What We’re Reading #2 | The Handmaid’s Tale, Guests of the Ayatollah, War and Peace, and Batavia’s Graveyard

The AoC team is a well-read bunch. Each month, I’ll share what I’ve been perusing and try to get the others to put their books down long enough to do the same. If you’ve got any suggestions for books you think we should be reading (or comments about what we’ve already read), drop us a line at our respective Twitter feeds!

Jordan Harbinger (@theartofcharm)

Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia by Peter PomerantsevJordan has gone further down the rabbit hole of foreign affairs in the last few weeks. He just finished Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia. It’s a set of stories from the 1990s, when Russia was newly opened to capitalist forces. The author, Peter Pomerantsev (born in Kiev, raised in Great Britain), had a chance to return to Russia and help consult on television programming — in particular, “reality” shows. Such a genre gave him an unwitting glance into all sorts of avenues in Russia, and he tells his stories from every perspective in this “new” Russia. Jordan summarizes it as a “how to do politics in Russia” guide.

Jordan also finished Mark Bowden’s Guests of the Ayatollah: The Iran Hostage Crisis: The First Battle in America’s War with Militant Islam, which was America’s first real battle with Islamic extremism. The book, while lengthy, is told in a narrative style, compiled via hundreds of interviews. “We haven’t learned anything about how to conduct ourselves in the Middle East,” Jordan reflected, which, given the events the book chronicles happened in the late 1970s, is particularly telling.

Finally, Jordan also finished City of Lies: Love, Sex, Death, and the Search for Truth in Tehran by Ramita Navai. The book begins with: “Let’s get one thing straight: in order to live in Iran you have to lie.” Navai goes on to share eight stories about Iranians who have to bear secrets that cannot be shared in Iran’s current society. These aren’t secrets of murder, but rather, among other things, secrets of homesexuality, escapes from arranged marriage, and even, yes, a belly dancing class. Being on the wrong side of these sorts of things in present-day Iran isn’t just socially unacceptable; it can lead to arrest, imprisonment, or worse.

Producer Jason (@jpdef)

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret AtwoodProducer Jason has, as always, kept busy. He prefers audiobooks to old fashioned dead-tree models and one of his selections this month featured an author speaking about the history of a book and its cultural impact. The author in question? Margaret Atwood speaking about The Handmaid’s Tale. Jason is not a fan of narrator Claire Danes, so he recommends going to 1.5x to ditch her annoying tics.

Now going from a “you should read” to a “skip because it’s terrible” is a book called The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., authored by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland. Jason was hoping that a co-author for Stephenson would reel in his prolix tendencies from the last couple decades, but alas, it was not to be. “Great start, great world building, great characters, even a great end, but way too much minutiae and 500 pages longer than it needed to be,” sniffed Jason.

Robert Fogarty (@fogarty)

Batavia's Graveyard: The True Story of the Mad Heretic Who Led History's Bloodiest Mutiny by Mike DashAs a fan of nautical history, Associate Producer Bob has been tackling Batavia’s Graveyard: The True Story of the Mad Heretic Who Led History’s Bloodiest Mutiny by Mike Dash.

“The nautical aspect is pretty short-lived as the Dutch trader Batavia crashes on a coral archipelago just west of Australia within the first few pages,” says Bob. “But the horror story that unfolds among the wreck’s survivors makes Friday the 13th seem a quaint summer camp story in comparison — and it’s all true!”

For bite-sized morsels, he’s also been reading short stories from Ray Bradbury’s The Toynbee Convector and the classic character studies presented in Joseph Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel, originally printed in The New Yorker between the ’30s and ’60s. And to get in touch with what went on when his adopted town was still very much an unseemly outpost of the wild west, Bob’s been reading San Diego’s Chinatown and Stingaree District by Ray Brandes — a 1985 archaeological survey of the area’s notorious den of vices where the din of “wheezy violins and spavined pianos violated the air,” according to one 19th century source.

Stephen Heiner (@stephenheiner)

War and Peace by Leo TolstoyA guilty pleasure I have for airplane reads is spy novels, and one character I have followed across over a dozen novels and novellas is Mark Dawson’s John Milton. This character is often characterized as a “recovering alcoholic version of James Bond, but with a conscience.” While I just finished Blackout, which is the tenth in the John Milton series, there is also an Isabella Rose series about a teenage assassin with a complicated past (which keeps being unfolded to us). There’s no need to risk not liking the books; the author gives you four books for free just for visiting his website.

I have also almost completed my first full read of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which is, simply, the finest novel I have ever read. Sprawling across a thousand pages, Tolstoy tells us of love, intrigues, military tactics, the Russian countryside and character, family, and friendship. The characters grow more familiar to you with each passing page and it becomes clear that what stops so many people from engaging with this book in the first place is its intimidating length. But I would encourage you to challenge yourself with a luxurious summer read and find out why it is known as such a fine novel.

Stephen Heiner - author of 36 posts on The Art of Charm

Stephen Heiner was born in Singapore and moved to America just before his ninth birthday. He's stepped foot on every continent except Antarctica, served in the US Marine Corps, and is living the charmed life of a writer in Paris. He has a passion for running small businesses and storytelling. More than anything he enjoys getting people to think differently about the things they take for granted. Here at The Art of Charm, Stephen matches his life experience to our content to extract key points in written form for our students and clients to ruminate and act upon.


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