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The Best Human Rights Books of 2019

Ten of the year’s best, and twenty-five superb others

Previous Best Human Rights Books lists: , , , , , , ,

Thanks to the on-going revolution in Hong Kong, I read far fewer books this year, but I always took a book in my backpack when I went out to protest, and whenever I found myself hiding from the police or thugs, I whiled away the time by reading what I could.

In a way, the fact that I read far fewer books wasn’t such a loss, at least as far as human rights books were concerned, since 2019 was not a bumper year. The best books this year were as good as the books in any other, but there weren’t nearly as many books with human rights themes published this year as in the previous four. I presume this was mere coincidence. Time will tell.

Whereas in previous years, I published three- or four-monthly lists, this year, prior to now, I managed only one, . I had planned two more, but then, well, the revolution got in the way.

So in this end-of-year list, I include the best from the first four months of the year and add the ones I’ve managed to read from the last eight months.

Thanks, as ever, to all the great writers focusing on what really matters in this world of ours: freedom, human rights, democracy.

Proceeds from purchases through links below go to non-profit , providing fully independent coverage of Hong Kong and China.

, Shoshana Zuboff (PublicAffairs)

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At over 700 pages long, this is Zuboff’s magnum opus. It comes in the latter part of a decades-long academic career as a sociologist. Indeed, the historical perspective she brings to her topic is one of the book’s great strengths. My friend, a highly accomplished human rights researcher, says it’s been a long time since she last read a book this intellectually stimulating: she actually compared it to Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism. I can see the point, for, in a sense, Zuboff is updating that iconic text, defining the new epoch of surveillance capitalism we live in now and describing just how different it is from the past. Her definition of surveillance capitalism, which starts the book, is in itself brilliant and sums up the book’s argument better than I can: “1. A new economic order that claims human experience as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sales; 2. A parasitic economic logic in which the production of goods and services is subordinated to a new global architecture of behavioral modification; 3. A rogue mutation of capitalism marked by concentrations of wealth, knowledge, and power unprecedented in human history; 4. The foundational framework of a surveillance economy; 5. As significant a threat to human nature in the twenty-first century as industrial capitalism was to the natural world in the nineteenth and twentieth; 6. The origin of a new instrumentarian power that asserts dominance over society and presents startling challenges to market democracy; 7. A movement that aims to impose a new collective order based on total certainty; 8. An expropriation of critial human rights that is best understood as a coup from above: an overthrow of the people’s sovereignty.” That last bit gets at the brunt of what this has to do with human rights. One question I have is why Zuboff focuses solely on private companies, and largely on Facebook and Google, the surveillance capitalists par excellence. Is state surveillance substantially different? Is it more or less of a threat to democracy and human rights? If anything, a weakness of the book may be that it doesn’t entertain the prospect of China’s model of digital surveillance multiplying until it becomes the global norm. Zuboff’s account is highly dystopian in the classic sense: She is outlining this new world that is coming into being; it is too soon to see what exactly it may lead to. Her emphasis on the fact that surveillance capitalists are not only monitoring you but also engaging in behavioral modification, essentially creating a new you, is especially chilling. Probably the book’s biggest contribution is to provide the conceptual framework that allows us to see it and analyze it. It asserts that a new vocabulary is needed to describe this new reality, as well as new rights to defend human dignity; those mentioned include not only the expected rights to privacy and information as well as the right to be forgotten, now made famous by the new E.U. privacy regulations, but also the right to sanctuary and the right to a future tense. It seems that in one sense, a possible solution is not that difficult, and it’s what’s already started to occur in places like the European Union and California, regulation and democratic oversight. That challenge is political, not technical. In the light of the great power of corporations in general and tech companies in particular, are democratic societies up to it?

, David Treuer (Riverhead Books)

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This book is intended as a counter-narrative to the stories about Native Americans that are perhaps most prevalent in the media which emphasize exceedingly high rates of poverty, violence, substance abuse, incarceration and suicide. Here, the history of Native Americans over the last 120 years is presented as something of a success story: If nothing else, they’ve survived, they’re still alive, and depending on where you look, getting stronger than ever. That in itself is an accomplishment indeed, especially in the context of the other narrative The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee is writing against: That’s the story encapsulated in the book it echoes, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, which is probably the most popular and best known history of Native Americans of all time. It tells the very true story of their decimation over centuries, the loss of their lives, land and culture, culminating in the Wounded Knee massacre of 1890. If that story was all one knew, one might be surprised that Native Americans even exist any more. But exist they do. The sub-title of The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee is somewhat misleading in that it gives the impression of a straight-up history. History it is, but not only: One aspect of the book that makes it an engaging read is that it toggles back and forth between history and the present, telling stories of how Native Americans lead and make sense of their lives today. The book takes the reader through the key episodes and developments of the past century, portraying the progress made by Native Americans as a combination of their own struggle and the increasingly enlightened policies of the U.S. government. I’ve spent time in Native communities in Minneapolis and both Dakotas and considered myself pretty well-informed, but I’d have to think hard to remember when I last learned so much from a single book.

, Aaron Bobrow-Strain (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

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This book focuses on the story of Aida Hernandez, a young woman who spent much of her impoverished upbringing undocumented in the border town of Douglas, Arizona. When she wasn’t there, she was in its sister town across the border in Mexico, Agua Prieta. Aida witnesses and herself endures domestic violence. She is deported from the US on one occasion, leading to a nearly fatal attack on her in Agua Prieta, and on another occasion, spends a lengthy period in a US immigration detention facility, with the threat of deportation hanging over her again. On both occasions, she is separated from her young son. She makes a number of poor decisions, such as shoplifting Lego for her son for Christmas because she didn’t have any money, that if she weren’t a poor, undocumented woman wouldn’t have the catastrophic consequences they do in her case. Her story is powerful enough, but the book is even better for the fact that it contextualizes her story in ever-widening circles, telling, among others, the story of Douglas and its decline from being a fairly prosperous mining town, the story of Aida’s father who became a revolutionary fighting for landless peasants in Mexico and then a political prisoner, all before Aida was born, the story of Rosie Mendoza, a counselor of victims of domestic violence and sexual assault in Douglas who herself comes from Mexico, and of Ema, a lesbian immigrant to the US from Ecuador. This is a book about domestic violence, immigration, the militarization of border communities in the name of combating “illegal immigration” as well as lack of economic opportunity and workers’ rights. The overwhelming impression is of societies pervaded by violence, both structural and real, physical violence, the violence of men in their personal lives, of the Mexican and U.S. governments and their policies, of narco-traffickers and people-smugglers. As a result of the violence perpetrated against her, Aida suffers from PTSD so acute it is often difficult for her to function, and one senses that similarly, those overlapping cultures of violence sink deep into the bones of everyone affected, both perpetrators and victims. Still, that doesn’t mean such violence is fated to continue. For instance, on the U.S. side, moving away from a deterrence-only, militarized approach to “securing the border”, and on the Mexican side, improvement of socio-economic conditions, rights and equality would make a significance difference. Bobrow-Strain will soon publish an essay on . It is very well-written, highly readable, and informative, with Aida’s story driving the narrative throughout. The author and Aidia, a pseudonym, collaborated on the book and split the proceeds. A good

, Liao Yiwu, translated from the Chinese by David and Jessie Cowhig and Ross Perlin (Signal Press/Atria, an imprint of Simon & Schuster)

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The book to read in the 30th anniversary year of the Tiananmen Massacre. It consists primarily of interviews Liao Yiwu conducted with others who were sentenced to prison in connection with their involvement in the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations in China. Liao himself served four years in prison for writing a poem about the Tiananmen Massacre and wrote a stunning memoir about the experience, For a Song and a Hundred Songs, so he is here interviewing “brothers”. His focus is specifically on a category of people the Communist Party referred to as “thugs”. They refer to themselves only half in jest now as the “June 4 rioters”. These were the ordinary people who, when the army tried to enter Beijing and Chengdu in order to forcibly put down the protests, stood up to protect the students at their heart, and Liao emphasizes this point: The student leaders and other prominent figures such as Liu Xiaobo have gotten massive attention for their roles, whereas the sacrifices and suffering of ordinary people has been overlooked; this book seeks to correct that imbalance. Only a few of them had more substantial roles than that. Still, they are punished harshly, with many serving long-term prison sentences, often for doing as little as hitting an army vehicle with their hands. Typically, they receive a death or life sentence which can be commuted to a shorter sentence for good conduct in prison, and they average serving eight to sixteen years. But the end of prison is not the end of their sentences: The government continues to monitor them, their prison record makes it difficult if not impossible to find stable employment, they are often ostracized by their families and society, and they have many difficulties in their relationships. Their stories act as a parable of post-Tiananmen China; thus, the title, Bullets & Opium: The bullets are the threat of force that’s cast a shadow over all of China from June 4, and the opium is the breakneck economic development that dulls the pain of lack of freedom and democracy, indeed, even makes many people forget what they lack. Liao’s moral clarity and integrity are fortifying and inspiring. He himself escaped China in 2011, against his inclination — life for him became impossible there. The book closes with a chapter about his efforts to persuade Germany to negotiate the release from China of Liu Xiaobo and Liu Xia, and after Xiaobo’s death, Xia. There is also an appendix listing the dead confirmed by Tiananmen Mothers. Astoundingly, 30 years on, the Communist Party continues to prevent investigations into the number killed, seriously injured, executed and imprisoned, which altogether is most likely in the tens of thousands. That China has remained frozen in time, for so long a backward country in regard to rights, freedom and democracy, is one of the world’s great tragedies.

, Khaled Khalifa, translated from the Arabic by Leri Price (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

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I’ve read many nonfiction books on Syria over the past half decade. This is the first novel, and, what may be more surprising given Syria’s horrific recent history and the fact that hundreds of thousands have fled the country including much of its cultural elite, it’s written by a novelist in Damascus. The structure of the narrative may be vaguely inspired by Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying: A man dies in Damascus. His last wish is to be buried in his hometown. Under normal circumstances, a wish not too hard to fulfill, but because of the war, the journey entails crossing multiple checkpoints manned by various factions, first leaving government-controlled territory, then entering rebel territory, as well as avoiding other war-associated dangers. As if that wasn’t challenging enough, it is the deceased man’s three children, estranged from one another, who very begrudgingly undertake to comply with his wish. While the father was a committed revolutionary, the children are just trying to survive. The novel is the story of their trip. Besides Faulkner, Kafka is the other writer who comes to mind, since the story essentially involved placing the three in serial impossible situations and then seeing how they manage to extract themselves. There is something of Kafka’s dark humor too, as implied in the title. And yes, the novel is soaked in death; the death of the father is only the start.

, Carolyn Forché (Penguin Press)

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Forché is a well-known poet. This is a story from several decades ago. In the 1970s, a man she has never met before shows up on her doorstep in California. He wants to take her to El Salvador, a country on the brink of civil war, in order, essentially, to teach her. Why? From her point of view, his intention isn’t clear except that he thinks it’s better to work with a poet than a journalist. She ends up making several trips to El Salvador, guided by this mysterious man. At first, she isn’t even sure which “side” he’s on, and she constantly contends with situations in which she is well aware of her own ignorance. The country is in the grip of a right-wing military dictatorship which carries out atrocities while receiving copious aid from the U.S. government. At the heart of the memoir is the depiction of Leonel, the mysterious Salvadoran, and the poet’s (platonic) relationship with him. It leads Forché to a lifelong commitment to human rights and to telling Americans about El Salvador’s plight. Hers is a story about political awakening and about the discrepancy between the lives of those who live in places where rights are abused as a matter of course and those in places of relative comfort and security, a story about the need for the latter’s solidarity with the former. A good

, Raja Shehadeh (Profile Books)

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Like all of Shehadeh’s writing, Going Home expresses a deep love of Palestine, in particular here, the town of Ramallah, where he’s spent most of his life. It takes place on a single day in 2017, the fiftieth anniversary of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Over the course of the day, he walks about the town and the places he goes trigger memories of his life there, the houses he lived in, the houses his parents lived in, and the tumultuous political events he’s lived through. Partly a personal memoir but always tied back to the fate of Palestine. Most striking is Shehadeh’s immense sense of failure. He’s quite categorical in his assessment that his work as a lawyer and human rights activist has been ineffectual. In this sense, Going Home reminds of the excellent The Wall and the Gate by Israeli rights lawyer Michael Sfard, though Shehadeh is a good deal more unequivocal. The book reads like a meditation. Shehadeh’s such a dignified, moral voice, so clear-sighted.

, Rachel Louise Snyder (Bloomsbury)

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A 2018 United Nations report concluded that the most dangerous place for a woman is her own home. In the U.S., more than half of all murdered women are killed by a current or former partner. That amounts to 50 women every month. As an excellent puts it, “It is the leading cause of maternal mortality in cities including New York and Chicago, and the second leading cause of death for black women nationwide.” It is also “a direct cause of homelessness for more than half of homeless women.” This book is divided into three parts. Part One is a detailed case study of domestic violence in a single family in Montana. The husband ultimately kills his wife and two young children before killing himself. This is meant to show the complex dynamics of domestic violence. Part Two focuses on programs to rehabilitate perpetrators as well as efforts by police to more effectively address domestic violence. Part Three focuses on recent efforts by a range of groups to better address domestic violence, in particular the development of High Risk Teams, groups of NGOs, police, medical professionals and others that work to better share information and devise policies to identify individuals at high risk and protect them. It also looks at other efforts, such as prohibiting those convicted of violent misdemeanors from owning guns, family justice centers, and moves away from shelters to transitional housing as a more viable solution to getting victims away from perpetrators and out of harm’s way. While domestic violence is a serious problem, it’s important not to forget that substantial progress has been made. The Violence Against Women Act is credited with reducing domestic violence by 64% between 1993 and 2012. Stalking is now a felony charge in more than forty states. Strangulation is a felony in forty-five. These successes shouldn’t be cause for complacency but a positive sign that domestic violence is a human rights issue where there is plenty of cause for hope that substantial progress can continue to be made. Snyder’s book is at its most compelling where it tells the stories of both victims and perpetrators in detail, and indeed, much of the book is made up of such stories, as Snyder spent copious time in their company.

, Patrick Radden Keefe (Doubleday)

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The initial focal point of the book is the infamous murder of Jean McConville, single mother of ten children who was disappeared from her home in Belfast, Northern Ireland in 1972 at the height of The Troubles, accused by the IRA of being an informant for the British. While she was presumed dead, for decades no one really knew what happened to her. The book vividly evokes the oppressive atmosphere of Belfast at the time of the The Troubles, but at least half of it is about the decades-long aftermath, and in particular about trying to get to the bottom of the many IRA killings. Central to that effort are taped interviews with key IRA figures that have been deposited at Boston College in the U.S., supposedly with the agreement of the interviewees that they will remain inaccessible for decades to come. But what to do if they contain evidence of crimes? The book’s counterpoint to IRA victim McConville is Dolours Price, a passionate IRA volunteer who later became disillusioned with the group and died recently, in 2013. Some of the stories in the book have been told before, but Radden Keefe weaves them together brilliantly. One may ask why he concentrates almost solely on IRA killings when Unionists and the British army and police also killed. This is partly because he wants to tell the story of the secret tapes but also perhaps because of the romantic aura the Irish freedom struggle still possesses in many places, including the U.S. As someone who’s been a big supporter of that freedom struggle but is also a resolute advocate of nonviolence, I don’t find the focus misplaced. If anything, the theme of the book is how the violence of political struggles has a long afterlife and threatens to entangle a society long into the future if it’s not confronted with some modicum of truth and justice. As recently as March, Northern Ireland announced that only one British soldier for the Bloody Sunday killings of 1972, much to the chagrin of the victim’s families. Between 150 and 200 British soldiers are for Troubles crimes. The violent past casts a long shadow, even in places that are relatively willing to look it squarely in the face.

, Albert Woodfox (Grove Press)

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Albert Woodfox served more than 40 years in solitary confinement at the Lousiana State Penitentiary, otherwise known as Angola, one of the most infamous prisons in the U.S. What’s more, he did so because of a murder he didn’t commit, that of a prison guard. If you’re skeptical of his plea of innocence, it can certainly be said that his trial was far from fair and the treatment meted out to him was nothing short of cruel and abusive. What is perhaps most striking about his memoir is the emphasis he places on his “conversion” in prison from ordinary petty criminal to Black Panther. The insight, political awareness and ethics that the Panthers provided him not only helped him to survive his brutal treatment but also made him into a compassionate person who helped fellow prisoners. While the treatment of Woodfox is in some respects unusually extreme, the abuse of solitary confinement and a whole range of other abuses of prisoners are all too common in prisons in the U.S., as is racism in policing and mass incarceration. .

, Ahmet Altan, translated from the Turkish by Yasemin Congar (Granta Books)

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Altan is a well-known Turkish writer, both a novelist and journalist. In September 2016, he was arrested for supposedly using a television interview to send “subliminal messages” to plotters of a July 2016 coup that sought to topple the Turkish government. As absurd as the charges sound, in February 2018, he was sentenced, along with his brother, to life in prison, where this book was written, smuggled out in notes Altan gave to his lawyer. Ironically, his father, also a journalist, was imprisoned a half century before, giving a sense of how little Turkey’s changed in some respects, and when Altan is arrested, he utters the same words to the police that his father did. On the way to prison, he cracks a joke, and this acts as a kind of epiphany that gives him the courage to go on. He believes in the power of writing, of the imagination to transcend circumstances even as dire as his, but prison is tough, and much of the rest of the book shows him struggling with the gross injustice that has befallen him. Unfortunately, his case is not exceptional: are currently in prison in Turkey on “terror” and coup-related charges. I hope we may yet see him free again before long. An and a good .

Other excellent books I read

, Eric Blanc (Verso)

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Red State Revolt is about the 2018 teacher strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona. What all three states have in common is they’re considered politically conservative and Republican and they all voted for Trump. So why did the strikes happen there? And how? That’s the subject of the book, and it’s written by a journalist and activist who covered all three and was acquainted with many of the key players in each. One would expect these states to be the least likely to have teacher strikes, not least of all because it’s illegal for teachers to go on strike in all three. But they also happen to be among the states with the least investment in education, which means the poorest-paid teachers and also the least money for teaching children. What’s striking about all three strikes is that they weren’t only for higher wages but also for more investment in education, and that is a big reason why they had widespread public support, allowing the teachers to achieve big victories in West Virginia and Arizona and a more equivocal one in Oklahoma. These strikes were preceded by the Chicago teachers strike of 2012 and since there’s been the Los Angeles teachers strike in 2019, both in staunchly Democratic strongholds. Most of the book is meant to give voice to the teachers involved in the strikes and to examine the strategies and tactics they employed. Striking is that in all three cases, the impetus for the strikes didn’t come from the official teachers unions but from outside of them, from rank-and-file teachers organizing initially on social media. The strikes have major implications for labor rights, the right to education, and children’s rights, and they seem to be shifting the debate on education in the U.S. which for far too long has been dominated by standards, testing and charter schools, whether Democrats or Republicans have been in power. As the book puts it, public education remains one of the few remaining democratically distributed public goods in the U.S. It is also central to a healthy democracy. For those reasons, the fight over education matters.

, Arundhati Roy (Haymarket Books)

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At 1,000 pages, this is by far the longest book on the list. It contains all of the nonfiction Roy wrote between her two novels, The God of Small Things and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. All of her writing, whether fiction or nonfiction, it can be said, focuses on the dichotomy of human needs, desires and rights on the one hand and injustice and oppression on the other, on the tension between the ideals of democracy, decency and fairness and the actual situation. It is also supremely concerned with the political entity called India, and in particular, caste, untouchables, adivasis, Kashmir, the acquisition of nuclear weapons and militarism, the state of democracy, and a capitalist development model that pits those with wealth and power against some of the country’s poorest and most marginalized. I read most of the better-known essays (among them, “The End of Imagination”, “The Greater Common Good”, “The Algebra of Infinite Justice”, “Democracy: Who Is She When She’s at Home?”, “Listening to the Grasshoppers” and “Capitalism: A Ghost Story”) when they first came out over the past couple of decades, and haven’t re-read them here. Instead, I concentrated on the ones I hadn’t yet read, above all else, “The Doctor and the Saint: The Ambedkar-Gandhi Debate”. This lengthy essay was originally an introduction to a new edition of Ambedkar’s The Annihilation of Caste and is, to my mind, the best piece of non-fiction Roy’s ever written for, fundamentally, it’s about two very different ideas about how the marginalized and the dispossessed should go about seeking justice and equality. Having lived in India, I am in full agreement with Ambedkar and Roy that caste is the most basic human rights issue India needs to address and never sufficiently has. Roy got a lot of flak when this essay came out for “unmasking” Gandhi’s patronizing attitude toward untouchables and his support for Brahminism (another term for casteism), but really all she was doing was pointing out positions he’d always held that had been obscured by his sanctification.

, Mario Benedetti, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor (The New Press)

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Set at the time of military dictatorship in Uruguay in 1970s, this novel is about the effects on a family of one of its member’s political imprisonment. It was originally published in Uruguay shortly after the end of that dictatorship in 1982 and published in English for the first time here. It is told in shifting points of view over a period of several years: The prisoner writes letters to his wife. She, while remaining loyal to his politics and friendship, is falling out of love with him and in love with his friend, a fellow opponent of the regime. Both of them are in exile in Buenos Aires, along with the prisoner’s ten-year-old daughter and his sixty-seven-year-old father. Portions are also told from their point of view. Finally, there are interspersed chapters called “Exiles” that tell the stories of people from Uruguay exiled throughout Latin America and Europe due to dictatorship. Overall, the novel is a portrait of the effects on the personal lives of the people who suffered from the dictatorship, and in this respect, it is easy to relate to for most anyone who’s suffered the ills effects of dictatorship. That is to say, most of it rings familiar in the China of today, though there is a kind of laconic, almost optimistic tone to the novel that seems foreign. Perhaps it was because there was a sense that the dictatorship simply couldn’t endure forever, probably not even that long into the future. While these people must cope with great challenges, there is not the sort of hopelessness that, for example, many people encounter in the face of a more powerful dictatorship like that of China. This was, of course, in a period when right-wing dictatorships took control across wide swaths of America, from Uruguay to Argentina to Chile to Brazil and beyond. While reading this book, I watched the film, “The Twelve-Year Night”, about three Tupamaro guerrillas who are captured by the regime and essentially disappeared by it, ending up spending a dozen years in solitary confinement in the most barbaric conditions. One of the three is José Mujica, who goes on decades later to become president of Uruguay. It struck me that at least three people who were political prisoners and underwent torture under those right-wing dictatorships and then went on to become president, Michelle Bachelet of Chile and Dilma Rousseff of Brazil being the two others. This history in itself, especially in the larger context of the struggle against dictatorship and oligarchy in Latin America, gives some cause for hope. Benedetti is considered one of the most important Latin American writers of the second part of the twentieth century, but hardly any of his work has made it into English. This is a highly accessible novel written in a vernacular that reminds of Manuel Puig.

Other excellent books I didn’t get around to reading

The following are books that I didn’t get around to reading in 2019 but wish I had.

two autobiographies:

, Samantha Power (Dey Street)

, Edward Snowden (Metropolitan Books)

four books on women’s rights:

, Mona Eltahawy (Beacon Press)

, Elif Shafak (Bloomsbury)

, Julia Phillips (Random House)

, Edna O’Brien (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

four books on democracy:

, Thant Myint-U (W.W. Norton)

, Larry Diamond (Penguin)

, Astra Taylor (Metropolitan Books)

, Dana R. Fisher (Columbia University Press)

two books on climate change and human rights:

, Naomi Klein (Simon & Schuster)

, Extinction Rebellion (PEN UK)

two books on migration and human rights:

, Jason DeParle (Viking)

, William D. Lopez (Johns Hopkins University Press)

and others:

, Sam Dagher (Little, Brown and Company)

, edited by The New York Public Library, foreword by Edmund White (Penguin Classics)

, Yoko Ogawa, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder (Random House)

, Erik Olin Wright (Verso)

, Ibram X. Kendi (One World)

, David Kaye (Columbia Global Reports)

, Peter Pomerantsev (PublicAffairs)

, Kai Strittmatter (Old Street)

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Author of ‘Umbrella: A Political Tale from Hong Kong’ and ‘As long as there is resistance, there is hope: Essays on the Hong Kong freedom struggle…’

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