Thursday, February 9. 2012
Another installment of recent book notes. Seemed like it had been a while, and indeed it has: last set ran on November 26, so this is probably the longest gap I've had in years. The problem is probably that I don't get out to bookstores as often as I used to, but then it's harder when the four big chain bookstores in Wichita we had last year have now been reduced to one -- and not a very good one at that. In fact, when I looked at my scratch file, I didn't even have the requisite 40 titles saved up, so I had to spend a few days scrambling through Amazon's recommendations. And while I'm in a complaining mood, I'm suspicious that their algorithms have gone south too -- especially when they make Charles Murray my number four (reportedly because I purchased Corey Robin's critique of The Reactionary Mind).
I need to do further research, but here's a start for the new year.
Bruce Bartlett: The Benefit and the Burden: Tax Reform, Why We Need it and What It Will Take (2012, Simon & Schuster): Conservative ideologue, has somehow nudged himself into a position of relative sanity through a series of books that tried to argue that conservatives were actually nice guys, not racists, and concerned with everyone's economic well-being -- despite much evidence that real conservatives are anything but. This book is probably useful in sorting out who pays what taxes and how the US systems compares to others, and isn't knee-jerk anti-tax, but he has long had a supply-side bias.
Morris Berman: Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline (2011, Wiley): Not sure that's a bad thing, just as I'm not sure the Roman Empire was a good thing. I did read Berman's previous Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire (but not his The Twilight of American Culture) so I get the idea of cultural rot, and there is certainly a lot of that around.
Rodric Braithwaite: Afghantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89 (2011, Oxford University Press): Not the first book on the Russian war in Afghanistan, but the more the US occupation resembles the Soviet one, the more relevant they become. The early accounts assumed the US would do so much better, but here we are with "the most nuanced, sympathetic, and comprehensive account yet of the Soviet experience in Afghanistan" (says Rory Stewart).
Paula Broadwell/Vernon Loeb: All In: The Education of General David Petraeus (2012, Penguin): Like Michael Hastings, Broadwell was an embedded journalist attached to the general running Afghanistan, although she has been much better behaved, or maybe Petraeus is just better at snookering the press. Petraeus is about the only person who came up through the Bush wars and managed to look like a winner -- an iconic image I'm sure he's at pains to burnish here.
Jeffrey D Clements: Corporations Are Not People: Why They Have More Rights Than You Do and What You Can Do About It (paperback, 2012, Bennett-Koehler): An issue on the front burner thanks to the Supreme Court decision to allow corporations to buy elections with unlimited money, based on yet another dubious idea that constitutional protection of free speech gives individuals the right to buy elections. Related: Thom Hartmann: Unequal Protection: How Corporations Became "People" -- and How You Can Fight Back (paperback, 2nd ed, 2010, Bennett-Koehler).
Sherar Cowper-Coles: Cables From Kabul: The Inside Story of the West's Afghanistan Campaign (2011, Harper Collins): By the former British ambassador to Afghanistan, which makes him complicit in a war he had no real control over, which puts him in a fine position to blame everyone else -- assuming, of course, he realizes there was anything to blame anyone for.
Bruce Bueno de Mesquita/Alastair Smith: The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics (2011, PublicAffairs): A really modern Prince, the dictators in question evidently not just the usual suspects but including a few Americans who have made a good living acting badly -- Amazon has a long comment on Robert Rizzo, a city manager in CA. Also makes clear that even the most flamboyant dictator depends on a fragile network of support, something useful to keep in mind as regimes like Egypt, Libya, and Syria break up.
Anthony DiMaggio: The Rise of the Tea Party: Political Discontent and Corporate Media in the Age of Obama (paperback, 2011, Monthly Review Press): Seems right here to focus on the media. Previously wrote Mass Media, Mass Propaganda: Examining American News in the "War on Terror", and co-wrote, with Paul Street, Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (paperback, 2011, Paradigm).
Thomas Byrne Edsall: The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics (2012, Doubleday): Author has written several useful books on the rise of the right, but he does have a tendency to be taken in by arguments he should be more skeptical of. There is a real scarcity problem creeping up in the future, and there's also a manufactured one, and we can use someone smarter than Edsall to sort them out. (Actually, I haven't yet read his suggestive early books, 1989's The New Politics of Inequality, and 1992's Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics, but probably should.)
Barry Estabrook: Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit (2011, Andrews McMeel): Lots of people -- my mother was one -- complain about industrialized tomatoes. Never bothered me that much, but I was never much of a tomato fan. Still, I am always intrigued by the industrial manipulation of agriculture, and this is certainly a case example.
Robin Fleming: Britain After Rome: The Fall and Rise 400 to 1070 (2011, Penguin): Volume 2 of a Penguin History of Britain series, filling the gap between David Mattingly: An Imperial Possession: Britain in the Roman Empire, 54BC-AD 409 and David Carpenter: The Struggle for Mastery 1066-1284, both already out in paperback.
Robert H Frank: The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good (2011, Princeton University Press): Promotes Darwin as an economic thinker, contrasting him to Adam Smith. Hopefully this doesn't fall into the trap of 19th century Social Darwinism -- much depends on what he does with reference go "the common good" in the title.
William H Gass: Life Sentences: Literary Judgments and Accounts (2012, Knopf): Scattered literary essays by the philosopher-aesthete. I took a course from him once and came to regard him as an intellectual fraud, but he can turn a delicious phrase when he has a mind to.
Ronald J Glasser: Broken Bodies Shattered Minds: A Medical Odyssey From Vietnam to Afghanistan (paperback, 2011, History Publishing): Forty years of war, written by a doctor whose 365 Days is considered a classic on Vietnam, updated for Iraq and Afghanistan, which mostly means IEDs.
Michael Grabell: Money Well Spent? The Truth Behind the Trillion-Dollar Stimulus, the Biggest Economic Recovery Plan in History (2012, PublicAffairs): I don't know about you, but I always have trouble believing any book that offers "Truth" in its title. This one's about the Obama stimulus program, which he inflates from $700 billion to $1 trillion, then attempts to dissect. As I understand it, his conclusion is that it didn't work as well as it should have less because it was too small -- which it was -- than because it was poorly designed -- which is also, uh, true.
Jonathan Gruber: Health Care Reform: What It Is, Why It's Necessary, How It Works (paperback, 2011, Hill & Wang): Short book, illustrated, tries to walk through and explain the ins and outs of the Affordable Care Act. Someone complained that this is Obama's propaganda disguised as information. Hmm, information -- don't have much of that to go on.
Max Hastings: Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945 (2011, Knopf): The author is knocking out huge WWII books at a furious clip, with this 729 pp. one following Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-1945 and Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45, plus Winston's War: Churchill 1940-1945, almost as if this is the Reader's Digest edition. Meanwhile, one of his chief competitors, Ian Kershaw, has rewritten the Germany book as The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1944-1945 (2011, Penguin Press).
Michael Hastings: The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America's War in Afghanistan (2012, Blue Rider Press): Author interviewed Gen. Stanley McChrystal, supreme commander of US forces in Afghanistan, who made such an ass of himself he was sacked when the interview came out. Here, Hastings soldiers on, mopping up the rest of the US brass, their arguments over swank concepts that go nowhere on the ground.
Tony Judt/Timothy Snyder: Thinking the Twentieth Century (2012, Oxford University Press): Conversations between two historians, the senior Judt struck with ALS and filled with memories as well as expertise -- his Postwar itself covers a big part of the 20th century (Europe from 1945 to 2000). Looks like this rehashes a lot of subjects that came up in Judt's post-illness books. Billed as his last, this may be one to savor.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party From Eisenhower to the Tea Party (2012, Oxford University Press): Seems to be a history of the extinct moderate (and in some cases flat-out liberal) wing of the Republican Party, especially since the rise of Goldwater and Reagan threw them into disarray.
Michael Kranish/Scott Helman: The Real Romney (2012, Harper): I guess there is a real one, but that strikes me as a scary concept. Surprisingly few books about Romney at this point, given his prominence, but thus far there's this and a 2011 paperback by RB Scott: Mitt Romney: An Inside Look at the Man and His Politics -- well, also a few paranoid books on his Mormonism. Isn't the free market supposed to fix this dearth? Or is interest so low we have to say the market has cleared?
Frank Ledwidge: Losing Small Wars: British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan (2011, Yale University Press): Unlike the truly token efforts of so many "coalition partners," the British chewed off a large enough chunk of these wars to fail on their own terms. That hasn't been widely reported, nor deeply analyzed, but I gather from this the failure was utter.
Rachel Maddow: Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power (2012, Crown): Some sort of critique of the American military: overfunded, underregulated, possessing its own lobbying force allowing it to set direction relatively free of political concerns. Picturing this as simple "drift" seems too passive, as is the idea that correcting the "unmooring" solves the problem.
Suzanne Mettler: The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy (paperback, 2011, University of Chicago Press): Argues that one reason so many people are so confused about how government works is that policies and programs are often designed to be opaque, either to favor special interests or to undermine more general ones. She also wrote Dividing Citizens: Gender and Federalism in New Deal Public Policy, and Soldiers to Citizens: The G.I. Bill and the Making of the Greatest Generation.
Michael Moore: Here Comes Trouble: Stories From My Life (2011, Grand Central Publishing): Memoir, focusing on vignettes rather than trying to connect the dots.
Charles Murray: Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (2012, Crown Forum): The last major racist in US social science, evidently starting to worry that white people are divided into rich and poor, and that this might threaten their racial solidarity against you know who. There is, of course, a problem at the root of this, but the only solution you get from racial solidarity is a state like Mississippi, which is no solution at all.
James Palmer: Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes: The Tangshan Earthquake and the Death of Mao's China (2012, Basic Books): As Mao lay dying, the 1976 earthquake destroyed Tangshan, killing upwards of 500,000 people. Interesting to juxtapose those events, but we've seen from Katrina that nothing exposes the decrepitude of an inept, ideologically-bound regime like a natural disaster.
Trita Parsi: A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama's Diplomacy with Iran (2012, Yale University Press): Author of the essential history of Israel and Iran, Teacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States, brings the story up to date. Same story, too, with Israel fabricating complaints about Iran's nuclear program and trying to goad the US into launching an utterly stupid war. What's new was how easily Obama was suckered into such a course.
William Patry: How to Fix Copyright (2012, Oxford University Press): Senior copyright counsel at Google, which gives him a unique view, which may or may not be a good thing. Copyright as we know it both fails to provide adequate remuneration for those who produce unique works of art, fails to provide for fair use of those works, and fails to allow for economical distribution, so one should be able to do much better. But companies like Google could also do even worse, and practical change seems to be under the thumb of companies one way or another. Also see: Patricia Aufderheide: Reclaiming Fair Use: How to Put the Balance Back in Copyright (paperback, 2011, University of Chicago Press); Marcus Boon: In Praise of Copying (2010, Harvard University Press); Lewis Hyde: Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership (2010; paperback, 2011, Farrar Straus & Giroux).
Dana Priest/William Arkin: Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State (2011, Little Brown): And I thought the Old American Security State was scandalous. This one has "over 1,300 government facilities in every state in America; nearly 2,000 outside companies used as contractors; and more than 850,000 people granted 'Top Secret' security clearance."
Andrew Ross: Bird on Fire: Lessons From the World's Least Sustainable City (2011, Oxford University Press): Phoenix, Arizona; talk about sprawl. I have three cousins there: two live 40 miles apart, the third lives 70 miles from either of them. The city is in a desert, and its main water source isn't called the Salt River for nothing. And there's much more, much of it thanks to the right-wing political system. Also see: William Debuys: A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest (2011, Oxford University Press).
Douglas Rushkoff: Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age (paperback, 2011, Soft Skull Press): Interesting thinker who's managed to win awards named for Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman -- I first ran across his Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism which argues that the proper end point of Judaism is to wean people from belief in God -- tries to sort out the pluses and minuses of living through the internet.
Theda Skocpol/Vanessa Williamson: The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism (2012, Oxford University Press): Probably one of the better surveys of the Tea Party outburst that gave right-wing media hacks so much to talk about during Obama's early presidency. I've read several books about it, but have yet to read a good account of who put up the money and greased the media. On the other hand, I've read plenty of interviews with nitwits.
Jonathan Steele: Ghosts of Afghanistan: The Haunted Battleground (2011, Counterpoint): Billed as "the first account of Afghanistan's turbulent recent history by an independent eyewitness"; not sure about that, but Steele's book on Iraq was called Defeat: Why American and Britain Lost Iraq, so he's not one to readily swallow the latest spin. He's covered Afghanistan since 1981, so he easily sees the echoes between Russian and American tactics, and expects the same futility. There's also Edward Girardet: Killing the Cranes: A Reporter's Journey Through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan (2011, Chelsea Green), by another longtime journalist, also familiar with the Russian experience -- in fact, he wrote a book called Afghanistan: The Soviet War.
Rory Stewart/Gerald Knaus: Can Intervention Work? (2011, WW Norton): They mean, can global reaching imperial powers, specifically the US and UK, invade third world countries, install crony leaders, back them with military clout, interface with them using smarter-than-average diplomats like the authors, and claim any sort of success? Well, if you're willing to count Yugoslavia as a success, maybe, but that's harder to say for someplace like Afghanistan. Stewart has been an eloquent critic of US/UK policy in Afghanistan, but while he ultimately pulls his punches with the suggestion that smarter people, like himself, would have done better. Still, those smarter people, sensitive to the history and mores of regions, aren't the ones who invade and occupy, and their arguments that intervention can work quickly lose their conditions and provisos when adopted by the people who do, which implicitly makes them complicit in the disasters they rationalize.
Philip Taubman: The Partnership: Five Cold Warriors and Their Quest to Ban the Bomb (2012, Harper): In case you're wondering: Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, Sam Nunn, William Perry, and Sidney Drell. I don't quite get it, but then they haven't been all that effective, even if that was their intent.
John Tirman: The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America's Wars (2011, Oxford University Press): How many civilians have American troops killed, or less directly caused to die, in America's foreign wars? Between 5 and 6 million in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq alone -- the ambiguity in the answer, vs. the precision with which we could US deaths, starts to suggest our nonchalance about the subject.
Bryan Glyn Williams: Afghanistan Declassified: A Guide to American's Longest War (2011, University of Pennsylvania Press): Originally published by US Army "to provide an overview of the country's terrain, ethnic groups, and history for American troops," and "updated and expanded for the general public." Don't know whether that makes this propaganda -- probably some of that, but sounds to me like a tombstone.
Robin Wright, ed: The Iran Primer: Power, Politics, and US Policy (paperback, 2010, United States Institute of Peace Press): Fifty papers ("top-level briefings") on all aspects of Iran and its foreign relations, including pieces by such US insiders as Gary Sick, Richard Haas, Bruce Riedel, and Stephen Hadley. Looks like a lot of information, dry and succinct, on a topic where discussion is dominated by a lot of very ignorant people.
Daniel Yergin: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World (2011, Penguin Press): Wrote the standard history of the pre-OPEC oil era, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power. Since then he's mostly worked for the industry, shilling as a consultant, railing against the peak oil theory. Big book (804 pp.), probably a lot of useful history, just don't trust the guy any more.
I'll do a section on paperbacks next time. Don't really have it together right now.
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