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Heady in the sand: Beach reading for wonks | Trudy Rubin

From Putin's Russia to Trump's Washington to Shakespeare's Richard III these books offer insights into the rise of populism and demagogues.

A little heavy summer reading
A little heavy summer readingRead moreStaff/Trudy Rubin

August is supposed to be the month you manage a vacation escape from the real or surreal world, including Trumpmania.

But for those who can't let go and still schlep wonky books to the beach, here are my picks for relevant reading this summer, with a focus on democracy, Russia – and Shakespeare.

If the subject matter seems too depressing, you can always retreat to your favorite mystery novel. Given the state of the world and our country, you may want to read on.

Because readers often ask me what to read about Vladimir Putin's Russia and/or election meddling, here's a Russia list that goes beyond the headlines.

Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia by Peter Pomerantsev.  This 2014 book (out in paperback) by a Russian-born British journalist reads like fiction but brilliantly portrays the dystopian Putin era, with a cast of oligarchs, Mafioso, and lost souls. Surreal is the operative word as Pomerantsev takes a job in the Russian TV industry and describes from the inside how state-controlled media mix fact and fiction to manipulate Russian minds. Funny, frightening, and too close for comfort.

Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder and One Man's Fight for Justice by Bill Browder. This American-born financier, once a major investor in Russia, fought rampant government corruption under Putin. In revenge, Kremlin cronies arrested his Russian lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, who was murdered in prison.  Browder crusaded for a U.S. law, the Magnitsky Act, that sanctioned those  responsible for the murder.  Putin has been trying – via the famous Trump Tower meeting with Donald Jr. and at the Helsinki summit with Trump — to get the Magnitsky sanctions lifted. This thriller describes Browder's fight for justice for Magnitsky and describes how Putin's kleptocracy works.

Messing With the Enemy: Surviving in a Social Media World of Hackers, Terrorists, Russians and Fake News by Clint Watts. A former FBI special agent and cybersecurity specialist, Watts lays out in gripping detail how Putin's Russia manipulated U.S. social media, and how others can do likewise. You may think you've read everything about Russian meddling, but Watts' book can still surprise you. It is a primer on the present and future of information warfare, on the lack of effective pushback under Trump – and on what needs to be done.

Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin's War on America and the Election of Donald Trump by Michael Isikoff and David Corn.  This book is a useful backgrounder for those who want to keep straight the cast of characters and history of the Mueller investigation.  I still remain dubious that Russian meddling decided the 2016 election. But Putin clearly favored Trump and masterfully exploited America's internal weaknesses, and these investigative reporters lay out all the details.

Turning to the home front, the deep dilemma of our times is dissected in The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump by Michiko Kakutani, the former chief book critic for the New York Times.  At a time when objective reality seems  a quaint concept; when social media blare bizarre conspiracy theories that many Americans take as gospel; when a U.S. president damns real facts as "fake" while promoting fake news and falsehoods, we are in big trouble. The death of truth does indeed threaten democracy. As Kakutani puts it: "Without commonly agreed-upon facts there can be no rational debate over policies."  Her book offers no miracle cure but does offer a fascinating and erudite look at how and why "truth" has become an endangered idea.

Of the several other current books on threats to democracy, I found How Democracies Die, by Steven Levitskyand Daniel Ziblatt, the most intriguing.  Its main focus is on the importance of democratic norms that form the basis of our system — and are eroding.  Other countries may enshrine democratic principles in their constitutions, but that doesn't mean they are followed.  What makes America different, these Harvard professors argue, is that its democracy developed norms of tolerance and of institutional forbearance, which allowed Congress and the courts to function.  When those norms are attacked and die, democracy can't function.

Finally, if real politics sicken you, you can turn to Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics by Stephen Greenblatt, who examines the bard's historical plays and the psyches of bad or mad rulers such as Richard III, Macbeth, Lear, and Coriolanus.  With unmentioned reference to now, this Harvard University Shakespeare scholar describes how cynicism, opportunism, and demagoguery in Shakespeare's England fueled populist anger  and led to the rise of tyrants.  The comparisons may be a bit forced – after all, one can use Shakespeare to illustrate almost any aspect of human nature – but the quotes are fun and the psychological insights are all too relevant.

As I am off to an August vacation, including a week of theater in London that includes seeing Ian McKellen play Lear, I particularly enjoyed reading Greenblatt.  His book reminds us that, although it seems that today's political problems are overwhelming, others have seen their like before.

Trudy Rubin is on vacation for the month of August. Read past columns here.