Wednesday, April 2. 2014
Another batch of new book notes. Last one came out on February 11 and cleared out a backlog of 52 books -- more than my usual 40 limit. I imagine I can do these posts monthly or so, and indeed with my research unfinished, a little less than two months has filled this post (40 titles) and left me with 33 in the queue. Notably, that queue includes a few books that are either just out (Michael Lewis: Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt) or forthcoming (David Harvey: Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism [April 4]; Nomi Prins: All the President's Bankers [April 8]; Matt Taibbi: The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap [April 8]; Glenn Greenwald: No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the US Surveillance State [May 13]). Given the importance of those books, another column should be due soon.
Sasha Abramsky: The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives (2013, Nation Books): Fifty years after Michael Harrington's The Other America, we still live in a land of poverty and want -- even more so now than then, as the trendline is getting worse and the political will to do something about it has vanished. Mixed views on this book suggest that jumping between anecdotal description and broadside prescription doesn't reall handle either end, but the problem is real enough.
Bill Bryson: One Summer: America, 1927 (2013, Doubleday): Pick a year, any year. Bryson picked the one when Lindbergh flew solo across the Atlantic, the Mississippi flooded, and Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs, among other things (e.g., "the four most powerful central bankers on earth met in secret session on a Long Island estate and made a fateful decision that virtually guaranteed a future crash and depression"). Good chance Bryson could turn any year into something vastly entertaining and deeply informative.
Ian Buruma: Year Zero: A History of 1945 (2013, Penguin Press): Every year things change a little, but an astonishing number of big things changed in 1945: the world war ended with Japan and Germany unconditionally defeated, the holocaust and the atom bomb were revealed, European colonial control over Europe and Asia had been undermined (but it would take some years to fully fracture), the map of Eastern Europe was quickly redrawn, various revolutions erupted, economies were in ruins (except for the US, which was never stronger), millions of people had been displaced, the "cold war" was quickly brewing (although at the same time the UN was forming). Much to write about, including the simultaneity of all that change.
David Brion Davis: The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation (2014, Knopf): The author's third The Problem of Slavery book, the trilogy spread out over 45 years -- hard to overstate how important the first volume was in changing our view of slavery and racism. This picks up the story around 1820, focusing on the UK and US with a side glance at Haiti.
Jared Diamond: The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies? (2012; paperback, 2013, Penguin): His two previous books -- Guns, Germ and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1997), and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2004) -- were high concept comparative mega-histories, sweeping and thought-provoking. Here he returns to his anthropology roots, writing about primitive societies, no doubt including a lot of New Guinea, since that's his specialty. Still, big questions abide: the transition to agriculture 11,000 years ago was not without its down sides, and those problems percolate up to the present.
William Easterly: The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor (2014, Basic Books): Author writes on development economics -- e.g., The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good -- so he could be taken as one of the experts he disparages. But he cuts against the grain, and has no shortage of examples of ideas that haven't worked. Also, his argument for "respect of the individual rights of people in developing countries" seems right, as is his point that "unchecked state power is the problem and not the solution" (here we're talking about the predatory effect of dictators, not the fevers of the tea party).
Yuval Elizur/Lawrence Malkin: The War Within: Israel's Ultra-Orthodox (2013; paperback, 2014, Overlook): On the special roles and privileges of the ultra-orthodox in Israel, an often sore point for secular Jews in Israel, and I suspect one of the forces that relentlessly pushes Israel to the right, further estranging it from the rest of the world.
Lee Fang: The Machine: A Field Guide to the Resurgent Right (2013, New Press): The "vast right-wing conspiracy" (in Hillary Clinton's apt phrase) has been carefully built up since the 1970s, and swung into full gear in 2009 to disrupt and undermine newly elected president Obama and the Democrats' "fillibuster-proof" congressional majority, and they did a remarkable job of it. This book goes into how they did it, how they manufactured a viable critique and enough noise to pose as grass roots momentum.
Caroline B Glick: The Israeli Solution: A One-State Plan for Peace in the Middle East (2014, Crown Forum): Not a single state in Israel/Palestine where everyone lives with equal rights under equitable laws, though Glick dresses up Jewish dominance in various guises, including her claim that census data "wildly exaggerated the numbers of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza." So this does start to shift away from the "two-state solution" that gets so much lip service but no actual support from liberal Zionists, including virtually all American politicians.
Frances Goldin/Debby Smith/Michael Steven Smith, eds: Living in a Socialist USA (paperback, 2014, Harper Perennial): A mixed bag of essays, none afraid of the "S-word" but while some take the traditional tack and blame capitalism (e.g., Paul Street's "Capitalism: The Real Enemy") and some try to imagine post-capitalist (Rick Wolff) or ecosocialist (Joel Kovel) economic forms, others are likely more reformist, either intent on mitigating excesses of capitalism or using government to make amends. A big part of the reason socialism has come to be more respected of late is that the right uses the scare word so loosely, it now covers all sorts of modest reforms few old leftists would even recognize.
Daniel Gordis: Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel's Soul (2014, Schocken): Born in Poland, in his youth joined the fascist Betar movement, emigrating to Palestine in the 1940s where he quickly rose to head the Irgun, an ultra-right-wing paramilitary organization responsible for many of the worst atrocities of Israel's "War for Independence." Once the Irgun was integrated into the IDF, he went into politics, establishing himself as an extreme right-wing demagogue until he was suddenly invited ("without portfolio") into the "unity government" which launched Israel's expansionist 1967 war. A decade later he became Israel's first Likud Prime Minister, consolidating and furthering the nation's drift into militarism. He reluctantly signed a peace agreement which returned the Sinai to Egypt, allowing reopening of the Suez Canal, then plotted to destroy the PLO once and for all by invading Lebanon -- the act which, for me at least, destroyed the last shred of credibility that Israel possessed. This looks to be a sympathetic biography, which doesn't mean you'll come away liking the little monster.
Gershom Gorenberg: The Unmaking of Israel (2011; paperback, 2012, Harper Perennial): I read this a few years ago and was surprised I hadn't mentioned it here before. You can think of this as a kinder, gentler version of (not alternative to) Max Blumenthal's Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel. Both deal with the rot at the heart of a nation dedicated to the domination of one group over all others. The shadings differ a bit, with Gorenberg more concerned with the established religion, but religion wouldn't be so critical if it weren't needed to justify the occupation. Gorenberg previously wrote The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977, which similarly soft-pedaled the origins of the settler movement while at least acknowledging the facts.
Greg Grandin: The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World (2014, Metropolitan Books): One story here concerns New Englanders establishing colonial outposts in the south Pacific in the early 19th century, killing seals and selling them in China. Not sure what else you get here, but Herman Melville seems to be one prism into looking at early post-independence America, an "age of freedom" but also an "age of slavery."
Husain Haqqani: Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding (2013, Public Affairs): Of course, I doubt that the US could have done anything to make a success out of the 2001 Afghanistan intervention -- I think they sealed their fate in 1979 when they decided it would be such fun to arm religious fanatics to kill Russians -- but high on the Bush administration's list of tactical errors was their utter inability to come to a mutual understanding with Pakistan. (Nor did Obama do any better when he gave that pompous ass Richard Holbrooke the assignment.) Haqqani has been a Pakistani diplomat and is currently a professor at Boston U, so he's likely to be intimately acquainted with the sort of incomprehensible nonsense that makes for such epic misunderstandings.
Jacqueline Jones: A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race From the Colonial Era to Obama's America (2013, Basic Books): Rather than write a sketch history of racism in America, Jones takes six individuals including a slave in colonial Maryland and an auto worker in recent Detroit, real people to stand the various myths of race and the realities of power against.
John B Judis: Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict (2014, Farrar Straus and Giroux): Looks specifically at the years 1945-49, when the US had conquered the Axis powers and was starting to establish itself as a global hegemon, probing deep into why Truman sided with Israel and what that meant for the evolution of the Arab/Israeli conflict. Alison Weir: Against Our Better Judgment: The Hidden History of How the United States Was Used to Create Israel (paperback, 2014, CreateSpace) covers the same ground, much more briefly. I've been reading Judis and am impressed with his depth and balance.
Michael B Katz: The Undeserving Poor: America's Enduring Confrontation With Poverty (1989; updated and revised, paperback, 2013, Oxford University Press): One effective way to keep poor people poor is to blame their poverty on their supposed shortcomings -- perhaps the title should be The Deserving Poor, since that's the thrust of interests which seek to deflect blame for impoverishment.
Stephen Kinzer: The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War (2013, Times Books): A biography of two of the major architects of the Cold War, all the more potent when they controlled both the official (State Dept.) and clandestine (CIA) policy-making agencies, and weren't the least averse to going behind the back of the president who appointed them. Kinzer approached this story when he wrote one of the better accounts of the CIA coup against Iran in 1953 (All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror), then went on to take a longer look at American mischief (Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change From Hawaii to Iraq).
Elizabeth Kolbert: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (2014, Henry Holt): Five massive waves of extinctions have occurred since the Cambrian period when most modern phyla came into existence, with each defining boundaries between geological ages, something we can discern with the perspective of millions of years. Kolbert is suggesting that the sheer quantity of species extinctions that have occurred in recent years is well on its way to adding up to a sixth major extinction event, and she's traveling around the world gathering and checking out evidence. Not the first book on this subject -- cf. Richard E Leakey: The Sixth Extinction: Patterns of Life and the Future of Humankind (paperback, 1996, Anchor); Terry Glavin, The Sixth Extinction: Journeys Among the Lost and Left Behind (2007, Thomas Dunne); and for that matter a couple classics: David Quammen: The Song of the Dodo: Island Biography in an Age of Extinction (paperback, 1997, Scribner); and Paul S Martin/Herbert Edgar Wright, eds: Pleistocene Extinctions: The Search for a Cause (1967, Yale University Press) -- but likely a succinct, thought-provoking summary.
David Landau: Arik: The Life of Ariel Sharon (2014, Knopf): Having just referred to Begin as Israel's "little monster," it's no contest who the corresponding "big monster" was. Sharon could never be described as Begin's henchman: Begin bears responsibility for the Lebanon war, and more importantly for letting Sharon run it, but none for the actual details of how Sharon ran the war. Sharon had been a great favorite of Ben Gurion's and Dayan's, but what they loved him for wasn't doing what they wanted but invariably going much farther: he not only destroyed things, he did so at levels and degrees his "superiors" couldn't dream of asking for. His Lebanon War was like that, leading to the massacre of thousands of Palestinians, and his suppression of the second Intifada was like that. Still, it is important to realize that Sharon wasn't insane (unlike, say, Begin, whose tortured mind seemed to be stuck constantly replaying the Holocaust). He could make a tactical retreat when he needed to regroup, and on some level he seemed to be completely cynical about politics and everything else -- the real reason he was capable of such brutality was that he knew he would be adored for it, although it also helped that he was utterly indifferent to what anyone else thought or care about. And that he was so successful for so long ultimately says much more about his country than it does him. Reviewers say this is "scrupulously fair," which is to say it's mostly warts because that's what his supporters admired so much about him. Anything less would be a disservice.
Jill Lepore: Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin (2013, Knopf): Benjamin Franklin's sister, who unlike Shakespeare's sister was a real person we actually know a good deal about, not that anyone bothered to focus much on her before. Lepore started as a notable historian of 18th century America, but then developed a knack for semi-popular nonfiction pieces in the New Yorker and learned to bounce masterfully between past and present, as in The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle Over American History.
Antony Lerman: The Making and Unmaking of a Zionist: A Personal and Political Journey (2012, Pluto Press): British Jew, in 1960s worked on a kibbutz and served in the IDF, later returning to England, working in think tanks, eventually turning into a critic of current Israeli policies.
Ian Haney López: Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class (2014, Oxford University Press): For obvious examples, recall the presidential campaigns of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush (the "Willie Horton" one, not that the other was much better), then think of what else those elections delivered. López previously wrote White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race.
Bill McKibben: Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist (2013, Times Books): Author of one of the early books on global warming -- The End of Nature (1989) -- and many other books, writes about how he was increasingly drawn into political action, including leading protests against the Keystone XL pipeline. One step along the way was his activist manual: Fight Global Warming Now: The Handbook for Taking Action in Your Community (paperback, 2007, St. Martin's Griffin)
Betsy Medsger: The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI (2014, Knopf): The inside story of a small group of people who broke into an FBI office in Media, PA, and collected and leaked secret files about FBI operations aimed at harrassing the civil rights and antiwar movements. Hoover had used his extraordinary power base to blackmail presidents as well as to further his reactionary political goals, a secret program that couldn't survive exposure -- so this burglary was the beginning of the end of his reputation and reign of terror.
John Nichols/Robert W McChesney: Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex Is Destroying America (2013, Nation Books): $10 billion spent on the last election, and what do we have to show for it? Politicians of two parties beholden to money. That money distorts politics is one of the few things virtually everyone agrees on, yet it never emerges as a reform issue because the candidates themselves are selected precisely for their ability to raise money.
William Nordhaus: The Climate Casino: Risk, Uncertainty, and Economics for a Warming World (2013, Yale University Press): Economist, has his name added to recent editions of Paul Samuelson's legendary economics textbook (at least since 1985), and previously weighed in on the economics of global warming in 2008: A Question of Balance: Weighing the Options on Global Warming Policies; also Warming the World: Economic Models of Global Warming (2003), and Managing the Global Commons: The Economics of Climate Change (1994). A moderate and sensible guide to the science plus a lot of ideas on modeling risks and costs -- should be an important book.
Ilan Pappé: The Idea of Israel: A History of Power and Knowledge (2014, Verso): A history of Zionism as ideology, how its fundamental ideas infuse Israeli culture, especially in institutions like the school system and reinforced through the media. Focuses on the framing of the 1948 "War for Independence" in its initial "official" narrative and later post-Zionist and Neo-Zionist incarnations.
Thomas Piketty: Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014, Belknap Press): Presumes not to update Marx but to dance on his grave, celebrating not only increasing inequality but the fact that wealth inequality is increasingly inherited -- with the risk that workers may once again feel that they have nothing to lose in revolution except their shackles. "The main driver of inequality -- the tendency of returns on capital to exceed the rate of economic growth -- today threatens to generate extreme inequalities that stir discontent and undermine democratic values." Meanwhile, most Marxists will tell you that those returns are fraudulently jacked up, so not even more inequality can keep the machine running. Nonetheless, what happens at the bottom is all too real. Piketty's future is what he calls "patrimonial capitalism" -- pretty much the same sort of aristocracy the bourgeois revolutions struggled to overturn.
Kenneth Pollack: Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy (2013, Simon & Schuster): Ex-CIA analyst, wrote an influential book advocating war with Iraq, then turned around and became a dove rather than a "real man" on Iran in his book The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America. Evidently, he still feels we need his advice -- possibly because it wasn't taken last time, although diplomatic breakthroughs since this was printed have rendered much of the tough posturing he felt necessary to retain his credibility has suddenly become irrelevant.
Jonathan Porritt: The World We Made: Alex McKay's Story From 2050 (paperback, 2013, Phaidon Press): An expert on sustainable development strategies jumps ahead to 2050 to look back on how those strategies saved the world, through the eyes of a 50-year-old fictional Alex McKay, recalling not only what happened but how such change came about -- a mix of disasters and activism. Porritt previously wrote Capitalism as if the World Matters (paperback, 2007, Routledge), which gives business a positive role to play even if they don't seem up to it.
Gareth Porter: Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare (paperback, 2014, Just World Books): One of the few journalists to see through Israel's relentless propaganda about Iran's "nuclear program" in what should be a very important book. Porter's Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam was an eye-opener in showing how US failure in Vietnam was rooted in arrogance.
Diane Ravitch: Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools (2013, Knopf): Follow up to The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (2010). Back in the late 1960s, after I dropped out of high school, I read a ton of books on education, of which the best was Charles Weingartner/Neal Postman: Teaching as a Subversive Activity, followed by Paul Goodman: Compulsory Mis-Education/The Community of Scholars. Those at least were books that recognized problems that I actually saw and attempted to overcome them. So my reaction here is that Ravitch is probably right as far as she goes, but, my oh my, has the level of discussion deteriorated. The last sensible thing I've read on education was Jane Jacobs: Dark Ages Ahead, and I don't see any indication that Jacobs is wrong. But I may be being too pessimistic, because the actual teachers and students I have known lately seem smarter and more dedicated than the ones I encountered back in the day. Unfortunately, I don't think they're getting those traits from school.
Barnett R Rubin: Afghanistan From the Cold War Through the War on Terror (2013, Oxford University Press): For many years one of the most insightful experts on Afghanistan, Rubin disappeared from public discourse when he signed on as an advisor to Richard Holbrooke and stayed on after Holbrooke died. His insider status -- he was also involved in the Bonn talks in 2001 and various other UN efforts -- no doubt informs this book, and probably compromises it as well. Leslie Gelb: "If published a decade ago, the insights in Barney Rubin's book could have prevented the Americanization of the war in Afghanistan." How lucky for Obama then to have co-opted the person he most needed as a critic?
Orville Schell/John Delury: Wealth and Power: China's Long March to the Twenty-first Century (2013, Random House): Goes back as far as the 19th century Opium Wars to get a handle on the intellectual threads that transformed China from peasant communism to a cutting-edge industrial powerhouse. Schell is one of the best-known historians of China.
Ari Shavit: My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel (2013, Spiegel & Grau): A "feel good" book about Israel for a time when one has to wonder, but the heroic personal stories establish an air of such exalted wonderfulness that one can admit to historical atrocities like the forced exile of the entire Arab population of Lydda and then write it off by declaring it as one of the necessary founding blocks of today's wonderful Israel. Imagine something like Dee Brown rewriting Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and then turning around and explaining that every positive accomplishment in America since has only possible thanks to that act of slaughter.
Rebecca Solnit: The Faraway Nearby (2013, Viking Adult): Essays, I take it, "about arctic explorers, Che Guevara among the leper colonies, and Mary Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein, about warmth and coldness, pain and kindness, decayand transformation, making art and making self." She has a dozen or more books, all on things that fascinate me, yet I've only managed to make it through one slim one.
Alan Weisman: Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth? (2013, Little Brown): Previously wrote The World Without Us (2007, Thomas Dunne), a speculation on how the Earth would adjust if human beings were to vanish. In this sequel, he asks how likely that is, how many people can the Earth sustain, and whether exceeding those limits -- depleting resources, changing climate, etc. -- could cause a population crash.
Hugh Wilford: America's Great Game: The CIA's Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East (2013, Basic Books): Previously wrote The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America (2008). Robert D Kaplan popularized the term "Arabists" some while back in his book about US State Dept. Arab experts and how they tended to align with their subjects, especially against Israel. (I don't know that anyone's bothered to coin a term for pro-Israelis in State and the CIA, but a comparably long list of names could be rounded up.) So one "great game" has been between Israel and the Arabs, another between the US and the UK over influencing the Arabs (a game the UK surrendered around 1970), and another between the US and the USSR -- any of which could be the subject here.
Tim Wise: Culture of Cruelty: How America's Elite Demonize the Poor, Valorize the Rich and Jeopardize the Future (paperback, 2014, City Lights): Obviously could write a lot more on this subject than 216 pages. Has mostly written on race politics in the past, a typical title: Speaking Treason Fluently: Anti-Racist Reflections From an Angry White Male (2008).
Some recent paperback reissues of book previously listed in hardcover. These are just a few of those I had noted, and I haven't done up-to-date research on them:
James Carroll: Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World (2011, Houghton Mifflin; paperback, 2012, Mariner Books): Sweeping history of both the real and imagined city in the various monotheistic religions and imperialist polities that try to claim her. Most recently, and importantly, that means Zionist Israel and its ongoing conflict, both for and against the past.
Lizzie Collingham: The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food (2012; paperback, 2013, Penguin Books): Moves from a first book about Indian curries under the British imperium to a worldwide inquiry into how food and famine were considered and acted upon by all sides in World War II -- a story which certainly includes the great Bengal famine.
Joseph Stiglitz: The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future (2012; paperback, 2013, WW Norton): Important book by one of our most important economists, showing not only the structure of increasing inequality in America today but how that inequality stagnates the economy.
Patrick Tyler: Fortress Israel: The Inside Story of the Military Elite Who Run the Country -- and Why They Can't Make Peace (2012; paperback, 2013, Farrar Straus and Giroux): Israel is the world's most militarized nation, its ruling caste so invested in its military identity that as soon as one supposed enemy folds they conjure up another: soon after they signed the peace treaty with Egypt they invaded Lebanon; unsatisfied they supported Iran in its 1980s war against Iraq, and when Iraq fell (to the US in 1990 and again in 2003) they started fantasizing that Iran was out to get them with nuclear weapons. Tyler dates this back to the early 1950s when David Ben-Gurion turned on his former protégé Moshe Sharrett for considering peace initiatives. I think Ben-Gurion's war lust goes deeper, and that it has been more deeply ingrained in Israeli society, but this book covers the basic history.
I've read three of these books (Carroll, Stiglitz, Tyler), and can recommend all of them. The Collingham book looks to be very interesting.
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