Friday, March 14. 2008
I spent the better part of an evening, first in the library, then in a bookstore, jotting down a couple lists of books that struck me as worth reading, or at least skimming through, if one had anything near enough time to do so. I generally avoided writing down books that I've put on previous lists like this, as well as ones that I've actually read or bought with the intent of reading. I might as well combine the lists, sorted alphabetically by author. Basically just an exercise to keep track of what's out there.
Matt Bai: The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics (2007, Penguin Press): Could be that this is just a pissy attack on web-oriented Democratic Party activists, in which case it's not an argument I much care to get into -- I'm more concerned with what's wrong in the real world than I am about nitpicking people trying to change it. [Paperback July 29]
Nicholson Baker: Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization (2008, Simon & Schuster): Long (576 pages) series of short chronological vignettes -- news items, I guess, but only if we had a much smarter media than we do now or then. Few subjects have been distorted by self-serving myth as the origins of WWII. This looks to be an antidote to most of them, and if it creates a case for pacifism, so much the better. Possibly the most intriguing book I found this trip.
Donald T. Critchlow: The Conservative Ascendancy: How the GOP Right Made Political History (2007, Harvard University Press): General history of US right from early post-WWII. Checked this out from library and started reading it, so you'll hear more.
Larry Diamond: The Spirit of Democracy: The Struggle to Build Free Societies Throughout the World (2008, Times Books): Sort of a globetrotting grade card on democracy metrics everywhere. Diamond wrote an Iraq insider book, Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq, so you might say he's learned his subject the hard way. If, indeed, he's learned it.
Robert Draper: Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush (2007, Free Press): One more political biography; seems likely to have some insights, not that we need them any more. [Paperback March 25]
Charles Enderlin: The Lost Years: Radical Islam, Intifada, and Wars in the Middle East, 2001-2006 (2007, Other Press): Follows up on Enderlin's Shattered Dreams: The Failure of the Peace Process in the Middle East, 1995-2002, the first clear book on what went wrong at Camp David. Plenty more has gone wrong since.
Drew Gilpin Faust: This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (2008, Knopf): An account of the US Civil War that focuses on the staggering destruction of the war.
David Gelernter: Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion (2007, Doubleday): Looks like a horrifying piece of patriotic onanism, but the very conceit -- not least the idea that America was the original Zionist chosen land -- clarifies an attitude that is otherwise hard to fathom. American imperialism makes so much more sense when you realize that we believe that the rest of the world is just yearning to worship us.
Barry Glassner: The Gospel of Food: Why We Should Stop Worrying and Enjoy What We Eat (paperback, 2007, Harper Perennial): Saw this right next to Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto -- don't know how redundant they are. I have Glassner's previous book on the shelf but never got around to it: The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things.
Jack Goldsmith: The Terror Presidency: Law and Judgment Inside the Bush Administration (2007, WW Norton): Cover photos: Cheney, Bush, Gonzales. Insider account: Goldsmith worked in DOJ's Office of Legal Counsel until he quit in disgust. You know what they were up to.
Martin Goodman: Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations (2007, Knopf): First century CE conflicts and revolts, a subject I only have a rough outline for. Got rather mixed reviews, and is long (624 pages).
David Halberstam: The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War (2007, Hyperion): Major work on Korean War, possibly also on early phase of Cold War. Reportedly focuses heavily on MacArthur while missing other aspects of the war.
Fred Halliday: 100 Myths About the Middle East (paperback, 2005, University of California Press): Copy in store was shrinkwrapped, so I couldn't peer inside. Halliday writes for New Left Review. Looks like basic remedial education.
Chris Hedges: I Don't Believe in Atheists (2008, Free Press): A short attack on Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, possibly others. Before he became a war journalist, Hedges did time in a seminary, and he still hasn't gotten over it. I've read three of his books, including Losing Moses on the Freeway: The 10 Commands in America, which is most pointedly a book of his sense of religion. He hasn't improved my opinion of God, but I do have a lot of respect for Chris Hedges.
Jacob Heilbrunn: They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons (2008, Doubleday): Covers similar ground to James Mann's Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet, which I've read, but probably concentrates more on the ideologues, bench jockeys and backseat drivers.
Edward Humes: Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion, and the Battle for America's Soul (paperback, 2008, Harper Perennial): On the political struggle over intelligent design vs. evolution, especially the Dover, PA case, although there's also quite a bit on Kansas here.
Susan Jacoby: The Age of American Unreason (2008, Pantheon): Hard to tell how good or bad this is, since the old saw of dumb people getting dumber has long been a standard rant of the highbrow cultural right. On the other hand, there is something to write about. Inspired by Richard Hofstadter, which I take to be a good sign. Previously wrote Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, which is probably interesting.
Bill James: The Bill James Gold Mine 2008 (2008, ACTA): I'm far removed from the days when I knew everything there was to know about baseball, in large part because I read everything Bill James ever wrote. He hasn't written that much lately, which may be part of my problem. Spent some time with the book. Quizzed myself on how many players per team I had even heard of (Arizona: 0; Atlanta: 3; Baltimore: 0; don't recall the others, but I think Boston was 5 and the Yankees 8). A lot of bare tables and trivial comparisons; a few short essays. Not sure if it's worthwhile, even for sentimental reasons.
Derrick Jensen: Endgame, Vol. 1: The Problem of Civilization (paperback, 2006, Seven Stories Press): A fairly encyclopedic doomsday book. Intriguing inasmuch as I think a lot of the things he digs up are indeed serious problems, but it's also possible that he's a crackpot. Has a lot of books in a short time, including a Vol. 2 where he gets activist, and a graphic book called As the World Burns: 50 Things You Can Do to Stay in Denial.
David Cay Johnston: Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and Stick You with the Bill) (2007, Portfolio): Well, sure. Johnston also wrote Perfectly Legal: The Covert Campaign to Rig Our Tax System to Benefit the Super Rich -- and Cheat Everybody Else, out in paperback. I can't get excited about these books, although they may well be eye-opening for some people. Reminds me of a short book by Dean Baker: The Conservative Nanny State: How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer.
Robert D Kaplan: Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts: The American Military in the Air, at Sea, and on the Ground (2007, Random House): Sequel to Imperial Grunts, where the militarism became de trop for me, even though I've read virtually everything else he's written. Good writer, useful historian and observer (although I've seen Tom Bissell shred him on specifics), dangerously defective thinker.
Parag Khanna: The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order (2008, Random House): One of those books about which nations/regions are growing, which are likely to be global powers, pushing which others around, etc. Its value (if any) is in the details.
Naomi Klein: The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007, Metropolitan Books): Seems to be a major effort at summing up what globalized capitalism is doing. Something turns me away from her: haven't read any of her books, not sure I've even managed to finish one of her Nation columns. Strong activism, weak economics. Probably a lot of research here worth knowing. The notion that capitalism depends on disaster doesn't make any sense to me, although there are plenty of examples of capitalism leading to disaster.
Philippe Legrain: Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them (2007, Princeton University Press): English economist, makes the case for free labor markets, clearly out of step with the US right although not necessarily with the GOP money people. Previously wrote Open World: The Truth About Globalization, about as trustworthy as any other book with "truth" in the title.
Norman Mailer: On God: An Uncommon Conversation (2007, Random House): With Michael Lennon, presumably asking the questions Mailer responds to. Poked through this a bit and found it idiosyncratic and interesting. I read quite a bit of his stuff long ago -- mostly but not quite all nonfiction -- but it's been a long while.
Geert Mak: In Europe: Travels Through the Twentieth Century (2007, Pantheon): Big (896 pages) survey of European cities, filling in historical background.
Howard Mandel: Miles, Ornette, Cecil: Jazz Beyond Jazz (2008. Routledge): Davis, Coleman, Taylor; important musicians, an interesting sequence in that they substantially overlap but peeled off on different tangents. More interested in Taylor, personally, although he's the odd player out in one regard: the only one of the three not to experiment in fusion.
Mark Matthews: Lost Years: Bush, Sharon and Failure in the Middle East (2007, Nation Books): Covers much the same ground as Charles Enderlin's The Lost Years. (Looks like the book got cut out. Amazon has it for $5.99.)
Greg Mitchell: So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits -- and the President -- Failed in Iraq (paperback, 2008, Union Square Press): Editor of Editor & Publisher, writes a good blog called Pressing Issues. You know the basic story. This just sorts the details out in good form for reference.
Charles R Morris: The Trillion Dollar Meltdown: Easy Money, High Rollers, and the Great Credit Crash (2008, Public Affairs): It's the economy, stupid.
Cullen Murphy: Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America (2007, Houghton Mifflin): Comparisons, seems like a stretch to me, but I could stand to learn more about Rome. [Paperback May 5]
Grover G Norquist: Leave Us Alone: Getting the Government's Hands Off Our Money, Our Guns, Our Lives (2008, William Morrow): Normally I wouldn't bother with a book by a right-wing ideologue, much less a political power broker, but rumor has it he's the guy who pulls all the vast right-wing conspiracy strings.
William R Polk: Violent Politics: A History of Insurgency, Terrorism, and Guerrilla War, from the American Revolution to Iraq (2007, Harper): About ten case studies of insurgencies over more than two centuries: Spain against Napoleon, Philippines, Ireland, Yugoslavia in WWII, Greece after WWII, Kenya, Algeria, Vietnam, Afghanistan. Lessons should be obvious. Checked this out from library, but not sure if I'll have time to get to it.
Michael Pollan: In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto (2008, Penguin Press): I waited for The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals to come out in paperback, and will probably do the same thing here. It seems unlikely that he has much more to add, but it would make sense to organize what he's learned into a tighter and more coherent argument, and that's what I imagine he's done here.
Samantha Power: Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World (2008, Penguin Press): Read the New Yorker excerpt focusing on Iraq, which had a lot of good stuff in it. Much bigger book (640 pages), probably a lot more perspective on what's good and bad about the UN. Couldn't bring myself to buy her previous book, The Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide -- mostly because I suspect she thought the US should have intervened in Rwanda. I don't think the US is sane enough to intervene anywhere. In fact, I think the US is so insane with guns it's reckless to suggest otherwise.
Robert B Reich: Supercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy, and Everyday Life (2007, Knopf): I imagine that this is a smarter version of Thomas Friedman's The World Is Flat, but it could be something else. He has written thought-provoking books in the past, but most of the thoughts he provokes are in opposition. I didn't bother with his previous book, Reason: Why Liberals Will Win the Battle for America, or its predecessor, The Future of Success: Working and Living in the New Economy. A common denominator to his books is his idiot belief that no matter how wrenching the changes caused by capitalism it will all work out for the better in the end. I'm still looking for one of those high paying jobs he promised NAFTA would lead to. As far as I can tell, he's the only one who got one.
Arnold Relman: A Second Opinion: Rescuing America's Health Care (2007, Public Affairs): One of many books on how to resolve the health care mess. Probably one of the better ones -- several others I didn't bother to jot down. Advocates single payer, argues that the rush to commercialize medicine harms physicians and patients. (I notice that Jonathan Cohn's Sick: The Untold Story of America's Health Care Crisis -- and the People Who Pay the Price will be in paperback May 5.)
Marc Sageman: Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century (2007, University of Pennsylvania Press): Short (176 pages) essay. As I understand it, his thesis is not just that the Al Qaeda jihad has broken up into numerous, even if like-minded, small groups, but that jihadi terrorism is likely to be self-terminating as its followers, for various reasons, become dissatisfied with violent tactics. Sageman also edited the much longer Unmasking Terror: A Global Review of Terrorist Activities.
Charlie Savage: Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy (2007, Little Brown): Didn't initially write this down, but I saw copies both in library and book store. Maybe I'm jaded: all this "end of democracy" stuff makes me ask, "you think this is new?" Maybe there are too many Savages writing these days. This one won a Pulitzer for stories about Bush's signing statements. Something new there, after all. [Paperback April 11]
Jonathan Schell: The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger (2007, Metropolitan Books): On the threat of nuclear war, still present, still a spectre.
Philip Shenon: The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation (2008, Twelve): Seems pretty innocuous, but evidently there's still plenty of dirt under the surface.
Michael Scheuer: Marching Toward Hell: America and Islam After Iraq (2008, Free Press). I liked him better when he was Anonymous, trying to make the CIA look smarter than they are. No idea how this balances out, but there are other people who are smarter, not to mention saner, on terrorism.
Peter Silver: Our Savage Neighbors: How Indian War Transformed Early America (2007, WW Norton): One thesis is that Indian-hating was a unifying force among immigrants.
Barbara Slavin: Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US, and the Twisted Path to Confrontation (2007, St Martin's Press): Probably useful, but a second choice after Trita Parsi's Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States, which I've read.
Jonathan Steele: Defeat: Why America and Britain Lost Iraq (2008, Counterpoint): British author. Most books on the subject act like Bush and the Americans lost Iraq all on their own.
Joseph E Stiglitz/Linda J Bilmes: The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict (2008, WW Norton): Read much of this in the early reports, although the numbers keep going up and up. I still doubt that they've counted them all.
John B Taylor: Global Financial Warriors: The Untold Story of International Finance in the Post-9/11 World (paperback, 2008, WW Norton): Insider account. Taylor was Under Secretary of Treasury for International Affairs on 9/11, so he got involved in trying to track down Al Qaeda financial flows. Also has stuff on financing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the impact of all this on IMF, etc. Doesn't seem to be an irate whistle blower. Someone in the Bush Administration was competent? Don't know.
Alex von Tunzelman: Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire (2007, Henry Holt): That would be the end of the British Empire in India. One of several recent books on India that look interesting. (First on my list is William Dalrymple's The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857, just out in paperback.)
Tim Weiner: Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA (2007, Doubleday): Sprawling (702 pages) history. My impression is that he's way too sympathetic to them, but the book is likely to be pretty damaging anyway.
Jacob Weisberg: The Bush Tragedy (2008, Random House): Slate editor, tries to sum up the whole nightmare ("the book that cracks the code of the Bush presidency"). Tired subject, but Amazon has a reader review with extensive notes that make it seem useful.
Garry Wills: Head and Heart: American Christianities (2007, Penguin Press). Big (640 pages) book on history of christianity in US, particularly the enlightened/evangelical split and how this relates to politics. Not a general history: first thing I did when I saw it was look in the index for Mormons (Latter Day Saints, Joseph Smith, etc.), and found nada.
Robin Wright: Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East (2008, Penguin Press): Veteran Middle East correspondent, wrote an early book on Iranian revolution. This ranges all over the region, searching for moderates and hope. Huge list of positive blurb reviews, including one from Rami Khouri, a lot more trustworthy than Joe Biden or Richard Lugar.
The US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual (paperback, 2007, University of Chicago Press): Forwards by John Nagl, David Petraeus, others. Basic reference material. I bet it'd be absolutely maddening to try to read.
I'll follow up with a second batch -- books I didn't find -- probably tomorrow.