Tuesday, September 22. 2009
I have enough book notes piled up that I'm going to do two posts in quick succession to clean up the excess -- second part will most likely appear tomorrow. When I do these things I usually pick the most urgent and important titles from my accumulated notes, but this time my plan is to save those for tomorrow and clear out as much of the old stuff I've been skipping over as possible. So skim lightly, but these are books I thought had some interest. I've adopted the convention of limiting these posts to 40 books each, but this one runs a little long. Otherwise I'd wind up doing this again.
Daniel J Barrett: MediaWiki (Wikipedia and Beyond) (paperback, 2008, O'Reilly): Large book on the free software package that underlies Wikipedia. I've been meaning to use MediaWiki for a couple of projects, so this is of special interest to me. On the other hand, I've been accumulating books on Wikipedia without yet getting to the point of using them. Won't have a real opinion on them until I do.
Robert H Bates: When Things Fell Apart: State Failure in Late-Century Africa (paperback, 2008, Cambridge University Press): Failed states consume economies in chaos, corruption, and predation, but what causes states to fail? One suggestion here is that globalization, especially backed by IMF policies, undermined efforts to build stable, adequately financed state organizations.
Derek Bickerton: Bastard Tongues: A Trailblazing Linguist Finds Clues to Our Common Humanity in the World's Lowliest Languages (paperback, 2009, Hill and Wang): A book about creoles and pidgins, part memoir of a lifetime's study.
David Blumenthal/James Morone: The Heart of Power: Health and Politics in the Oval Office (2009, University of California Press): New history of the politics of health care policy.
Paul Buhle, ed: The Beats: A Graphic History (2009, Hill and Wang): Text by Harvey Pekar and others; art by Ed Piskor and others. Not sure who all the others are. Short, celebratory, maybe a little critical when it comes to sexism. Stuff I used to care a lot about, not just when I read Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti but also when I followed Buhle's comics jones in Radical America.
Kathleen Burk: Old World, New World: Great Britain and America from the Beginning (2008, Atlantic Monthly Press): Big book (848 pages), tries to straddle the Atlantic from 1497 on.
Lisa Chamberlain: Slackonomics: Generation X in the Age of Creative Destruction (2008, Da Capo Press): Portrait of Gen X (those born in the mid-1960s through '70s) as pioneering entrepreneurs; one review tags this "gushing, anecdotal" -- not very useful attributes.
Mike Chinoy: Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis (2008, St Martin's Press): Author is an ex-CNN reporter, which doesn't really make this an "inside" account -- but then you really wouldn't want to read a book on this by the likes of John Bolton.
Gregory Cochran/Henry Harpending: The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution (2009, Basic Books): Argues for genetic evolution within the last 10,000 years, contrary to the more common expectation of genetic stability in large populations.
Jennet Conant: The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington (2008, Simon & Schuster): Third book by Conant as she digs around WWII for interesting stories. I'm not much for spy stories, but the other two books looked like they might be interesting: Tuxedo Park : A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science That Changed the Course of World War II and 109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos.
Philip J Cunningham: Tiananmen Moon: Inside the Chinese Student Uprising of 1989 (2009, Rowman & Littlefield): Evidently the author was there, was friends with various protesters, and kept a day-by-day account of the events. Seems a little dated for that kind of detail, but maybe not.
Michael C Desch: Power and Military Effectiveness: The Fallacy of Democratic Triumphalism (2008, Johns Hopkins University Press): Dissects the argument, going back to 1815, that Democratic states are inherently more likely to prevail in wars.
Marq de Villiers: The End: Natural Disasters, Manmade Catastrophes, and the Future of Human Survival (2008, Thomas Dunne): Global warming, of course, but also volcanoes, meteors, massive tsunamis, noxious gases, plagues and pandemics, mass extinctions: stuff that happens all the time.
Bart D Ehrman: Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don't Know About Them) (2009, Harper One): Basic historical deconstruction of the New Testament -- the outline I've seen is mostly stuff I know about, but probably not at this detail. Evidently, Ehrman has been doing this for a while now. Previous books include: The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (1996); Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It Into the New Testament (2003); Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (2003); Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (2005); The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot: A New Look at Betrayer and Betrayed (2006).
Jon Entine: Abraham's Children: Race, Identity, and the DNA of the Chosen People (2007, Grand Central Publishing): Research into the genetic angle of Jewish history, a subject more succinctly covered in David B Goldstein: Jacob's Legacy: A Genetic View of Jewish History (2008, Yale University Press). This may be one of the few areas where anyone's still talking about races, but then Entine, who draws a paycheck at American Enterprise Institute, previously wrote: Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It.
Randy Charles Epping: The 21st Century Economy: A Beginner's Guide (paperback, 2009, Vintage): Author of the very similar A Beginner's Guide to the World Economy, originally dating from 1992, with a 1995 revised edition and a 2001 reprint. Most likely this title is basically another revision. Elementary, of course.
Douglas Farah/Stephen Braun: Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible (paperback, 2008, Wiley): Exposť of Russian arms dealer Victor Bout. Certainly not the only one, and a piker compared to the US Government.
Stephen Fender: 50 Facts That Should Change The USA (paperback, 2008, The Disinformation Company): A sequel to Jessica Williams: 50 Facts That Should Change the World, reissued in 2007 in a 2.0 Edition. The emphasis is on facts that are non-obvious, counterintuitive even, but Americans are so ignorant -- one, or maybe several, of the facts -- that that isn't too hard.
Ann Finkbeiner: The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite (2006, Viking; paperback, 2007, Penguin): A history of elite scientists consulting with the Defense Department, especially after the Sputnik craze in 1958.
Leonard M Fleck: Just Caring: Health Care Rationing and Democracy (2009, Oxford University Press): Takes rationing as a serious ethical issue, insisting that "no one has a moral right to impose rationing decisions on others if they are unwilling to impose those same rationing decisions on themselves in the same medical circumstances."
Tom Gjelten: Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba: The Biography of a Cause (2008, Viking): A portrait of the rum barons as benevolent capitalists in the old Cuba, cast by Castro out of their country to exile in Miami, whereupon they started financing the good fight against the bad revolution.
Adrian Goldsworthy: How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower (2009, Yale University Press): A venerable topic, of course, always more so when one's own sense of superpowership is well nigh keeling over.
Adam Gopnik: Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life (2009, Knopf): Coincidentally, both Lincoln and Darwin were born on 12 February 1809, the first link in this attempt to draw both in to a common narrative of 19th century progress.
Colin Gordon: Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City (paperback, 2009, University of Pennsylvania Press): Having lived in St. Louis, I can certainly buy it as a case example for urban decline.
Ronnie Greene: Night Fire: Big Oil, Poison Air, and Margie Richard's Fight to Save Her Town (2008, Amistad): The town is Norco, LA, located in what's variously called Chemical Corridor and/or Cancer Alley. The poison air comes from Shell Oil, one of the real big ones. Greene's a Miami Herald reporter, who gets to report for once.
Stephen P Halbrook: The Founders' Second Amendment: Origins of the Right to Bear Arms (2008, Ivan R Dee): Fundamental research into the why and wherefore of the second amendment. Argues that an individual right was seen as a way to check the abusive power of a standing army. Author previously wrote The Swiss and the Nazis: How the Alpine Republic Survived in the Shadow of the Third Reich, which is probably another brief in favor of broad gun ownership.
Harry Helms: Top Secret Tourism: Your Travel Guide to Germ Warfare Laboratories, Clandestine Aircraft Bases and Other Places in the United States You're Not Supposed to Know About (paperback, 2007, Feral House): Not much of a travel guide, and evidently not all that complete -- e.g., no Fort Detrick, the evident source of the post-9/11 anthrax attacks, at the very least enabled by your tax dollars.
Tom Holland: The Forge of Christendom: The End of Days and the Epic Rise of the West (2009, Doubleday): A history of Europe's 1K crisis -- the apocalyptic expectations surrounding the year 1000. Don't know how far this goes, but it certainly sets the stage for the Crusades beginning in 1095. Holland has written a couple of books on earlier history: Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic and Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West. I found Rubicon to be a very useful introduction to a subject I knew little of.
Thomas Homer-Dixon, ed: Carbon Shift: How the Twin Crises of Oil Depletion and Climate Change Will Define the Future (2009, Random House Canada): Smart guy, likes big questions with a lot of weight on the future. This is one of those questions, but he's just editing, pulling together six Canadian experts, including William Marsden, author of a title worth repeating: Stupid to the Last Drop: How Alberta Is Bringing Environmental Armageddon to Canada (And Doesn't Seem to Care).
Brooks Jackson/Kathleen Hall Jamieson: unSpun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation (paperback, 2007, Random House): Tough job for a short (208 pp) book, more likely to drown in examples than draw lessons beyond the usual don't believe most (or damn near anything) that you hear. Focuses on politics and advertising, pretty low lying fruit.
Flora Jessop/Paul T Brown: Church of Lies (2009, Jossey-Bass): On the polygamist Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints, by a woman who grew up there, broke away, and works against them.
Steven Johnson: The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America (2008, Riverhead): On Joseph Priestley, focusing more on his political interests in emigrating to America and advising Thomas Jefferson than on his notable work in chemistry.
Frank Levy/Richard J Murnane: The New Division of Labor: How Computers Are Creating the Next Job Market (paperback, 2005, Princeton University Press): On the shifting shape of the job market, driven largely by the increased use of computers, and what this means for a generally ill-prepared workforce.
Andrew Lih: The Wikipedia Revolution: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World's Greatest Encyclopedia (2009, Hyperion): One of the major developments in world civilization in the last ten years of so. Not quite the "greatest story ever told," but along those lines.
Eugene Linden: The Winds of Change: Climate, Weather, and the Destruction of Civilizations (paperback, 2007, Simon & Schuster): Global warming book, with historical examples similar to Jared Diamond's Collapse -- Greenland, Mayan, etc.
William Lobdell: Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America -- and Found Unexpected Peace (2009, Harper Collins): Memoir, following the writer through the maze of American religion, first as someone seeking help, then as a journalist covering the beat, then finally as someone seeking help. Seems like honest confusion, and modest enlightenment.
Cody Lundin: When All Hell Breaks Loose (paperback, 2007, Gibbs Smith): A survival guide of some sort, predicated on the notion that our world is going to hell. Not sure whether it helps, but most survival guides give you plenty of reason to try to never have to use them.
G Calvin Mackenzie/Robert Weisbrot: The Liberal Hour: Washington and the Politics of Change in the 1960s (2008, Penguin Press): An overview history of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations in the 1960s. I think this fills in a slot in Penguin's multi-volume US history.
Jennifer Hooper McCarty/Tim Foecke: What Really Sank the Titanic: New Forensic Discoveries (2008; paperback, 2009, Citadel): A technical mystery revisited.
John McWhorter: All About the Beat: Why Hip-Hop Can't Save Black America (2008, Gotham): Of course it can't, but with plaudits from Shelby Steele and Stanley Crouch one might easily be tempted to believe the opposite. McWhorter has written several books on language which look interesting (e.g., Word on the Street: Debunking the Myth of "Pure" Standard English), and several books on black culture and politics which don't (e.g., Doing Our Own Thing: The Degeneration of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care).
Richard John Neuhaus: American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile (2009, Basic Books): Catholic theologian, died earlier this year. Had a strong hand in moving at least part of the Catholic church into alignment with the Republican right. In particular, he was often cited by Bush for his guidance on issues like stem-cell research. Given that sort of insider connection, it seems a little precious to describe himself as an exile.
Richard E Nisbett: Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count (2009, WW Norton): A nature/nurture rehash, leaning strongly to the notion that good schools make all the difference when it comes to IQ.
Karen Page/Andrew Dornenburg: The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America's Most Imaginative Chefs (2008, Little Brown): The idea here is to build up a map of what ingredients enhance what flavors. Many, of course, are things that we already know about from past experience, but one might learn something.
Gregory Alonso Pirio: The African Jihad: Bin Laden's quest for the Horn of Africa (paperback, 2007, Red Sea Press): An attempt to sort out the complex political machinations in and near Somalia, especially the inevitable Jihad card, and the shadowy connections with former-Sudan resident Bin Laden.
Charles Postel: The Populist Vision (2007; paperback, 2009, Oxford University Press): Big new history of the late 19th century populist movement.
Guido Giacomo Preparata: Conjuring Hitler: How Britain and America Made the Third Reich (paperback, 2005, Pluto Press): I figure this argument is skewed and more than a little paranoid, but wouldn't mind seeing some exposure of US and UK business interests backing their German colleagues' support of Hitler. Multinational business interests go back a long ways -- shared class interests all the more so. Didn't work out so well in this case, which is why it's illustrative even if not typical.
John Reader: Potato: A History of the Propitious Esculent (2009, Yale University Press): Domesticated in Peru some 8,000 years ago, imported to Europe in the 1500s where it had a huge demographic impact -- especially in Ireland and in Eastern Europe, which are by now inconceivable without it.
Thomas C Reed/Danny B Stillman: The Nuclear Express: A Political History of the Bomb and Its Proliferation (2009, Zenith Press): Ambitious subject scope, probably a bit skimpy at 393 pages (cf. Richard Rhodes' three volumes, which still don't cover a lot of the smaller proliferation cases). Authors are nuke designers, which should add some technical interest.
Marcus Reeves: Somebody Scream!: Rap Music's Rise to Prominence in the Aftershock of Black Power (paperback, 2009, Faber & Faber): Historian, tries to link put draw out the context rap artists work out of, from Grandmaster Flash to Jay-Z and Eminem.
Melissa Rossi: What Every American Should Know About the Middle East (paperback, 2008, Plume): Author is Italian, which evidently gives her a leg up on her readers -- she's done several of these books: What Every American Should Know About Who's Really Running the World, What Every American Should Know About Europe, What Every American Should Know About the Rest of the World, What Every American Should Know About Who's Really Running America. Seems like I have one of those, although I've never really looked through it. I have a limited fascination with remedial education books, like the old Cultural Literacy books -- not so much because I'm likely to learn something as I find it interesting what other people think you should know.
Michael Ruhlman: Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking (2009, Scribner): Writer turned chef still writing. I'm still waiting for his The Elements of Cooking: Translating the Chef's Craft for Every Kitchen to come out in paperback. This goes deeper into one part of that: the ratios that work in recipes. Seems like a useful idea. Wonder why it's not adequately covered in the previous book.
Lisa Sanders: Every Patient Tells a Story: Medical Mysteries and the Art of Diagnosis (2009, Broadway): How doctors figure out diagnoses, and perhaps more importantly, how they screw up, and what happens when they do.
Peter Senge: The Necessary Revolution: How Individuals and Organizations Are Working Together to Create a Sustainable World (2008, Doubleday): Senge seems to be some kind of management guru -- a previous book is called The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization. Has four co-authors here, listed in much smaller type: Bryan Smith, Nina Kruschwitz, Joe Laur, Sara Schley. Looks like a business primer, which means it looks like sustainability is moving up from radical concept to something someone can make money off of. That's kind of notable in its own right.
David Shippy/Mickie Phipps: The Race for a New Game Machine: Creating the Chips Inside the XBox 360 and the Playstation 3 (2009, Citadel): Reminiscent of Tracy Kidder's The Soul of a New Machine, which doesn't bring the book up to snuff -- most of the reviews I've seen aren't very promising. The technology itself could be fascinating, but the game machine culture has pretty much completely turned me off.
Alyn Shipton: A New History of Jazz (2nd revised updated ed, paperback, 2008, Continuum): Big (804 pp) book on a big subject, originally published 2001 (an even bigger 965 pp). Original cover looks semi-familiar, but I don't see it anywhere handy.
Lee Siegel: Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob (2008, Spiegel & Grau): A lament on how the internet affects culture and social life. Author has written Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination and Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; also some novels.
Keith Cameron Smith: The Top 10 Distinctions Between Millionaires and the Middle Class (2007, Ballantine): Short self-help book, 10 points in 128 pages, presumably simple enough anyone can follow it. Cheap if that's all it takes to rake in millions.
Neil de Grasse Tyson: The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America's Favorite Planet (2009, WW Norton): Astronomy writer, has several previous books. This one surveys the late, not-so-great ninth planet, its checkered history and controversy. That Americans are exceptionally fond of it is curious, I suppose.
Steven T Wax: Kafka Comes to America: Fighting for Justice in the War on Terror: A Public Defender's Inside Account (2008, Other Press): Lawyer for several cases, including Brandon Mayfield, an Oregon lawyer who was nabbed for the Madrid train bombings based on a botched fingerprint analysis.
Peter S Wells: Barbarians to Angels: The Dark Ages Reconsidered (2008, WW Norton): A revisionist argument on how dark the Dark Ages were, based on archaeological data, after dismissing contemporary accounts as Roman-biased.
Jenna Woginrich: Made from Scratch: Discovering the Pleasures of a Handmade Life (2008, Storey Publishing): A memoir of attempting to lead a self-sufficient life: raising food, making clothing, being satisifed with simplicity. A whole growing genre here, like William Coperthwaite: A Handmade Life: In Search of Simplicity.
James Wood: How Fiction Works (2008, Farrar Straus and Giroux): I hardly ever read fiction -- used to average about one book per year, but the only novel I've read post-2001 was Tom Carson's Gilligan's Wake (just couldn't resist) -- but I used to have a weakness for metafiction, ever since I discovered how much more fun it was to read Leslie Fieldler on Nathaniel Hawthorne than to read Hawthorne himself. This is getting some hype.
Paperback reprints will wait until Part 2, which will have more political books.
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