Friday, 26 June 2015

Our Last Best Chance: The Pursuit of Peace in a Time of Peril by King Abdullah II of Jordan

Hardback:  It is almost unprecedented for a sitting monarch to write a memoir that gives a full and frank reckoning with the most explosive issues he faces.  King Abdullah II does this now out of sense of great urgency, a conviction that a window of opportunity exists for peace in the Middle East, coupled with a fear that this window is closing rapidly.

For sixteen years he has ruled Jordan, a country at the centre of strategic discussion regarding Israel and Palestine, Iraq, Iran, terrorism and the future of relations between the West and the Muslim world.  It was not by chance that President Obama invited King Abdullah to be the first Arab leader to meet him at the White House, right before his historic Cairo speech, 'A New Beginning'.

A personal narrative rich with human drama, this is the inspirational story of a man who is suddenly called upon to serve his kingdom, and makes his wife its Queen.  Together they transformed all conceptions of what it meant to be King and Queen, as he disguised himself and went undercover to escape the bubble of the court, and she staked out a new role for herself as the Muslim world's most passionate advocate of women's rights, a position that has made glamorous Queen Rania one of the most popular women in the Middle East.

In this surprisingly candid, unguarded and heartfelt memoir, King Abdullah gives us ringside seats at the central global crises of our time.  The single best intermediary between the West and the Arab world, he lets us see our vexed relations from the vantage point of the Middle East - including the impact of the Iraq war and the dangers of an ascendant Iran.

He explains why he is convinced we have one last chance for peace in the region, why the prize is enormous, and the cost of failure unimaginable.

Lifted out of the line of succession at the age of two by his father, King Hussein of Jordan, who was under constant threat of assassination, Abdullah grew up outside the bubble that usually encloses heirs to the throne.  His formative years were spent in the United States and in England, where he survived the gruelling rigours of officer training in Sandhurst.  For many years, he commanded the Jordanian Special Forces, a position that put him in close contact with his American counterparts and gave him first-hand experience of taking on terrorists.

When, on his deathbed in 1999, King Hussein abruptly changed the line of succession and chose Abdullah over his uncle, the longtime crown prince, it was a surprise to everyone.  The head of the Hashemite family, King Abdullah II is a 43rd-generation direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed.  His family ruled the holy city of Mecca for over eight hundred years.  Abdullah's great-great grandfather, Al-Hussein bin Ali, the Sharif of Mecca and King of the Arabs, led the Arab revolt for independence from Ottoman rule in 1916.

"Peace for its own sake would be prize enough.  But in my mind, I see benefits that far outweigh that precious commodity.  There can be little doubt that terrorist organizations exploit the injustice resulting from the continuation of occupation.  Resolving this conflict would deprive these organizations of their appeal.  Many will argue that the hatred sown and nurtured by extremist factions on both sides in the Holy Land cannot be overcome.  But history has shown that peace can prevail even among the fiercest of enemies.  Not long ago, observers might have thought that tensions across the Berlin Wall or between the factions in Northern Ireland would never be eased - and yet those struggles are now mostly memories.  Why not aim to do the same in the Middle East?"

"Bringing peace is not the only struggle we face.  Among our greatest challenges are political reform and the improvement of our economies.  We need to learn to make things the rest of the world wants to buy, and to raise the standards for all our people.  Providing proper education and good jobs for young people is one of the most effective defenses against the siren call of the extremists.  We cannot afford to have so many unemployed young men.  And we must let women play a greater role in our economies.  The impulse to hold women back for so-called religious or cultural reasons, to keep them out of the workforce, comes from a deep insecurity.  It is unacceptable for half of society to be denied their rights and for half the workforce to stay at home."

"Think of a world where the managerial expertise of the Israelis, the professionalism of the Jordanians, Lebanese entrepreneurship, and the education of the Palestinians could be combined effectively.  I see the association of these potential partners as producing a regional economic powerhouse - a Middle Eastern Benelux.  All this can be achieved.  But the situation on the ground is rapidly getting away from us, rendering this outcome more and more unlikely.  If current trends are not reversed soon, there will be no land left to swap for peace - no reason for Palestinians to cast their lot with moderate leaders rather than with the extremists.  Our future will be doomed to war and conflict."

"One of the most dangerous ideas to have emerged in recent years is the suggestion that the West and the Muslim world are two separate blocs, heading inevitably on a collision course with each other.  This concept is ill-informed, inflammatory, and wrong.  For over a thousand years Muslims, Jews and Christians have lived together peacefully, enriching one another's cultures.  For sure, there have been conflicts, such as the Crusades or the European colonization of many Middle Eastern countries after World War I.  But these are political, rooted in the motivations of a certain time and context, rather than manifestations of an eternal cultural hostility."

"There is a tendency in life and in politics to default to the status quo.  But in this case the seeming stability is misleading.  I hear the mounting frustration and anger and I fear it will soon eclipse all dreams of peace and reconciliation.  I do not think most Americans and Europeans recognize the urgency of the situation.  It is because of this sense of urgency that I have decided to write this book.  In the sixteen years since I succeeded my father, I have seen and learned a great deal.  I am determined to share my story openly and honestly, in the hope that it can help make a difference."

"I have never felt that interacting with Western culture comes at the expense of my identity as an Arab or a Muslim.  As somebody born in the East but educated in the West, I feel a deep affinity for both cultures.  My hope is that this book can, in a small way, act as a bridge between them.  All too often extremists on both sides frame the discussion and dominate the debate.  All too often the voices of moderate Arabs are drowned out by those who shout the loudest.  I will not shout, but I do want my message to be heard.  I want to tell the world that while there are great problems in our region, there is also cause for hope."

Our Last Best Chance was published in 2011 by Viking Penguin in New York City.

Monday, 22 June 2015

No To Big TVs


The Hiltons: The True Story of an American Dynasty by J Randy Taraborrelli

Paperback:  The Hiltons (2014) is a sweeping saga of the success - and excess - of an iconic American family.  At the center of the story is Conrad Hilton, the enigmatic patriarch whose visionary ideas established the model for the modern luxury hotel industry but outside the boardroom, Conrad's emotional detachment led to failed marriages and strained relationships with his children.

In 1907, the financial panic that came without warning hit the country and all but wiped out Gus Hilton's (Conrad's father) finances.  Gathering his family about him, Gus spelled out the dire situation and asked for suggestions.  Casting his eyes upon the floor, nineteen-year-old Conrad after a few moments of silence looked up, broke into a smile, and announced, "We should open a hotel.  Let's take five or six of our ten rooms [of the house in which they lived] and make a hotel.  This place needs a hotel!"...He further speculated that two and a half dollars a day for each bed would be a reasonable amount to charge guests.

His eldest son, Nicky Hilton, dedicated himself to his work, but his tragic alcoholism and marriage to Elizabeth Taylor became the stuff of tabloid legend.

Younger brother Barron, on the other hand, built on his father's legacy and carried the Hilton brand triumphantly into the new millennium.

There is Eric, who accepted his supporting role in the Hilton dynasty, in stark contrast to their much younger half-sister Francesca, whose battle for recognition led to conflict and courtroom drama.

And there is Paris, the great-granddaughter of Conrad who has managed to parlay her famous surname into a fortune worth at least $50 million.  Paris stands alone as perhaps the greatest Hilton entrepreneur to follow in Conrad’s legacy.

In The Hiltons (2014), readers will also learn:

Elizabeth Taylor’s entry into the family as Nicky’s wife became one of the most precipitous events in his story:  an explosive, dysfunctional relationship that led to Nicky’s downward spiral into drug and alcohol abuse, costing him his vice presidency in the company, and ultimately, his life.

Conrad willed almost nothing to his children:  just 1% of his total wealth, with 99% going to charity. He was adamant that his heirs not profit from his tremendous wealth — that they find a way to make their own money.  In a bitter court battle, Barron Hilton managed to overturn his father's will, and turned a $750,000 inheritance into close to a billion dollars.

Francesca, meanwhile, contested the will and the paltry $100,000 left to her after Conrad’s death, claiming he suffered from an “insane delusion” that he was not her father.  Unlike Barron, she lost and got no money at all as a result.

Barron would later face his own challenges as the head of the Hilton dynasty, including surprising difficulties in purchasing an enormous hotel in Atlantic City, and how he was bailed out by a young, up-and-coming hotelier: Donald Trump.

The rest of the cast includes Zsa Zsa Gabor, who was once married to Conrad and remained a thorn in his side for decades, and a host of other Hollywood and business luminaries.

About the author:  J Randy Taraborrelli is a respected journalist, in-demand talk show guest and the author of seventeen books, thirteen of which have made the New York Times bestselling list.  These include Call Her Miss Ross, Jackie, Ethel, Joan: Women of Camelot, Madonna: An Intimate Biography, Elizabeth, Michael Jackson: The Magic, the Madness, the Whole Story and The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe and After Camelot.  Jackie, Ethel, Joan became a highly-rated miniseries for NBC.  For more information, you can visit

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Keep Calm and Read A Book

Reading In Pajamas

Definition: Coward

A Doctor In The House: The Memoirs of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad by Dr Mahathir Mohamad

Hardback:  The West has called him recalcitrant, racist, anti-Semitic and arrogant.  The developing world, however, sees former Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad as a visionary champion, the rare leader who gave every Third World individual reason to stand tall.

Even his harshest critics cannot deny that, above all else, he gave some of the most neglected countries courage, showing the way to a more hopeful future but it was not without controversy.

His twenty-two years at the country's helm has been characterised as both dictatorial and inspiring.  Few leaders have been able to turn an entire country from a predominantly agrarian economy into an industrial powerhouse - fewer still have been able to do so within a short two decades - that would become the seventeenth-largest trading nation in the world.

This remarkable achievement was not without controversy and Dr Mahathir's extraordinary vision and iron grip earned him both enemies as well as ardent admirers within and outside Malaysia.  He has been described - typically and paradoxically - as a tyrannical dictator, a bête noire, as well as an inspiring, courageous and outspoken defender of the downtrodden, the Third World and moderate Islam.

At almost every turn Dr Mahathir rewrote the rules.  This autobiography reveals the workings of that extraordinary mind, which has witnessed every major development in Malaysian history from the Second World War and the MacMichael Treaties, to independence, industrialisation and the making of modern Malaysia, culminating in the political and financial crises of the late 1990s and the challenges of the new millennium.

A Doctor in the House (2011) reveals hitherto unknown aspects of this intensely private, but publicly bold, statesman.  It provides a clear and compelling narrative of modern Malaysia political history as seen through the eyes of one of its greatest shapers.  It is neither an apology nor a defence, but a forceful, compelling and often exciting account of how and why Dr Mahathir achieved what he did in so short a time.  With surgical precision, Dr Mahathir explores a nuanced history and scrutinises his own role in the shaping of modern Malaysia.

About the author:  Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was the fourth Prime Minister of Malaysia from 1981 to 2003.  Mahathir Mohamad was born in 1925 in Alor Setar, Malaysia.  He was a doctor before becoming a politician with the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party, and ascended quickly from member of parliament to prime minister.  His first book written before he became the fourth Prime Minister of Malaysia - The Malay Dilemma (1970) - demanded affirmative action for indigenous Malays and equal status with Chinese-Malaysians, while also criticizing Malays’ “economic backwardsness.”  He remains an active political figure after his retirement and lives in Kuala Lumpur.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

The Darlings by Cristina Alger

Hardback:  Now that he's married to Merrill Darling, daughter of billionaire financier Carter Darling, attorney Paul Ross has grown accustomed to New York society and all of its luxuries:  a Park Avenue apartment, weekends in the Hamptons, bespoke suits.

When Paul loses his job, Carter offers him the chance to head the legal team at his hedge fund.  Thrilled with his good fortune in the midst of the worst financial downturn since the Great Depression, Paul accepts the position.

But Paul's luck is about to change:  a tragic event catapults the Darling family into the middle of a regulatory investigation and a red-hot scandal with enormous implications for everyone involved.

Suddenly, Paul must decide where his loyalties lie.  Will he save himself while betraying his wife and in-laws or protect the family business all at once?

Cristina Alger's sophisticated page-turner interweaves the narratives of the Darling family, two eager SEC attorneys, and a team of journalists all racing to uncover, or cover up, the truth.

The Darlings (2012) is an irresistible glimpse into the highest echelons of New York society - a world seldom seen by outsiders - and a fast-paced thriller of epic proportions.

About the author:  Cristina Alger graduated from Harvard College in 2002 and from New York University School of Law in 2007.  She has worked as an analyst at Goldman, Sachs & Co and as an attorney at Wilmer, Cutler, Pickering, Hale & Dorr.  She lives in New York City where she was born and raised.  The Darlings is her debut novel and her second novel - This Was Not The Plan - will be released in 2016.

Rating:  5/5

Thursday, 4 June 2015

A China More Just: My Fight as a Rights Lawyer in the World's Largest Communist State by Gao Zhisheng

Paperback:  Attorney.  Activist.  Fearless.  Faithful.

The story of one man who has taken on the world’s largest authoritarian regime and, in the eyes of many, won.

Born and raised in a cave with only the stars to tell time, Gao Zhisheng rose from poverty to become China’s most important lawyer.  He has courageously sought justice for vulnerable groups such as the poor, the disabled, and the persecuted.  Yet Gao’s fortitude has drawn the ire of Communist authorities.

Today, physical threat and police surveillance are a constant reality for both Gao and his family.  Undeterred, he has responded in the nonviolent tradition of Gandhi by launching nationwide hunger strikes to intensify the call for justice and human rights in China.  His undaunted resolve and generous spirit have won the hearts of millions.  Whispers can be heard in China’s streets, “Will Gao Zhisheng become the next president?”

Part memoir, part social commentary, part call to action, A China More Just (2007) is a penetrating account of contemporary China through the life of one attorney.  Its selection of writings takes readers from a village in rural China to urban courtrooms, mountainside torture chambers, and the halls of a reluctant government.

A China More Just is at once witty and raw, touching and wrenching, sober and playful.

About the author:  Gao Zhisheng rose from utter poverty to become one of China’s most acclaimed lawyers and a leading advocate for the oppressed.  He is one of the most unyielding and iconic advocates for justice in China having been nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize (2008 and 2010).  Life took a most unlikely turn in 1991 when Gao happened to learn, while selling vegetables by the roadside, that the country was looking to train new lawyers.  Though possessed only a middle-school education, Gao taught himself law and passed the national bar examination in 1995.  Gao made headlines in 1999 by winning the largest medical malpractice lawsuit in Chinese history.  His commitment to defending his clients is influenced by his Christian beliefs and their tenets on morality and compassion.  In 2001, China’s Ministry of Justice named him one of the nation’s top-ten attorneys.

As of 8 January 2015, Gao, 52, is currently under 24-hour surveillance by state security police at the home of his wife's parents in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, where he was released from a three-year jail term for "incitement to subvert state power" in August.  Beijing-based rights activist Hu Jia said Gao had barely been able to speak an entire sentence when he was first released from Xinjiang's Shaya Prison, where he had been held for lengthy periods in solitary confinement and tortured.


The Only Thing I Can Change Is Myself

Rumi (1207-1273)

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos

Paperback:  Age of Ambition (2014) describes some of the billion individual lives that make up China's story - one that unfolds on remote farms, in glittering mansions and in the halls of power of the world's largest authoritarian regime.

Here is a China infused with a sense of boundless possibility and teeming romance.  Yet it is also riven by contradictions.  It is the world's largest buyer of Rolls Royce and Ferraris yet the word 'luxury' is banned from billboards.

"China today is riven with contradictions.  It is the world's largest buyer of Louis Vuitton, second only to the United States in its purchases of Rolls-Royces and Lamborghinis, yet ruled by a Marxist-Leninist party that seeks to ban the word luxury from billboards.  It has two of the world's most valuable Internet companies and more people online than the United States, even as it redoubles its investment in history's largest effort to censor human expression.  China has never been more pluralistic, urban, and prosperous, yet it is the only country in the world with a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in prison."

And why does a government that has lifted more people from poverty than any other so strictly restrain freedom of expression?

"This book is the result of eight years of reporting and living in China.  I moved to Beijing in June 2005 and stayed until July 2013, when my wife, Sarabeth Berman, and I moved to Washington DC.  The vast majority of my research relied on personal experience and interviews, but I am indebted to a range of scholars, journalists, artists and authors for their work," wrote Evan Osnos.

Based on eight years of research, Age of Ambition is a stunning narrative that reveals China as we have never understood it before.

About the author:  Evan Osnos joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 2008.  He was the magazine's correspondent in China, where lived in a restored house in Beijing north of the Forbidden City, from 2005 until 2013, when he moved to Washington DC.  He has received many prizes including the Asia Society's Osborn Elliot Prize for Excellence in Journalism in Asia and the Livingston Award for Young Journalists.  Osnos previously worked as the Beijing Bureau Chief of the Chicago Tribune, where he contributed to a series that won a 2008 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.  Age of Ambition was the winner of the 2014 National Book Award for non-fiction.