What to Read, Watch and Listen to Right Now (Winter 2016/17 Edition)

ICRC Communications Assistant Sara Owens tackles some light reading. 

ICRC Communications Assistant Sara Owens tackles some light reading. 

As we approach the end of 2016, we leave you with a few recommendations of things that ICRC staff in DC have enjoyed reading, watching, or listening to over the past year. At the bottom you will also find my own thoughts, plus a compilation of favorite links to recommendations by others, including NPR’s book concierge, the best TED Talks of 2016, Podcast suggestions, Bill Gates and more. Enjoy!

Stephane Bonamy, Deputy Head of Delegation

I just finished "SPQR: A History of Ancient Romeby Mary Beard. Roman history is my passion. I wanted to be an archaeologist when I was young. I studied Latin and Ancient History at University instead. The study of Roman history is also my refuge when I need to isolate myself from today’s hyperactivity. Mary Beard’s account revisits 1,000 years of the history of Rome in a new way. She departs from the teleological explanation about why the Roman Empire collapsed and focused instead on a masterful explanation about how Rome grew from an insignificant village to the largest and most influential Empire ever achieved in human history. Look around you - institutions (senate, political system, architecture, logic, social system, geography) – and you will still find living traces of the Roman legacy. She gives life not only to great men, but also to social and political structures and to peasants, workers, craftsmen and women. A great 700 pages book!

I also listened over the weekend to a documentary about the Battle of Solférino, narrated and explained by François Bugnon. I needed that! Today’s discussion about humanitarianism are almost exclusively about the how and the what. Leaders look at how humanitarian organizations should be reformed to be more efficient, more effective. Hence, the attraction towards the private sector and the constant willingness to adopt its code and organizational models. Even its vocabulary: delegates might become CEO, COO, donations might become investment, victims might become clients. This is all good and no one would question that more effective and more efficient humanitarian organizations can deliver better and quicker. We need this discussion too. But, in this troubled period, I just needed to be reminded the WHY. Why I engaged myself in the Red Cross, why I decided to leave my family to go to Afghanistan, Iraq, Colombia, Goma, Kinkala as a young adult, why the Red Cross has to remain different. Listen to François Bugnon! Everything is there. We need inspiring leaders to remind every staff that emotions and humanity are the heart of the Red Cross.

Anna Nelson, Head of Communications & Public Affairs

My favorite podcast at the moment is "Hidden Brain" by National Public Radio's Shakar Vedantam. It looks at the unconscious patterns that drive human behavior and it's fascinating. Book-wise, I'm starting the New Year with "When Breath Becomes Air" by the late Paul Kalanithi, a young neurosurgeon confronted with his own mortality after a devastating cancer diagnosis. In a world full of suffering, he explores what makes life worth living.

Chris Harland, Legal Advisor

Four recommendable books I've read this year include Peter Singer's Ethics in the Real World, an excellent collection of his thoughts on many of the most discussed issues of the day, and Yuval Harari's Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, a well-researched and readable overview of current thinking of how we came to this point in our history. For those into distance running, do yourself a favor and pick up Fixing Your Feet by John Vonhoff, read it cover-to-cover and then keep it on hand as a reference.  Knock on wood, but blisters are now seemingly a thing of the past for me.  Finally, should you be able to use a dash of optimism, read Johan Norberg's Progress, a wonderfully stunning look at the ways in which various societies have improved the lives of many over the last 150 years or so.

Marcia Wong, Policy Advisor

Eyeballing the growing stack of books on the night table,  I have an old favorite to leaf through again--Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations by Georgina Howell. Howell writes of the colorful life of Bell, who hiked up her long Victorian skirts and explored the Middle East in the late 1800s, and was instrumental in the creation of the Iraqi nation. I thought it was timely to read of a brave, ambitious and intellectually curious woman.  

At the same time, I'm working slowly through Islamic Exceptionalism by Shadi Hamid--in an effort to understand the role of Islam in modern day politics and society.  Ending on lighter notes is the escapism reading.  I am a few chapters deep into The Wave: In search of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean by Susan Casey. If you're fascinated by the power of the oceans (which I am after working on the 2005 tsunami relief effort), and enjoy science- meeting-surfer-culture, then this is the book for you!  And one more to give to friends; like eating potato chips in bed, messy but fun, The New Yorker's Fierce Pajamas, a collection of humorous essays provides bite-size humor at the end of the day.  Who wouldn't want to go to sleep, chuckling over the image of Keith Richards, stranded on a deserted island, with only opera CDs?  

Niki Clark, Intercross Editor

My listening/watching/reading collection was pretty eclectic in 2016. Main staples included my 2016 Rand McNally Road Atlas (I love a good road trip!), Lonely Planet Travel Guides for each of my 2016 excursions and Cheryl Strayed's Tiny Beautiful Things, which although originally published in 2012, became my go-to gift for any and everyone for any and every occasion. I also listened excessively to new albums from Sylvan Esso, Empire of the Sun and Sofi Tukker and fell head over heels for Jain, a French singer-songwriter with African roots whose beats allowed me to perfectly hone my dancing-while-working-at-my-computer skills. She's amazing. And you're welcome. For those with a bit more mainstream tastes, below are some favorite and time-tested lists for the annual best of the best. Happy reading/watching/listening!

NPR's Best Books of 2016 

NPR's Book Concierge makes its easy to sift through more than 300 of their staff and critics favorite reads from 2016. From fiction to cookbooks to memoirs and book club suggestions, this is a great roadmap for your 2017 reading.

Huffington Post's Best Podcasts of 2016

HuffPo sizes up a fairly wild year where podcasts became all the rage. Whether you jumped on the bandwagon early on or you're a newbie listener, this list is an excellent guide for stepping up your water cooler conversation skills.

The Atlantic's 50 Best Podcasts of 2016

After adding the HuffPo's list of 11 best podcasts to your weekly rotation, most likely you're now a full-on podcast addict (if you weren't already). Feed the beast by checking out The Atlantic's top 50 list.

Bill Gates' The Best Books I read in 2016

In Gates' own words, the selection for his 2016 book list "cover an eclectic mix of topics—from tennis to tennis shoes, genomics to great leadership. They’re all very well written, and they all dropped me down a rabbit hole of unexpected insights and pleasures."

Best TED Talks of 2016

Laugh, cry, be inspired. Of the nearly 250 TED talks posted in 2016, here's the top 17. 

TIME Best Photos of 2016

I am visual person and there's nothing quite like photography to capture the essence of a moment. In this slideshow, TIME’s photo editors present an unranked selection of the 100 best images of the year, with an ICRC food distribution in South Sudan featured as the first photo. Good choice!

Lawfare's Book Reviews

For those wanting to keep up with international law and policy, the blog Lawfare posts reviews from its readers throughout the year that touch on a range across subjects and disciplines, from domestic and international law to history, strategic and military studies, from national security journalism to terrorism and counterterrorism, ethics, and technology. 

The New Yorker's 16 Most Read Magazine Articles of 2016

Editor Nicholas Thompson lists the magazine's most popular articles. 

Vox's Best 13 Novels of 2016

Constance Grady writes, "It may have been a trying year for nearly everything else, but 2016 was a good year for books." Check out her list here.