Thursday, July 3. 2014
Last New Book Notes was on April 2, the one before that on February 11, so this is about when I should be coming up with another collection of forty blurbs. If anything, I'm a little late, but then I always seem to be late. Actually, I have another batch of forty in the draft file, so I may well come up with a second post this week.
Anyhow, these are the most interesting titles I've noticed on real and virtual bookstore shelves recently:
Julia Angwin: Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance (2014, Times Books): A journalist surveys the surveillance nation -- not just the NSA but your phone company and Google too -- senses that the response to surveillance will be self-censorship to the point of losing freedom, and tries to figure out ways to cope, even to carve out some measure of privacy.
Gary J Bass: The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide (2013, Knopf): About the 1971 revolt and war that split Bangladesh off from Pakistan, and how Nixon and Kissinger were so wrapped up in their Cold War machinations they didn't notice (nor did they care) that millions of people were perishing. Bass has a rotten history as one of those liberal hawks who invariably wants the US to jump into wars everywhere there's a chance to save lives, and this is a case that suits him to a T. (As I recall, Noam Chomsky cited India's intervention as one of the very few cases where a war actually did some good.) And it never hurts to be reminded that Nixon and Kissinger were war criminals of the highest order. Still, beware the hidden agenda.
Michael Burleigh: Small Wars, Faraway Places: Global Insurrection and the Making of the Modern World, 1945-1965 (2013, Viking): Given the years covered, most of those faraway wars were revolts against European (and American) imperialism, many of which got caught up in the Cold War as the United States forsake liberalism in favor of any tinpot despot who could be counted as anticommunist. That adds up to a pretty big book (668 pp) with "18 distinct story lines of terrorism, counter-terrorism, intrigue, nationalism, and Cold War rivalry." Good chance he spreads himself thin, as well as missing the upshot -- which is that the Cold War was primarily responsible for undermining democracy and undoing the middle class in America.
Tyler Cowen: Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation (2013, Dutton): New York Times pundit, on the conservative side, does at least approach real problems while denying that they can be fixed (often by reassuring us that the right people are working on it). E.g., his brief on the economic decline of the middle class was The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better. This book is about how inequality is good because, well, it generates more millionaires.
Robert F Dalzell Jr: The Good Rich and What They Cost Us (2013, Yale University Press): The pictures on the cover depict George Washington, Oprah Winfrey, and two guys in the middle -- I gather one is John D. Rockefeller, who despite the enormous foundation that still bears his name was never much regarded as "good," for the public at least. Probes the contradiction between a public committed to democracy and one that seems to celebrate the rich.
John Demos: The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic (2014, Knopf): A study in racism, really, as Demos examines a school set up by New England evangelists for "heathens" from around the globe -- Henry Obookiah, from Hawaii, was a famous student here -- and how the Connecticut community reacted to that school.
Barbara Ehrenreich: Living With a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth About Everything (2014, Grand Central): A memoir of sorts, about the search for truth or knowledge or understanding. One of the few people I'd read anything by.
Graham Farmelo: Churchill's Bomb: How the United States Overtook Britain in the First Nuclear Arms Race (2013, Basic Books): One can argue that early in WWII Britain had the best shot at inventing the atomic bomb, and that Churchill for one reason or another ceded that lead to the US -- that seems to be the thrust here, and it would probably be interesting to find out what Churchill did and did not understand about the project, although in the end it's hard to see it mattering much. The British Empire could hardly stand on its own let alone pay for the mother country's disastrous wars, so it was no surprise that Britain emerged from the war reduced to America's loyal (and dependent) sidekick -- something else Churchill may or may not have understood, but ultimately couldn't do anything about.
Carlotta Gall: The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan 2001-2014 (2014, Houghton Mifflin): Longtime war reporter argues that the US war in Afghanistan failed because the "real enemy" wasn't the Taliban. It was Pakistan. That's not exactly news, but it opens up more questions than it answers, and more importantly it leaves unexamined America's contribution to its own failure.
Timothy F Geithner: Stress Test: Reflections on Financial Crises (2014, Crown): Obama's Secretary of the Treasury was already deeply involved in the struggle to save the big banks as head of the New York Fed in 2008. I doubt he has much to say about other financial crises, but for the one he experienced first hand he's happy to take credit for saving not only the banks but the bankers who ran them into the ground. As for the rest of the economy, well, that's more complicated, and as far as I can tell not something Geithner reflects on much, or even cares about.
Malcolm Gladwell: David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants (2013, Little Brown): Stories showing how underdogs can leverage their weakness to get ahead, or something like that. I don't have a strong opinion on him one way or the other: he has a knack for making trivial points, and a great fondness of success even when it's pretty superficial, but sometimes he runs across something interesting or important and he's rarely stupid or inelegant about it.
Anand Gopal: No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes (2014, Metropolitan): Focuses on three examples (a Taliban commander, a member of the US-backed government, and a village housewife), showing through each how the occupying Americans are viewed in Afghanistan, and therefore the limits of what they can hope to do.
Glenn Greenwald: No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the US Surveillance State (2014, Metropolitan Books): A lawyer, Greenwald reacted to the Patriot Act by becoming a blogger focused on how the security state is encroaching on civil liberties -- a transformation he explained in his book How Would a Patriot Act? Since then he's found more and more to worry about, most dramatically when Snowden passed him leaked info about NSA spying.
David Harvey: Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism (2014, Oxford University Press): English Marxist, has been picking at the scab of capitalism for many years, churning out books like Limits to Capital (2007), A Short History of Neoliberalism (2007), and The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism (2010) -- I read the latter and found it tedious but deeply insightful. No surprise that he finds capitalism rife with contradictions -- many are obvious even casually -- or that they periodically crack up but that "end" has proven elusive.
Ann Jones: They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America's Wars: The Untold Story (paperback, 2014, Haymarket Books): Former NGO worker, wrote Winter in Kabul: Life Without Peace in Afghanistan about what she saw in Afghanistan in 2002, and two more books following the casualties: War Is Not Over When It's Over: Women and the Unseen Consequences of Conflict, and now this short book on maimed US soldiers -- the real VA scandal.
Robert D Kaplan: Asia's Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific (2014, Random House): Former travel writer to uncomfortable backwaters, has proven to be useful enough to the US security state he got appointed to the Defense Policy Board, where he's probably regarded as a deep thinker. No doubt he'd like nothing better than to stir up a Cold War with China, giving the Pentagon cover for buying up another generation of war toys.
Harvey J Kaye: The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great (2014, Simon & Schuster): The Four Freedoms -- "Franklin Roosevelt's vision of a truly just and fair America" -- was war propaganda and thus easily forgotten once FDR died and the war against Germany and Japan was concluded. They are, however, something we can and should aspire to today, especially given the beating at least two freedoms (from want and from fear) have taken from the right in recent decades. Kaye previously wrote Thomas Paine and the Promise of America (2005, Hill and Wang).
Lane Kenworthy: Social Democratic America (2014, Oxford University Press): Argues that the US has been progressing slowly toward the social democracy common in most wealthy nations, but isn't that a stretch given how hard it is to talk about such things in their customary terms? So I expect this is longer on prescription than description, but mapping popular programs like Social Security and Medicare into the social democratic matrix is a step toward realizing what we're missing.
Benjamin Kunkel: Utopia or Bust: A Guide to the Present Crisis (paperback, 2014, Verso): Short "crash course" in the latest Marxist/Leftist thinking on the economy -- names dropped include Zizek, Harvey, Graeber, Jameson. Previously wrote the novel Indecision.
Costas Lapavitsas: Profiting Without Producing: How Finance Exploits Us All (paperback, 2014, Verso): British economist, previous book focused on Eurozone issues, sees "financialization" as the root of most of our current evils. There can be little doubt that most of the profits capitalism produces these days go to the financial sector, and it would be interesting to understand why.
Nathan Lean: The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims (paperback, 2012, Pluto Press): One of many (mostly but not all critical) books on the fear of and hatred against Muslims that has been cultivated in the US and Europe recently, concurrent with the US War on Terror and the termination of Israel's "peace process." Lean sees a right-wing conspiracy as responsible, with the Israel lobby at least complicit. I suspect it's uglier and dumber than that, in part because the hatred has overshot US neo-imperial goals, turning right-wingers anti-war (as we saw with Syria). Other recent books (no idea if they're any good or not): Chris Allen: Islamophobia (paperback, 2010, Ashgate); Carl W Ernst, ed: Islamophobia in America: The Anatomy of Intolerance (paperback, 2013, Palgrave Macmillan); John L Esposito/Ibraham Kalin, eds: Islamophobia: The Challenge of Pluralism in the 21st Century (paperback, 2011, Oxford University Press); Peter Gottschalk/Gabriel Greenberg: Islamophobia: Making Muslims the Enemy (2007, Rowman & Littlefield); Deepa Kumar: Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire (paperback, 2012, Haymarket Books); Stephen Sheehi: Islamophobia: The Ideological Campaign Against Muslims (paperback, 2011, Clarity Press); John R Bowen: Blaming Islam (2012, MIT Press); Walid Shoebat/Ben Barrack: The Case FOR Islamophobia: Jihad by the Word; America's Final Warning (2013, Top Executive Media). I could also mention: Jack Shaheen: Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People (2nd ed, paperback, 2009, Olive Branch Press); and Martha C Nussbaum: The New Religious Intollerance: Overcoming the Politics of Fear in an Anxious Age (2012, Belknap Press).
Michael Lewis: Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt (2014, WW Norton): A book on high-frequency trading, entertaining and informative no doubt, with something of a moral centre even though the journalist is inordinately fond of rich people.
Isaac Martin: Rich People's Movements: Grassroots Campaigns to Untax the One Percent (2013, Oxford University Press): That would be the Tea Party, the best irate mob money can buy, which gave an air of faux populism to some of the most extremely reactionary ideas of the last few decades, struggling above all against the idea that the government should serve the people who elected it. Title here reminds one of the Frances Fox Piven/Richard A Cloward classic, Poor People's Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail (1977; paperback, 1978, Vintage Books).
Mariana Mazzucato: The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths (paperback, 2013, Anthem): Two myths seem especially prevalent today: that public investment only comes at the expense of private investment, and that that's a bad thing. I can think of others, but that's not necessarily the point here: she seems to be focusing on technology and business subsidies governments give out that are ultimately snapped up by private sector investors -- an obvious case in point is support of "green energy" sectors like wind and solar (efforts so hated by the oil-bound Kochs).
Suzanne Mettler: Degrees of Inequality: How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream (2014, Basic Books): Until the 1970s public support of higher education tended to make American society and economy more equitable, but that has since changed. Personally, I think education has long been overrated, especially as a panacea, but lately it's higher costs and mountains of debt have turned into a cruel trap. The real roots of inequality are political, and the very suggestion that you can compensate for that by raising an educated caste is itself part of the problem -- maybe even one that prefigured the political shift?
Ian Morris: War: What's It Good For? (2014, Farrar Straus and Giroux): Edwin Starr could answer that in far less than these 512 pages: "absolutely nothing." Morris likes to jump all over the place, as in his previous Why the West Rules -- For Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future, but his bottom line seems to be "war made the state, and the state made peace." I'm tempted to add: but only after making war unbearable, and even now way too many people haven't learned the lesson.
Ralph Nader: Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State (2014, Nation Books): Given how extensively the "grass roots" right has been underwritten by the same corporations Nader decries, I have to question the wisdom of any such "alliance" -- even when left and right may agree on a point, such as the TARP bailout slush fund, all the two sides can conceivably do is to block something particularly foul. What they can't do is to create something that would work fairly, because the right is fundamentally set on destruction of the public sphere. Still, if obstruction is the sole goal -- as in keeping Obama from bombing Syria, or allowing the NSA to spy on all Americans -- sure, there's some potential there.
Richard Overy: The Bombers and the Bombed: Allied Air War Over Europe 1940-1945 (2014, Viking): Attempts to broaden our understanding of the air war over Europe by including the experiences of the bombed, especially in horrific fire storms like Hamburg and Dresden. The US edition omits a complementary survey of the German bombing of England, some 300 pages from the UK edition (The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945).
Nomi Prins: All the President's Bankers (2014, Nation Books): Wrote one of the better books on the finance meltdown (It Takes a Pillage: Behind the Bailouts, Bonuses, and Backroom Deals from Washington to Wall Street). This seems to go deeper into the historic relationship between bankers and politics, as if JP Morgan had anything to do with our current mess. Of course, he probably did, and Andrew Mellon and David Rockefeller and Walter Wriston too.
David Reynolds: The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century (2014, WW Norton): One hundred years after the Great War (as it was known at the time, WWI as it was renamed, or the opening of the "30-years war of the 20th century" (as Arno Mayer reconceived it), we're suddenly seeing an avalanche of books on the subject, with much arguing over how it all started, and much detailing of the exceptional gore (WWII was much worse on civilians, but rarely matched the earlier war for pitched battles -- Stalingrad was an exception, but still couldn't match Marne). This book at least tries to make good use of the intervening century. I've noted a fair number of these books separately (Christopher Clark, Geoffrey Wawro), but also: Tim Butcher: The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War; Prit Butlar: Collision of Empires: The War on the Eastern Front in 1914 (Osprey); Charles Emmerson: 1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War (2013, Public Affairs); Peter Hart: The Great War: A Combat History of the First World War (2013, Oxford University Press); Max Hastings: Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War (2013, Knopf); Paul Jankowski: Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War (Oxford University Press); Philip Jenkins: The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade; Nick Lloyd: Hundred Days: The Campaign That Ended World War I (Basic Books); Margaret MacMillan: The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 (2013, Random House); Gordon Martel: The Month that Changed the World: July 1914 (7/1, Oxford University Press); Shawn McMeekin: July 1914: Countdown to War (2013, Basic Books); William Mulligan: The Great War for Peace (Yale University Press); Michael Neiberg: The Military Atlas of World War I (Chartwell); TG Otte: July Crisis: The World's Descent into War, Summer 1914 (Cambridge University Press); William Philpott: War of Attrition: Fighting the First World War (Overlook); Ian Senior: Invasion 1914: The Schelieffen Plan to the Battle of the Marne (8/19, Osprey); Gary Sheffield: Morale and Command: The British Army on the Western Front (Pen and Sword); David Stone: The Kaiser's Army: The German Army in World War I (7/24, Conway); Kristian Coates Ulrichsen: The First World War in the Middle East (7/25, Hurst); Alexander Watson: Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I (10/7, Basic Books).
Amanda Ripley: The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way (2013, Simon & Schuster): Like TR Reid in The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care, Ripley travels around the world searching out what seems to work and offering it as an alternative to what doesn't work in the US: an easy approach that avoids theory but also misses many of the pitfalls theory introduces. I doubt however that the process will work as well, because it's easier to define what a good health care system is -- one where fewer people get sick and stuck in that system -- than what would make for a good education system: indeed, much of the "theory" out there is really a dispute over what education should do (e.g., make people smarter vs. train people better to fill assigned slots).
Dana Roithmayr: Reproducing Racism: How Everyday Choices Lock in White Advantage (2014, NYU Press): Examines how racial advantages and disadvantages have persisted despite the establishment of supposedly color-neutral legal rights and systems.
Jake Rosenfeld: What Unions No Long Do (2014, Harvard University Press): Have much political clout for one thing, which is a problem given how much our system depends on countervaling powers to keep from going insane in favor of one interest group -- mainly business. But also they don't seem to care as much about the broader groups of people who aren't unionized, effectively leaving them without political representation. (Arguably, American unions have always been weak there, but still.)
Daniel Schulman: Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America's Most Powerful and Private Dynasty (2014, Grand Central): Much in the news recently for their efforts to destroy democracy in the US (err, to safeguard the freedom of second-generation oil billionaires), this gives you some background on who they are, where they and all their money came from, and how they've evolved from John Birch Society paranoids to Tea Party astroturfers.
Rebecca Solnit: Men Explain Things to Me (paperback, 2014, Haymarket Books): Short (100 pp) collection of essays, the title one about male mistakes in talking to women, and others about war, Virginia Woolf, and the IMF.
Joshua Steckel/Beth Zasloff: Hold Fast to Dreams: A College Guidance Counselor, His Students, and the Vision of a Life Beyond Poverty (2014, New Press): The author left his job at a ritzy private school to try to guide poor kids into college, and illustrates that task with profiles of ten students, the innumerable problems they faced, and some measure of success, sometimes.
Matt Taibbi: The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap (2014, Spiegel & Grau): Defines "the divide" as: "the seam in American life where our two most troubling trends -- growing wealth inequality and mass incarceration -- come together . . . what allows massively destructive fraud by the hyperwealthy to go unpunished, while turning poverty itself into a crime." So this expands upon his previous fraud-focused book, Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America (2010), broadening the context, and probably looks back to his earlier work on politics.
Elizabeth Warren: A Fighting Chance (2014, Metropolitan): I don't put much stock on books by politicians, but before she ran for office she co-write The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Parents Are Going Broke (2004), a timely issue if ever there was one. This one is more of a memoir, but the path from where she came from to where she is now feels authentic, and her grip on how policy affects ordinary people is smart and shrewd.
Geoffrey Wawro: A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire (2014, Basic Books): Focuses on Austria-Hungary, which gambled on its ability to seize Serbia and lost everything in the first world war -- a failure he finds rooted in the previous decline of the empire.
John F Weeks: Economics of the 1%: How Mainstream Economics Serves the Rich, Obscures Reality and Distorts Policy (paperback, 2014, Anthem): Uh, sure. Even if economics somehow managed to only study the actual workings of the economy it would be most useful to the rich for uncovering opportunities to profit, but in fact most economists not only study capitalism but are in thrall to it and more than willing to propagandize on behalf of the rich, even making arguments that contradict well known maxims. Weeks is far from the first author to notice this.
Some books previously mentioned that have since come out in paperback. Normally I'd write a bit on each, but I've had trouble researching this section, and it turns out that my draft file is mostly stubs (some rather old), so for this time (at least) I figure I should just flush it:
Maybe with a fresh start I'll write more next time. Usually there's an implied recommendation in the paperback listings -- I don't go out and look to see if books I have no interest in have been reprinted -- but the only ones above I have read are: Louisa Thomas' fine book on her ancestors (most famously Norman Thomas); and three books on Israel (Rashid Khalidi, Shlomo Sand, and Patrick Tyler). I do, however, have Corey Robin, Christia Freedland, and Breaking the Silence on the shelf and mean to get to them sooner or later. Several others are things I'd like to read if I can find the time.
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