You’ve heard again and again about Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. I’ve actually witnessed two adult men in business suits squabble over the last remaining copy in a bookstore in New York’s Penn Station, to my amazement. Similarly, Michael Lewis’s Flash Boys, for better or worse, has commanded attention. Then there’s that Hillary Clinton memoir that has the political and publishing worlds buzzing.
You can’t escape those works, but they’re popularity means we can safely pass on covering them here. Instead, what follows is a list of books that are even more readable and even more enticing. They may not be as crucial when it comes to shaping economic policy or popular debate, but they’re all worthwhile reads and some are just as pertinent to tracking what’s happening in the world today.
Big Money by Kenneth P. Vogel
Hot off the presses, Vogel’s book delves into one of the scariest, most important topics in our politics: how millionaires and billionaires spend their wealth and energies in service of their interests. That it happens is hardly news, and Vogel’s approach is more descriptive than hyper-analytical, but it makes for a great, gossipy summer read. It also begs the question of what would happen if these billionaires succeeded not just in buying the support of politicians for pet causes, but in buying the White House outright? (Fragmentation among donors, so far, has prevented that worst-case scenario from taking shape.) Not the last word on this topic, but a smart insider’s yarn, with jaw-dropping anecdotes you’ll want to share with your friends over a beer. (PublicAffairs, $27.99)
A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre
Macintyre has made his name chronicling the exploits of World War II-era spies (Operation Mincemeat, Agent Zigzag) but for my money, this insightful biography of Cold War double agent Kim Philby is his best work yet. Macintyre has done a brilliant job in exploring just what Philby’s betrayal meant by juxtaposing his story with that of his best friend, fellow MI-5 agent Nicholas Elliott. Often, it’s the derring-do that makes a spy story, true or fictional, hum along. This time, the psychological turmoil that Macintyre so deftly presents adds to the mix and results in a compelling tale. (Random House, $27.00)
The Trigger by Tim Butcher
One of Butcher’s first gigs as a foreign correspondent was to try and keep track of the civil war in Yugoslavia. In this book, he returns to the region to revisit his own experiences but also to track down one Gavrilo Princip — the man who, almost exactly a century ago, fired the shot that would ignite World War I. Princip (arguably) determined the shape of the world we live in today, but who was he and why did he shoot the heir to the Austrian throne? Butcher blends his contemporary trek across modern-day Bosnia and Serbia with his memories of traveling the same ground two decades earlier, in the midst of a horrifying internecine conflict that can be traced back to (yes) Princip and his solitary gunshot. You don’t have to believe that Sarajevo was the only cause of World War I to find this fascinating. (Grover Press, $26.00)
The Impossible Exile by George Prochnik
Adolf Hitler and the Nazis triggered one of the most amazing torrents of refugees in history. One of the most famous of these, at the time, was Stefan Zweig, an Austrian author of best-selling books. And yet by early 1942, Zweig was in such despair that he and his young second wife had fled to Brazil, where they committed suicide. Prochnik follows their exile, as they become more and more detached from life and Zweig, in particular, becomes more certain that the wartime world offers nothing for him. What does it mean to be in exile, for a writer so closely identified with a particular time and place? Prochnik explores these themes brilliantly, and addresses the Zweigs’ plight with such feeling (but without sentimentality) that the book will undoubtedly find a place on my personal top 10 list for the year. (Other Press, $27.95)
Dragnet Nation by Julia Angwin
Like your privacy? Got a smartphone, Facebook account, or Twitter account? You’re going to have to choose. That’s the unpleasant truth lurking in this sobering analysis of just how much of our privacy we happily relinquish in the name of convenience, entertainment, communication and sharing. Angwin delves into just how much information data-mining companies have — and sell — about her own family. However much you think it is, you’ll be surprised at the reality. Angwin does find some ways to minimize, if not eliminate, the degree to which we subject ourselves unwittingly to data predators. A terrifying but useful read. (Times Books/Macmillan $28.00)
The Noble Hustle by Colson Whitehead
If all of the above sound way too intense, try this. The subject here is the World Series of Poker, and novelist Colson Whitehead has decided to enter — not in any serious kind of way, you understand, but more to sort of, well, satirize the whole thing. Anyway, Whitehead suffers from anhedonia, meaning he doesn’t get much fun from anything these days. Luckily, his spot-on satire can be lots of fun for the reader. (Doubleday, $24.95)
Top Reads from the Fiscal Times: