Wednesday, September 22. 2010
Another batch of book notes. Last one was July 14, and I've accumulated quite a bit more than the forty I limit myself to for these posts, which means two things: these are somewhat select, and another similar post should be forthcoming rather soon.
I will note that I've read Andrew Bacevich's Washington Rules and Chalmers Johnson's Dismantling the Empire but haven't collected notes/quotes yet. Neither adds much to the authors' previous books -- Bacevich's is a new attempt at systematizing what he's learned, a more straightforward book than The Limits of Power, while Johnson's collects a bunch of his TomDispatch essays making it a good deal more scattered than his Blowback trilogy books. More later on both books.
I've also read Nicholas von Hoffman's book on Saul Alinsky (extensive notes linked), and have John Dower and David Harvey on my to-be-read shelf. Sooner or later I want to get to the Hacker/Pierson book. Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns looks like a major contribution to American history.
Andrew Bacevich: Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War (2010, Metropolitan Books): America's bestselling anti-militarism author, possibly because he set his roots down in the military, academia, and the conservative press before he turned against the perpetual war machine, but also because he's open to ideas from all over the map. Bush set such a low bar that Obama thinks he can play the same game and come out on top, a conceit that Bacevich is singularly skilled at debunking.
Alain Badiou: The Communist Hypothesis (2010, Verso): A manifesto for a new way following the self-destructions of soviet communism and neo-liberalism. Probably not the best PR strategy to package this as yet another communism, but it makes sense to me to project some sort of "third way" out of the current dead end ideologies. Badiou has a stack of books, most recently The Meaning of Sarkozy.
Mitchell Bard: The Arab Lobby: The Invisible Alliance That Undermines America's Interests in the Middle East (2010, Harper): Looks like Bard counted the pages in Walt and Mearsheimer's The Israel Lobby and kept writing until he topped them. Even if you agree that the point of Arab political influence in America is "weakening our alliance with a democratic Israel" you have to conclude that it hasn't been very effective and therefore isn't very significant. Perhaps it has been more effective at keeping the US from criticizing human rights issues in places like Saudi Arabia, but then we don't seem to care much about Israeli human rights violations either.
Richard Beeman: Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution (paperback, 2010, Random House): I never thought of them as being all that plain, but I suppose you can make that case. I still have a couple of Gordon S. Wood books to read on the subject, so they would take priority (especially The Radicalism of the American Revolution).
Ian Bremmer: The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations? (2010, Portfolio): This turns on the rise of "state capitalist" systems, ranging from state-controlled sovereign funds to the China juggernaut. Does seem to be the case that the states are gaining ground, but not clear what the problem with that is. That states are political? If that results in states directing their economies to service their people better, why is that such a bad thing? There are problems with either extreme, which is why most countries and regions move toward mixed systems. Personally, I would worry more about the corporations.
Will Bunch: The Backlash: Right-Wing Radicals, High-Def Hucksters, and Paranoid Politics in the Age of Obama (2010, Harper): Glenn Beck, the tea baggers, the birthers, hard to keep up with all the nonsense. Bunch wrote a pretty good book on Reagan, Tear Down This Myth: How the Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future, but his subject here may be too unconstrained to capture in a book just now -- although Beck, in particular, is provoking some backlash: Alexander Zaitchik: Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ingorance (2010, Wiley); Dana Milbank: Tears of a Clown: Glenn Beck and the Tea Bagging of America (2010, Doubleday).
Judith Butler: Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (2009; paperback, 2010, Verso): Something on what we do (and do not) experience as grievous in war, specifically the US War in Iraq where we meticulously count our own dead while casually sloughing off wild-ass guesstimates of those we kill, directly or otherwise.
David Callahan: Fortunes of Change: The Rise of the Liberal Rich and the Remaking of America (2010, Wiley): Argues that new money is more liberal than old money, which even if it's true adds up to a very small point. Rather, what I see happening is that to the extent that these nouveau riches lean Democratic -- and they make sure they never lean far enough to fall over -- they flatter the Democrats into the vain hope that the path to success is to appease the rich. How much change you get out of that is hard to project, mostly because it's so intangible. The rich liberals of FDR's day worked to moderate capitalism to stave off revolution, a fear that today's rich liberals don't have -- unless you count the resurgence of fascism, and there's certainly some threat there.
Matthew J Costello: Secret Identity Crisis: Comic Books and the Unmasking of Cold War America (paperback, 2009, Continuum): Of superhero comics and cold war metaphors, not least the relationship between radioactivity and mutation, which somehow emerges as a public good. The model changed somewhat in the 1960s, but then didn't it all change?
Richard Dawkins: The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution (2009; paperback, 2010, Free Press): Back to his roots, writing about something he knows about. I might wonder how cluttered with anti-creationist preaching would be now that he's gotten a taste for evangelical atheism, but the evidence is so compelling and so wondrous it should sell itself. On the other hand, many other books do the trick, like Jerry A Coyne: Why Evolution Is True (2009, Viking; paperback, 2010, Penguin), or the collected works of the late, much lamented Stephen Jay Gould.
John W Dower: Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9-11, Iraq (2010, WW Norton): A specialist on Japan during and after WWII -- his two books, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific and Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II offer extraordinary insights into the war and its aftermath -- extends his analysis past 9/11 and into Iraq. You may recall that before Bush invaded Iraq Dower wrote a prescient piece on how wrong the models of the US occupations of Germany and Japan were for the present day.
William R Freudenburg/Robert Gramling/Shirley Laska/Kai Erikson: Catastrophe in the Making: The Engineering of Katrina and the Disasters of Tomorrow (2009, Island Press): You may have noticed that the damages caused by natural disasters has risen in lock step with development in disaster-prone locales. If not, you will sooner or later, because we place few obstacles against such development.
Thomas Geoghegan: Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?: How the European Model Can Help You Get a Life (2010, New Press): Labor lawyer -- I read his memoir, Which Side Are You On? Trying to Be for Labor When It's Flat on Its Back when it came out in 1991; seemed like an accidental leftist at the time. Five books later, he's looking for a better way of living, and finding some answers in Europe, specifically in Germany.
Thomas Geoghegan: See You in Court: How the Right Made America a Lawsuit Nation (2007; paperback, 2009, New Press): Somewhat surprising given how much the right likes to rail on trial lawyers, but "tort reform" is just a mop-up action. The damage to ordinary people's right is forcing them into court, where the well heeled have all sorts of advantages. Not sure how well this holds up, but the basic idea seems well founded.
Jacob S Hacker/Paul Pierson: Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer -- and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class (2010, Simon & Schuster): A logical follow-up to Hacker's The Great Risk Shift: The Assault on American Jobs, Families, Health Care, and Retirement and How You Can Fight Back, looking if not so much for reasons at least for the mechanics behind the chasm of ever-greater inequality. The right is dedicated not just to making the rich richer but, perhaps more importantly, increasing the perceived value of being rich by making not being rich all the more dreadful. America's brief moment of middle class identity had just the opposite effect: it allowed workers the security to feel they were part and parcel of the nation. I used to think that middle-classness was just false consciousness -- and the fact that it surrendered to readily kind of proves the point -- but now that it's over it seems like a pleasantly naïve idea. Still, whenever I hear someone defending the middle class it sounds to me like a putdown of the working poor: the only way to save the middle class is to build up the working poor so they become it. Pierson has co-authored with Hacker before, on Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy.
David Harvey: The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism (2010, Oxford University Press): English Marxist, gives him a distinctive edge in sorting out the flows of capital at a time when the flow has been severely disrupted. Also wrote A Companion to Marx's Capital (paperback, 2010, Verso), based on forty-some years of teaching the book, its times, what it meant, what it might still mean today.
Michael Hiltzik: Colossus: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century (2010, Free Press): Although it's been told before, the building of Boulder Dam remains an amazing story: there's certainly no way now that anything as big can be built as fast and as cheaply as it was in the 1930s. This book explains how, and that should be interesting in its own right. How you get an American Century from that is yet something else.
Arianna Huffington: Third World America: How Our Politicians Are Abandoning the Middle Class and Betraying the American Dream (2010, Crown): I don't trust her, and I hate it when politicians like Obama whine on and on about what they're going to do for the middle class, but the basic thesis here is right. It's not so much that the present middle class is being attacked as that the basic economic relationships that made it possible working people to enjoy middle class comforts have been undermined and will keep getting torn down any chance the right gets. However, what is needed isn't aid to the present middle class but raising the floor under the working class to give them and their children and so forth new opportunities to grow.
Chalmers Johnson: Dismantling the Empire: America's Last Best Hope (2010, Metropolitan Books): Collection of essays from the past decade, mostly on the exorbitant costs of maintaining a global garrison that doesn't even work very well on its own terms. Can get redundant, especially compared to his more systematic trilogy: Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (2000; paperback, 2004, Holt); The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (2004, Metropolitan Books); and Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic (2007, Metropolitan Books).
Ann Jones: War Is Not Over When It's Over: Women and the Unseen Consequences of Conflict (2010, Metropolitan Books): Author has a couple of books on battered women, plus an old one recently reissued on the subset who strike back: Women Who Kill (1980; paperback, 2009, Feminist Press). Also a travel book in Africa and a memoir of NGO relief work in Afghanistan: Kabul in Winter: Life Without Peace in Afghanistan (paperback, 2007, Picador). The new book pulls all those threads together.
Laura Kalman: Right Star Rising: A New Politics, 1974-1980 (2010, WW Norton): Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan on the cover. Seems to have a low opinion of Carter, arguing that American voters rejected him personally rather than liberalism in general. Makes me wonder if that doesn't hit close to home with Obama, who like Carter came along at the end of an eight-year nightmare with a compromised agenda and a lot of poorly understood legacy problems.
Grady Klein/Yoram Bauman: The Cartoon Introduction to Economics: Volume One: Microeconomics (paperback, 2010, Hill and Wang): Introductory, although it offers an interesting, well-rounded range of topics -- probably good as a sanity check on what you do and do not understand. Amusing too, although Bauman doesn't have a lot of competition as a "stand-up economist."
Warren Kozak: LeMay: The Life and Wars of General Curtis LeMay (2009, Regnery): A war criminal, at least in his own mind, which relished the role and repeatedly courted disaster. Given the publisher, this is presumably a flattering right-wing paean, but LeMay was so blunt I doubt that you can slant him much.
Andrew F Krepinevich: 7 Deadly Scenarios: A Military Futurist Explores War in the 21st Century (2009, Bantam): One of the geniuses who keeps plotting new ways to get us into senseless wars. Imagines global pandemics, black-market nukes, a Pakistani collapse, civil unrest in China, "the consequences of a timed withdrawal from Iraq"; not sure what else. Wonder if he's thought about the Armageddon-addled Jesus freaks in the US Air Force Academy?
David Kupelian: How Evil Works: Understanding and Overcoming the Destructive Forces That Are Transforming America (2010, Threshold Editions): Previously wrote The Marketing of Evil: How Radicals, Elitists, and Pseudo-Experts Sell Us Corruption Disguised as Freedom. I'd be more intrigued if he replaced "radicals" with "conservatives" (or if I thought that was what he meant by "elitists"). The list of "profoundly troubling questions" he takes a whack at don't strike me as all that profound, like "why are boys doing worse in school today than girls?"
Dylan Loewe: Permanently Blue: How Democrats Can End the Republian Party and Rule the Next Generation (paperback, 2010, Three Rivers Press): Not sure what he's smoking. Long-term political power depends on two things: institutional support, which the Republicans have in spades because they do the bidding of people rich and mean enough to bounce back from a setback and keep fighting even when their positions make them look stupid; and competency, a big problem for Republicans once they get into power. The Democrats don't have the former -- they don't even take their unions seriously -- and they haven't exactly mastered the latter. So how's this supposed to work?
Mark Mazower: No Enchanted Palace: The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations (2009, Princeton University Press): One of several new books on the founding of the UN. The idealism behind the UN is frequently touted, but one wonders about the range of thought going into it.
Markos Moulitsas: American Taliban: How War, Sex, Sin, and Power Bind Jihadists and the Radical Right (paperback, 2010, Polipoint Press): Easy to see the temptation, but strikes me that comparing the new right-wing fringe to the Taliban is going to result in some sort of cognitive mishmash that in the end won't do anyone any good.
Michael O'Brien: Rethinking Kennedy: An Interpretive Biography (2009, Ivan R Dee): Author previously wrote the 992 pp John F Kennedy: A Biography, which provides ample background for framing this rethinking. Where you wind up depends on where you start. I've long tended to view Kennedy as a Cold War monster, which may be too harsh, although he certainly had plenty on his staff.
William Pfaff: The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America's Foreign Policy (2010, Walker): Foreign policy expert, works for International Herald Tribune, which tends to keep him grounded in reality. I picked up his Barbarian Sentiments: America in the New Century, written in 1989 and reissued with a new afterword in 2000, immediately after 9/11; found the afterword to be an elegant and perceptive take on America's perch in the world, but thought the old material was hopelessly dated, the work of an unvarnished cold warrior. That he views US foreign policy as tragic credits better intentions than I have noticed.
Jonathan Schneer: The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict (2010, Random House): Picks over the letter Lord Balfour addressed to Rothschild proposing Palestine as a Jewish Homeland, one of many strange presumptions Britain made during WWI, the intrigues in London scarcely tethered to the reality they wound up confounding.
Robin Shepherd: A State Beyond the Pale: Europe's Problem With Israel (2009, Orion): Strikes me as a self-hating European, arguing that his "bed-wetting generation" has lost their way compared to the Europeans of yore precisely because they've given up on the principles that still thrive in Israel: you know, racism, militarism, colonialism, the preening celebration of democracy built on the subjugation of others. Moreover, he argues that Europe's failure to embrace Israel is its own death-wish, as Europe is progressively swallowed up by immigrant Islamist hordes. Funny thing is, when I read the title I imagined a quite different book.
Lauren Rebecca Sklaroff: Black Culture and the New Deal: The Quest for Civil Rights in the Roosevelt Era (2009, University of North Carolina Press): Roosevelt's record on civil rights should be seen as disgraceful, although his general thrust toward greater economic equality did materially bring us closer to a viable civil rights movement. Not sure how much of that this book covers, but it does focus on Federal Arts Projects at a time when blacks increasingly distinguished themselves in the arts -- Duke Ellington and Richard Wright being well known examples.
Baylis Thomas: The Dark Side of Zionism: The Quest for Security Through Dominance (2010, Lexington Books): Another concise history of the Zionist takeover of Palestine -- author previously wrote How Israel Was Won: A Concise History of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.
Nick Turse, ed: The Case for Withdrawal From Afghanistan (paperback, 2010, Verso): Essays by Andrew Bacevich, Anand Gopal, Chalmer Johnson, Ann Jones, Mike Davis, Dahr Jamal, not sure who else; basically a spinoff from TomDispatch, where Tom Engelhardt and guests have been writing about Afghanistan, Iraq, and the folly of empire ever since Bush got his gun on.
Justin Vaïsse: Neoconservatism: The Biography of a Movement (2010, Harvard University Press): I suppose there are technical differences between the Neocons as an intellectual movement and Bush's War Cabinet, but that's mostly because theories look sweeter before they are tested by reality.
Ed Viesturs/David Roberts: K2: Life and Death on the World's Most Dangerous Mountain (2009, Broadway): I've read quite a few mountaineering books, partly because Galen Rowell, who introduced me to K2 in In the Throne Room of the Mountain Gods, and Jon Krakauer have turned out to be such striking writers. (I didn't know that Rowell died in a plane crash in 2002. His photography books are extraordinary: I haven't seen A Retrospective, but can plug Mountains of the Middle Kingdom, Galen Rowell's Vision, and Mountain Light.) Viesturs is one of the big names in mountain climbing, and K2 is nearly as high as Everest and a lot harder to get to, up, and down.
Nicholas von Hoffman: Radical: A Portrait of Saul Alinsky (2010, Nation Books): Turns out the author, whose 2004 Iraq War book Hoax: Why Americans Are Suckered by White House Lies was uncommonly smart, spent a good chunk of his life working as an organizer for the community organizing guru -- he brags that he was hired on the same day as Cesar Chavez -- and remained a good friend and confidante until Alinsky's death. Part memoir, part manifesto. [link]
William Wiker: 10 Books Every Conservative Must Read (2010, Regnery): Aristotle's Politics; GK Chesterton: Orthodoxy; Eric Voegelin: The New Science of Politics; CS Lewis: The Abolution of Man; Edmund Burke: Reflections on the Revolution in France; Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy in America; The Federalist Papers; The Anti-Federalists; Hilaire Belloc: The Servile State; FA Hayek: The Road to Serfdom. Also likes Shakespeare (The Tempest), Austen (Sense and Sensibility), Tolkien (Lord of the Rings), and The Jerusalem Bible, but not Atlas Shrugged. Author previously wrote 10 Books That Screwed Up the World: And 5 Others That Didn't Help (2008, Regnery), where he tried to distance himself from such traditional right-wing faves as Leviathan and Mein Kampf, as well as work out his heebie-jeebies over Margaret Mead and Alfred Kinsey.
Isabel Wilkerson: The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration (2010, Random House): Massive (640 pp) history of the black exodus from the Jim Crow South north and/or west. Not a feel-good story on either end, but an essential chronicle of the formation of modern America.
Previously mentioned books (book pages noted where available), new in paperback:
Mahmoud Mamdani: Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror (2009; paperback, 2010, Doubleday): A critical look at the poorly understood, frantically politicized violence in Darfur, the northwest corner of Sudan. Mamdani wrote one of the smartest books around about the war on terror: Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror, and has also written on the genocide in Rwanda. Probably the one book to read on Darfur -- the only reason I didn't jump all over it was that I had previously read Gérard Prunier: Darfur: A 21st Century Genocide which I figured covered all I really needed to know.
TR Reid: The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care (2009; paperback, 2010, Penguin Press): A quick trip around the world, finding that damn near every even moderately developed country manages to provide better healthcare cheaper than the US does -- mainland China seems to be the exception, although Taiwan's system is covered in some detail, partly because it is a relatively recent success story. Turns out that it matters little whether healthcare providers are private or public, but it makes all the difference in the world whether they are profit-seeking. [link]
Robert Scheer: The Great American Stickup: How Reagan Republicans and Clinton Democrats Enriched Wall Street While Mugging Main Street (paperback, 2010, Nation Books): I mentioned this before publication date back when I wrote up a lengthy survey of banking crisis books, but it finally came out on Sept. 7, and with a new subtitle, more specific than Greedy Bankers and the Politicians Who Loved Them. The callout on Clinton is significant: in the book he refers to the whole explosion of CDOs as the "Clinton bubble" -- an emphasis that doesn't let Obama off the hook, even though it may leave Bush feeling shorted.
Andrew Ross Sorkin: Too Big to Fail: The Inside Story of How Wall Street Fought to Save the Financial System -- and Themselves (2009, Viking; paperback, 2010, Penguin): One of the first books out the gate on the 2007-08 banking crisis, short on explanation but long on details -- a good reporter with a lot of inside contacts mostly because he buys into Wall Street's worldview. Some updates. Some other first wave books are getting second lives in paperback: William D Cohan: House of Cards: A Tale of Hubris and Wretched Excess on Wall Street (2009, Doubleday; paperback, 2010, Anchor); Barry Ritholtz: Bailout Nation: How Greed and Easy Money Corrupted Wall Street and Shook the World's Economy (2009; paperback, 2010, Wiley); Gillian Tett: Fool's Gold: How the Bold Dream of a Small Tribe at J.P. Morgan Was Corrupted by Wall Street Greed and Unleashed a Catastrophe (2009; paperback, 2010, Free Press); David Wessel: In Fed We Trust: Ben Bernanke's War on the Great Panic (2009; paperback, 2010, Crown Business). All those listed are widely regarded as fine books, so the main question is how much you can stomach. Given the quantity and quality of reporting on what kicked off this huge recession, it's a tribute to the blinders of self-interest that so many people remain so ignorant.
Notes on all the past books in this series are collected here (warning: big file).
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