Friday, July 19. 2013
I accumulate these things both on bursts and occasionally when I stumble across something, but I've had trouble getting them collated into regularly timed chunks of forty. Once again, I have at least another batch's worth in the queue, and in burst mode to see what I may have missed that backlog is growing. One indication that I've waited too long this time is that I've already read two of these books (Rashid Khalidi, Pamela Olson). One more I've bought and hope to read soon (Jeremy Scahill), and three more are likely to follow (Gar Alperovitz, David Graeber, Philip Mirowski). And several more are possibles (e.g., Robert Kuttner, Michael Pollan, Hedrick Smith), and there are others I'd like to read but don't forsee the time or opportunity (e.g., Mark Blyth, William Dalrymple, Michael Hudson, Gary May, Seamus McGraw). Even George Packer might prove interesting. So one advantage of waiting so long is the opportunity to be more selective. Next books post, at least if it happens soon, won't be so lucky.
Ervand Abrahamian: The Coup: 1953, the CIA, and the Roots of Modern US-Iranian Relations (2013, New Press): Of course it was, something never much understood at the time. Previously wrote A History of Modern Iran (2008), so this is a sort of prequel, an attempt to understand where all the later mess came from.
Gar Alperovitz: What Then Must We Do? Straight Talk About the Next American Revolution (paperback, 2013, Chelsea Green): Historian -- the first to take a look at what the Hiroshima bombing meant for US-Soviet diplomacy -- but by now perhaps even better known for exploring the limits of conventional capitalism in America -- cf. America Beyond Capitalism: Reclaiming Our Wealth, Our Liberty, and Our Democracy (2004; 2nd ed, paperback, 2011, Democracy Collaborative). Especially interested in worker-owned companies, cooperatives, etc.
Mark Blyth: Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea (2013, Oxford University Press): Dangerously bad, and dangerously popular, both right-of-center where wrecking the economy is viewed as a political virtue, and among centrists like Obama who don't know what's good for themselves. John Quiggin added a chapter to his Zombie Economics to try to beat it down. More here.
Samuel Bowles/Herbert Gitlin: A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution (2011; paperback, 2013, Princeton University Press): Bowles is one of the best-known leftist economists, editor (with Gintis and Melissa Osborne Groves) of Unequal Chances: Family Background and Economic Success (paperback, 2008, Princeton University Press), and author of The New Economics of Inequality and Redistribution (paperback, 2012, Princeton University Press), as well as more general texts. Gintis has written a great deal on things like game theory and education. What they're trying to do here is situate the human capacity for cooperation within evolutionary theory, a tricky task as anyone who's bumped heads with sociobiology should be able to attest. Comes with a daunting amount of math, too.
Richard Breitman/Allan J Lichtman: FDR and the Jews (2013, Belknap Press): Digs deep into this limited topic, attempting to "banish forever the notion that Franklin Roosevelt was a blinkered anti-Semite who made little effort to stop the Holocaust" -- not that there isn't some truth in those accusations too.
Andrew Scott Cooper: The Oil Kings: How the US, Iran, and Saudi Arabia Changed the Balance of Power in the Middle East (2011, Simon & Schuster): Focuses on the 1970s, when two "oil shocks" hit the stagflationed US economy -- the OPEC embargo of 1973 and the Iranian revolution of 1979. Using newly declassified documents, tracks how the US tried to cope with these events: not very well, no surprise there.
William Dalrymple: Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42 (2013, Knopf): Historian, has mostly written about India -- e.g., The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857 (2007) -- here turns his attention to what is now called the First Anglo-Afghan War, when the British initially occupied Kabul with ease but wound up with their entire mission army destroyed -- only one soldier escaped. I suppose the Americans think they've done better, but they haven't got out yet.
Mary L Dudziak: Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy (2000; paperback, 2012, Princeton University Press): Looks at the civil rights movement in light of America's cold war crusade. Communists had been first and foremost supporters of the civil rights movement in the US, and could make good propaganda use of US racism, ultimately becoming one reason the federal government intervened. Certainly not the only reason, but one.
Chrystia Freeland: Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else (2012, Penguin Press): Inequality viewed from the top, the breakaway rise of the top 0.1%, and hopefully something on what this does to the rest of us. Author previously wrote Sale of the Century: The Inside Story of the Second Russian Revolution (paperback, 2005, Abacus), on the making of the post-Soviet oligarchy.
Joshua B Freeman: American Empire: The Rise of a Global Power, the Democratic Revolution at Home 1945-2000 (2012, Viking): Parenthetically, "Penguin History of the United States," suggesting a part in a series, but the only other such book I've seen is Hugh Brogan's one-volume (up through the 1980s). Covers a big chunk of history in 512 pp. -- about the same size and subject as HW Brands' American Dreams: The United States Since 1945 (2010, Penguin Books).
Eduardo Galeano: Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History (2013, Nation Books): After his classic book Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, Galeano has written a number of elliptical meta-histories -- John Berger calls them "bedtime stories -- of which this is either more or perhaps some sort of summation: a vignette for each day of the year, meant to reveal much more. Other books in this vein: Genesis: Memory of Fire, Volume 1; Faces and Masks: Memory of Fire, Volume 2; Century of the Wind: Memory of Fire, Volume 3 (all three: paperback, 2010, Nation Books); Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone (same); Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World (paperback, 2001, Picador); Voices of Time: A Life in Stories (paperback, 2007, Picador).
Barbara Garson: Down the Up Escalator: How the 99 Percent Live in the Great Recession (2013, Doubleday): Not very well, but most working people have been practicing for the downfall for decades, as companies have squeezed them, cut down on benefits and kept up the pressure for more hours and more productivity. Garson talks of a "long recession" dating back to around 1970.
Martin Gilens: Affluence & Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America (2012, Princeton University Press): Another book on the effects of growing income inequality in the US, an effect that is not just reflected but amplified in terms of political power. Previously wrote Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy (1999; paperback, 2000, University of Chicago Press).
Melvin A Goodman: National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism (paperback, 2013, City Lights): Ex-CIA analyst, wrote Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA (2008), certainly a good place to start on his bigger theme.
David Graeber: The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement (2013, Spiegel & Grau): Anthropologist, wrote the widely admired (or at least debated) Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011, Melville House); was deeply involved in Occupy Wall Street, so this is first-draft history from the middle of the action, hopefully with some deep thinking tossed in, especially about democracy.
Raymond G Helmick: Negotiating Outside the Law: Why Camp David Failed (2004, Pluto Press): A Jesuit priest, Professor of Conflict Resolution, and mediator during the Camp David talks, places blame for the failure of the summit on the unwillingness of all parties to recognize applicable international law and position their goals within that framework. Based on what I know from Charles Enderlin: Shattered Dreams: The Failure of the Peace Process in the Middle East, 1995-2002 (2003, Other Press), and Clayton E Swisher: The Truth About Camp David: The Untold Story About the Collapse of the Middle East Peace Process (2004, Nation Boks), that makes sense.
Michael Hudson: Finance Capitalism and Its Discontents 1: Interviews and Speeches, 2003-2012 (paperback, 2012, Islet): Also wrote The Bubble and Beyond: Fictitious Capital, Debt Deflation and Global Crisis (paperback, 2012, Islet), and going back a ways, Super Imperialism: The Origin and Fundamental of US World Dominance (new edition, paperback, 2003, Pluto Press), an unorthodox economist who has been exceptionally sharp at predicting the 2008 collapse. This collects his map of the path to the brink, while The Bubble and Beyond shows us the chasm beyond.
Neil Irwin: The Alchemists: Three Central Bankers and a World on Fire (2013, Penguin Press): Focuses on central banks in the US (Ben Bernanke), UK (Mervyn King), and Europe (Jean-Claude Trichet), how they've handled the financial meltdown from August 2007 forward -- and hopefully pointing out how they haven't handled it very well.
Daniel Cay Johnston: The Fine Print: How Big Companies Use "Plain English" to Rob You Blind (2012, Portfolio): Muckracker, previously wrote Perfectly Legal: The Covert Campaign to Rig Our Tax System to Benefit the Super Rich -- and Cheat Everybody Else (2003), and Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and Stick You With the Bill) (2007). Here he discovers what Woody Guthrie knew all along: some people will rob you with a fountain pen. Dylan Ratigan is stalking the same beast, but appears to have fried his brain on the title: Greedy Bastards: How We Can Stop Corporate Communists, Banksters, and Other Vampires From Sucking America Dry (paperback, 2012, Simon & Schuster).
Rashid Khalidi: Brokers of Deceit: How the US Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East (2013, Beacon Press): Could be about any number of areas in the Middle East where the US has sold arms and worked against peace -- Khalidi's Sowing Crisis: The Cold War and American Hegemony in the Middle East (2009) takes such a general view -- but this one is specifically about Israel/Palestine, focusing on three episodes where the US not only failed to bring Israel to the peace table but arguably collaborated with Israel's right-wing hawks to undermine the US's own stated intentions: Reagan's 1982 plan, Bush's 1991 Madrid Conference, and Obama's 2009 initiative.
Mattea Kramer, et al. [National Priorities Project]: A People's Guide to the Federal Budget (paperback, 2010, Olive Branch Press): Basic info on what the budget is, how the process works, etc. -- subjects lots of people are woefully ignorant of. Doubt that it goes much further, but clearly fills a need.
Robert Kuttner: Debtor's Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility (2013, Knopf): Not only is austerity economically counterproductive, at least within a recession, its attraction is purely political, as is the decision to follow its dictates. Kuttner knows this, and presumably has some worthwhile suggestions, but right now it is mainly a test of political will -- something Obama, in particular, doesn't seem to understand.
Jaron Lanier: Who Owns the Future? (2013, Simon & Schuster): Previously wrote You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (2010), and is credited as "the father of virtual reality." Argues that "the rise of digital networks led our economy into recession and decimated the middle class," and proposes some things -- short of Luddism, which probably wouldn't work anyway -- to ameliorate all that. I don't buy the causal argument, but he may have some points on networks exacerbated other trends that are primarily political.
Gary May: Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy (2013, Basic Books): An important story in the civil rights movement: why voting mattered, how bitterly white supremacists fought it, how their violence turned much of the nation against them, resulting in a landmark law the Supreme Court has just gone out of its way to gut.
Mark Mazzetti: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth (2013, Penguin Press): Book cover has a helicopter but it's really the drone that has transformed the CIA's mission from gathering and analyzing "intelligence" to a rogue organization of assassins.
Seamus McGraw: The End of the Country: Dispatches From the Frack Zone (paperback, 2012, Random House): We're working through a cycle where as we deplete relatively easy oil and gas resources, we try to tap into more difficult resources with more advanced technology. One such is gas trapped in narrow seams of shale: only recently it's become possible to drill into those seams then horizontally to open up more of the seam; then a toxic chemicals is pumped into the well and an explosion set off, driving the chemicals to fracture the rock and release more gas (this is called "hydrofracturing" or "fracking"). This book focuses on Pennsylvania, where pretty much everything that could go wrong with this technology has gone wrong.
Philip Mirowski: Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown (2013, Verso): As I recall, there was a fleeting instant during the early days of the meltdown when at least a few people started to wonder whether there wasn't something seriously flawed in capitalism -- at least our recent, highly financialized version of it -- at the root of the crisis. But it turned out to be nothing like the air of revolution kicked up by the 1930s: no sooner than the banks got bailed out their apologists reverted to the party line.
Pankaj Mishra: From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia (2012, Farrar Straus and Giroux): Focuses on Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (from Iran, despite his assumed name), Rabindranath Tagore (India), and Liang Qichao (China), figures who became prominent around 1900, which is to say well before the major anti-imperialist successes following WWII. I know a fair amount about al-Afghani, who's been given wildly erratic interpretations depending on which axe which writer wanted to sharpen. Ultimately, while such early reactions (at once modernist and reactionary) to European imperialism are interesting, I suspect they are fleeting as later generations learned more about both their enemies and themselves. Mishra has several books poking at this beast; most recently, Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet, and Beyond (2007).
Pamela J Olson: Fast Times in Palestine: A Love Affair With a Homeless Homeland (paperback, 2013, Seal Press): American, from Oklahoma, graduated with a degree in physics then decided she wanted to see the world, picking Occupied Palestine in a perverse reaction to anti-American sentiments following Bush's invasion of Iraq. She lived in Ramallah for two years, collecting this informal, and increasingly politically astute, travelogue.
George Packer: The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America (2013, Farrar Straus and Giroux): Character sketches: tobacco farmer turned "new economy evangelist" in the rural South; Rust Belt factory worker; Washington insider "oscillating between political idealism and the lure of money"; Silicon Valley billionaire; interweaved with "biographical sketches of the era's leading public figures, from Newt Gingrich to Jay-Z, and collages made from newspaper headlines, advertising slogans, and song lyrics" -- I mean, how else would someone who's proven himself incapable of critical thought go about taking the temper of the times?
Michael Pollan: Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation (2013, Penguin): The food guy discovers chemistry. Unlikely there is a single thing here not already in Harold McGee: On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, not that he hasn't earned the right to tell the story his way.
Jeremy Scahill: Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield (2013, Nation Books): Previously wrote about US use of mercenaries in Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army (2007). Here goes from Afghanistan to Yemen, Somalia, the cutting edges of American "black ops" -- the undeclared, undebated skirmishes today that will become the quagmires of tomorrow.
James C Scott: Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play (2012, Princeton University Press): Examples of anarchist values against the backdrop of state-ruled society, a pragma for the real world, skepticism about the state rather than an idealist rejection of it. Previous books include: Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (1987); Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (1999); The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (2010).
Roger Scruton: How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism (2012, Oxford University Press): Acknowledges that environmental issues are real concerns, but insists on "local initiatives over global schemes, civil association over political activism, and small-scale institutions of friendship over regulatory hyper-vigilance." It would be easier to imagine such small-scale volunteerism working if corporations were also small-scale and local, and if communities were held together by mutual concerns instead of torn apart by the current inequitable distribution of wealth -- hitherto the main mission of conservatives.
Tavis Smiley/Cornel West: The Rich and the Rest of Us (paperback, 2012, Smiley Books): While the Middle Class is being decimated, those who don't quite rank with them are getting hit hard too, if for no other reason than to put the fear of failure into the Middle Class. Authors do some radio; they should have much to rant about.
Hedrick Smith: Who Stole the American Dream? (2012, Random House): Scottish journalist, previously wrote The Power Game: How Washington Works (1996) and Rethinking America (1995), as well as a couple books on Russia. Covers much the same material as Donald Barlett/Richard Steele: The Betrayal of the American Dream and several other books (some use Middle Class almost interchangeably).
Ehud Sprinzak: Brother Against Brother: Violence and Extremism in Israeli Politics from Altalena to the Rabin Assassination (1999, Free Press): Not a new book, but first I've seen of it, and it does cover many well known examples where Israelis resorted to murder to advance of their political agenda -- Baruch Goldstein and Yigal Amir being pivotal figures in wrecking the 1990s Peace Process, and one can think of other cases going back to the heyday of the Stern Gang.
Amelia Stein, ed: The American Spring: What We Talk About When We Talk About Revolution (paperback, 2012, Arcade): Brief "conversations with artists, activists, and thinkers," more or less tied to Occupy Wall Street but often notable in their own right. Occupy-themed books are starting to roll out, mostly short ones: Janet Byrne, ed: The Occupy Handbook (paperback, 2012, Back Bay Books); Carla Blumenkranz, ed: Occupy! Scenes from Occupied America (paperback, 2011, Verso); Lenny Flank, ed: Voices From the 99 Percent (paperback, 2011, Red and Black); Susan van Gelder, ed: This Changes Everything: Occupy Wall Street and the 99% Movement (paperback, 2011, Berrett-Koehler); Writers for the 99%: Occupying Wall Street: The Inside Story of an Action That Changed America (paperback, 2012, Haymarket); Todd Gitlin: Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street (paperback, 2012, It Books).
David Stuckler/Sanjay Basu: The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills (2013, Basic Books): Both authors are doctors, focused on public health and epidemiology. I've seen books that map out bad health outcomes from growing inequality (e.g., Richard Wilkinson/Kate Pickett: The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger). Austerity, a politico-economic doctrine that makes economics weaker, mostly at the expense of the poor, should have the same effect, and evidently does.
Cass R Sunstein: Simpler: The Future of Government (2013, Simon & Schuster): Maybe those people complaining about the Obama administration's hyperactive regulatory syndrome actually have something to talk about. The co-author of Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, the manifesto of "libertarian paternalism," has long been a prominent Obama adviser, and headed the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs for three years. Here he touts all the stuff he did, or wanted to do, and why it's good for you, even if you never noticed the difference. One problem with Sunstein's brand of paternalism is that it's something liberals are always accused of, and while it may be a good thing up to a point -- the opposite camp seems to want to go out of its way to make government complex and mysterious, to sabotage any sense that it might be good for things -- it's easy for people who think they know what's good for you to get carried away.
Odd Arne Westad: Restless Empire: China and the World Since 1750 (2012, Basic Books): Survey of Chinese foreign policy since they invaded Burma in the 1760s to the present, not that you'd think there was much to write about before 1948 (or 1938). This may provide some fodder for those who see China as a big threat to yet another American Century. Hard to extrapolate, but history does come back in strange forms.
I haven't done any new research here, but it occurs to me that some of the paperback notes -- reprints of books I wrote about when they originally appeared -- are so dated I should kick them out as soon as possible. Don't have any book page notes to link to -- as you may have noticed, those pages disappeared after some authors and/or their lawyers got huffy about "excessive" quoting. So here goes:
Peter Beinart: The Crisis of Zionism (2012, Times Books; paperback, 2013, Picador): Liberal pundit with bad instincts but smart enough to sometimes think past them, as he did when the Iraq War soured, faces up to his beloved Zionism and finds a nation at war with his sense of justice, and even makes a case for limited BDS. Would be more useful if he didn't seem to be even more bothered by American Jews marrying goyim.
Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan (2012, Knopf; paperback, 2013, Vintage): Focuses on Helmand, home of a longstanding, never fully successful US hydro-project called "Little America," showing how wave after wave of US military power never managed to do anything constructive in one of the most intensively patrolled areas in Afghanistan.
Steve Coll: Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power (2012; paperback, 2013, Penguin Press): Corporate biography from the Exxon Valdez disaster to the Deepwater Horizon disaster, with plenty of bumps along the way, as well as extraordinary profits, much on the tricky relationship between bookable reserves and stock price (with the reserves moving ever deeper into unconventional oil), tenacious defense against suits, and intense political lobbying, especially to keep the government from doing anything about greenhouse gasses and global warming.
Thomas Frank: Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right (2012, Metropolitan Books; paperback, 2012, Picador): Mostly focuses on the rise of the Tea Party movement, and how it was funded and manipulated by a few billionaires.
David Graeber: Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011; paperback, 2012, Melville House): Anarchist anthropologist argues that credit/debt goes way back, predating money, not to mention much of what we call civilization. Consensus seems to be that he's "a brilliant, deeply original political thinker" (Rebecca Solnit) who occasionally goes off the deep end.
Michael Hastings: The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America's War in Afghanistan (2012, Blue Rider Press; paperback, 2012, Plume): The author's drinking binge with Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his staff in Europe got the hero of the COIN surge in Afghanistan sacked, but even more devastating is his coverage of McChrystal's succesor, Gen. David Petraeus -- who managed to get away with his incompetence in Kabul, only to blow up a few months later.
Tony Judt/Timothy Snyder: Thinking the Twentieth Century (2012; paperback, 2013, Penguin): Structured as an interview, laced with memoirs repeating others of Judt's post-ALS books (e.g., The Memory Chalet), but expanded to provide a final reckoning with 20th century European thought (and America, and Israel). His last book, one to savor.
Paul Krugman: End This Depression Now! (2012; paperback, 2013, WW Norton): Reasserts the important insights of macroeconomic theory, especially Keynes and Minsky, but he also cares about the human cost of letting the depression bottom out. Could have gone deeper into the political roots of the nonsense you hear about debt and inflation and austerity instead of just demolishing them on economic grounds.
Michael Lewis: Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World (2011; paperback, 2012, WW Norton): Thumbnail portraits of several countries suffering from the the finance meltdown: Greece, Ireland, Iceland, the United States. Very readable, draws sensible conclusions.
Tracie McMillan: The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee's, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table (2012; paperback, 2012, Scribner): Research done by working for the companies that handle America's food.
Lawrence Mishel/Josh Bivens/Elise Gould/Heidi Shierholz: The State of Working America (12th edition, paperback, 2012, ILR Press): Since its first edition in 1988, the basic stats and analysis of what it's like to work in America.
Juliet B Schor: True Wealth: How and Why Millions of Americans Are Creating a Time-Rich, Ecologically Light, Small-Scale, High-Satisfaction Economy (paperback, 2011, Penguin Books): Reissue with new (and better) title of Schor's 2010 book, Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth. Schor previously wrote several books on how we are overworked and how we've been conditioned to overspend, so this is a proper summing up.
Ben Shephard: The Long Road Home: The Aftermath of the Second World War (2011, Knopf; paperback, 2012, Vintage): A history of postwar relief efforts (mostly American) to deal with people displaced by WWII -- Jews you are probably vaguely familiar with, but there were many more, moved to escape armies, moved to work in plants (both voluntarily and impressed), some with homes to go to, many without.
Ron Suskind: Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President (2011; paperback, 2012, Harper): Mostly on Obama and his inner circle of economic experts, especially the controlling influence of Larry Summers and the divided loyalties of Tim Geithner (actually, that's probably too charitable; Geithner actively sabotaged Obama orders that would have further curtailed the big banks). Could have done more with the title, since one of Obama's big mistakes was thinking that the economy would heal if only he could restore confidence in it, so therefore he projected an excessively optimistic stance, which crippled his options while fooling no one.
For the record, I've read most of the books in the paperback section (mostly in hard cover). Specifically: Beinart, Chandrasekaran, Coll, Frank, Hastings, Judt, Krugman, Lewis, Schor, Shephard, and Suskind; i.e., not Graeber, McMillan, Mishel. Wouldn't have bothered writing up the latter ones had I not been interested.