you are not familiar with the work of Perec, hang your head in shame or be thrilled with anticipation of the delights that await you. Delight is, perhaps, not the mot juste for there is a definite darkness to both his life and his work. It is difficult to know where to start. I would not begin with what is considered, justly, his masterpiece Life, A User’s Manual. It makes sense to read that after acquaintance with his shorter, more accessible work. W, or the Memory of Childhood is autobiographical (to a point), poignant and compelling. You will not put it down once you begin. The word ‘delight’ would be appropriate for La Disparition, which is a French language novel which manages not once to use the letter e – can you imagine that? (And even more beguiling is the success of Gilbert Adair in translating the novel into English without the letter e either. I have a prized translation into Italian which manages the same feat too). Les Revenentes is a short novella in which the only vowel used is e. (I am unaware of a translation of that into English). Both, the first more than the second, are actually subtle and even profound works. Three is much more to choose from. It is, thus, with surprise that I discovered, only this year, David Bellos’ 1993 biography. For those of you who are familiar with the work of Perec, this biography is so worth reading by an author who demonstrates a profound understanding of the work (he is one of Perec’s translators) and the life. It prompted me to go back to W and read it with an altogether new understanding.
Monica Garcia-Salmones Rovira, The Project of Positivism in International Law (Oxford University Press, 2014)
The Project of Positivism in International Law by Monica Garcia-Salmones Rovira is another victim of excessive pricing and thus her book has not received in my view the attention that it merits. It is a reworking of the author’s extraordinary doctoral dissertation written under the supervision of Martti Koskenniemi: Full Disclosure– I was the ‘opponent’ (an archaic and both serious and endearing practice in Finnish doctoral defences) of the dissertation and its external examiner. It is not an easy read – dense and detailed. But it is worth the effort in not only understanding a trend that dominated international law for most of the 20th century but also for the insight it gives into the work of Kelsen and Oppenheimer.
Julio Ramón Ribeyro Zúñiga, La palabra del mudo (Seix Barral, 2010)
One does not think of Rebeyro in quite the same breath as, say, Borges or Cortazar. But he, too, is a master of the short story. He is at his vicious (yes) best in describing the social – whether at work or at home. You cannot help but laugh somewhat discomfortingly with him at his ‘victims’, because want it or not, you too are an object of his ironic arrows. He is without peer in exploring the mood and circumstance of disappointment – but the breeziness of the writing, the irony and the humour take the sting out of these often profound observations of the human condition. Many of his stories have been translated into English – if you want to start somewhere look for Té literario – it is one long chuckle all through this short piece. You will certainly go back for more.
Marise Cremona, David Kleimann, Joris Larik, Rena Lee, Pascal Vennesson, ASEAN’s External Agreements: Law, Practice and the Quest for Collective Action (Cambridge University Press, 2015)
Pieter Jan Kuijper, James Mathis, Natalie Morris, From Treaty-making to Treaty-breaking: Models for ASEAN External Trade Agreements (Cambridge University Press, 2015)
These two monographs are part of the multivolume series ‘Integration through Law: The Role of Law and the Rule of Law in ASEAN Integration’ of which I am Editor alongside Dr Hsien-Li Tan. There is generally speaking a dearth of research and knowledge concerning the legal dimensions of ASEAN and even more so when it comes to the rich practice of ASEAN treaty-making. I single out these books because together they not only close this academic lacuna in this area of ASEAN studies but they veritably constitute the field ex nihilo. Read together they provide structure, create categories and identify cognitive and policy challenges which the at times erratic and ad-hoc nature of the practice throws up. I single them out, too, because they are of considerable utility given the stasis of the WTO and the turn to regional and mega-regional organizations in international (economic) law. In this respect they will be for some time to come an essential conceptual reference point.
Mary Oliver, Felicity: Poems (Penguin Press, 2015)
Like my recommendation of Travesuras de la niña mala, it is hard to make a mistake with celebrated and beloved poet Mary Oliver. She has been writing for as long as I remember reading poetry in English. If you are ‘… in the mood for love’ you will find both elation and melancholy, introspection and precision in her recent collection. It is hard for me to imagine that anyone will not find something to be purified by, to read and reread with quiet contemplation. A very perfect gift.