Saturday, April 10. 2010
More book notes, probably the first of two quick sets. Last one was the Banking Books survey on March 24, at which point I looked up a lot of things I couldn't (or didn't need to) use at the moment. Before that I did one on February 25. Only rule here is that I cut off at 40 books, anything that interests me and/or I have something to say about.
George A Akerlof/Rachel E Kranton: Identity Economics: How Our Identities Shape Our Work, Wages, and Well-Being (2010, Princeton University Press): Sounds like another of those shaggy dog stories Akerlof theorized about in Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism. No doubt that there is something to the idea, but the analogous Identity Politics has a nasty reputation, mostly as a refuge for racism and bigotry.
Richard Ames: Going Postal: Rage, Murder, and Rebellion: From Reagan's Workplaces to Clinton's Columbine and Beyond (paperback, 2005, Soft Skull Press): A history of random massacres in the American workplace, symptomatic of something more than the occasional loose hinge. A bit dated, especially at the post-2009 pace, which doesn't make it any less relevant.
Bernard Avishai: The Hebrew Republic: How Secular Democracy and Global Enterprise Will Bring Israel to Peace at Last (2008, Houghton Mifflin): I recently picked up Avishai's 1985 The Tragedy of Zionism: Revolution and Democracy in the Land of Israel (reissued in 2002 with a new subtitle, How Its Revolutionary Past Haunts Israeli Democracy) because it seemed to have a sense of how Ben-Gurion's ostensibly pragmatic tactics locked Israel into an untenable prison of myths. Looks like he has a critical analysis of Israel's internal divisions and how they prolong the conflict, and a fanciful solution that thinks Israel can correct itself and become a normal nation.
John Avlon: Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America (paperback, 2010, Beast Books): Cover shows Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and Keith Olbermann in the best plague-on-both-your-houses style. Still, for all the author's deliberate centrism -- his previous book was called Independent Nation: How Centism Can Change American Politics -- an Amazon reviewer slams the book as "leftist trash; he's just another socialist who hates the constitution, distorts the truth, and fawns over progressive elitists." After all, you're only right if you're right.
Edwin Black: War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race (2008, Dialog Press): A history of the eugeneics movement in the US, starting in the early 20th century, successful enough to forcibly sterilize some 60,000 Americans, and ultimately tarnished by association with an analogous movement in Nazi Germany.
Edwin Black: Banking on Baghdad: Inside Iraq's 7,000 Year History of War, Profit, and Conflict (2004; updated ed, 2008, Dialog Press): Mostly recent, of course -- just 42 pp for the first 6,500 years -- as the imperial and corporate plots thicken. Black has mostly written on topics more/less related to Nazi Germany, including his detailing of deals between the Nazis and the Zionists which permitted a number of German Jews to escape to Palestine in the early 1930s: The Transfer Agreement: The Dramatic Story of the Pact Between the Third Reich and Jewish Palestine. He also has a forthcoming book called The Farhud: The Arab-Nazi Alliance in the Holocaust, which tries to link the Nazis to the 1941 anti-British riots in Baghdad via the Mufti of Jerusalem.
Edwin Black: Internal Combustion: How Corporations and Governments Addicted the World to Oil and Derailed the Alternatives (2008, Dialog Press): More muckraking on the political influence of auto and oil corporations, some of which is well known and justified, although they really didn't have to twist arms very hard to sell oil power. Also wrote: The Plan: How to Rescue Society the Day After the Oil Stops -- or the Day Before.
Edwin Black: Nazi Nexus: America's Corporate Connection to Hitler's Holocaust (paperback, 2009, Dialog Press): Previously wrote the more detailed IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America's Most Powerful Corporation. This is a short (192 pp) summary.
Mark Braverman: Fatal Embrace: Christians, Jews, and the Search for Peace in the Holy Land (paperback, 2010, Synergy Books): American Jew, seems to be sincerely committed to peaceful resolution of the Israel/Palestine conflict, but sees the main problem being the inability of American Jews and Christians to have a meaningful dialogue that gets past myriad preconceptions -- like the long history of anti-semitism up to and including the Holocaust -- and approaches the real issues. Heartfelt, so they say.
Joel Chasnoff: The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid From Chicago Fights Hezbollah -- A Memoir (2010, Free Press): A 24-year-old American, Ivy League grad, failed stand up comic, joins the IDF, a tank brigade full of 18-year-old draftees, just in time to invade Lebanon. Maybe he'll go back to stand up now that he's got some fresh material. Probably won't go back to Lebanon again.
Ted Conover: The Routes of Man: How Roads Are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today (2010, Knopf): A book on scattered travels around the world, focusing on roads and what they mean to people. Peru; Lagos; the West Bank, with apartheid roads for Jewish settlers and checkpoints for Palestinians. Conover previously wrote Coyotes: A Journey Across Borders With America's Illegal Migrants and Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails With America's Hoboes.
John D'Agata: About a Mountain (2010, WW Norton): About Yucca Mountain, Nevada, for many years the controversial planned burial site for all the nuclear waste the country can generate. (Obama finally ordered the project shelved and a new study to be done from scratch -- something Harry Reid can remind his angry voters of in the coming election.) A lot of threads come together here, like how can you run a nuclear power industry with no idea how you deal with the waste, or how do you sell a plan when nobody wants it anywhere near them, or what does the government do when everyone shoots holes in the only plan they bothered to come up with?
Robert H Frank: The Economic Naturalist's Field Guide: Common Sense Principles for Troubled Times (2009, Basic Books): Another entry in the "economics can explain everything in everyday life" Freakonomics-niche, following on the heels of the author's The Economic Naturalist: In Search of Explanations for Everyday Enigmas. Has more sense than most economists working this beat, which also implies less flair for perverse contrarianism. [paperback Apr. 27]
Ken Gormley: The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr (2010, Crown): Correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't it Starr vs. Clinton? At 800 pp, it seems unlikely that Gormley left out anything from Ken Starr's mudslinging report, which probably means there is at least some redeeming social content (i.e., smut). A sad, pathetic story, compounded by ill will from all sides, cheered on by a jaded media.
Peter Hessler: Country Driving: A Journey Through China From Farm to Factory (2010, Harper): China-based journalist, wrote an earlier China book that has intrigued me: Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China. This one travels around the fast-changing country, one of the best ways of getting a glimpse.
Dilip Hiro: After Empire: The Birth of a Multipolar World (2010, Nation Books): London-based reporter, has written much that is worthwhile on the Middle East, Central Asia, and oil politics. Book covers rising powers in China and India, and the relative decline of the war-logged United States.
Wang Hui: The End of the Revolution: China and the Limits of Modernity (2010, Verso): Chinese "new left" intellectual, an activist in Tiananmen Square, evidently has a four volume intellectual history of modern China somewhere in the translation mill. Something is happening in China now that we haven't begun to understand, but little pieces like this are bound to help. Still, as Chou En-lai said about the French Revolution, it's really too early to tell.
Tony Judt: Ill Fares the Land (2010, Penguin Press): Looks like a quickie political tract in defense of social democracy, the values the left had before losing our way, and/or getting run over by the right-wing propaganda machine. Judt's Postwar is one of the great historical books of the last twenty years, but despite its length is wound tight, a sketchy synthesis, which at least shows that no one understands the human progress of postwar Europe better. Recently diagnosed with ALS, Judt's disabling illness may add to the urgency of his thoughts, as if material conditions wasn't more than enough.
David Kirby: Animal Factory: The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy, and Poultry Farms to Humans and the Environment (2010, St Martin's Press): The latest wholesale assault on the meat end of the agribusiness conglomerate, with plenty to easy targets to write about. Big book (510 pp), clearly much of what's going on should be exposed, and this looks like one of the most comprehensive books on the subject. Harder to find reasonable compromises.
Jonathan Krohn: Defining Conservatism: The Principles That Will Bring Our Country Back (2010, Vanguard Press): Teenage philosopher, self-published an earlier draft of this book when he was 13; is more like 15 now, out giving speeches at Tea Parties and CPAC. Identifies four principles: defend the Constitution, respect human life, minimalist government, personal responsibility. Those principles are sophisticated enough it might be possible to flip him, unlike less thoughtful conservatives whose principles are more like "be white" and "inherit (or steal) a lot of money" and "slaughter people not like us." Talks a lot about "natural laws" and gibberish like that. Clearly is a smart kid with a lot to learn.
Matt Labash: Fly Fishing With Darth Vader: And Other Adventures With Evangelical Wrestlers, Political Hitmen, and Jewish Cowboys (2010, Simon & Schuster): Features Dick Cheney's mug on the center of the cover. In case you thought this might be critical, consider that it's just a compilation of pieces recycled from The Weekly Standard, and on the blurb draws praise from David Brooks, PJ O'Rourke, and Christopher Hitchens.
Annie Leonard: The Story of Stuff: How Our Obsession With Stuff Is Trashing the Planet, Our Communities, and Our Health -- and a Vision for Change (2010, Free Press): The expanded book version of a pretty good little animated video, exploring the life cycle of stuff and our role in pushing it through the economy and the environment. Basic, and basically profound.
James Mahaffey: Atomic Awakening: A New Look at the History and Future of Nuclear Power (2009, Pegasus): Another effort to bootstrap the nuclear power industry -- clean, safe, you know the drill.
Jason Mattera: Obama Zombies: How the Liberal Machine Brainwashed My Generation (2010, Threshold Editions): Bet you didn't realize that "in 2008, Barack Obama lobotomized a generation." The Liberal Machine? Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube. A nice case of transference, but not as amusing as John Gibson's How the Left Swiftboated America: The Liberal Media Conspiracy to Make You Think George Bush Was the Worst President in History.
Mike Moore: Twilight War: The Folly of US Space Dominance (2008, Independent Institute): The best book I've seen on the folly of attempting to militarize space is Chalmer Johnson's Nemesis. This covers the subject in much more detail, but the basic arguments are the same: satellites provide essential peaceful services, and are easily wrecked by war, which means any space-based conflict will make us much worse off.
Malcolm Nance: An End to Al Qaeda: Destroying Bin Laden's Jihad and Restoring America's Honor (2010, St Martin's Press): Author is certainly right that the way to undermine Al Qaeda is to marginalize it in the Muslim world, and the way to do that is to back away from America's hostile stance within that world. His view of Obama as a credible spokesman leans on wishful thinking, as is his notion that Americans can continue to operate in that world under a reformed image.
Nell Irvin Painter: The History of White People (2010, WW Norton): Author has mostly written about Afro-American history, from Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas After Reconstruction (1992) to Creating Black Americans: African-American History and Its Meanings, 1619 to the Present (2005), so this must seem like a fair turnaround.
Robert Perkinson: Texas Tough: The Rise of America's Prison Empire (2010, Metropolitan Books): A history of the US prison system, the world's largest since the Soviet Gulag was shut down, focusing on the South and Texas in particular, where prison labor was seen as the second best thing to slavery. Eventually, the Texas paradigm of punishment and exploitation took over the nation, driving out any ideas about reform and redemption and turning the justice system into a sefl-perpetuating spiral of crime and prison and more crime.
Mark Perry: Talking to Terrorists: Why America Must Engage With Its Enemies (2010, Basic Books): Basically a military historian -- cf. Four Stars: The Inside Story of the Forty-Year Battle Between the Joint Chiefs of Staff and America's Civilian Leaders (1989), and Partners in Command: George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower in War and Peace (2007) -- although he's also written about Middle East issues -- e.g., A Fire in Zion: The Israeli-Palestinian Search for Peace (1994). Perry's favorite example is the Awakening group in Iraq, which did more to stabilize Iraq than the US ever could have hoped for. Hamas and Hezbollah, with popular roots formed in resistance to Israeli occupation, are essential components of any post-conflict scenarios in their countries, as most likely is the Taliban. Perry sees Al Qaeda as beyond reconciliation, although I'm less clear why that should be the case.
David Priestland: The Red Flag: A History of Communism (2009, Grove Press): Long enough (720 pp), nuanced, willing to acknowledge that communist movements varied greatly in place and time even while insisting that all were doomed. Traces origins, both utopian and authoritarian, to the Jacobins. The liberature is full of simplistic, silly books, but maybe we're starting to get beyond that. If not this one, I'd be tempted to write such a book myself some day.
Diane Ravitch: The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (2010, Basic Books): Former Assistant Secretary of Education under the first Bush offers second thoughts on the latter Bush education reforms: I gather she lacked first thoughts, which may or may not count for something, but it suggests the tide is turning after years of dumb and senseless failure. Previous books include Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform and The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn. The latter has the usual sendups of political correctness, but also notes how a textbook publisher censored a line about fossil fuels being the primary cause of global warming because "we'd never be adopted in Texas."
Eugene Rogan: The Arabs: A History (2009, Basic Books): A general primer, but evidently starts with the Ottoman period up to the present, more or less.
Karl Rove: Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight (2010, Threshold Editions): The big payoff for so many years of carrying the right's water and, more importantly, jockeying right-wing political campaigns. An important enough figure his book must have some value as a primary source, but there's no reason to think he'd start spinning truths now. He sees he still has work to do, money to make, a nation to ruin.
Michael Schuman: The Miracle: The Epic Story of Asia's Quest for Wealth (2009, Harper Business): The history of Asia's tiger economies, including major ones in Japan, China, India, and Indonesia. Looks like useful background, although he has a tendency to favor stories that elicit the correct capitalist answers.
Victor Sebestyen: Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire (2009, Pantheon): "The principal reasons the Soviet empire fell was the USSR's disastrous decade-long war in Afghanistan, which is eerily reminiscent of the conflict the West is involved in now. Soviet generals of 20 or 25 years ago were saying almost identical things about their war against the Mujahideen (The Army of God) as NATO soldiers are saying now fighting the Taleban." I'm inclined to argue differently, but Afghanistan, Chernobyl, and a few other incidents may have been critical in dismantling the mythic powers of the Soviet military; some comparable comeupance is needed in the US. Sebestyen on Reagan the "Evil Empire" fighter: "When he took a hard line Reagan got nowhere. In fact, it nearly led to a nuclear war by accident. He was successful when he took a soft line and began negotiating with the Russians, in particular with Mikhail Gorbachev."
Patti Smith: Just Kids (2010, Ecco): Memoir of the poet-singer and photographer Robert Maplethorpe. Bohemians slightly ahead of my generation, i.e., from a time when it made more sense (although I was plenty smitten for a while). Everyone compliments the writing.
Michael Steele: Right Now: A 12-Step Program For Defeating the Obama Agenda (2010, Regnery Press): Republican National Committee chairman, starts with the assumption that Obama is up to no good, and moves far enough to the right to start to focus that picture (or lose track of it altogether). Along the way we find out that the reason Bush stunk so bad was that he was too left-wing. I suppose the Republicans have nothing else to campaign on, but doubling down on their far right fringe isn't an obvious reaction to losing badly in 2006-08.
Marc A Thiessen: Courting Disaster: How the CIA Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama Is Inviting the Next Attack (2010, Regnery Press): Former Bush speechwriter turned CIA mouthpiece. The difference between the CIA under Bush the CIA under Obama is presumably the former's embrace of torture -- no doubt that Thiessen is a huge fan of the practice, which most likely gets us into psychosexual territory I don't want to get into. Otherwise he's just engaging in the big lie, a skill he no doubt honed nicely under Bush and Rove.
Janine R Wedel: Shadow Elite: How the World's New Power Brokers Undermine Democracy, Government, and the Free Market (2009, Basic Books): Author's background is in post-Communist East Europe, where she developed a theory of how corruption is exploited by actors she describes as "flexions." She identifies some Americans along those same lines, including Richard Perle, Barry McCaffrey, and Larry Summers. No doubt there are more, but those are certainly good examples. Previous book: Collision and Collusion: The Strange Case of Western Aid to Eastern Europe.
John-Paul Wilson: Political Bias In Historical Writing (2009, Xlibris): Cover shows Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. Case study involves the Sandinistas, which Carter tolerated and Reagan waged a long, bloody, patently illegal war against. Not sure how this plays out, but there certainly is political bias in historical writing, as in much of everything else.
Previously mentioned books (book pages noted where available), new in paperback:
Adam Cohen: Nothing to Fear: FDR's Inner Circle and the Hundred Days That Created Modern America (2009; paperback, 2010, Penguin): Useful survey of FDR's famous first 100 days, how he worked out the kinks between his conservative inclinations and his liberal impulses. [book page]
Gregory Feifer: The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan (2009; paperback, 2010, Harper Perennial): Good basic history of the Russian occupation/war in Afghanistan. Among other things it shows that nothing much worked, but that they could hang on indefinitely if they could stand the stupidity of it all. Unlike us, they couldn't, so they left -- although it was Gorbachev who called that shot, not the military. [book page]
Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore: Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919-1950 (2008; paperback, 2009, WW Norton): A long, detailed history of the few white people who stood up for civil rights before it became fashionable among post-WWII liberals: communists, socialists, radicals. You might call them "premature antiracists" -- it's important to recognize them because they've always been the first people to stand up for human rights.
Nicholas Schmidle: To Lie or to Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan (2009, Henry Holt; paperback, 2010, Holt): A useful travelogue to Pakistan, going into some neighborhoods you'll be glad someone else went to, meeting some people you'll be glad someone else met, with some historical background. [book page]
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