Tuesday, January 13. 2009
Haven't done a Book Alert since September, before the Detroit trip. Despite some problems early on, I did wind up with a fairly large list of items there, much of which I still haven't processed. Still, no problem bagging my usual limit of 40 titles.
Jeremy Bernstein: Physicists on Wall Street and Other Essays on Science and Society (2008, Springer): Scattered essays, the title having something to do with physicists creating financial models for profit or mischief; also something on South Africa's nuclear program. One of the best writers on physicists and their science around.
Avraham Burg: The Holocaust Is Over, We Must Rise From Its Ashes (2008, Palgrave Macmillan). The former speaker of Israel's Knesset takes a hard look at what Zionism has done to Israel today.
Jonathan Cook: Disappearing Palestine: Israel's Experiments in Human Despair (paperback, 2008, Zed): The longer the occupation continues, the bleaker the critical books are becoming.
Richard Cook/Brian Morton: The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings: Ninth Edition (paperback, 2008, Penguin): New editions have been coming out every two years. This one caught me by surprise, probably because I haven't finished listing the changes in the Eighth Edition. This has long been the essential guide to recorded jazz; even for experts it remains invaluable for covering Europe better than any other guide, and for keeping a balance that spans trad jazz and the avant-garde. I found more good records in it than any other guide I have. Still, I've had more and more nits to pick with the last couple of editions. Not sure if that marks a change, or it just means that I'm becoming less suggestable as I listen to more and more stuff before reading the reviews. Also, note that each edition loses about as much as it gains. I keep all eight on a fat shelf, and will have to find room for one more.
George Cooper: The Origin of Financial Crises: Central Banks, Credit Bubbles, and the Efficient Market Fallacy (paperback, 2008, Vintage): Seems to lay much of the blame on central bankers. He is certainly right that the present crisis was made much worse (if not necessarily caused) by the expansion of credit the Fed used to prop up the post-9/11 economy in its desperate attempt to prop up Bush's election prospects -- not that he puts it that way.
Mike Davis/Daniel Bertrand Monk, eds: Evil Paradises: Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism (paperback, 2008, New Press): Various essays, "a global guidebook to phantasmagoric but real places" -- don't have a list, but Abu Dhabi is certainly on it, as well as smaller, more discreet enclaves for the superrich.
Niall Ferguson: The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World (2008, Penguin): A timely history of finance, not so obviously full of shit as his last three books: Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power, Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire, and The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Decline of the West. Of course, having written those three books extolling the glory days of empire and lamenting their passage, he's probably still full of shit.
Raymond Fisman/Edward Miguel: Economic Gangsters: Corruption, Violence, and the Poverty of Nations (2008, Princeton University Press): Economists, examine corruption as a prime reason why developing countries don't develop.
Malcolm Gladwell: Outliers: The Story of Success (2008, Little Brown): Bestselling author, known for piquant insights. Dull but presumably marketable subject.
Neve Gordon: Israel's Occupation (paperback, 2008, University of California Press): One review describes this as a "highly theoretical book" -- something of a surprise given how much empirical evidence there is on Israel's occupation regime. Gordon is a long-on-the-scene critic, should have a lot to say.
James Grant: Mr. Market Miscalculates: The Bubble Years and Beyond (2008, Axios): Collected from speeches and editorials by the editor of Grant's Interest Rate Observer. Seems to have had a clue on the subprime crisis.
Tom Hayden: Writings for a Democratic Society: The Tom Hayden Reader (paperback, 2008, City Lights): New Left activist. I'm not sure I've ever read anything by him, but he has a recent book, Ending the War in Iraq. Don't have a table of contents here, but this runs 450 pages, probably 40 years.
Christopher Howard: The Welfare State Nobody Knows: Debunking Myths About US Social Policy (paperback, 2008, Princeton University Press): Looks like a fairly informative, non-ideological investigation. Yes, there is a welfare state, a pretty big one. No, it doesn't work very well, especially in terms of redistributing wealth. On the other hand, it works better than nothing, at least in terms of preventing the middle class from getting swamped in crises. It could work better, but most people are pretty confused about it all.
Robert G Kaufman: In Defense of the Bush Doctrine (paperback, 2008, University of Kentucky Press): As Jacob Weisberg noted, there are at least five Bush Doctrines, made up on the spot to rationalize whatever insanity or inanity the Decider fell for at any given moment, not counting the last year-plus when it's not been clear that he's had any clue at all, so this book starts with its author's jackboot buried in a tub of cement. The only possible interest might be in finding out what he thinks he's defending. Given that all five-plus "doctrines" are indefensible, this is bound to be an uphill slog.
Muhammad Khudayyir: Basrayatha: The Story of a City (paperback, 2008, Verso): A short tribute to the Iraqi city of Basra, originally published in 1997.
Nikolas Kozloff: Revolution!: South America and the Rise of the New Left (2008, Palgrave Macmillan): Author of a previous book on Venezuela: Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the US. Here he broadens the picture to include more challenges to the US -- nearly a continent's worth.
Paul Krugman: The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008 (2008, WW Norton): New edition, updated, maybe even a rewrite, of Krugman's 1999 The Return of Depression Economics: a book that must seem more prescient now than when it originally appeared at the top of the high tech boom.
David Levering Lewis: God's Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215 (2008, WW Norton): History focuses on 8th century Muslim Spain in a somewhat broader context -- seems to have gotten very mixed notices.
Michael Lewis, ed: Panic: The Story of Modern Financial Insanity (2008, WW Norton): A quickie collection of old and not-so-old pieces, just in time to slap some product on the latest financial disaster, and to be obsolete almost instantly.
Wynton Marsalis/Geoffrey Ward: Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life (2008, Random House): Sounds like a self-help book, which doesn't sound like a very good idea. Marsalis certainly knows much about jazz history, and is a capable and entertaining educator, but he also has some blind spots and limitations -- there is a lot more to jazz than he admits, and his art suffers accordingly. Ward is a "with" credit here. He wrote the Ken Burns books, so he's dealt with Marsalis before.
Dick Meyer: Why We Hate Us: American Discontent in the New Millennium (2008, Crown): Not a bad idea for a book, but easy to go wrong with. Is he going for how some Americans hate other Americans? Or is he trying to make a case that Americans (in general) hate themselves? The former is relatively trivial; the latter is a stretch into psychologizing. Reviewer praise, ranging from Thomas Oliphant to Thomas Edsall, isn't reassuring.
Tom Moon: 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die (paperback, 2008, Workman): Big list book, part of a series like 1,000 Places to See Before You Die that that I haven't paid any attention to, figuring I'm so short on time the effort would be hopeless, and not particularly enjoying the reminder. Actually, 1,000 recordings is relatively doable: I'd be surprised if I'm not already more than halfway there, unless the classical shit gets totally out of hand. There's also a rival 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, edited by Robert Dimery, which is older but only in hard cover, assembled by a committee of critics I've never heard of, and is much more rock-centric.
Marwan Muasher: The Arab Center: The Promise of Moderation (2008, Yale University Press): Author is a Jordanian diplomat, long practiced at walking the straight and narrow line. By their very nature, moderates have a weak hand to argue. By readily going half way, they comfort the extremes without satisfying them -- the US, in particular, insists on moderation without giving moderates any heed.
Reinhold Niebuhr: The Irony of American History (paperback, 2008, University of Chicago Press): New reprint of a 1952 book, with an introduction by Andrew Bacevich, who quoted Niebuhr extensively in his recent The Limits of Power. I've always dismissed Niebuhr as a cold war ideologue, but the quotes I've read via Bacevich are very sharp.
Anna Politkovskaya: A Russian Diary: A Journalist's Final Account of Life, Corruption, and Death in Putin's Russia (2007, Random House): Russian journalist, a fierce critic of the Chechen War and Vladimir Putin, murdered in 2006. Diary covers 2003-05. She has several other books out, including Putin's Russia: Life in a Failing Democracy.
Ben Ratliff: The Jazz Ear: Conversations Over Music (2008, Times Books): New York Times jazz critic. I pretty much never read him, but not because I have a real opinion about his criticism. (His Jazz: A Critic's Guide to the 100 Most Important Recordings has a lot of obvious picks, a few inspired ones, and none more dubious than Wynton Marsalis.) Not sure if these are verbatim interviews or just distillations. Ratliff's Coltrane: The Story of a Sound is also now out in paperback.
Jeremy Salt: The Unmaking of the Middle East: A History of Western Disorder in Arab Lands (2008, University of California Press): A history focusing on how Britain, France, and the US have actually treated the Middle East.
Robert J Samuelson: The Great Inflation and Its Aftermath: The Past and Future of American Affluence (2008, Random House): From about 1970, real wages in America began to stagnate, especially when adjusted for inflation that reached 14% by the end of the decade. In 1979 Fed chairman Paul Volcker launched his program to halt inflation by strangling the economy in high interest rates. This led to Reagan's 1980 election, open season on labor unions, and the worst recession between the 1930s and just about now. So this is an important period, little understood -- I'm not all that sure what to make of it myself. Possibly an important book. Samuelson previously wrote The Good Life and Its Discontents: The American Dream in the Age of Entitlement (1997), currently out of print.
Richard Seymour: The Liberal Defense of Murder (2008, Verso): On the "pro-war left" in the post-9/11 world. I've seen mention of Kanan Makiya and Bernard Henri-Levy, but they barely scratch the subject.
Peter Sluglett: Britain in Iraq: Contriving King and Country (2007, Columbia University Press): A history of Britain's mandate over the Ottoman territories that became Iraq. Never underestimate how much the British empire can screw up a territory. A slightly older book on the same subject: Toby Dodge: Inventing Iraq: The Failure of Nation Building and a History Denied (paperback, 2005, Columbia University Press).
Norman Solomon: Made Love, Got War: Close Encounters with America's Warfare State (2007, Polipoint Press): Previously wrote War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death. This one is more memoir than analysis, going back to past wars, like in the 1960s.
Jim Stanford: Economics for Everyone: A Short Guide to the Economics of Capitalism (paperback, 2008, Pluto Press): Not so short at 360 pages, but illustrated with cartoons. Figure this to be a leftist approach.
Jonny Steinberg: Sizwe's Test: A Young Man's Journey Through Africa's AIDS Epidemic (2008, Simon & Schuster): South African journalist, gay, white, tries specifically to understand Sizwe, who has refused HIV testing, and therefore treatment; and more generally explores the South African AIDS epidemic.
Jane Stern/Michael Stern: Roadfood: The Coast-to-Coast Guide to 700 of the Best Barbecue Joints, Lobster Shacks, Ice Cream Parlors, Highway Diners, and Much, Much More (paperback, 2008, Broadway): Don't know how many editions this book has gone through, especially if you count its alter-ego, Eat Your Way Across the USA -- my copy is three, maybe more editions back, but these joints do tend to stay in business. (Although they also often keep limited hours -- I've shown up to a number of them when they were closed.) Moreover, editions add and drop things for no apparent reason. The guides aren't extensive, and they're rather limited in range; I'm sure they're missing a lot, but I've rarely been disappointed, and there's a lot to be said for navigating to an otherwise unknowable wonder after a long stretch on the road. In fact, friends call me up and ask for directions. Haven't checked out their other books, like Chili Nation and Two for the Road: Our Love Affair With American Food. I do have a copy of Ian Jackman: Eat This!: 1,001 Things to Eat Before You Diet, which I have yet to find useful.
Steven Stoll: The Great Delusion: A Mad Inventor, Death in the Tropics, and the Utopian Origins of Economic Growth (2008, Hill and Wang): The "cautionary and instructive story" of John Adolphus Etzler, a 19th century inventor with dreams of endless growth, bringing the whole question of growth into perspective. Previous books by Stoll: The Fruits of Natural Advantage: Making the Industrial Countryside in California and Larding the Lean Earth: Soil and Society in Nineteenth-Century America.
Tom Vanderbilt: Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) (2008, Knopf): Looks like a lot of trivia on the art and science of driving, a subject that hasn't been beaten to death and might be entertaining to read about, but could just as well be overgeneralized from.
Rob Walker: Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are (2008, Random House): Part marketing primer, part cultural anthropology, you are what you buy, and so forth. Evidently Walker writes a column on this stuff in the New York Times Magazine.
Rex Weyler: Greenpeace: How a Group of Ecologists, Journalists, and Visionaries Changed the World (2004, Rodale): History of the movement, an important piece of recent world political history.
Ronald T Wilcox: Whatever Happened to Thrift?: Why Americans Don't Save and What to Do About It (2008, Yale University Press): The "what to do about it" shifts subtly from thrift to saving, which quickly wears thin. Economists like to promote savings -- right-wingers, especially, for whom it's a way to a personalize moral failure that the rich are exempt from, even though the main reason the rich save is only because they have more money than they can spend. Thrift is a relatively quaint concept, tied to the sense of having enough to get by on. Boy scouts, after all, are implored to be "thrifty, brave, and reverent" -- traits of model citizenship. What happened to that is, indeed, an interesting question.
Naomi Wolf: Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries (paperback, 2008, Simon & Schuster): Political manifesto, looks like she's trying to yoke progress to the olde American tradition of patriotic-minded revolution. Also wrote the much slimmer The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot.
I have another 30 or so of these book alert notes in my backlog, plus several pages of notes I haven't written up yet. Also haven't been anywhere near as dilligent researching them as I have in the past -- same distractions I've noted previously. Could just as well have done another batch of Israel links: the atrocities continue, the problems only getting worse. Read a hysterical column in the Eagle today by someone feverishingly imaging a world run by Hamas. Nobody gets the irony that the only people obsessed with someone else running the world are the ones who think they should do it themselves. Most folks have no such illusions, which make them more willing to live in a world where all different kinds more or less get along together.