Tuesday, April 26. 2016
It's been about two months since my last roundup of book blurbs (Feb. 24). I started to cherry pick some important political books -- frequently noted writers like Andrew Bacevich, Thomas Frank, Jacob Hacker/Paul Pierson, Adam Hochschild, as well as Matthew Desmond's much touted Evicted -- but I wound up filling out this set of forty with the older entries in my scratch file. Almost have enough left over for a second forty, so that could come later in the week, or next week, or next month -- not clear at the moment.
Julian Assange, ed: The WikiLeaks Files: The World According to US Empire (2015, Verso): A big chunk of data from leaked US diplomatic documents in 2010-11, edited, indexed, with notes on context -- I've seen this described as an "executive summary" to an Internet-searchable cache of 2.3 million documents. People went to jail, or were otherwise harassed, to make this information public. Other people should go to jail for what it shows.
Andrew J Bacevich: America's War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History (2016, Random House): Vietnam veteran, conservative critic of America's imperial overreach, especially since his important The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War appeared in 2005 in the wake of Bush's ill-fated invasion of Iraq. That book helped explain why American politicians lost their fear of getting trapped in foreign quagmires. Here he moves from the toxic effects militarism has had on American civil society to the endless chain of disasters US entanglement in the Middle East has caused going back to the 1980s. Very likely another important book.
Yochai Benkler: The Penguin and the Leviathan: How Cooperation Triumphs Over Self-Interest (2011, Crown Business): Title comes from the free software ethos of Linux (with its happy penguin logo) and Hobbes' politico-philosophical landmark where the unfettered pursuit of self-interest turns into a war of all against all. It shouldn't be hard to show that cooperation is more productive -- indeed, the main thing that companies do is to build a sheltered space where workers can build together, even in a world where competition between companies can be cutthroat. Adam Smith, for instance, imagined an "invisible hand" but what he really demonstrated was the productive advantages of a division of labor. Author previously wrote The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom (2006, Yale University Press).
Phyllis Bennis: Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror: A Primer (paperback, 2015, Olive Branch Press): One more in a series of short primers (Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict, Ending the Iraq War, Understanding the US-Iran Crisis, Ending the US War in Afghanistan), provides the basics, the history, a firm understanding of international law, and a common sense critique of American imperial hubris. Probably quite useful, but one thing I wonder about is how the idea of ISIS elicits such a knee-jerk reaction from the American psyche: the Syrian Civil War was widely regarded as such a complete mess that US intervention would be foolish, yet as soon as you uttered the words "Islamic State" the US plunged back into war, both in Syria and Iraq, and ISIS has turned into the magic word to justify US bombing in Libya and Yemen. This reaction has proved so instantaneous and unthinking I'm not sure that even Bennis can negate it.
Ari Berman: Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America (2015, Farrar Straus and Giroux): A history of the civil rights movement, especially the struggle to pass the Voting Rights Act. The book comes shortly after said Act was gutted by the Roberts Court. Congress should have responded by extending the Act's protections to all states, especially since the Republicans discovered they do better when voter turnout is low and started passing restrictive "voter ID" laws all over the country.
Wendell Berry: Our Only World: Ten Essays (2015, Counterpoint): Kentucky tobacco farmer, poet, essayist, recently passed into his 80s, can be cranky about new technology but has great sensitivity to communal life and the natural world. Recent essay collections have tended to collect older works, so I'm not sure if the essays in this "new collection" are really new. I am sure that the old ones are very much worth your time.
Beth Buczynski: Sharing Is Good: How to Save Money, Time and Resources Through Collaborative Consumption (paperback, 2013, New Society Publishers): One thing I've come to realize is that damn near none of the things I own is in use at any given time, nor does the percentage grow much over days, week, months. I assume that's at least part of what's going on here. (I have a cousin who lives in a retirement community where the houses are tiny but nearly everything imaginable is available in shared buildings -- when I visit, it always strikes me as something of a communist paradise.) So this seems like a reasonable idea for a lower cost, higher value, sustainable future, not that I doubt the devil is in the details. Other books along these lines: Rachel Botsman: What's Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption (2010, Harper Business; paperback, 2011, Collins); Lisa Gansky: The Mesh: Why the Future of Business Is Sharing (paperback, 2012, Portfolio); Chelsea Rustrum/Gabriel Slempinski/Alexandra Liss: It's a Shareable Life: A Practical Guide on Sharing (paperback, 2014, Shareable Life); Jay Walljasper: All That We Share: How to Save the Economy, the Environment, the Internet, Democracy, Our Communities and Everything Else That Belongs to All of Us (paperback, 2010, New Press); Malcolm Harris/Neal Gorenflo, eds: Share or Die: Voices of the Get Lost Generation in the Age of Crisis (paperback, 2012, New Society Publishers).
Horace Campbell: Global NATO and the Catastrophic Failure in Libya (paperback, 2013, Monthly Review Press): It's pretty clear in hindsight that the NATO intervention in Libya in 2011 took a bad situation -- a civil war as Muammar Gaddafi used military force to try to suppress a popular revolt -- and turned it into chaos and who knows what? You'd think this would be cause for reflection, but the intervention came and went too fast to get onto book schedules, and since then little has been published other than the right wing's Benghazi! propaganda, so I thought I'd search out what's available. This book, very critical of NATO, was the first I found. Some others: Alison Pargeter: Libya: The Rise and Fall of Qaddafi (2012, Yale University Press); Vijay Prashad: Arab Spring, Libyan Winter (paperback, 2012, AK Press); Ethan Chorin: Exit the Colonel: The Hidden History of the Libyan Revolution (2012, Public Affairs); Maximilian Forte: Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO's War on Libya and Africa (paperback, 2012, Baraka Books); Francis A Boyle: Destroying Libya and World Order: The Three-Decade US Campaign to Terminate the Qaddafi Revolution (paperback, 2013, Clarity Press); Christopher S Chivvis: Toppling Qaddafi: Libya and the Limits of Liberal Intervention (paperback, 2013, Cambridge University Press); Hugh Roberts: The Fall of Muammar Gaddafi: NATO's War in Libya (2016, Verso).
Satyajit Das: The Age of Stagnation: Why Perpetual Growth Is Unattainable and the Global Economy Is in Peril (2016, Prometheus Books): Well, it does seem like the economies of the United States and Europe haven't bounced back from the 2008 financial meltdown like they did from previous recessions, and lately we've seen downturns in China and other "developing countries" that had fared so well in the previous decades. Das attributes all of this to the low interest "easy money" policies used to fight the recession and the overall growth of debt (especially public debt). I see this same stagnation, but I'm more inclined to attribute it to deliberate political policies protecting the issuers of all that debt while letting everyone else slide into an ever deeper mire. What makes this even more disagreeable is how neoliberals use debt as a cudgel to argue for austerity. An unspoken alternative would be to liquidate much of that debt, which would go a long ways toward reversing the increasing inequality trend (and all of its vile consequences).
Matthew Desmond: Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (2016, Crown): Stories of tenants and landlords in poor parts of Milwaukee c. 2008-09: the struggle to meet the rent for bad housing in hard times, "a cycle of hurt that all parties -- landlord, tenant, city -- inflict on one another." Seems to be one of the more important books on American poverty in recent years.
Cynthia Enloe/Joni Seager: The Real State of America Atlas: Mapping the Myths and Truths of the United States (paperback, 2011, Penguin Press): A short (128 pp) book of maps and charts slicing and dicing the US economy and society in various ways. For instance, one map shows military deaths in Iraq by state: Texas (414) is a close second to California (468), and Oklahoma (76) is more than 50% higher than Kansas (47) (per capita would be more revealing, although it would reduce the OK/KS ratio).
Keith P Feldman: A Shadow Over Palestine: The Imperial Life of Race in America (2015, University of Minnesota Press): Takes the thesis that the US relationship to Israel belongs more to US domestic than foreign policy, and explores how US racial attitudes influence that policy. I imagine there's something to this, especially in the 1980s when Israel was one of South Africa's last close allies, but I imagine one can find less explicit evidence earlier -- especially as you don't have to go back very far to get past the taboo against explicit racism. Deeper down, both Israel and the US are colonial outposts of colonial outposts of Europe, and heirs of its crusader mythos -- Jews were long considered outsiders to all this, but one can argue that in colonizing Palestine they became "white," approximately even "Christian" (as the recently popular "Judeo-Christian" terminology shows).
Norman G Finkelstein: Method and Madness: The Hidden Story of Israel's Assaults on Gaza (paperback, 2014, OR Books): Chronicles three major assaults on Gaza since Israel dismantled its settlements in the blockaded territory: codes names Cast Lead (2008-09), Pillar of Defense (2012), and Protective Edge (2014). Finkelstein examines the logic behind these attacks, concluding they "have been designed to sabotage the possibility of a compromise peace with the Palestinians, even on terms that are favorable to [Israel]." Seems to be a collection of essays, less detailed than the book he wrote on Cast Lead: 'This Time We Went Too Far': Truth and Consequences of the Gaza Invasion.
Ronald P Formisano: Plutocracy in America: How Increasing Inequality Destroys the Middle Class and Exploits the Poor (2015, Johns Hopkins University Press): Argues that rule by the rich (plutocracy) undermines both the poor and "the middle class" -- which I take to be a way of saying "democracy." Or as Louis Brandeis put it: "We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few; we can't have both." I think inequality is a very important topic not so much because it is unfair and unjust as because it introduces all sorts of twists and distortions into how we relate to each other. Author previously wrote The Tea Party: A Brief History and For the People: American Populist Movements From the Revolution to the 1850s.
Thomas Frank: Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? (2016, Metropolitan Books): After three notable books on the rise of the right -- What's the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (2004), The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule (2008), and Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right (2012) -- Frank takes a hard look at the Democrats who have aided and abetted the far right's stranglehold on politics. Given how the Republicans have gone from bad to worse without totally marginalizing themselves, this may seem to be an untimely subject to bring up, but politics is not just a game where you tote up points and celebrate the winner: it's how we as a democratic society try to cope with real problems, and that process has become perverted to a staggering degree. Frank is not the first writer on the left to notice that "liberal" leaders like Clinton and Obama often give up rather than fight for the people who elected them -- cf. Chris Hedges: The Death of the Liberal Class (2010), or for that matter the Bernie Sanders campaign.
Rose George: Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate (paperback, 2014, Picador): One of those books on basic, everyday life, and the technology and business that makes it possible. Author previously tried this with another important topic: The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters (2008).
Stanley B Greenberg: America Ascendant: A Revolutionary Nation's Path to Addressing Its Deepest Problems and Leading the 21st Century (2015, Thomas Dunne): Pollster to hegemonic Democrats like Clinton and Gore, consultant to companies like Boeing and Microsoft, and all around hack reassures us that the future is rosy and won't be clouded by a Republican Party which is self-destructing as we speak. He seeks the nation "turning to Democrats to take on the country's growing challenges," continuing "the social transformations that are making the country ever more racially and culturally diverse, younger, a home to immigrants, and the metropolitan centers that foster a rising economic and cultural dynamism."
Dave Grossman/Gloria DeGaetano: Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill: A Call to Action Against TV, Movie & Video Game Violence (1999; rev ed, paperback, 2014, Harmony): Grossman was a Lt. Col. who had second thoughts and wrote On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (1995; paperback, 1996, Back Bay Books). I don't think there is a simple relationship between witnessing violence in fictional contexts and killing (or for that matter between watching porn and sex crimes), although I also don't doubt that habituation and desensitization can lead some people to become more dangerous. And I'm particularly suspicious of video games, where the point seems to be not just to kill but to develop an automatic reflex to do so thoughtlessly. But I'd worry more about the morals conveyed by our national celebration of "the troops" and their "heroism" -- by the nearly constant practice of war by the United States over the last 75 years. That the military itself is so gung-ho on games is a bad sign, but probably has less to do with violence today than the proliferation of their other favorite toy: firearms.
Jacob S Hacker/Paul Pierson: American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper (2016, Simon & Schuster): Once upon a time Ronald Reagan told a joke -- something like "the scariest words in the English language are 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help'" -- and some people took it as profound insight and blew it up into a nihilistic war against any and all forms of government activity, especially the kind that tries to actually help people. Hacker & Pierson have written a number of important books -- Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy (2005), The Great Risk Shift: The Assault on American Jobs, Families, Health Care, and Retirement and How You Can Fight Back (2007), Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer, and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class (2010) -- and now this one, where the remind us that public investment has long been a foundation of prosperity here, and why the movement against it makes us poorer.
Adam Hochschild: Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939 (2016, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt): As Franco turned to Hitler and Mussolini to support his movement in Spain's civil war, many others around the world, including 2800 Americans, rallied to the cause of Spanish democracy, becoming (in the terminology of the post-WWII CIA, "premature antifascists." This tries to tell their story, while picking up a few others like George Orwell. Author has written several notable books about (mostly British) protest movements against war and colonialism, such as King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves, and To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918.
Philip T Hoffman: Why Did Europe Conquer the World? (2015, Princeton University Press): Economist, sees the answer in economics, basically the relatively intense competition between late medieval European states involving nearly continuous war. Their rivalry favored whoever could advance science and technology for destructive purposes, and whoever could solve the financial problems of such military adventures. Along the way, Hoffman rejects various other theories, like those of Jared Diamond (Guns Germs and Steel, which as I recall includes similar economic arguments among others). Evidently doesn't address the obvious next question, which is why Europe made such a mess of the world it conquered. Both rise and fall, after all, are intimately related.
Jessica Hopper: The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic (paperback, 2015, Featherproof Books): She mostly writes for Pitchfork, which I don't read enough to have any sense of who she is or what she likes. Pitchfork's business model is based on the ideas that bits are cheap and so are writers, so make the latter crank out plenty of the former -- always more than it takes to glaze my eyes over. Her title is provocative, and not just because Ellen Willis and Lillian Roxon are dead, or because others like Ann Powers went straight into books without bothering to gather up their numerous short pieces. Still, the main reason I mention this book is to throw in a plug for Carol Cooper's Pop Culture Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race: Selected Critical Essays (1979-2001), which belies Hopper's title.
Philip K Howard: The Rule of Nobody: Saving America From Dead Laws and Broken Government (2014; paperback, 2015, WW Norton): Lawyer, political theorist, wrote The Death of Common Sense: How Law Is Suffocating America (1994), followed by The Collapse of the Common Good: How America's Lawsuit Culture Undermines Our Freedom (2002) and Life Without Lawyers: Liberating Americans From Too Much Law (2009). His big point -- that too many laws and regulatory rules, and lawyers and bureaucrats, has turned into a trap that has all sorts of bad effects, from inhibiting common sense to sapping freedom -- is something that we can all relate to, but still you have to wonder who benefits? For instance, lawsuits have never been the great leveler of theory, but sometimes they do manage to bring corporate abuses to an end. Howard wants to get rid of most lawsuits, which sounds laudable but not if doing so leaves us without recourse to right wrongs. It turns out that Howard is founder and chair of Common Good, a "nonpartisan, nonprofit legal reform coalition" trying to implement his recommendations. He seems to have support from members of both political parties, but most of the names mentioned in his Wikipedia page (which reads like PR) are Republicans (Jeb Bush, Alan Simpson, Mitch Daniels) and mouthpieces like David Brooks. Still, I imagine someone could rewrite Howard's books to arrive at a more progressive result -- although that may involve equalizing access to lawyers and lobbyists before cutting back on the overkill. Howard, by the way, wrote another book that is alarming and self-discrediting on the surface: The Lost Art of Drawing the Line: How Fairness Went Too Far (2001): nothing then or since suggests that we're suffering from too much fairness.
Ian Kershaw: To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949 (2015, Penguin): Part of a series called The Penguin History of Europe, joining the two world wars and the turbulent interwar period -- Arno Mayer called this period "the 30 years war of the 20th century." Kershaw has written several big books on the tail end of this period, including Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions That Changed the World, 1940-1941 (2007) and The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler's Germany (2011). On the same time period, Heinrich August Winkler: The Age of Catastrophe: A History of the West 1914-1945 (2015, Yale University Press), even longer (1016 pp).
Peter H Lindert/Jeffrey G Williamson: Unequal Gains: American Growth and Inequality Since 1780 (2016, Princeton University Press): The authors crunch numbers for a much longer stretch of American history than anyone else has done before, and find two time stretches where inequality rose steeply: from the 1970s to today, as you damn well know by now, and from 1774 to 1860, which actually predates the legendary robber baron period of the late 19th century and the great bubble of the "roaring '20s" -- two periods where the wealth of the very richest was especially conspicuous. Meanwhile there were three periods when the wealthy took serious hits: during the Revolution, the Civil War, and the Great Depression.
Mike Lofgren: The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government (2016, Viking): Previously wrote The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted (2012) -- no idea whether he's someone who can be trusted politically, but in a nutshell that sounds like the story of our times. Leaving aside the Republicans for the moment, one thing that has made Democrats so useless is how readily Clinton in 1993 and Obama in 2009 abandoned a great many of their campaign promises as soon as they had to face with Washington's entrenched bureaucracies -- more or less what Lofgren calls "the deep state." This especially seems to be the case with security and treasury, where new advisory jobs always seem to go to old hands. But I suspect the extraordinary influence of lobbyists and donors -- not technically part of the state, but perhaps promiscuously intertwined with it -- is at least as large. And one can throw in big media (mainstream and otherwise) which are always vigilant to police what politicians can think and say.
Branko Milanovic: Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization (2016, Belknap Press): Looks at inequality in a global context, finding that while inequality has been increasing within nations (especially the US), it has been falling among/between nations -- in large part because large developing nations like China and India have been promoting middle class incomes at the same time the US has been destroying them. A follow up to the author's The Haves and the Have-Notes: A Brief and Idiosyncratic History of Global Inequality (2010).
Ilan Pappé, ed: Israel and South Africa: The Many Faces of Apartheid (paperback, 2015, Zed Books): Various papers on comparisons and analogies, the upshot is that Israel is becoming every bit the international pariah state South Africa's apartheid regime became. Don't know if the book gets into this, but there are significant differences. Most importantly, Israel has become almost independent of cheap Palestinian labor, whereas South Africa was literally built on cheap labor.
Susan Pedersen: The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire (2015, Oxford University Press): A history of the world from 1920-1939 as seen through the League of Nations, the international organization created in the wake of World War I to ensure world peace. It, of course, failed, largely because the great powers were still preoccupied with their imperialist and colonialist rivalries and grudges.
Richard J Perry: Killer Apes, Naked Apes & Just Plain Nasty People: The Misuse and Abuse of Science in Political Discourse (2015, Johns Hopkins University Press): "Delivers a scathing critique of determinism" -- the notion that human behavior is genetically fixed or inherently programmed, particularly for violence. The title reminds me of certain bestsellers from back in the 1960s and 1970s, although I had thought they were pretty well debunked by now.
Serhii Plokhy: The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine (2015, Basic Books): Ukraine has lately become a major flash point in the West's renovated cold war to contain and isolate Putin's Russia, so it's about time someone wrote a history of the nation itself rather than consigning it to a sidebar in the history of Russia. Of course, most of its long history is subsumed under Russia or any of a number of other invading tribes or nations -- early chapters include "The Advent of the Slavs," "Vikings on the Dnieper," "Byzantium North," and "Pax Mongolica" before there is any hint of "The Making of Ukraine."
Robert Pollin: Greening the Global Economy (2015, MIT Press): Leftist economist, I found his book Contours of Descent: US Economic Fractures and the Landscape of Global Austerity (2003) insightful. This short (176 pp) book argues that it is possible to replace fossil fuels with renewables -- indeed, it is happening -- and grow the economy as a result.
Bill Press: Buyer's Remorse: How Obama Let Progressives Down (2016, Threshold Editions): It's certainly true that "in many ways President Obama has failed to live up to either his promises or his progressive potential" -- I've often been critical both of his strategic vision and of his tactical choices -- but I (and policy-wise I'm easily to the left of Bernie Sanders) think "remorse" suggests much more disillusionment than nearly any Obama voter feels. (Remorse is more like Lyndon Johnson, who campaigned to save us from the belligerent madness of Barry Goldwater, then promptly plunged us into the Vietnam War.) So I wonder what's up here, not least because I associate the publisher with right-wing cranks (e.g., Mark Levin, Glenn Beck, Michelle Malkin, Oliver North).
Ray Raphael: Founding Myths: Stories That Hide Our Patriotic Past [Tenth Anniversary Edition] (2004; rev ed, paperback, 2014, New Press): Remarkable how many stories people think they know about the American Revolution have been transformed over the ages into myth -- what the author calls "cherished fabrications." Raphael has written many books aimed at broadening and deepening understanding of the period by stripping away those myths, so this is his core text, newly revised. His other books include: A People's History of the American Revolution: How Common People Shaped the Fight for Independence (2001, New Press; paperback, 2002, Harper Collins), and including Founders: The People Who Brought You a Nation (2009, New Press); Mr. President: How and Why the Founders Created a Chief Executive (2012, Knopf); and Constitutional Myths: What We Get Wrong and How to Get It Right (2013, New Press).
Eric Rauchway: The Money Makers: How Roosevelt and Keynes Ended the Depression, Defeated Fascism, and Secured a Prosperous Peace (2015, Basic Books): George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are widely regarded as sainted presidents, but in many ways Franklin Roosevelt's many accomplishments are more remarkable -- he's just never had the sort of activist beatification committee that has managed to deface vast swathes of America naming shit for Ronald Reagan. This story deserves to be retold, not least because we are still plagued by goldbuggers -- probably the single dumbest idea still held by any reputable politician in America.
Nicholas Stargardt: The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939-1945 (2015, Basic Books): Attempts to create a broad portrait of how the German people viewed and were engaged in the German war against Europe, notably finding that "the Wehrmacht in fact retained the staunch support of the patriotic German populace until the bitter end."
Jim Wallis: America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America (2016, Brazos Press): Edits a Christian evangelical magazine called Sojourners tied to a Protestant religious sect he helped found, but has steered away from "Christian conservative" politics, recently writing books that take up political themes: like God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It (2005), and Rediscovering Values: On Main Street, Wall Street, and Your Street. Here he tackles the history and legacy of racism, and appeals to end it.
Karine V Walther: Sacred Interests: The United States and the Islamic World, 1821-1921 (2015, University of North Carolina Press): Time framework extends from the Greek War of Independence (1821) to the Greco-Turkish War (1919-22) -- curiously that period skips over the Barbary Wars (1801-05) when the US first tangled with the Ottoman Empire -- "excavates the deep history of American Islamophobia, showing how negative perceptions of Islam and Muslims shaped US foreign relations from the Early Republic to the end of World War I." I imagine thee is some evidence of that, but I've long been under the opposite impression: that US foreign policy toward the Ottomans was relatively benign, and only became more consequential once the oil industry got involved.
Ellen Willis: The Essential Ellen Willis (paperback, 2014, University of Minnesota Press): A pioneering feminist polemicist who early on wrote some notable rock criticism, since her death in 2006 her daughter, Nona Willis Aronowitz, has done a fine job of collecting her various writings for posterity -- before this general collection there appeared Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music (2011), and reissues of Beginning to See the Light: Sex, Hope, and Rock-and-Roll and No More Nice Girls: Countercultural Essays (both 2012, all University of Minnesota Press paperbacks). I've never been much of a fan -- partly because she seemed to be too glib about war for a leftist, partly because of a tone I recall in her feminism, like wrapping oneself in a flag -- but I don't doubt that these books are chock full of interesting insights.
Tim Wise: Under the Affluence: Shaming the Poor, Praising the Rich and Sacrificing the Future of America (paperback, 2015, City Lights): It isn't enough for the rich to steal from the poor. They also demand that we praise the rich for their successes, and condemn for poor for their failures. Wise wrote a rather similar book in 2014: Culture of Cruelty: How America's Elite Demonize the Poor, Valorize the Rich and Jeopardize the Future. Before that he mostly wrote about racism, which works much the same way.
Recently I decided that I needn't write a full paragraph of every book worth noting, so I started building a list. Here are a few examples that may (or may not) pique your curiosity:
I used to append a few paperback reissues of books I had previously written about, with additional blurbs, but I've tended to skip that recently. Since I've been collecting at least some, I'll list them here:
Wednesday, February 24. 2016
Seems like these book blurb columns involve a lot of "hurry up and wait," or vice versa. Last one was August 9, and before that August 4, August 1, and July 31, 2015. At that point I was so backlogged I was able to pump out four 40-book posts in a little more than a week. I don't have nearly that much backlog now -- certainly enough for one more post, but at the moment a bit shy of two (current backlog count is 61, including a couple books that won't be out until April). Still, if I keep researching, I may get that third post.
I'm so far behind that I've managed to read several of these books: Padraig O'Malley: The Two-State Delusion, Roberto Vivo: War: A Crime Against Humanity, and Sarah Vowell: Lafayette in the Somewhat United States. I've also started Jane Mayer: Dark Money, and have Robert J Gordon: The Rise and Fall of American Growth and Joseph Stiglitz: Rewriting the Rules of the American Economy waiting on the shelf.
Diane Ackerman: The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us (2014; paperback, 2015, WW Norton): She has written poetry, children's books, and some fifteen non-fiction books, some quite personal but a couple taking on very broad topics -- like A Natural History of the Senses (1990) and A Natural History of Love (1994). This one explores the many ways humans have reshaped the world to their own tastes and interests, an extraordinarily profound story, one that's hard to wrap one's mind around if only because the change has been so pervasive.
Mary Beard: SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (2015, Liveright): A history described both as sweeping and concise (608 pp) of Rome and its Empire from foundation up to 212 CE when Caracalla extended Roman citizenship to all non-slaves throughout the empire -- as good a date as any to avoid having to deal with the Empire's decline and fall.
Bill Bryson: The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain (2016, Doubleday): An American who writes humorous books about the English language and travels (thus far to English-speaking countries) and occasionally stretches for something like A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003). Born in Iowa, he's spent most of his adult life in Great Britain, writing Notes From a Small Island (1996) before moving back to the US, and now this second travelogue to Britain after returning. Probably charming and amusing, smart too.
Hillel Cohen: Year Zero of the Arab-Israeli Conflict 1929 (paperback, 2015, Brandeis): Israeli author, has written two important books on Arab collaborators before and after Israel's founding -- Army of Shadows: Palestinian Collaboration and Zionism, 1917-1948 (2008), and Good Arabs: The Israeli Security Agencies and the Israeli Arabs, 1948-1967 (2010, both University of California Press) -- reviews the pivotal 1929 Arab riots, which led to expansion of the Haganah forces, and in 1936-39 the much larger and deadlier Arab revolt. As for "year zero," historians can pick and choose; e.g., Amy Dockser Marcus opted for 1913 in Jerusalem 1913: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict (2007, Penguin).
Michael Day: Being Berlusconi: The Rise and Fall From Cosa Nostra to Bunga Bunga (2015, St Martin's Press): Biography of the Italian media mogul who parlayed wealth and power into three terms as prime minister of Italy, which helped him gain even more wealth and power, give or take occasionally getting "bogged down by his hubris, egotism, sexual obsessions, as well as his flagrant disregard for the law." All the timelier given how Donald Trump threatens to repeat the feat. By the way, Berlusconi is currently estimated to be worth about three times what Trump is ($12-to-$4 billion), but that's after Berlusconi has been prime minister, and before Trump becomes president.
EJ Dionne Jr: Why the Right Went Wrong: Conservatism From Goldwater to the Tea Party and Beyond (2016, Simon & Schuster): Journalist, leans liberal, has covered politics for a long time and written books like Why Americans Hate Politics (1991), They Only Look Dead: Why Progressives will Dominate the Next Political Era (1996), Stand Up, Fight Back: Republican Toughs, Democratic Wimps, and the Politics of Revenge (2004), Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right (2008), and Our Divided Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (2012). Much wishful thinking there, oft frustrated by the increasingly fervent (do I mean desperate?) right-wing, which he finally tries to face up to here.
Reese Ehrlich: Inside Syria: The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect (2014, Pegasus): It may be decades before anyone writes a definitive history of the many facets of Syria's civil war, if indeed it is over then. Meanwhile, we get small facets of the story from many scattered observers, and I doubt this one is any different (despite the forward by Noam Chomsky, who is nearly always right, unpleasant as that may be). Other recent books on Syria (aside from ISIS, which are probably more numerous): Leon Goldsmith: Cycle of Fear: Syria's Alawites in War and Peace (2015, Hurst); Nader Hashemi/Danny Postel, eds: The Syria Dilemma (2013, The MIT Press); Emile Hokayem: Syria's Uprising and the Fracturing of the Levant (paperback, 2013, Routledge); David W Lesch: Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad (rev ed, paperback, 2013, Yale University Press); Jonathan Littell: Syrian Notebooks: Inside the Homs Uprising (2015, Verso); John McHugo: Syria: A Recent History (paperback, 2015, Saqi); Christian Sahner: Among the Ruins: Syria Past and Present (2014, Oxford University Press); Bente Scheller: The Wisdom of Syria's Waiting Game: Foreign Policy Under the Assads (2014, Hurst); Stephen Starr: Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising (rev ed, paperback, 2015, Hurst); Samar Yazbek: The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria (paperback, 2015, Rider); Diana Darke: My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution (paperback, 2015, Haus); Robert Fisk et al: Syria: Descent Into the Abyss (paperback, 2015, Independent Print); Robin Yassin-Kassab/Leila Ali-Shami: Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War (paperback, 2016, Pluto Press).
Jack Fairweather: The Good War: Why We Couldn't Win the War or the Peace in Afghanistan (2014, Basic Books): I remain stumped about what was so good about the war. The fact that American public opinion was more unified in favor of attacking Afghanistan than Iraq didn't make a bit of difference. The war may have polled as high as the war against Nazi Germany, but there was no depth, no commitment, beyond the polling, and even less understanding. The book is probably stronger on why it all went so wrong.
Richard Falk: Palestine: The Legitimacy of Hope (paperback, 2014, Just World Books): A collection of essays since 2008 when Falk was appointed United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights issues in Occupied Palestine (his tenure there ended in 2014). Falk was a law professor who took an early interest in war crimes, especially regarding the Vietnam War -- cf. Crimes of War (1971, Random House), written and edited with Gabriel Kolko and Robert Lifton. He also has a newer essay collection out, Chaos and Counterrevolution: After the Arab Spring (paperback, 2015, Just World Books).
Henry A Giroux: The Violence of Organized Forgetting: Thinking Beyond America's Disimagination Machine (paperback, 2014, City Lights): Canadian educator and culture critic, has written books like Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism (2011, Peter Lang). Essays include "America's Descent Into Madness" -- "The stories it now tells are filled with cruelty, deceit, lies, and legitimate all manner of corruption and mayhem. The mainstream media spin stories that are largely racist, violent, and irresponsible -- stories that celebrate power and demonize victims, all the while camouflaging their pedagogical influence under the glossy veneer of entertainment" -- and "The Vanishing Point of US Democracy."
Robert J Gordon: The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The US Standard of Living Since the Civil War (2016, Princeton University Press): For 100 years after the Civil War, technological advances dramatically stimulated growth and raised living standards. However, from about 1970 on, growth rates have slowed markedly, and we seem to have entered a period of long-term stagnation. James K Galbraith, in The End of Normal: The Great Crisis and the Future of Growth, made a similar argument, but this goes much deeper into the changes wrought by the century of high growth. As for the future, we've already seen one consequence of slack growth: to keep profit levels up to expectations, investors have sought political favors and increasingly engaged in predatory behaviors (something often called financialization). Sooner or later the other shoe is bound to drop, as workers (and non-workers) who had been promised growth and wound up suffering from stagnation inevitably seek to regroup. Meanwhile, as Gordon points out, things like increasing inequality further dampen growth, further fueling the need for change.
Greg Grandin: Kissinger's Shadow: The Long Reach of America's Most Controversial Statesman (2015, Metropolitan Books): More like America's premier war criminal, a point we need to keep stressing as he continues to woo war-friendly politicians of both major parties. Grandin, whose books include Empire's Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism (2006), wants to delve deeper, going beyond Kissinger's own acts to explore his influence on America's peculiar self-conception as an empire. I'm not sure how much neocon nonsense can really be pinned on Kissinger, but if I did wonder this would be the place to start. Amazon thinks if you're curious about this you'll also be interested in Niall Ferguson: Kissinger: 1923-1968: The Idealist (2015, Penguin Press). You won't be.
Ran Greenstein: Zionism and Its Discontents: A Century of Radical Dissent in Israel/Palestine (paperback, 2014, Pluto Press): Surveys various political movements and thinkers based in Israel/Palestine who rejected the politics of Zionist dominance, starting with Ahad Ha'am in the 19th century, continuing through the Communist Party, the various Palestinian movements, and the Matzpen movement up to the 1980s.
Ann Hagedorn: The Invisible Soldiers: How America Outsourced Our Security (2014; paperback, 2015, Simon & Schuster): As I recall, when Bush I set out to attack Iraq in 1990, the US moved over 600,000 troops into position. When Bush II decided to invade Iraq, the US went with a little over 100,000 troops. The main difference was that in the intervening years the Military had contracted out vast numbers of support jobs -- logistics, food, that sort of thing. Over the course of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the outsourcing expanded to security, and the mercenaries they hired became increasingly common and unaccountable for their actions. (You may recall, for instance, that when Fallujah first revolted, the Americans they hung from that bridge were contractors.) That's what this book is about. I'm a little surprised Hagedorn wrote this book, since the main thing I had read by her was a magnificent slice of history, Savage Peace: Hope and Fear in America, 1919 (2007; paperback, 2008, Simon & Schuster).
Jeff Halper: War Against the People: Israel, the Palestinians and Global Pacification (paperback, 2015, Pluto Press): Head of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, and author of one of the most trenchant short analyses of Israel's "matrix of control" over the Palestinians, takes a deeper look at Israel's technologies of control, including how they are exported elsewhere in the world.
Doug Henwood: My Turn: Hillary Clinton Targets the Presidency (paperback, 2015, OR Books): All the dirt on Clinton, at least as viewed from the left, a perspective which reveals her as a corporate shill and inveterate warmonger. Henwood mostly writes about economic issues, in Left Business Observer. Other books tackling Clinton from the left include: Diana Johnstone: Queen of Chaos: The Misadventures of Hillary Clinton (paperback, 2015, CounterPunch), and Liza Featherstone, ed: False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton (paperback, 2016, Verso [June 16]).
Alistair Horne: Hubris: The Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century (2015, Harper): Argues that the many major wars of what the late Gabriel Kolko summed um as Century of War (1994) turned on excessive hubris of one side or the other ("In Greek tragedy, hubris is excessive human pride that challenges the gods and ultimately leads to total destruction of the offender" -- in reality the US has been a repeat offender without paying the ultimate price). Huge topic, but to provide depth of battle detail Horne limits his study to six cases: Tsushima (1905), Mononhan (1939), Moscow (1941), Midway (1942), Korea (1950), and Dien Bien Phu (1954).
Michael Hudson: Killing the Host: How Financial Parasites and Debt Destroy the Global Economy (paperback, 2015, Islet): Unorthodox economist, has seen this coming for a long time and written many books about it -- most recently The Bubble and Beyond: Fictitious Capital, Debt Deflation and Global Crisis (2012), and more presciently an essay on "the coming real estate collapse" in 2006. As I've tried to point out, the function of debt today has little to do with putting savings to productive work, and much to do with allowing people who can't afford it to keep up appearances until they crash. Needless to say, this is unsustainable -- not that governments haven't struggled heroically to keep the bankers solvent.
Rafael Lefevre: Ashes of Hama: The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria (2013, Oxford University Press): I pulled this out of the long list of Syria books (see Reese Ehrlich) because it stands out: the focus is on the 1982 Hama uprising and Hafez Assad's brutal suppression (over 20,000 killed, mostly in an artillery barrage of the liberated city). The Muslim Brotherhood led the uprising, and returned two decades later as an activist faction in Syria's "Arab Spring" demonstrations -- also met brutally, resulting in the civil war that has killed another 200,000 (not that any of these estimates are proven).
Les Leopold: Runaway Inequality: An Activist's Guide to Economic Justice (paperback, 2015, The Labor Institute Press): Labor economist, previously wrote a couple of primers on how Wall Street has ripped off America -- The Looting of America: How Wall Street's Game of Fantasy Finance Destroyed Our Jobs, Pensions, and Prosperity (2009), and How to Make a Million Dollars an Hour: Why Hedge Funds Get Away With Siphoning Off America's Wealth (2013). Has lots of "easy-to-understand charts and graphs," goes beyond explaining predatory finance to note how other key issues ("from climate change to the exploding prison population") are connected to economic inequality, and offers activists a guide for doing something about this central problem.
Mike Martin: An Intimate War: An Oral History of the Helmand Conflict, 1978-2012 (2014, Oxford University Press): Author was attached to British forces occupying Helmand in 2006 -- a Pashtun province on the southern border of Afghanistan, also the locale for Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan (2012, Knopf) -- but speaks Pashto and was able to record the bewildered thoughts of the locals, as well as the equally confused thinking of the occupiers. The levels of misunderstanding here should give anyone pause. Noteworthy here that he extends his coverage of the conflict to include both Soviet and US/UK forces, occupations with more than a little in common.
Paul Mason: Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future (2016, Farrar Straus and Giroux): Argues that capitalism will change in the near future, mutating into something new, shifting the economy away from its basis on "markets, wages, and private ownership." He adds, "This is the first time in human history in which, equipped with an understanding of what is happening around us, we can predict and shape the future." I have no idea how he works this out, but I started thinking about "post-capitalism" back in the 1990s. In my case the initial insight was the realization that it is possible to engineer economic systems and thereby consciously direct development instead of waiting for the invisible hand to lead us around. I also realized that the infinite growth required by capitalism must sooner or later give way to ecological limits. These appear to be common themes, but of course the devil's in the details. I would reject, for instance, Hayek's rule that all planning leads to tyranny, but I don't think you can just hand-wave that; there's too much history to the contrary.
Jane Mayer: Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right (2016, Doubleday): Give a guy a billion dollars and all of a sudden he thinks he can recruit some politicians and hoodwink the public into voting fot them. It's really just a case of extraordinary hubris, a sense of self-appointed privilege combined with utter disdain for democracy. Take the Kochs, for instance -- Mayer has already reported on them in The New Yorker, and they seem to account for a big chunk of this book, but they are hardly alone. As I recall, Newt Gingrich blamed his loss to Mitt Romney in 2012 to only having one billionaire backer vs. five for Romney. In this state of corruption, sometimes a handful of voters can shape history, maybe even prevent democracy from working to the benefit of the majority.
Sean McMeekin: The Ottoman Endgame: War, Revolution, and the Making of the Modern Middle East, 1908-1923 (2015, Penguin): The old adage is "history is written by the victors" -- a rule which has served to distort and largely bury one of the major stories of the early 20th century: the destruction of the Ottoman Empire. Even David Fromkin's brilliant A Peace to End All Peace: Creating the Modern Middle East, 1914-1922 skips over the revolt of the Young Turks and the two Balkan Wars that set the stage for the Ottoman entry into the Great War, which has the effect of making much of what the Ottoman triumvirate did during the war seem nonsensical (and possibly insane). McMeekin attempts to correct this partly by starting earlier, but also by researching deeper into newly opened Ottoman and Russian archives. But also, I suspect, because history has finally shown the Anglo-French "victory" to be hollow and bitter indeed.
Aaron David Miller: The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President (2014, St Martin's Press): Washington on the cover. His most striking trait was a desire to be seen as disinterested, a leader who only sees to the public interest, never to his personal one. Needless to say, such people are scarce today, not so much because they don't exist as because they don't promote themselves in the manner of would-be presidents. On the other hand, there are great egos who would dispute this thesis, notably Donald Trump, who hope to lead a nation to its greatness, doing all manner of great things. For such cases, I can imagine two books: one explaining why they will fail, the other why what they sought was never desirable in the first place. I doubt that Miller has written either.
Ian Millhiser: Injustices: The Supreme Court's History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted (2015, Nation Books): Reminds us that throughout history the Supreme Court has more often than not been an entrenched conservative activist -- it is only thanks to Franklin Roosevelt (and a few successors, with Nixon starting the revanchist return) that we have been fortunate enough to have grown up with a Court that actually expanded human rights. Of course, the recent growth of the conservative cabal has given the author more to complain about. Indeed, the subtitle could well be the Roberts' Court's motto.
David Niose: Fighting Back the Right: Reclaiming America From the Attack on Reason (2014, St Martin's Griffin): Legal director of the American Humanist Association, has focused defending the secular nature of American democracy -- his previous book was Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans (2012; paperback, 2013, St Martin's Griffin) -- but is worried not just by the right's religiosity but by its increasingly dogmatic attacks on reason.
Padraig O'Malley: The Two-State Delusion: Israel and Palestine -- A Tale of Two Narratives (2015, Viking): Author has extensive experience in the reconciliation of conflicts in Northern Ireland and South Africa, giving him some perspective here. Hard to tell whether the focus on competing narratives is just a license to spin bullshit, but he's right that the power imbalance is what precludes every effort at reconciliation. Actually, I'm curious how he works this out -- as someone who occasionally thinks of writing a book along these lines: why is something so seemingly easy to reason out so impossible for the people who need to do it? The answer, of course, has to do with relative power: in particular, the one side who feel they don't have to do anything.
Dirk Philipsen: The Little Big Number: How GDP Came to Rule the World and What do Do About It (2015, Princeton University Press): Gross Domestic Product is a measurement of the overall size of an economy (usually expressed per capita), but it is at best a very coarse number, tied to growth in marketable goods and services, but not so much to a better, let alone a sustainable, standard of living. Many other writers have questioned the value of GDP as a measurement; e.g., Joseph E Stiglitz, et al., Mismeasuring Our Lives: Why GDP Doesn't Add Up (2010).
Ted Rall: After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back as Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan (2014, Hill & Wang): A "graphic journalist," Rall made two extended trips to Afghanistan, one shortly after 9/11, the other ten years later, recording his observations here, as well as some history -- if you don't know it, at least it goes down fast and easy. Recent Rall books include The Book of Obama: From Hope and Change to the Age of Revolt (paperback, 2012, Seven Stories Press), and Silk Road to Ruin: Why Central Asia Is the Next Middle East (2nd ed, paperback, 2014, NBM Publishing). Before that, The Anti-American Manifesto (paperback, 2010, Seven Stories Press), which I found excessive, shrill, unfunny. More recently, Rall wrote and illustrated Snowden (paperback, 2015, Seven Stories Press) and Bernie (paperback, 2016, Seven Stories Press).
Pierre Razoux: The Iran-Iraq War (2015, Belknap Press): Big (688 pp) book on one of the largest and longest wars of the last fifty years, lasting from 1980-88, costing close to a million lives -- little understood in the West, the US in particular taking an attitude that both sides should kill off the other. This book evidently goes beyond the immediate conflict to look at how other nations related to, and encouraged, the war. Also available: Williamson Murray/Kevin M Woods: The Iran-Iraq War: A Military and Strategic History (paperback, 2014, Cambridge University Press). Before these books, the standard was probably Dilip Hiro: The Longest War: The Iran-Iraq Military Conflict (paperback, 1990, Routledge).
Robert B Reich: Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few (2015, Alfred A Knopf): Supposedly one of Bill Clinton's longtime buds, taught government, staked out his politics in 1989 with The Resurgent Liberal, then in 1991 wrote The Work of Nations: Preparing Ourselves for 21st Century Capitalism which contain two major concepts, one spectacularly wrong (his idea that as trade policies liberalize the US will more than make up losses in manufacturing jobs with new "symbolic manipulator" jobs), the other alarmingly right (that the rich were withdrawing from community life to their gated communities and retreats, from which they will cease to care about the fate of the lower classes). Clinton liked this thinking so much he made Reich Secretary of Labor, a job Reich filled capably if not exactly happily (cf. his memoir, Locked in the Cabinet). Since leaving Clinton, he has continued to wobble leftward, writing optimistic books about politics (Reason: Why Liberals Will Win the Battle for America in 2004) and business (Supercapitalism in 2007), on the other hand reacting when it all goes wrong (Aftershock in 2010 and Beyond Outrage in 2012, the subtitle still ending with How to Fix It. So figure this as more of everything: after all, the only thing wrong with capitalism is the capitalists, who somehow in their personal greed forgot that the magic system is supposed to make life better for everyone.
Dennis Ross: Doomed to Succeed: The US-Israel Relationship From Truman to Obama (2015, Farrar Straus and Giroux): Author has been an advisor to three US presidents helping them to screw up numerous efforts to bridge the Israel-Palestine conflict, and in the meantime has worked for Israeli think tanks, his most consistent allegiance. In other words, he is an American who can always be counted on to take the position that "Israel knows best" -- his maxim for reconstructing a longer stretch of history. ("Ross points out how rarely lessons were learned and how distancing the United States from Israel in the Eisenhower, Nixon, Bush, and Obama administrations never yielded any benefits and why that lesson has never been learned.") If the title seems oblique, read it this way: the surest way to doom any chance for peace for Israel and Palestine is to involve Dennis Ross.
Andrew Sayer: Why We Can't Afford the Rich (2015, Policy Press): Shows how the rich ("the top 1%") have used their political clout "to siphon off wealth produced by others," and goes further to argue that their predation is something the rest of us can no longer afford -- a far cry from the common notion that we are so obligated to the "job creator" class that we need to sacrifice our own well being to stroke their egos. Author has previously written books like: Radical Political Economy: Critique and Reformulation (1995), The Moral Significance of Class (2005), and Why Things Matter to People: Social Science, Values and Ethical Life (2011).
Kevin Sites: Swimming With Warlords: A Dozen-Year Journey Across the Afghan War (paperback, 2014, Harper Perennial): War reporter, previously wrote In the Hot Zone: One Man, One Year, Twenty Wars (paperback, 2007, Harper Perennial), and The Things They Cannot Say: Stories Soldiers Won't Tell You About What They've Seen, Done or Failed to Do in War (paperback, 2013, Harper Perennial). Sites first entered Afghanistan to join the Northern Alliance in 2001, and on his sixth tour retraced his footsteps in 2013 to ask what has changed. Some stuff, but it's not clear for the better.
Timothy Snyder: Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning (2015, Tim Duggan): The recent author of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (2010) narrows his focus on the Nazi Judeocide, not just what happened but on why. He comes up with a rather original theory of Hitler's mind, something about resources and ecology, and adds that "our world is closer to Hitler's than we like to admit, and saving it requires us to see the Holocaust as it was" -- hence the "warning." I wonder whether obsessing on the need to "save the world" isn't itself an invitation to overreach (not to mention overkill). But then I tend to think of the Holocaust as a contingent quirk of history, not some cosmological constant.
Joseph E Stiglitz: Rewriting the Rules of the American Economy: An Agenda for Growth and Shared Prosperity (paperback, 2015, WW Norton): Practical proposals for reducing inequality, restoring the sense that the United States is "the land of opportunity, a place where anyone can achieve success and a better life through hard work and determination." That reputation has been blighted by stagnation as the rich have managed to use their political and economic clout to capture an ever-increasing share of the nation's wealth. Stiglitz, one of our finest economists (Krugman's preferred term is "insanely great"), has been working on this problem for a while now, including his books The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future (2012), and The Great Divide: Unequal Societies and What We Can Do About Them (2015).
Roberto Vivo: War: A Crime Against Humanity (paperback, 2015, Hojas del Sur): Born in Uruguay, CEO of "a global social communications media firm" in Buenos Aires, has put together a global history and virtual legal brief to outlaw war. The impulse is sensible -- common recognition of the law, whether from respect or fear, is the main reason we haven't sunk into a Hobbesian "war of all against all" mire -- and indeed at some points enjoyed broad international support. That's probably true today, too, but it only takes one country that insists on flexing its muscles and putting its self-interest above peaceful coexistence to spoil the understanding. In the 1930s, for instance, Germany and Japan were such outlaw countries. Today it's mostly the United States and Israel (and one could argue Saudi Arabia, Russia, and/or Turkey). Vivo makes his case logically and succinctly, but he doesn't really face up to the infantile nations that put so much stock in their warmaking skills and so little in international law.
Sarah Vowell: Lafayette in the Somewhat United States (2015, Riverhead): Starting with an MA in Art History, she went into radio, wrote some essays, and found a niche writing popular history, starting with Assassination Vacation, her travelogue to the historical sites of murdered presidents. Since then her histories have become more conventional: The Wordy Shipmates (2005, on the Puritans), and Unfamiliar Fishes (on the takeover of Hawaii). Here she recounts the American Revolution by focusing on Washington's French sidekick, and the early nation viewed from Lafayette's 1824 return visit.
Lawrence Wright: Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David (2014, Knopf; paperback, 2015, Vintage Books): A day-by-day account of the 1979 Camp David negotiations between Egypt and Israel over return of the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt and, as it turns out, damn little else -- still, the only significant time that Israel could be bothered to sign a peace agreement with a neighbor. (I don't much count the later treaty with Jordan.) Wright previously wrote The Leaning Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (2006, Knopf), a valuable book on the thinking behind the attack.
Next batch of 40 sometime next week.
Sunday, August 9. 2015
Once again, I skipped Weekend Roundup for more book blurbs. I doubt that's much of a loss, given how last week's news was so dominated by the first Fox Republican Presidential Debate Orgy -- really, if you have nothing more enlightening to talk about than Donald Trump, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Mike Huckabee, and/or Chris Christie (swap any of a dozen other names into this list if you so desire), you should cancel your news show and slot in a nice golf match or bowling or something. Otherwise you run the risk that the Republicans' insane attacks on the Iran deal might leak through to weak-minded Democrats -- Sen. Chuck Schumer is the latest to disgrace himself (OK, here's a link).
Aside from the Republicans, who'll still be around next week, and certainly won't be any smarter or less disgraceful then, the most common news story this past week was the shooting atrocity, practically an everyday occurrence. (A foreign exchange student was killed just outside his dorm here in Wichita this week.) Those, unlike the Republicans, are terminal events, but no doubt there will be another fresh batch of them next week to.
Meanwhile, back to the books. This is the fourth installment in a little more than a week, and will probably be the last for a while. I just have a handful more entries in my draft file, and a couple of them are for books that aren't scheduled for publication until September-October. My catchup project has involved going through close to a dozen notebooks where I jotted down book names when I was in bookstores or libraries over the last few years. I'm not quite done with that, but have managed to fill up four posts -- 160 books. Some of the notebooks are rather old, mostly yielding books published in 2008-09 (between the lists I've found several Borders discount coupon numbers), but the main one I haven't gotten to was filled out in New Jersey last fall. I'll keep working on that, and maybe it'll yield a fifth post, or maybe it'll just get me started for a post this fall. We'll see.
Stanley Aronowitz: The Death and Life of American Labor: Toward a New Worker's Movement (2014, Verso Books): Unions have taken a beating, especially in the private sector, over the last 30-40 years, dropping from representing more than 30% of American workers to less than 10%. The "death" part is an old story, so what about the "life" part? Or the "new" bit? I read Thomas Geoghegan's Only One Thing Can Save Us: Why America Needs a New Kind of Labor Movement (2014, New Press), which has some specific ideas on things that can be done to breathe new life into the labor movement, but I don't see what Aronowitz has up his sleeve. I do recall his early book, False Promises: The Shaping of American Working Class Consciousness (1974), and know that he's been working this issue for most of his life, both as scholar and activist.
Shlomo Avineri: Herzl's Vision: Theodor Herzl and the Foundation of the Jewish State (2014, Blue Bridge): Herzl wasn't the first Zionist, but he headed the World Zionist Organization until his early death (1904) and wrote two books (The Jewish State and The Old New Land, the latter a novel) articulating his vision for what became Israel in 1948. He was notable during his life for appealing to imperial powers to adopt the Zionists as a colonization project, and he painted a much more starry-eyed picture than what actually transpired. But then don't all imperialists start out starry-eyed?
Zygmunt Bauman: Does the Richness of the Few Benefit Us All? (paperback, 2013, Polity): Short (100 pp) essay by a philosophy prof, evidently picks apart various arguments ("finding them one by one to be false, deceitful and misleading") to arrive at "no." I'm not inclined to disagree, especially on the so-called "trickle down" theories (unless that trickling is aided by redistributive tax policies). I don't know whether Bauman considers the argument that the extravagances and idiosyncrasies of the rich may on occasion create something of lasting cultural value -- e.g., the Taj Mahal -- that would never have been created in a more egalitarian society. On the other hand, such arts only attain popular value when they have been opened to the public. (The policy which would promote this would be a confiscatory estate tax, which would encourage the rich to build monuments to their memory while also ensuring public access in due course. It would also limit that aristocracy problem.)
James Bradley: The China Mirage: The Hidden History of American Disaster in Asia (2015, Little Brown): Americans have been fascinated by China from first encounters, and as Bradley shows contributed to the opium wars, used the "open door policy" to carve out fortunes, developed a fateful alliance with the Kuomintang that continued into exile on Taiwan, fought nasty wars against the "red menace," and invested lavishly when China opened up to foreign capital. All that while, one might argue that those Americans understood nothing, not so much because the Chinese world was impenetrable as because Americans were so blunt and dull. Thomas has written a number of books about the US in East Asia, notably The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War (2009, Little Brown). This seems to be where he tries to sum it all up.
HW Brands: Reagan: The Life (2015, Doubleday): A bid for a comprehensive single-volume biography (816 pp) of the mediocre actor, corporate shill, and demagogic (albeit absent-minded) politician who spent eight years as one of America's most corrupt presidents. Brands is a capable historian who's knocked off biographies on Ben Franklin, Andrew Jackson, and both Roosevelts -- I read his A Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (2008) and recommend it, especially if you don't know much about the man or the era -- as well as some broad-brush books like American Dreams: The United States Since 1945 (2010). On the other hand, I already know too much about Reagan, and I'm not likely to enjoy (or benefit from) any author who is not as repulsed by the man and his movement as I already am. I did, after all, live through this travesty. (And I've read Sean Wilentz: The Age of Reagan: A History 1974-2008 , so it's not like I haven't tried.)
Richard Davenport-Hines: Universal Man: The Lives of John Maynard Keynes (2015, Basic Books): A new biography of the great liberal economist, a figure whose relevance has only grown since the 2008 "Great Recession" happened -- although it seems like most political leaders and central bankers have yet to acknowledge the point. Also relatively new (and brief: 136pp): Peter Temin/David Vines: Keynes: Useful Economics for the World Economy (2014, MIT Press).
Alain de Botton: The News: A User's Manual (2014, Pantheon): British philosopher/social critic, originally from Switzerland -- has also written novels and appeared on television -- asks the question: what is our constant preoccupation with news doing to our minds? He picks apart various common story lines -- disasters, celebrity gossip, political scandals -- and tries to put their impacts into the context of everyday life. Previous books include: How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997); The Architecture of Happiness (2006); Relgion for Atheists: A Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion (2012); How to Think More About Sex (2012).
DW Gibson: Not Working: People Talk About Losing a Job and Finding Their Way in Today's Economy (paperback, 2012, Penguin Books): A collection of interviews, some 480 pp, about just that -- reviewers compare this to Studs Terkel's Working, and to James Agee, high praise indeed. My own view of getting fired is that it's increasingly often like getting shot down by a random sniper -- you have little sense of it coming, it seems to single you out in a way that leaves you very isolated (and often feeling somewhat guilty), and in an instant you lose something you may never be able to put back together again. (In some ways that describes me after I was fired by SCO, although I had more of a safety net than most folks do.) Sure, there are differences: getting fired in America today is not a random act -- some people, including old guys like me, are statistically more likely to get hit -- nor is it an isolated act -- public policies that promote (or simply permit) mergers, union busting, outsourcing or offshoring of jobs, or other forms of corporate predation often result in mass firings.
DW Gibson: The Edge Becomes the Center: An Oral History of Gentrification in the Twenty-First Century (2015, Overlook Press): More interviews, but where the author's previous Not Working traveled around the country to focus on how getting sacked affects a wide range of people, here he focuses on one city (New York City, of course) and a phenomenon that affects people in various ways (although higher rent is one common denominator).
Benjamin Ginsberg: The Worth of War (2014, Prometheus): Most recently wrote The Value of Violence (2013, Prometheus), so this is a sequel as well as a doubling down. His arguments are much like those who delight in the "creative destruction" of capitalism, except with more blood and guts. Still, in both cases, what makes the argument sanitary is that the violence/war he praises is comfortably in the past ("few today would trade our current situation for the alternative had our forefathers not resorted to the violence of the American Revolution and the Civil War"). Maybe he has something more in mind -- he does see that the modern state is rife with implicit violence ("the police, prisons, and the power of the bureaucratic state to coerce and manipulate"), and he's right that we are less free of violence than we'd like to think, but by rationalizing war instead of rejecting it, he's not doing us any favors. He's written many other books, mostly anti-government tracts like The Captive Public: How Mass Opinion Promotes State Power (1986), but also: How the Jews Defeated Hitler: Exploding the Myth of Jewish Passivity in the Face of Nazism (2013, Rowman & Littlefield). I have no idea how he makes the leap from his subtitle to his title, but it's kind of like noting a few worthwhile technical advancements that were developed during a war and concluding that war is a good thing.
Steven K Green: Inventing a Christian America: The Myth of the Religious Founding (2015, Oxford University Press): Author has written several books on church-state relations -- The Second Disestablishment: Church and State in Nineteenth-Century America (2010, Oxford University Press); The Bible, the School, and the Constitution: The Clash That Shaped Church-State Doctrine (2012, Oxford University Press) -- and returns here to dissect the oft-repeated claim that the founders intended a Christian republic.
Raymond J Haberski Jr: God and War: American Civil Religion Since 1945 (2012, Rutgers University Press): Americans have long been conceited about their uniqueness in the world, and this gradually cohered into the notion of a civil religion -- something which got a huge boost during the Cold War era, as the American brand alternately stood for freedom and capitalism. All nations claim to fight for God, but few have bound them together so unquestionably as the US has done.
Gary A Haugen/Victor Boutros: The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence (2014; paperback, 2015, Oxford University Press). The authors are primarily talking about "common violence like rape, forced labor, illegal detention, land theft, and police abuse" but more organized forms of violence are even more effective at depressing a population and locking them in poverty. One thinks, for instance, of the total inability of the US occupying forces to rebuild Afghanistan and Iraq when faced with even relatively sporadic insurgent violence. Nor does the violence have to be "eruptive" -- the enforcement of economic sanctions depresses economies and pushes people into poverty (e.g., Gaza, or 1991-2003 Iraq, although the latter got worse). The authors argue that ending "common violence" requires effective criminal justice systems. Although you can find worse examples around the world, that doesn't let the US off lightly.
Steve Inskeep: Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab (2015, Penguin Books): In case you ever got queasy about Stalin moving whole nations to the barren margins of Russia, beware that he got the idea from an American, Andrew Jackson, who ordered the Cherokee (and other tribes) uprooted and moved from North Carolina to Oklahoma (then designated "Indian Territory"). The story, retold here with uncommon focus on the Cherokee chief, is commonly known as the "Trail of Tears." Ready why. The author, by the way, was last seen writing about Pakistan: Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi (2011, Penguin Books).
Alyssa Katz: The Influence Machine: The US Chamber of Commerce and the Corporate Capture of American Life (2015, Spiegel & Grau): I don't know how common this is, but in Wichita at least the Chamber of Commerce is extremely Republican and very active in pushing state politics to the extreme right. Evidently this is more widespread: "Through its propaganda, lobbying, and campaign cash, the Chamber has created a right-wing monster that even it struggles to control, a conservative movement that is destabilizing American democracy as never before."
Walter Kempowski: Swansong 1945: A Collective Diary of the Last Days of the Third Reich (2015, WW Norton): History from a thousand scraps of paper -- diaries and letters from ordinary civilians, soldiers and prisoners of both sides, here and there some bigwig, a contemporary picture of the Reich in ruins. Kempowski (1929-2007) assembled ten volumes of diaries like this, as well as writing a number of novels, but this is his first book translated into English.
David M Kotz: The Rise and Fall of Neoliberal Capitalism (2015, Harvard University Press): Economist, "one of the few academic economists to predict it [the great recession in 2008]," rehashes the neoliberal economic policies that led to the crash. Not clear, though, what the "fall" is, sine no matter how hard they got tripped up, the politicians haven't been forced to rethink the standard approaches.
Jonathan Kozol: Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America (2012, Crown): Bernard Goldberg wrote a book a while back listing "101 people screwing up America." Most were good people, but you could sort of see where their political stances ticked off Goldberg (Noam Chomsky, for instance, even though he's almost always right). However, the one thing I couldn't forgive, or even see anything but pure moral rot in, was his picking on Jonathan Kozol, a teacher who's never done anything more than expose how poor children are treated shabbily in our public schools. The only book of his that I've read was his first, Death at an Early Age: The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools (1967), but he's written a dozen others, notably: Rachel and Her Children: Homeless Families in America (1988); Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools (1991); and The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America (2005). Here he revists people he knew as children and growing up, over some twenty-five years, a mix of success stories and all-too-common failure.
Mark Kurlansky/Talia Kurlansky: International Night: A Father and Daughter Cook Their Way Around the World (2014, Bloomsbury USA): The elder author has written a number of popular history books with built around food -- Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World (1997), which led him to The Basque History of the World (1999); Salt: A World History (2002); The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell (2006); and Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man (2012). The idea here is to spin the globe, land on a country, and fix dinner appropriate to that country. They wrote up a year's worth of meals, including the recipes. The sort of book I might be able to write, although his randomizing approach ventures further than I have. He also wrote two other books I've read (and recommend): 1968: The Year that Rocked the World (2004), and Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea (2006).
James Mahaffey: Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters: From the Ozark Mountains to Fukushima (2014; paperback, 2015, Pegasus): A survey of an important problem, although the author previously wrote a book proselytizing a brilliant future for the nuclear power industry -- Atomic Awakening: A New Look at the History and Future of Nuclear Power (2009, Pegasus) -- and sometimes he seems a little glib here: e.g., Chapter 3: A Bit of Trouble in the Great White North; Chapter 6: In Nuclear Research Even the Goof-ups are Fascinating; Chapter 8: The Military Almost Never Lost a Nuclear Weapon. Fukushima Daiichi is at least called a tragedy, although you wonder whether he felt that for Japan or for the industry.
Joshua Muravchik: Making David Into Goliath: How the World Turned Against Israel (2014, Encounter Books): Author notes that as late as 1967 Americans and Europeans overwhelmingly favored Israel in its conflict with the Arabs, but the tide of public opinion in the west has markedly turned against Israel. I doubt the author attributes this shift to the "facts on the ground" Israel has so assiduously constructed -- the occupation, the settlements, the failure to resolve the world's largest and most persistent refugee crisis, the denial of basic civil rights to Palestinians, Israel's periodic bombing of neighboring countries, the growing power of an increasingly racist right-wing. Rather, he looks at the public relations battle, how Israeli Hasbara has been countered in various forums (especially among the democratic left, which he accuses of a new "leftist orthodoxy in which class struggle was supplanted by noble struggles of people of color").
Michael B Oren: Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide (2015, Random House): Author of what is probably the standard military history of the 1967 war (at least from the Israeli side, Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East; I can't think of anything remotely comparable from the Arab sides) and a long history of US adventures in the Middle East (Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present), Oren is also a political activist of Israel's right-wing, serving as Israeli ambassador to the US 2009-13. So this is a memoir of his advocacy, which primarily involved beating the war drums against his fantasy view of Iran while avoiding doing anything constructive about the real conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Adding to the surrealism is that Oren was born in the US, citizenship which he only renounced in 2009 -- a background which helps him promote the myth that the two nations should really act as one, with Israel calling the shots.
Timothy H Parsons: The Rule of Empires: Those Who Built Them, Those Who Endured Them, and Why They Always Fall (2010; paperback, 2012, Oxford University Press): His examples: Roman Britain, Muslim Spain, Spanish Peru, Napoleonic Italy, British India and Kenya, Vichy France. I imagine you could add your own examples, especially as the dynamics reappear in case after case -- although his cases vary in many respects, such as time (four centuries down to six years), integration of local elites, the religion of the rulers and the degree of conversion, the empires are inevitably driven by exploitation and instinct for survival to make themselves unwelcome. One can also argue that the world's tolerance for empires is declining, even cases which cloak their control as ingeniously as the US does.
Henry M Paulson: Dealing With China: An Insider Unmasks the New Economic Superpower (2015, Twelve): Head of Goldman Sachs, Treasury Secretary to GW Bush, some insider, close enough much of the book can be done as memoir. There are whole shelves of books on China's economic rise and the threat that implies to American economic supremacy (as if the latter is even a real thing in this age of multinational corporations and unrestricted capital flows).
Richard Reeves: Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese-American Internment in World War II (2015, Henry Holt): Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the US into WWII, the government began rounding up Japanese-Americans and trucked them off to spend the war in concentration camps -- a story which in the muddled mind of Wesley Clark became a template for a new wave of camps for troubled Muslim youths, but which most Americans with any awareness recall as one of the more shameful episodes in American history. Racism against East Asians has largely faded in recent years, but was rampant well past WWII, and it was at the root of this.
Richard Rhodes: Twilight of the Bombs: Recent Challenges, New Dangers, and the Prospects for a World Without Nuclear Weapons (2010; paperback, 2011, Vintage): No idea how I missed this, having read all three of Rhodes' previous books on the subject: The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1986); Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb (1995); and Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race (2007). This volume attempts to tie up various loose ends, and spends a lot of time on Iraq, less on securing the former Soviet Union's arsenal, the dismantling of South Africa's bombs, North Korea, and the NPT -- less so on the French and Chinese projects that produced bombs in the 1960s, on Israel-India-Pakistan (the latter developed a bomb by 1990, the former two in the 1970s), the Iran controversy, and various other countries that worked on bombs but abandoned them (he mentions Taiwan and South Korea, both pressured by the US). Probably enough material left over for a fifth book. Doesn't look like he's going to find closure any time soon, although it's likely that Iran will soon be as dormant as Iraq seems now.
James S Robbins: This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive (2010; paperback, 2012, Encounter Books): Put this on a shelf with Lewis Sorley's A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam (1999) as a piece of Monday-morning quarterbacking, an attempt to argue that the United States needn't have lost in Vietnam -- that in fact the troops were winning the war but the American people and their leaders let them down. Part of this view is the notion that the Tet Offensive in 2008, when Vietnamese forces penetrated to the center of most Vietnamese cities, spent so many resources that by the time the offensive was beaten back the Vietnamese were near defeat. But at the time, it didn't look that way: what the Tet Offensive showed, graphically, was that the propaganda coming out of Washington, justifying the war and touting future victory, was plain horseshit. Same for these revisionist ploys: they depend on the same sort of magical thinking that makes all American war planning seen invincible. How rational people can continue to believe this after the actual track record both in Vietnam and later in Afghanistan and Iraq is unfathomable, but the DOD and CIA have plenty of jobs for people who persist in this fantasy. One clue why is the reason I couldn't bring myself to write "NVA" or "VC" above -- I wrote "Vietnamese," because America's enemies there were the Vietnamese people, and the US couldn't claim victory there without killing nearly all of them. The cold fact is that had the Army not thrown in the towel and quit in 1973, had each administration after the other hung tough and kept the killing going, however many Vietnamese are left would still be fighting America today. The revisionists are offering a formula not for peace but for perpetual war, and that war is wrong not just because it can never be won -- it's wrong because it was never right in the first place.
Jan Jarboe Russell: The Train to Crystal City: FDR's Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America's Only Family Internment Camp During World War II (2015, Scribner): In addition to the mass internment of Japanese-Americans, FDR set up a concentration camp in Texas where the US kept whole families of German and Italian natives (many US citizens), on the theory that they could be traded both Americans trapped behind enemy lines by the outbreak of war -- something called "quiet passage."
Shlomo Sand: How I Stopped Being a Jew (2014, Verso): Short essay (112 pp), from a relentless critic of Israel's system of identity classifications (Jew, etc.), hard-and-fast rules he's argued against in several previous books: The Invention of the Jewish People (2009, Verso); The Invention of the Land of Israel: From Holy Land to Homeland (2012, Verso).
David Satter: It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway (paperback, 2013, Yale University Press): Explores current Russian attitudes to the Soviet Union, including the fact that many Russians "actually mourn the passing of the Soviet regime." Satter previously wrote two of the more important books on recent Russian history: Age of Delirium: The Decline and Fall of the Soviet Union (1996) and Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State (2003). For a different angle on this, see: Peter Pomerantsev: Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia (2014, Public Affairs).
Eric Schlosser: Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety (2013; paperback, 2014, Penguin Press): Since Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, no nation has used nuclear weapons in war. One might chalk that up to the idea, much touted by the very scientists who invented the thing in the first place, that nuclear weapons have made war unthinkable, although you'd also have to concede that it was not for lack of "thinking about the unthinkable" by the world's Dr. Strangeloves (Herman Kahn even wrote a book with that title). It's also the case that no one has accidentally set a nuclear bomb off, the prospect that Schlosser writes about. The "Damascus accident" occurred in 1980 in a Titan missile silo near Damascus, Arkansas (a few miles north of Little Rock): a dropped tool punctured a fuel tank, which caused the missile to explode, but the nuclear warhead on top of the missile didn't detonate (although the explosion did spray radioactive materials hither and yon). Needless to say, this wasn't the only such accident. Schlosser covers a wide range of them, the engineering problems they presented, and the politics on all sides.
Frederick AO Schwarz Jr: Democracy in the Dark: The Seduction of Government Secrecy (2015, New Press): Former chief counsel to the Church Committee on Intelligence -- you know, back in the 1970s, the last time Congress seriously tried to figure out what the CIA had been up to. Much of what we know about the CIA was aptly summed up by Tim Weiner: Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA (2007). They've been able to get away with such incompetence and criminality only inasmuch as they've been able to keep what they've done secret. Indeed, secrecy hides rot and degeneracy everywhere it occurs in government.
David K Shipler: Freedom of Speech: Mightier Than the Sword (2015, Knopf): Journalist, wrote a basic book, The Working Poor: Invisible in America (2004), has lately turned his attention to threats to fundamental American liberties -- The Rights of the People: How Our Search for Safety Invades Our Liberties (2011), and Rights at Risk: The Limits of Liberty in Modern America (2012). I'd expect this to be the balanced book on freedom of speech issues that Kirsten Powers' The Silencing isn't. I wonder how far this goes into the recent vogue for extending corporate powers under the guise of free speech -- e.g., the "right" to engage in unlimited campaign graft.
Jason Stanley: How Propaganda Works (2015, Princeton University Press): I read a book on sales closes once and it included some helpful advice on how to keep from being sold something you don't want: recognize the close. Like a good close, propaganda needs to sneak up on you to be effective, so if this book does reveal the secrets, it will help you see through them, and take back control over your own mind. Although anyone can construct propaganda for any position, in real life propaganda is very unbalanced. Part of this is that it's expensive, something the rich can afford while the poor cannot. Also, propaganda is needed for positions that cannot be argued by appealing to logic, facts, and the general welfare, and those are overwhelmingly concentrated on the right. For example, one of the better ones was Bush's proposal to allow timber companies to shred public lands: they called this the Health Forests Initiative. Likewise, Stanley's examples are mostly from the right. Stanley previously wrote Know How (paperback, 2013, Oxford University Press).
Bettina Strangneth: Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer (2014, Knopf): Author picks through "more than 1,300 pages of Eichmann's own recently discovered written notes -- as well as seventy-three extensive audio reel recordings of a crowded Nazi salon held weekly during the 1950s in a popular district of Buenos Aires" to construct a portrait of the Nazi war criminal in exile, and concludes that his self-effacing act on trial in Jerusalem in 1961, which led Hannah Arendt to coin the term "balanity of evil" -- was just an act.
Bert Randolph Sugar: The Baseball Maniac's Almanac: The Absolutely, Positively, and Without Question Greatest Book of Facts, Figures, and Astonishing Lists Ever Compiled (3rd edition, paperback, 2010, Skyhorse): Caught my eye because I used to belong to a club called Baseball Maniacs, but pretty sure none of us got any royalties. Basically a trivia book, chock full of statistical lists, some pretty obvious but most involving multiple selection criteria; e.g. "3000 Hits, 500 Home Runs, and a .300 Batting Average, Career": just Hank Aaron and Willie Mays; "Players with 2500 Career Hits, Never Having a 200-Hit Season": 29 players topped by Carl Yastrzemski, Eddie Murray, Dave Winfield, and Cap Anson (who never played a 100-game season until he was 32 and only topped 140 once), and including great hitters who walked a lot, like Rickey Henderson, Mel Ott, Barry Bonds, and Ted Williams. The old players I recognize, like George Gore (a teammate of Anson's with a lifetime .301 BA), still the player born in Maine with the most base hits. Instantly obsolete, of course, the kind of book that's unlikely to be updated in the future -- it would be easy to replace it with a free website. Sugar has several list books like this, but his real interest is boxing.
Elana Maryles Sztokman: The War on Women in Israel: A Story of Religious Radicalism and the Women Fighting for Freedom (2014, Sourcebooks): Jewish feminist, has written two other books on Israel's politically established Orthodox Judaism -- The Men's Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World (2011, Brandeis); Educating in the Divine Image: Gender Issues in Orthodox Jewish Day Schools (2013, Brandeis) -- and their increasing insistence on segregating and bullying women over what they consider immodest dress. She should probably write her next book on Orthodox homophobia -- an Orthodox recently stabbed six people in a Jerusalem Gay Pride parade. Also on the evolution of Israeli Orthodoxy: Marc B Shapiro: Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites It History (2015, Littman Library of Jewish Civilization).
David Vine: Base Nation: How American Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World (2015, Metropolitan Books): Even skipping the better known war zones, there are hundreds of bases, costing on the order of $100 billion per year. Their presence is one reason the US shares blame for the regimes they reside in, and one reason the US is repeatedly dragged into the world's wars -- even ones we're not directly responsible for. Closing those bases is an essential step to extricating the US from war abroad, with all the damage that causes both there and here.
Nikolaus Wachsmann: KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps (2015, Farrar Straus and Giroux): Attempts to provide a complete history of Nazi Germany's concentration camps -- KL for Konzentrationslager -- from the beginning in March 1933 when the target was ostensibly "social deviants -- an ever-expanding definition that came to include everyone who suffered the Fuhrer's ire. Big job, big book (880 pp). Other books continue to come out, most showing that no matter how definitive the big book looks, there's always more misery to uncover: Sarah Helm: Ravensbruck: Life and Death in Hitler's Concentration Camp for Women (2015, Nan A Talese); Elissa Malländer: Female SS Guards and Workaday Violence: The Majdanek Concentration Camp, 1942-1944 (2015, Michigan State University Press); Dan Stone: The Liberation of the Camps: The End of the Holocaust and Its Aftermath (2015, Yale University Press); Kim Wünschmann: Before Auschwitz: Jewish Prisoners in the Prewar Concentration Camps (2015, Harvard University Press).
Michael Walzer: The Paradox of Liberation: Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions (2015, Yale University Press): "Many of the successful campaigns for national liberation in the years following World War II were initially based on democratic and secular ideals. Once established, however, the newly independent nations had to deal with entirely unexpected religious fierceness." Examples are: India, Israel, Algeria. Walzer's skill at rationalizing "just wars" is always suspect, but he raises a fair question. I wonder whether he recognizes the role of the US (and other post-colonial powers) in promoting religious reactionaries to undermine socialism? Or that the violence needed to liberate those nations was itself fertile ground for religious reaction?
Especially on the old lists, there were a lot of books that I didn't feel like writing up, mostly because they're no longer timely (or recent), but some just because I didn't have much to say about. So I figured I'd just list them here. In a couple cases I've added a very short explanation, but mostly I'll let the titles/subtitles speak for themselves. I also saved a few of the more recent ones, so this is likely to become a regular feature (given that books worth noting the existence of but not worth spending much time on are likely to be published in the future; in fact, in a couple cases I threw away blurbs that didn't say anything to file the books here).
Tuesday, August 4. 2015
I started doing these book blurb "roundups" in April 2007. This is the 57th such column, so I've averaged about 7 per year. I don't recall when I introduced the 40-book limit, but that should add up to a little more than 2000 books over 8 years. (The actual cumulative file has 3319 paragraphs in it, of which a couple hundred are probably redundant blurbs -- most often written for paperback reprints.) This last week I've been trying to catch up with the last 12 months -- a break in my postings, although I had taken notes and written a few entries during that time. That yielded a column on June 17 and two more last week, with this the third. Forty books here leave me with a little more than twenty in the draft file. I'm going to try to round them up to a fourth installment later this week. The main thing that's slowing me down is that I have at least eight notebooks with lists of books I jotted down at various bookstores, and I'm slowly going through them, trying to decipher my atrocious handwriting, and look things up. Some of the books are worth adding, but many more are dated -- in fact, I'm finding a lot from around 2010 (along with notes on Borders coupons; frankly, I haven't been to many bookstores since Borders was shut down). More on that later.
Meanwhile, here's another forty books from the last year or two. My interest in collecting these is to get a sense of the public debate on important political/social/economic issues and their history (although sometimes my interests are a bit wider than that). With very few exceptions, these are not books I've read, or even actually looked at. The information is mostly gathered by browsing through Amazon or (rarely) other websites, so it depends on published summaries, blurbs, occasionally reader comments, and sometimes by looking at the partial preview scans.
Ali Abunimah: The Battle for Justice in Palestine (paperback, 2014, Haymarket Books): Palestinian blogger, previously wrote One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse, tries to remain hopeful.
Hisham D Aidi: Rebel Music: Race, Empire, and the New Muslim Youth Culture (paperback, 2014, Vintage): Explores musical subcultures among Muslim youth around the world, primarily hip-hop but also rock, reggae, and more traditional forms like Gnawa. Also seems to know the history where bits of traditional Muslim music worked into blues, jazz, and other genres we don't associate with the Muslim world. I see no mention of metal here, but it's worth noting Mark LeVine: Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam (paperback, 2008, Three Rivers Press).
George A Akerlof/Robert J Shiller: Phishing for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation and Deception (2015, Princeton University Press): Two Nobel Prize economists who built their careers by exploring cases where markets fail, co-authors of Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism (2009). Proper functioning of markets depends on perfect information, but that rarely exists. That leaves a lot of opportunity for profit through fraud, and that's what this is about.
David Bromwich: Moral Imagination: Essays (2014, Princeton University Press): A dozen essays, three in Part Two on Abraham Lincoln. The ones I'd be most interested in reading: "The Meaning of Patriotism in 1789" and "Comments on Perpetual War" with its sections on Cheney, Snowden, and "What 9/11 Makes Us Forget." I read an essay of his on American Exceptionalism that doesn't seem to be here, unless it's the better-titled "The American Psychosis" (or "The Self-Deceptions of Empire").
Paul Buhle/David Berger: Bohemians: A Graphic History (paperback, 2014, Verso): Buhle was editor of Radical America way back when. A historian, he had an interest in comics long before graphic novels became commonplace. This explores the counterculture before the word was coined. Buhle also collaborated on: w/Nicole Schulman: Wobblies! A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World (paperback, 2005, Verso); w/Sharon Rudahl: Dangerous Woman: The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman (paperback, 2007, New Press); w/Howard Zinn/Mike Konopacki: A People's History of American Empire (paperback, 2008, Metropolitan Books); w/Denis Kitchen: The Art of Harvey Kurtzman: The Mad Genius of Comics (2009, Abrams); w/Harvey Pekar: Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History (paperback, 2009, Hill & Wang); w/Harvey Pekar: The Beats: A Graphic History (2009; paperback, 2010, Hill & Wang); and he's written two "For Beginners" books -- which, by the way, is a good place to start on anything they cover: FDR and the New Deal for Beginners (paperback, 2010, For Beginners); Lincoln for Beginners (paperback, 2015, For Beginners).
Ha-Joon Chang: Economics: The User's Guide (2014, Bloomsbury Press): A basic economics primer from a Korean economist who's been known to cast a critical eye on capitalism and its myths of development strategy; cf. his Kicking Away the Ladder: Development Strategy in Historical Perspective (2002), Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism (2007) and 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism (2011).
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Between the World and Me (2015, Spiegel & Grau): Short (176 pp) book, a memoir as a letter to a teenage son, life lessons and all that, an Afro-American essayist being compared to James Baldwin but from a different (but not that different) era. Previously wrote The Beautiful Struggle: A Memoir (2009).
Paul Collier: Exodus: How Migration Is Changing Our World (2013; paperback, 2015, Oxford University Press): A more general book on what we narrow-mindedly call immigration, Collier is the author of several books on things that generate migration, including: The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It (paperback, 2007, Oxford University Press); Wars, Guns, and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places (2009, Harper; paperback, 2010, Harper Perennial); and The Plundered Planet: Why We Must -- and How We Can -- Manage Nature for Global Prosperity (2010; paperback, 2011, Oxford University Press). Book's original subtitle (in UK): Immigration and Multiculturalism in the 21st Century.
Tom Engelhardt: Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World (paperback, 2014, Haymarket Books): Another collections of columns from the author's TomDispatch website, on various aspects of the US security state and its shaky pretensions to empire.
Rory Fanning: Worth Fighting For: An Army Ranger's Journey Out of the Military and Across America (paperback, 2014, Haymarket Books): A former Army Ranger, a member of the same unit that killed Pat Tillman in Afghanistan, leaves the military and tries to find the America he once thought he was serving. Turns out his service was not in vain -- it was just suspended for a few years due to his wrong turn into the Army.
Robert A Ferguson: Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment (2014, Harvard University Press): America's criminal justice system is broken, in large part because those who run it seem unable to grasp the notion that punishment should be limited, both for practical reasons (like declining effectiveness) and because it systematizes brutality.
Martin Ford: Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future (2015, Basic Books): Written by "a Silicon Valley entrepreneur," argues that with recent and expected advances in automation and artificial intelligence the future will offer ever fewer "good jobs" (or for that matter jobs of any sort). The result will be unprecedented unemployment -- made worse, I'm sure, by the conservative mantra that forces people into ever poorer jobs. By the way, that's also pretty much the point of James K Galbraith: The End of Normal: The Great Crisis and the Future of Growth (2014, Simon & Schuster).
Brandon L Garrett: Too Big to Jail: How Prosecutors Compromise With Corporations (2014, Belknap Press): Although we've lately seen some large fines, none of the people who wrecked the economy in 2008 (except Bernie Madoff, I guess) have been so much as threatened with jail terms -- surprising given the magnitude of fraud in some of the cases.
Jonathan Marc Gribetz: Defining Neighbors: Religion, Race, and Early Zionist-Arab Encounter (2014, Princeton University Press): Explores how Jews and Arabs interacted in the early days of Zionist settlement, especially under Ottoman rule before the British tilted the tables in favor of Zionism. Gribetz argues that at least within this period the two peoples didn't see themselves in nationalist terms, but were separated on other bases (like religion and race). It occurs to me that the Ottomans provided just that framework, one which changed dramatically when the English took over (when Zionists adopted British colonial attitudes and tactics, while both sides realized that nationalism would provide a path to independence).
Tim Harford: The Undercover Economist Strikes Back: How to Run -- or Ruin -- an Economy (2014, Riverhead): Author of a series of book that try to explain economics with everyday examples, attempts to make the leap from micro to macro here. Not sure whether he's up to it, especially given the summaries I've read. I've read one of his book, and don't remember a thing about it.
Andrew Hartman: A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars (2015, University of Chicago Press): The phrase "culture war" is brandied about so often that you probably know what Hartman is writing about -- a laundry list of hot-button issues ("abortion, affirmative action, art, censorship, feminism, and homosexuality") that the (mostly religious) right got worked up about since whenever, their hysteria more effective once they aligned with the right-wing Reagan juggernaut. But to call this a "war" posits a skirmish where both sides attack the other: in fact, the attacks almost all come from the right, and what they're attacking is most often an extension of basic civil and human rights contrary to the most cherished prejudices of the right. Note that the list above doesn't include theocracy, which is what most of the huff is really about.
Dale Jamieson: Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed -- and What It Means for Our Future (2014, Oxford University Press): Author, a philosopher, seems to accept the basic science of climate change -- indeed, "in his view, catastrophic ecological damage is a foregone conclusion" -- but has more trouble with why so many people have trouble coming to grips with the issue. One thing he focuses on is lack of agency: the sense that what little we can do as individuals doesn't matter. Not clear that he digs behind this sense of powerlessness to look at the economic interests that benefit -- at least within the narrow confines of their accounting systems -- from filling the atmosphere with carbon dioxide. Related: George Marshall: Don't Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change (2014, Bloomsbury Press).
Mark LeVine/Mathias Mossberg, eds: One Land, Two States: Israel and Palestine as Parallel States (paperback, 2014, University of California Press): A collection of essays that attempt to work out how two states, defined not by territory but by their respective citizenship cohorts, might work to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I don't see the term, but this looks like a refinement of the bi-national notion that pops up periodically when prospects for two-states or one-state look especially grim, but never seems more than an idea. This is, indeed, "thinking outside the box" (a chapter title).
John R MacArthur: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America: Or, Why a Progressive Presidency is Impossible (paperback, 2012, Melville House): Written after Obama had nearly finished his first term but before his reelection, it's clear that the author didn't consider his first term progressive -- well, neither did I. Also early enough to include a blurb by George McGovern, who knows a few things about what can happen to a smart and fundamentally decent human being when he dares run for president. And while running is bad enough, one recalls how both Clinton and Obama abandoned issues they ran on almost the instant they entered the White House. MacArthur's previous books include The Selling of "Free Trade": NAFTA, Washington, and the Subversion of American Democracy (2000).
Michaelangelo Matos: The Underground Is Massive: How Electronic Dance Music Conquered America (2015, Dey Street Books): The one critic I try to follow regularly for his insights into techno or electronica or EDM or whatever you call it -- I still remain blissfully ignorant of the distinctions between the dozen or so subgenres my favorite Detroit-area record store uses. So I grabbed this as soon as it came out, and some day hope to get around to it.
Jane McAlevey: Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement (paperback, 2014, Verso): Trying to revive the American labor movement, from the front lines, by a (relatively) successful labor organizer.
Robert W McChesney: Blowing the Roof Off the Twenty-First Century: Media, Politics, and the Struggle for Post-Capitalist Democracy (2014, Monthly Review Press): Professor of communications, media critic, has a pile of books, mostly on how media in America is perverted by corporate control, and the ill effect that has on democracy.
David Ohana/David Maisel: The Origins of Israeli Mythology: Neither Canaanites Nor Crusaders (paperback, 2014, Cambridge University Press): Attempts to explain Zionism through the symbolic opposition and entanglement of two story lines: one that roots the Israelis unshakably deep in the history of the land, the other that recognizes their conquest from outside but proclaims it divine.
Thomas Piketty: Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty: Summary, Key Ideas and Facts (paperback, 2014, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform): Short (112 pp.) summary of Piketty's bestselling book: the most important book to have appeared recently on increasing inequality, the central political problem of our time.
Thomas Piketty: The Economics of Inequality (2015, Belknap Press): A short (160 pp) general text on inequality, older than last year's monumental Capital in the Twenty-First Century -- most likely a translation (and possibly update) of 2004's L'économie des inégalités.
Katha Pollitt: Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights (2014, Picador): One of the few books I've seen recently that seeks to regain the moral high ground on the issue of reproductive rights, of which access to safe abortions is essential. A longtime feminist flag-waving columnist, her essays were previously collected as Virginity or Death! And Other Social and Political Issues of Our Time (paperback, 2006, Random House).
Jake Rosenfeld: What Unions No Longer Do (2014, Harvard University Press): A history of the decline of labor unions in America, and what we as a nation lose by no longer having unions to advocate for American workers sharing a more equitable stake in the economy. Several more recent books on the decline (and/or hoped for revitalization) of unions: Stanley Aronowitz: The Death and Life of American Labor: Toward a New Worker's Movement (2014, Verso Books); Steve Early: Save Our Unions: Dispatches From a Movement in Distress (paperback, 2013, Monthly Review Press); Raymond L Hogler: The End of American Labor Unions: The Right-to-Work Movement and the Erosion of Collective Bargaining (2015, Praeger). Thomas Geoghegan, in Only One Thing Can Save Us Now: Why America Needs a New Kind of Labor Movement (2014, New Press), argues for treating the right to join a union (which is enshrined by law under the Wagner Act but virtually unenforceable) as a civil right, under civil rights law.
Peter Schweizer: Extortion: How Politicians Extract Your Money, Buy Votes, and Line Their Own Pockets (2013, Houghton Mifflin): Would seem like an equal-opportunity politician-hater -- previous book was Throw Them All Out: How Politicians and Their Friends Get Rich Off Insider Stock Tips, Land Deals, and Cronyism That Would Send the Rest of Us to Prison but he's also written tomes flattering conservatives (Makers and Takers: Why Conservatives Work Harder, Feel Happier, Have Closer Families, Take Fewer Drugs, Give More Generously, Value Honesty More, Are Less Materialistic and Envious, Whine Less . . . and Even Hug Their Children More Than Liberals) and slamming government (Architects of Ruin: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation). The fact is that the entire political system is open to corruption, and insiders of both parties are protective of it: indeed, they're pretty much selected for their ability to raise money. Still, there are differences: on the one side there is the party that acknowledges that there is such a thing as the public interest and occasionally considers the desires of people without money, and on the other side there is the celebrates the naked pursuit of self-interest and does everything it can to allow businesses and property owners to rip your off. Obama promised much during his campaign, and one thing promised he did absolutely nothing on was to work to limit the influence of money on politics. Whether he was sincere or not is almost beside the point: as you can see by the alignment of the majority in the Citizens United case, the leading promoters of corruption in politics today are conservatives, in large part because they realize their is to anti-popular that the only way they can win is to bury the issues in expensive propaganda. Still, the likely error here is thinking that politicians are shaking down business (extortion) rather than business corrupting the politicians. To test what's really happening you should weigh the relative economic slices. One thing you'll find is that politicians work pretty cheap.
Richard Seymour: Against Austerity: How We Can Fix the Crisis They Made (paperback, 2014, Pluto Press): Prescribing austerity to cure a recession is much like the mediaeval practice of bleeding patients, and backed by about as much science and logic. British writer, sees austerity as class struggle, as an attack on the working class, as if the recession didn't do damage enough.
Pat Shipman: The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction (2015, Belknap Press): Co-author of The Neandertals: Changing the Image of Mankind (1993, with Erik Trinkaus), also wrote The Animal Connection: A New Perspective on What Makes Us Human (2011). The former book did much to give us a sense of how modern neanderthals were, so the question of their extinction continued to puzzle, advancing speculation (or whatever) here.
Les Standiford: Water to the Angels: William Mulholland, His Monumental Aqueduct, and the Rise of Los Angeles (2015, Ecco): The story of the Los Angeles Water Company and construction of a 233-mile aqueduct to move water from the Sierra Nevada to the desert valley that became Los Angeles -- a story vaguely familiar if you've seen the movie Chinatown, or read Marc Reisner's Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water (1986, revised 1993).
Wolfgang Streeck: Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism (paperback, 2014, Verso): Lectures providing a brief history and critique of neoliberalism since the 1970s, focusing on how the business doctrine interacts with (undermines) democracy.
Richard H Thaler: Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics (2015, WW Norton): One of the first economists to look at irrational behavior in economics (as opposed to the usual math-simplifying assumption of rational actors), became better known when he teamed with political theorist Cass Sunstein for Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Presumably more analysis here, and less of the wonkery they call "libertarian paternalism."
Laurence Tribe/Joshua Matz: Uncertain Justice: The Roberts Court and the Constitution (2014, Henry Holt): On the very divided Supreme Court, which seems to tip one way or the other on uncertain whims, sometimes as extreme as the Citizens United ruling which practically turns elections into auctions.
George R Tyler: What Went Wrong: How the 1% Hijacked the American Middle Class . . . and What Other Countries Got Right (2013, BenBella Books): Author has a background in international non-profits, particularly regarding pharmaceuticals, so he not only understands the nuts and bolts of increasing inequality, he knows how more robust safety nets outside the US have cushioned the blow.
Kenneth P Vogel: Big Money: 2.5 Billion Dollars, One Suspicious Vehicle, and a Pimp -- on the Trail of the Ultra-Rich, Hijacking American Politics (2014, Public Affairs): Sort of a "who's who" of the big money players in American politics, some notorious like Sheldon Adelson and the Kochs, others more discreet. American politics has always been highly corruptible, all the more so as the nation's wealth is increasingly captured to a tiny elite.
David Weil: The Fissured Workplace: Why Work Became So Bad for So Many and What Can Be Done About It (2014, Harvard University Press): The reason is worker's loss of power/leverage. Weil specifically focuses on outsourcing but that's only one piece, and indeed the threat of outsourcing is often effective at cutting the knees from under workers. Loss of worker power lets companies do other dastardly things, but even if they are less malign, the loss of interest lets all sorts of rot set in. Weil sees better regulations as helping without denying companies "the beneficial aspects of this innovative business strategy." Another approach would be unions.
Tim Weiner: One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon (2015, Henry Holt): Author of two sprawling histories, Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA (2007) and Enemies: A History of the FBI (2012). As more of Nixon's tapes are opened up more precision is added to the history, not that the general lines weren't adequately revealed at the time. I mentioned this in a long list of recent Nixon books under the entry for Douglas Brinkley/Luke A Nichter: The Nixon Tapes: 1971-1972, but felt it was worth singling out. For one thing, this is likely to be the most damning of the non-fringe books, and no one deserves a more jaundiced critical eye than Nixon.
Eric Weisbard: Top 40 Democracy: The Rival Mainstreams of American Music (paperback, 2014, University of Chicago Press): As I recall, pop/rock seemed like a single mass culture in the early 1970s, but even then radio stations were coming up with various genre/formats to attract desired advertising niches, and by the '80s it was all over: one could listen to pop/rock all the time and never come across a top-ten single (excepting Madonna). In retrospect, other genres had split off well before the 1970s, and each makes for its own peculiar view into its own slice of the culture. This book looks back on the main ones, with the last chapter's post-millennial fragmentation the only one I have no sense of.
Darrell M West: Billionaires: Reflections on the Upper Crust (paperback, 2014, Brookings Institution Press): Billionaires are different from mere millionaires. Many of the latter have the sort of economic security that ensures they can survive misfortunes and will never go wanting, but they are still need to do the accounting to keep their fortunes in shape. Billionaires are not just secure. They are so secure they have money they can't think of any conceivable use for other than to remake the world in their own image. US politics has become little more than a plaything for billionaires, much like polo ponies in olden days but far more dangerous.
Saturday, August 1. 2015
As I noted yesterday, I had fallen way behind on my book blurb roundups -- almost a year missing until my June 17 post. (By the way, I blame Amazon for much of this, since their immensely useful website is all but guaranteed to crash my browser within a half-dozen pages. Lately I've been using the Chromebook's browser for Amazon, an awkward workflow but less troublesome.) I picked out most of the top political books for the June 27 post, and added most of the top historical books yesterday. That leaves a wide scattering of other subjects -- all at least nominally non-fiction. I don't generally track music books, but there are a few of those here. Some science too -- the main thing I read back in the 1980s, although I've scarcely had time for it in the last decade-plus (although I have at least tracked most of the climate catastrophe books). Some books lead to lists of related books, where I hope the titles are self-explanatory. And there are more of the usual political and historical books -- perhaps a bit more marginal given I've already picked through them in recent posts. Sometimes I pick out a right-wing book to argue with (Brooks, Gairdner, Powers, and Voegeli fit that bill below). Sometimes I don't have much to say about a left-wing book but want to note it anyway.
Sometimes I jump the gun before deciding that a book is really interesting, and those pieces tend to get stuck in my draft file until I finally flush them out. I have enough left over for at least one more post, so I may do that tomorrow (instead of Weekend Update, the file for which is empty at the moment).
Only one book below I have the cover cached for (i.e., I've already read), although I've also bought a copy of Steele's The Open-Source Everything Manifesto.
Samuel Avery: The Pipeline and the Paradigm: Keystone XL, Tar Sands, and the Battle to Defuse the Carbon Bomb (paperback, 2013, Ruka Press): On Alberta's tar sands and why they represent such a threat to irrevesibly amplify global warming. Also available: Andrew Nikiforuk: Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent (rev ed, paperback, 2010, Greystone Books); William Marsden: Stupid to the Last Drop: How Alberta Is Bringing Environmental Armageddon to Canada (and Doesn't Seem to Care (2007; paperback, 2008, Vintage). If you want to explore the other side, there's Alastair Sweeny: Black Bonanza: Canada's Oil Sands and the Race to Secure North America's Energy Future (2010, Wiley), and Ezra Levant: Ethical Oil: The Case for Canada's Oil Sands (2007, paperback, 2011, McClelland & Stewart) -- the latter is an anti-Arab rant, and the former plays on that prejudice while declaring everything else squeaky clean.
Robert B Baer: The Perfect Kill: 21 Laws for Assassins (2014, Blue Rider Press): Ex-CIA agent, wrote about his career in See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism (2002); also Sleeping With the Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude (2003), and The Devil We Know: Dealing With the New Iranian Superpower (2008). Not clear how critical and/or complicit he his, but this manual for assassins may try to have it both ways -- as if there are two sides to the story.
Alex Berezow/Hank Campbell: Science Left Behind: Feel-Good Fallacies and the Rise of the Anti-Scientific Left (2014, Public Affairs): It should be clear by now that there is no single omnipresent Left in America, especially given how easily writers can construct strawman examples to kick about. This book picks on ones that the authors at least associate with the left, although from the list I see many (if not all) of the issues focus more on what corporations do with science and what the potential risks may be than on the science itself. Still, I do know people who might be considered left-leaning who understand very little of science and sympathisize with all sorts of nonscientific nonsense, but that's no less true of ignorant right-leaning people. What is different about the right is the number of people who seriously reject not just the policy application but the scientific principles behind climate change and evolution.
John Brockman, ed: What Should We Worried About?: Real Scenarios That Keep Scientists Up at Night (paperback, 2014, Harper Perennial): One thing that should be clear by now is that people aren't very good at assessing risks, especially ones that are large and/or distant, but also ones that are near and/or familiar. This book promises the clarity of science, but many of the pieces are a bit fuzzy ("Tim O'Reilly forsees a coming Dark Age; Douglas Rushkoff fears humanity is losing its soul" -- those are pieces that actually intrigue me more than meteoric catastrophes or financial black holes). Brockman, by the way, has a whole cottage industry editing books along these lines. Recent ones include (all Harper Perennial paperbacks): What Have You Changed Your Mind About?: Today's Leading Minds Rethink Everything (1/2009); This Will Change Everything: Ideas That Will Shape the Future (12/2009); Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?: The Net's Impact on Our Minds and Future (1/2011); This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking (2/2012); This Explains Everything: Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works (1/2013); Thinking: The New Science of Decision-Making, Problem-Solving, and Prediction (10/2013).
David Brooks: The Road to Character (2015, Random House): Always one to jump out in front of a fad, this is a timely guide for those who want to blame social, economic, and political failures on those who have lost out, on their intrinsic character -- a lack of the sort of virtues that are assumed to lead to success. Those virtues, of course, are the usual conservative homilies. As a self-help book this might have some value, but Brooks is nothing if not a political hack, so when, say, he praises civil rights leaders A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin for their "reticence and the logic of self-discipline" he really means to dismiss all the others who don't show enough deferrence to the conservative order.
Noam Chomsky/Andre Vltchek: On Western Terrorism: From Hiroshima to Drone Warfare (paperback, 2013, Pluto Press): Chomsky has a tendency to batter you with long list of facts, and one of his favorite lists is the violent, anti-democratic acts of the US and its allies around the world. Unpleasant as the beating is, if you aren't aware of those facts you're likely to fall for the usual sanctimonious explanations that conspire to keep the list growing.
Robert Christgau: Going Into the City: Portrait of a Critic as a Young Man (2015, Dey Street Books): Memoir from childhood growing up in Queens through college at Dartmouth and several newspaper jobs through his stretch as music editor at the Village Voice, ending in the early 1980s. Disclosure: he's a friend, and I make a couple brief appearances in the book, plus one in the acknowledgments. More prominent in the book is his wife, Carola Dibbell, who it should be noted has a new novel out, The Only Ones (paperback, 2015, Two Dollar Radio).
Niles Eldredge: Extinction and Evolution: What Fossils Reveal About the History of Life (2014, Firefly): Paleontologist, co-author (with Stephen Jay Gould) of the "punctuated equilibria" theory of evolution, which was suggested by the general lack of transitional finds in the fossil record. Illustrated, almost an art book. For a more technical book, see Eldredge's recent Eternal Ephemera: Adaptation and the Origin of Species From the Nineteenth Century Through Punctuated Equilibria and Beyond (2015, Columbia University Press). Over the years I've read a lot by Eldredge, but hadn't noticed: The Fossil Factory: A Kid's Guide to Digging Up Dinosaurs, Exploring Evolution, and Finding Fossils (with Douglas Eldredge, paperback, 2002, Roberts Reinhart); Why We Do It: Rethinking Sex and the Selfish Gene (paperback, 2005, WW Norton); Darwin: Discovering the Tree of Life (2005, WW Norton); and Concrete Jungle: New York City and Our Last Best Hope for a Sustainable Future (with Sidney Horenstein, 2014, University of California Press).
Peter Finn/Petra Couvée: The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book (2014, Pantheon): The book was Boris Pasternak's famous novel, Doctor Zhivago, banned in the Soviet Union -- an opportunity the CIA seized upon by publishing it in Russian as a propaganda coup. The authors managed to get hold of CIA documents on the affair, most likely Russian sources as well.
William D Gairdner: The Great Divide: Why Liberals and Conservatives Will Never, Ever Agree (2015, Encounter Books): Author is Canadian, previously wrote books like The Trouble With Canada and The Trouble With Democracy, and the publisher is right-wing, so I don't expect he comes up with much of an answer. I'd say that polarization reflects increasing inequality, which by definition means we have less in common, and that leads to less respect for one another. In a polarized society, people are less likely to compromise on the self-interest of others (unless they are compelled, so the power to do that is increasingly sought). While some of these traits are even-sided, others are asymmetrical. In particular, the right is much more fond of using force to achieve its ends (war, violence, guns, jail). On the other hand, the left is more likely to recognize the humanity of the right than vice versa: the left's definition of "us" is broadly inclusive, the right's is exclusive. And the goals are fundamentally different: the right seeks to preserve the wealth and privilege of the few, whereas the left prefers to share the wealth among all people. Gairdner may muddy this up a bit by sticking to "conservative" and "liberal" labels.
Atul Gawande: Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End (2014, Metropolitan Books): Surgeon, has written several eloquent books on his craft, the health care industry, and sometimes how they don't mesh very well. For instance, hospitals often spend a lot of time and effort (for a lot of money) doing fruitless procedures on people who are dying anyway, often causing more suffering than they can alleviate.
Russell Gold: The Boom: How Fracking Ignited the American Energy Revolution and Changed the World (2014, Simon & Schuster): It's long been known that you can boost oil production by pumping liquids into oil fields to force the oil toward the producing wells. That's been done in Saudi Arabia since the 1940s, but hasn't been cost-effective in the US until recently. Hydraulic fracturing goes a step further, opening up oil- (and gas-) saturated shales that otherwise would be too dense to produce. The US has a lot of gas-shale, and that's the base for the so-called boom. US oil production has been diminishing since its peak in 1969, and we're seeing similar limits and declines all around the world -- a phenomenon that validates the "peak oil" hypothesis. Fracking, therefore, to some observers looks like a reversal of the laws of physics rather than just the next increasingly-expensive recovery methods. My view is that the boom is temporary, and that in the US in particular, where there is so little effort aimed at conserving petroleum resources, it's something that we'll burn through pretty quickly (while depositing all that greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, trapping solar energy and cooking the planet). Other recent books (2014 unless noted): Ezra Levant: Groundswell: The Case for Fracking (Signal); Michael Levi: The Power Surge: Energy, Opportunity, and the Battle for America's Future (2013, Oxford University Press); Alex Prudhomme: Hydrofracking: What Everyone Needs to Know (paperback, 2013, Oxford University Press); George Zuckerman: The Frackers: The Outrageous Inside Story of the New Billionaire Wildcatters (2013, Portfolio); but also see: Walter M Brasch: Fracking Pennsylvania: Flirting With Disaster (paperback, Greeley & Stone); and Richard Heinberg: Snake Oil: How Fracking's False Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future (paperback, 2013, Post Carbon Institute).
Richard Goldstein: Another Little Piece of My Heart: My Life of Rock and Revolution in the '60s (2015, Bloomsbury USA): A memoir by a good candidate for America's first rock critic, who started writing "Pop Eye" for the Village Voice in 1966. By the time I started reading him he was mostly writing about politics, which was fine with me.
John Michael Greer: Decline and Fall: The End of Empire and the Future of Democracy in 21st Century America (paperback, 2014, New Society): Prime concern is economic sustainability, which he doesn't find much evidence of in the US. Has a number of doom and gloom works, aside from his interest in organic gardening.
Mohsin Hamid: Discontent and Its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York, and London (2015, Riverhead): Novelist from Pakistan, has lived in those other towns (currently a UK citizen), collects essays on "life, art, politics, and 'the war on terror.'"
Simon Head: Mindless: Why Smarter Machines Are Making Dumber Humans (2014, Basic Books): Focuses on Computer Business Systems (CBSs) used to run large businesses, including the supply chains of Walmart and Amazon but also the financial shenanigans of Goldman Sachs. That this sort of technology is used to automate jobs and suppress wages has long been obvious. But who gets dumber as a result?
Bob Herbert: Losing Our Way: An Intimate Portrait of a Troubled America (2014, Doubleday): Former New York Times opinion columnist travels around America and finds much to worry, and complain, about.
Matthew W Hughey/Gregory S Parks: The Wrongs of the Right: Language, Race, and the Republican Party in the Age of Obama (2014, NYU Press): Looks at how Republicans talk about Obama and finds various ways they exploit lingering racism in America.
Kojin Karatani: The Structure of World History: From Modes of Production to Modes of Exchange (paperback, 2014, Duke University Press): Japanese philosopher, has written about Kant and Marx in the past (Transcritique: On Kant and Marx), revisits Marx somewhere between anthopology and globalization.
Edward D Kleinbard: We Are Better Than This: How Government Should Spend Our Money (2014, Oxford University Press): An attempt to reframe government taxation/spending debates not on traditional left-right terms but in terms of return on investments regardless of size. I think this is fundamentally right, although the devil will be in the details. There are many useful and important things that government can do more efficiently and more effectively than the private sector -- indeed, there are some that the private sector will only do if plied with exorbitant bribes. Nice to think we're smart enough we can figure this out, but there's little evidence of that.
Jon Krakauer: Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town (2015, Doubleday): A small city, population nearly 70,000, home of University of Montana so about 15,000 students. Local authorities were notoriously lax investigating rape complaints, so Krakauer investigated and this is what he found out. FWIW, I've read five previous books by Krakauer (out of six).
Daniel J Levitin: The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload (2014, Dutton): Brain book, verging into self-help territory. Author has a couple of books on music: This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession and The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature. Information overload is a real issue, and a reliable method for coping is something one might desire. However, as long as misinformation is profitable that will be a tall order.
Charles Lewis: 935 Lies: The Future of Truth and the Decline of America's Moral Integrity (2014, Public Affairs): IF Stone used to say, "all governments lie." Still, we'd be better off with fewer lies, which I suppose is the point of this. But getting to the truth is surely a more complex process. Lewis is such a stickler for the certainty of truth that his title refers to a documented count of "lies that led to the war in Iraq." Sure, there were lies, many of them, but some were big and some were small, some flowed automatically from others, most from misperceptions about how the world works and how American force functions in that world. Correcting for lies is a worthwhile step, but understanding why powers lie and being able to detect when they do even if you don't know what the truth is are more important still.
William McDonough/Michael Braungart: The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability, Designing for Abundance (paperback, 2013, North Point Press): An architect and a chemist, previously wrote Cradle to Cradle: Remking the Way We Make Things (2002), an engineering ethic that not only dispenses with planned obsolence but goes much farther.
Kirsten Powers: The Silencing: How the Left Is Killing Free Speech (2015, Regnery): Billed as a "lifelong liberal," worked in the Clinton administration, etc. But note the publisher, that she's a "Fox news contributor," and that her blurb authors are: Charles Krauthammer, Brit Hume, Juan Williams, Eric Metaxas, Ron Fournier, and George F Will. Or just the subtitle: no one on the left actually refers to the left as such, partly because we realize what they call the left we know to be a wide range of often conflicting views with no effective organizational unity. (We can, of course, speak of the right, with their daily talking points endlessly drummed into their marching base via Fox News, although lately even some of them seem to be going off message.) I have no idea what actual examples Powers has come up with -- maybe the old anti-PC rant that people should be able to express themselves as racists without fear of objection or challenge. It's true that occasionally someone says something racist on mainstream media and gets canned for embarrassing the network, but it's not the left that owns those media. For most of my life the right has been the far more serious threat to free speech -- most chillingly during the McCarthy period, but even now there's a concerted right-wing effort to purge universities of left-leaning professors (something David Horowitz, who uses "left" repeatedly in his book titles, is very active at). One can also mention efforts to prosecute (or "hold in contempt") journalists who reveal classified secrets -- James Risen is a prominent recent case. Since Obama's DOJ went after Risen, and Powers' people regard Obama as part of "the left," maybe that made Powers' list? I doubt it, since that's just the sort of thing the right would do given the opportunity. If you want to find out about real threats to free speech, check with the ACLU.
Diana Preston: A Higher Form of Killing: Six Weeks in World War I That Forever Changed the Nature of Warfare (2015, Bloomsbury Press): Historian, has written about the Boxer Rebellion, the Lusitania, and Before the Fallout: From Marie Curie to Hiroshima (2009), and with her husband has written historical fiction pseudonymously as Alex Rutherford. Her six-week window here was April to June 1915, during which the Germans introduced submarine warfare, aerial bombing (from a zeppelin), and poison gas (chlorine) -- innovations which "forever changed the nature of warfare." Her title, by the way, isn't original; see Robert Harris/Jeremy Paxman: A Higher Form of Killing: The Secret History of Chemical and Biological Warfare (paperback, 2002, Random House). Still, the notion that less discriminate forms of killing are "higher" is perplexing.
Arundhati Roy: Capitalism: A Ghost Story (paperback, 2014, Haymarket Books): Short political broadside from the famous Indian novelist, critic, and activist. She has a bunch of these, including: Walking With the Comrades (paperback, 2011, Penguin); Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers (paperback, 2009, Haymarket); An Ordinary Person's Guide to Empire (paperback, 2004, South End Press); Public Power in the Age of Empire (paperback, 2004, Seven Stories Press); War Talk (paperback, 2003, South End Press); Power Politics (2nd ed, paperback, 2002, South End Press); The Cost of Living (paperback, 1999, Modern Library).
Asne Seierstad: One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway (2015, Farrar Straus and Giroux): In 2011 Breivik killed eight with a bomb and shot and killed sixty-nine more at a Labour Party youth camp -- crimes he justified with a lengthy racist tract. Seierstad, from Norway, has written well-regarded journalism about Afghanistan (The Bookseller of Kabul, Iraq (One Hundred and One Days: A Baghdad Journal, and Chechnya (Angel of Grozny: Inside Chechnya).
Micah L Sifry: The Big Disconnect: Why the Internet Hasn't Transformed Politics (Yet) (paperback, 2014, O/R Books): "This is a book for social and political activists." The Internet promised more democracy. It didn't exactly deliver less, but it wrapped it up in so much noise it made many things harder to sort out, and harder to do. By offering us more connection, it's wound up making us more isolated. I read some of this and see the problems, but only a limited slice is available in the preview: any answers he has seem to be beyond the cut. Ain't that just typical?
Ken Silverstein: The Secret World of Oil (2014, Verso): Focuses more on the corruption of the finance and trading sides of the industry, as opposed to more mundane matters like exploration and production. Needless to say, there is a lot of corruption to report.
Vaclav Smil: Harvesting the Biosphere: What We Have Taken From Nature (2012, MIT Press): Rather technical assessment of how much of the Earth's biosphere has been captured by human beings, and how this affects the carrying capacity of the planet. Important info for that population bomb debate.
Robert David Steele: The Open-Source Everything Manifesto: Transparency, Truth, and Trust (paperback, 2012, Evolver Editions): Author started out as a spy, but found that the shroud of secrecy in his business wound up distorting everything. He came up with the idea of Open Source Intelligence as a way of untangling the subversion, then picked up the lessons from Open Source Software and tried to generalize that into Open Source Everything. Needless to say, this sounds right to me -- at least until proven otherwise.
John Paul Stevens: Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution (2014, Little Brown): Brief book by retired Supreme Court justice wants to tinker. The subjects: the "anti-commandeering" rule; political gerrymandering; campaign finance; sovereign immunity; the death penalty; the second amendment (gun control).
John Szwed: Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth (2015, Viking): Biography of the legendary jazz singer, timed to come out 100 years after Holiday's birth. Szwed has written excellent biographies of Sun Ra, Miles Davis, and Alan Lomax, as well as the essential primer, Jazz 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Jazz (2000).
Dominic Tierney: The Right Way to Lose a War: America in an Age of Unwinnable Conflicts (2015, Little Brown): Military theoretician, so no chance he'll advise avoiding conflicts let alone wars. But he's aware that the US hasn't won, by any definition, much of anything since WWII, and that the problem lies in the nature of the conflicts (which American thrashing only aggravates). His formula is surge-talk-leave. This assumes there's some tangible goals short of occupation, but that's probably another book/author. (I could imagine that the credible threat of US invasion might cajole some sort of power-sharing agreement -- that's sort of what happened with Bosnia/Serbia -- but that's hardly the American way.) Author previously co-wrote Failing to Win: Perceptions of Victory and Defeat in International Politics (2006) and wrote FDR and the Spanish Civil War: Neutrality and Commitment in the Struggle That Divided America (2007) and How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War (2010).
William Voegeli: The Pity Party: A Mean-Spirited Diatribe Against Liberal Compassion (2014, Broadside Books): A new twist on an old complaint, that liberal programs to help the less fortunate don't work (help the less fortunate) because, well -- fill in the blank. Being an asshole, Voegeli doesn't really care why they don't work, since he rejects the notion that compassion is a good reason to do anything, and he regards people who are compassionate as "unfit to govern" -- most conservatives agree, but try to palm off their mean-spiritedness as something a bit more palatable, like "tough love" (lest they look like assholes). I doubt that Voegeli is really doing his kind any favors here. It strikes me that both conservatives and liberals are more or less equally likely to empathize or be compassionate, but the kind of people conservatives care about is much more limited (to people most like themselves), whereas liberals are less picky about the people they care for. This leads Voegeli to a key misunderstanding: most programs he decries as compassionate (because they benefit people he would regard as pitiable if he wasn't such an asshole) are seen by liberals as self-help -- after all, they help people not unlike oneself.
Janine R Wedel: Unaccountable: How Elite Power Brokers Corrupt our Finances, Freedom, and Security (2014, Pegasus): Any doubt that American policy is primarily driven by the profit motive, both for the elites that control it and the corporations that bankroll them, should be dispelled here. This not only delegitimizes policies, it is more often than not dysfunctional, guaranteeing that the sponsored policies will fail. Wedel initially studied corruption in Poland. Then she came home, to see how it is really done.
Edward O Wilson: The Social Conquest of Earth (paperback, 2013, Liveright): Invented something I never trusted that he calls sociobiology, but he is one of the foremost writers on the impact of human beings on nature, and there is no doubt that humans have conquered earth, for better or worse. Or maybe this book is just about insect societies? -- another of his major topics.
Stephen Witt: How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy (2015, Viking): Business writer focuses on how file sharing works and rose in prominence, undermining the recorded music industry.
James Wolcott: Critical Mass: Four Decades of Essays, Reviews, Hand Grenades, and Hurrahs (2013, Doubleday): Bio doesn't mention Village Voice, where I know him from, but the music reviews go back that far, and are complemented by pieces on film and TV, books, other things a literate raconteur would bump into over the last 30-40 years.
Friday, July 31. 2015
I neglected these short book blurbs for close to a year -- July 3, 2014 to June 17, 2015 -- so I'm still catching up. In fact, I have so much written at this point I'll try to do another tomorrow. For today's selection, I've tried to focus on history books. (Last entry was focused on political books.)
Tariq Ali: The Extreme Centre: A Warning (paperback, 2015, Verso): British Marxist, novelist, filmmaker, part of the old New Left Review crowd, wrote a book in 2002 which excoriated extremists on both sides of the terrorism wars (which he dubbed the Oil Wars -- see The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity). Now he finds comparable trouble in the so-called center, focusing on the UK and Europe where the traditional parties of left and right compete to support corporations.
Edward E Baptist: The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (2014, Basic Books): Argues against the notion that slavery was pre-capitalist or even anti-capitalist by pointing out the how especially in the cotton industry technical innovations (hence capital) were developed to make slavery more productive and profitable. But showing that slavery was compatible with capitalism doesn't lighten its burden -- if anything, the opposite. Some of this was anticipated by Walter Johnson: River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (2013, Belknap Press). Also related: Sven Beckert: Empire of Cotton: A Global Industry (2014, Knopf).
Max Blumenthal: The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza (2015, Nation Books): The title reminds you that while Israel only took six days to defeat the armies of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, seizing large slices from each's territory, they spent six-and-a-half times as long poking, probing, and pounding the tiny, defenseless Gaza Strip -- with no tangible gains, a repeat of three previous military operations that prooved equally fruitless. Blumenthal's recent Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel (2013, Nation Books) revealed a profound racism (loathing) growing in Israel's dominant right-wing, so I hope this book goes beyond accounting the casualties and recording testimony of the survivors to get at the viciousness that powers these recurrent eruptions of Israeli wrath. Blumenthal's book is the first out on this latest round, but the following aren't what you'd call dated: Gideon Levy: The Punishment of Gaza (paperback, 2010, Verso); Norman Finkelstein: This Time We Went Too Far: Truth and Consequences of the Gaza Invasion (paperback, 2010, OR Books); Noam Chomsky & Ilan Pappé: Gaza in Crisis: Reflections on Israel's War Against the Palestinians (paperback, 2010, Haymarket Books); or for that matter, Amira Haas: Drinking the Sea at Gaza: Days and Nights in a Land Under Siege (paperback, 2000, Picador).
Daniel P Bolger: Why We Lost: A General's Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars (2014, Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt): Three-star general, had commands both in Iraq and Afghanistan. Concludes: "at the root of our failure, we never really understood our enemy." True, but "we" also didn't understand much of anything else, least of all how ill fit the US military was for occupying foreign countries. It's refreshing that Bolger admits that the operations were failures, but he doesn't seem to understand that the relentless focus on killing/capturing "enemies" created its own failures, as did the very alien-ness of the US military.
Joel K Bourne Jr: The End of Plenty: The Race to Feed a Crowded World (2015, WW Norton): The Green Revolution in the 1960s seemed to background Robert Malthus' population theories, but they're coming back as population grows, land remains constant, technology fails to bridge the gap, and other threats (like global warming) are increasing.
Douglas Brinkley/Luke A Nichter: The Nixon Tapes: 1971-1972 (2014, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt): Verbatim transcripts (784 pp of them), the precise history Nixon wanted you to hear, and some he didn't. Good to have this in book form, but I can't imagine wanting to read it. For some reason we have an avalanche of Nixon books, in addition to Rick Perlstein's The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (2014, Simon & Schuster): Patrick J Buchanan: The Greatest Comeback: How Richard Nixon Rose from Defeat to Create the New Majority (2014, Crown Forum); John W Dean: The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It (2014, Viking); Elizabeth Drew: Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon's Downfall (paperback, 2015, Overlook Press); Don Fulsom: Treason: Nixon and the 1968 Election (2015, Pelican); Irwin F Gellman: The President and the Apprentice: Eisenhower and Nixon, 1951-1961 (2015, Yale University Press); Ken Hughes: Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate (2014, University of Virginia Press); Jeffrey P Kimball/William Burr: Nixon's Nuclear Specter: The Secret Alert of 1969, Madman Diplomacy, and the Vietnam War (2015, University Press of Kansas); Ray Locker: Nixon's Gamble: How a President's Own Secret Government Destroyed His Administration (2015, Lyons Press); Michael Nelson: Resilient America: Electing Nixon in 1968, Channeling Dissent, and Dividing Government (2014, University Press of Kansas); James Robenalt: January 1973: Watergate, Roe v. Wade, Vietnam, and the Month That Changed America Forever (2015, Chicago Review Press); Douglas E Schoen: The Nixon Effect: How His Presidency Has Changed American Politics (2015, Encounter Books); Geoff Shepard: The Real Watergate Scandal: Collusion, Conspiracy, and the Plot That Brought Nixon Down (2015, Regnery); Roger Stone: Nixon's Secrets: The Rise, Fall and Untold Truth About the President, Watergate, and the Pardon (2014, Skyhorse); Evan Thomas: Being Nixon: A Man Divided (2015, Random House); Tim Weiner: One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon (2015, Henry Holt). Gellman's book is the second part of a multi-volume effort. Treason, by the way, refers to Nixon's back-channel efforts to undermine LBJ's peace talks, elsewhere known as the Chennault Affair. Fulsom previously wrote Nixon's Darkest Secrets: The Inside Story of America's Most Troubled President (paperback, 2013, St. Martin's Griffin). Weiner has written good books about the CIA and FBI, so I suspect his is the most useful of the new books. I read Gary Wills: Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man back when it originally came out (1970) and that's as deep as I ever want to get into that man's mind.
Tom Burgis: The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa's Wealth (2015, Public Affairs): While Africa has about 30% of the world's reserves of hydrocarbons and minerals, and 14% of the world's population, its economies have remained stagnant (e.g., only 1% of the world's manufacturing). The looting began under European colonialism, but continues today, enabled by the corruption of elites. Related: Celeste Hicks: Africa's New Oil: Power, Pipelines and Future Fortunes (paperback, 2015, Zed Books); Luke Paley: The New Kings of Crude: China, India, and the Global Struggle for Oil in Sudan and South Sudan (paperback, 2015, Hurst).
Bryan Burrough: Days of Rage: America's Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence (2015, Penguin): Investigates various fringe radical groups in the 1970s -- the Weathermen, the Symbionese Liberation Army, FALN, the Black Liberation Army -- who resorted to violence to advance their frustrated political ideals, and the federal agents who hunted them down (who themselves "broke many laws in its attempts to bring the revolutionaries to justice"). Also on the FBI's suppression of left radicals: Aaron J Leonard/Conor A Gallagher: Heavy Radicals: The FBI's Secret War on America's Maoists: The Revolutionary Union/Revolutionary Communist Party 1968-1980 (paperback, 2015, Zero Books).
Sarah Chayes: Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security (2015, WW Norton): Previously wrote The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban (2006), which indicted pretty much everyone for failing to secure a better future for the Afghan people after the US pushed the Taliban out in 2001. She supported that war, and wound up advising the US military, which puts her in an odd position: she identifies corruption as a major security problem for the US in Afghanistan and elsewhere, but misses the fact that the US has never been able to stand up non-corrupt governments anywhere, because American foreign policy is driven by the profit motive in the first place -- you didn't really buy into that altruistic humanitarian horseshit? But corruption delegitimizes government and leads to opposition, and often violence.
Meghnad Desai: Hubris: Why Economists Failed to Predict the Crisis and How to Avoid the Next One (2015, Yale University Press): Several variations on this book have appeared, and no doubt more will. Although economists are often asked for predictions, their models are more likely to seek an equilibrium that disallows crisis -- and in turn gives them little reason to research past crises. Still, one way to approach this would be to identify exceptions that did predict the crisis, then ask why no one paid much attention to them. One reviewer notes that lack of any mention of Hyman Minsky "leaves a gaping hole in an otherwise admirable book." I'll add that while failure to predict the crisis was a problem, a bigger one was inability to recognize what it all meant once it happened. Krugman, for instance, didn't predict the crash, but he knew exactly what was going on when it happened.
Don H Doyle: The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War (2014, Basic Books): A survey of how the war was viewed abroad, finding that monarchists hoped to see the Union (and democracy) fail, while radicals (like Karl Marx and Giuseppe Garibaldi) "called on the North to fight for liberty and equality." Both sides sent diplomats abroad to argue their cases. I don't see much about economic interests here. The best known is England, which leaned toward the Confederacy as a backward source of raw materials (mostly cotton), possibly fearing the Union as a potential competitor in manufacturing -- no doubt some English continued to oppose slavery, but that doesn't seem to have overridden economic interests. On the other hand, the Union tended to play down the issue of slavery in justifying the war effort, at least domestically. I wonder whether their case abroad differed.
Douglas R Egerton: The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America's Most Progressive Era (2014, Bloomsbury Press): A new history of the post-Civil War period, focusing on the striking advances of newly-emancipated black office holders and the systematic violence they were met with, and finally defeated by.
Barry Eichengreen: Hall of Mirrors: The Great Depression, the Great Recession, and the Uses -- and Misuses -- of History (2015, Oxford University Press): Similarities and differences between 1929 and 2008, how the memory of the former affected the response to the latter (and, I hope, how forgetting lessons from the former slowed down recovery from the latter). One thing I noticed at the time was that the initial output drop was almost exactly the same both times, but was soon limited by the much larger public sector in 2008 and much more responsive public policy (especially the frantic cycle of bank bailouts), but having averted a crash as bad as in 1929, the policy czars underestimated the damage, nor were they forced by public opinion to produce necessary reforms. Author has mostly written about currency issues; e.g., Golden Fetters: The Gold Standard and the Great Depression, 1918-1939 (1996), and Exorbitant Privilege: The Rise and Fall of the Dollar and the Future of the International Monetary System (2011).
Richard J Evans: The Third Reich in History and Memory (2015, Oxford University Press): Author of a sweeping three-volume history of the Nazi movement -- The Coming of the Third Reich (2003), The Third Reich in Power, 1933-1939 (2005), and The Third Reich at War: How the Nazis Led Germany From Conquest to Disaster (2008) -- returns for a review of how Hitler and company have been remembered. Seems to be an essay collection rather than a systematic treatment, but so much has been written about the subject that one can cover a lot of ground just reviewing whatever books come your way.
Eric Foner: Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad (2015, WW Norton): America's foremost historian not so much of the Civil War per se -- that would be James McPherson -- as the penumbra surrounding it (aboltionism, reconstruction) adds another piece of the story, detailing how slaves escaped to freedom in the North, and how free blacks were often seized by "slave catchers" and forced into bondage. I read Foner's first book, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War back when it was originally published (1970).
Howard W French: China's Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa (2014, Knopf): Not sure how important this is, but China (or Chinese businesses) have been looking to grab a larger slice of Africa's raw resources -- evidently this involves immigration as well as investment. This is reminiscent of western governments and companies, before and after "independence" but perhaps novel as well, given how inexpensively China can move their own people into place. French previously wrote A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa (2004).
David A Grimes/Linda G Brandon: Every Third Woman in America: How Legal Abortion Transformed Our Nation (2014, Daymark): Grimes is a doctor, so this focuses on health care matters. Clearly, availability of safe legal abortion procedures was a big advance over illegal and often dangerous procedures. Not clear how far this goes into how abortion rights changed political, economic, and social issues but a book could be written there, too.
Nisid Hajari: Midnight's Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India's Partition (2015, Houghton Mifflin): Another book on the bloody history of the British Empire's final "gift" to India: partition in 1947, which led a million deaths, many millions displaced, and set the stage for future wars, subterfuge, and terrorism between India and Pakistan. I've read Alex von Tunzelman's Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire (2007), which focuses more on the Mountbattens, and Yasmin Khan's The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan (2007), but there are many other books on this subject, including fictions like Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. This is reportedly one of the best.
Yuval Noah Harari: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2015, Harper): From the emergence of modern humans c. 70,000 years ago, a mix of genetics and sociology used to construct a hypothetical prehistory, regardless of the title -- "packed with heretical thinking and surprising facts" one reviewer says.
Dilip Hiro: The Longest August: The Unflinching Rivalry Between India and Pakistan (2015, Nation Books): The partition of India in 1947 led immediately to one of the greatest carnages of the post-WWII era, remembered through a continuous conflict that errupted in two more major wars between India and Pakistan and numerous threats and crises. Hiro, b. in Pakistan, has written dozens of books on the Middle East and South and Central Asia -- his reference book The Essential Middle East: A Comrepehsive Guide (2003) is one I keep on an easy-reach shelf; his A Comprehensive Dictionary of the Middle East (2013) would be an update -- so he's well positioned to cover this story.
Bruce Hoffman: Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle for Israel, 1917-1947 (2015, Knopf): Author is some kind of "terrorism expert" -- wrote Inside Terrorism (rev ed, 2006, Columbia University Press), and, w/Fernando Reinares: The Evolution of the Global Terrorist Threat: From 9/11 to Osama bin Laden's Death (2014, Columbia University Press) -- so sees mandatory Palestine as a rare case study where Israeli terrorism "worked": as such, he rather narrowly focuses on the Irgun and LEHI (Stern Gang) from 1939-47, as opposed to the broader question of the militarization of the Yishuv from the death of Joseph Trumpeldor (1920) through the formation of Haganah and Palmach, the Arab Revolt (1937-39), WWII, and the final integration of Irgun and LEHI into the IDF in 1948. No doubt this has a lot of detail as far as it goes, but the broader book seems to have been an afterthought -- little more than jiggering the dates. Also note that it's easy to overrate the effectiveness of Irgun/LEHI terror, since the UK had basically decided to quit Palestine after suppressing the Arab Revolt. Also that the "soldiers" didn't remain "anonymous" for long: Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir parlayed their notoreity as terrorists into successful political careers (both became Prime Minister).
Gerald Horne: The Counterrevolution of 1776: Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America (2014, NYU Press): Argues that by 1776 Britain was increasingly likely to abolish slavery, so one major motivation for the American Revolution was the desire of slaveholders to preserve their peculiar institution. Conversely, slave revolts in the British Caribbean were increasing, and likely to spread to the American colonies. Author previously wrote Negro Comrades of the Crown: African Americans and the British Empire Fight the US Before Emancipation (paperback, 2013, NYU Press), and Race to Revolution: The US and Cuba During Slavery and Jim Crow (paperback, 2014, Monthly Review Press). An earlier book with a similiar thesis is Alfred Blumrosen: Slave Nation: How Slavery United the Colonies and Sparked the American Revolution (paperback, 2006, Sourcebooks).
Ayesha Jalal: The Struggle for Pakistan: A Muslim Homeland and Global Politics (2014, Belknap Press): A history of Pakistan from 1947 to the present, its Muslim identity, cold war alliances, and ever troublesome relations with India, Afghanistan, and ultimately the United States. Other recent books on Pakistan: Hassan Abbas: The Taliban Revival: Violence and Extremism on the Pakistan-Afghanistan Frontier (2014, Yale University Press); Faisal Devji: Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea (2013, Harvard University Press); C Christine Fair: Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army's Way of War (2014, Oxford University Press); Laurent Gayer: Karachi: Ordered Disorder and the Struggle for the City (2014, Oxford University Press); Husain Haqqani: Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding (paperback, 2015, Public Affairs); Feroz Khan: Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb (paperback, 2012, Stanford Security Studies); Aqil Shah: The Army and Democracy: Military Politics in Pakistan (2014, Harvard University Press); Rafia Zakaria: The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (2015, Beacon Press).
Tony Judt: When the Facts Change: Essays, 1995-2010 (2015, Penguin): Selected essays from the late historian, including his famous essay recanting his early Zionism. The title refers to a famous quote that one's views should change in accordance with changing facts.
David Kaiser: No End Save Victory: How FDR Led the Nation into War (2014, Basic Books): Covers the period before the attack on Pearl Harbor at least back to 1939, showing how Roosevelt worked to better position the US to fight a war that he considered inevitable. I doubt that this goes into the question of to what extend Roosevelt provoked the Japanese attack (let alone the old conspiracy buff argument that he knew in advance of the attack and didn't tip the military off to maximize the outrage). One Amazon reader panned this, saying "spoiled by a slap at George Bush." A comparison of the two wartime presidents, how they managed their wars, and what the accomplished (or failed) might be worth a book of its own. Related: Nigel Hamilton: The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-42 (2014, Houghton Mifflin).
Fred Kaplan: John Quincy Adams: American Visionary (2014, Harper): A substantial (672 pp.) biography of the sixth US president, his term four years in the middle of a career that started as a teenage diplomat during the revolution and ended as one of the strongest voices against slavery in the House of Representatives.
David Madland: Hollowed Out: Why the Economy Doesn't Work Without a Strong Middle Class (paperback, 2015, University of California Press): It shouldn't be hard to make this point. The US economy grew at robust rates from 1945-70 when strong unions were able to capture a fair share of productivity gains, raising the working class to a middle class standard of living. Since then growth rates fell, unions were busted, virtually all productivity gains went to business, and a series of asset bubbles and busts combined with financialization led to a vast increase in inequality, hollowing out the middle class. I don't know whether Madland has a solution. Thomas Geoghegan does, in Only One Thing Can Save Us: Why America Needs a New Kind of Labor Movement (2014, New Press).
James McPherson: The War That Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters (2015, Oxford University Press): Far and away the bloodiest conflict in American history -- the last real war fought in American soil -- and not always remembered as the triumph for justice all American wars are meant to teach. The afterwar (what us northerners call Reconstruction) certainly divided political life for another century only to be if not re-fought at least re-litigated in the 1960s. Since then the legacy has become stranger, so it would be interesting to get McPherson's take. By the way, while he has wound up writing many books on military aspects of the war, the first book I remember him for was The Negro's Civil War: How American Negroes Felt and Acted During the War for the Union (1965).
Mark Perry: The Most Dangerous Man in America: The Making of Douglas MacArthur (2014, Basic Books): This seems to focus on the relationship between MacArthur and Roosevelt (and Marshall) rather than the later period, with MacArthur's successful occupation of Japan and disastrous direction of the Korean War -- as I recall, the title comes from this latter period. Perry has written extensively about WWII-era generals.
Richard Rhodes: Hell and Good Company: The Spanish Civil War and the World It Made (2015, Simon & Schuster): Rhodes has written a fine trilogy on the history of nuclear weapons (The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb, and Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race) and an important book on the Nazi invasions of Poland and Russia (Masters of Death: The SS Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust). The Spanish Civil War (1936-39) immediately preceded those stories, so directly that the US labelled Americans who volunteered to defend democratic Spain against Franco "premature anti-fascists." I don't see the point in blaming Neville Chamberlain for appeasing Hitler's demand for the Sudetenland while ignoring the western powers' failure to stand up to Hitler in Spain. I suppose at this point the best-known book on the Spanish Civil War is Antony Beevor's The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939 (2006), but I'd rather read Rhodes.
Bruce Riedel: What We Won: America's Secret War in Afghanistan, 1979-89 (paperback, 2014, Brookings Institute Press): Longtime CIA analyst and Afghanistan hack dates the end of the Afghan War from the point when the Soviet Union withdrew, even though the country has experienced peace at no time since then. But in 1989 the CIA clearly concluded that "we won": one wonders how critical Riedel can be, but surely he recognizes some irony there -- not unlike, say, GW Bush's "Mission Accomplished" moment.
Eugene Rogan: The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East (2015, Basic Books): After a century of losses, especially in eastern Europe, and ten years after a coup that brought a triumvirate of Young Turks to power, the Ottomans allied themselves with Germany and Austria-Hungary in the Great War of 1914. Not clear how much decline this book covers, but the fall came quickly, with the Ottoman's Arab provinces partitioned between Britain and France, the Armenian population decimated, and Ataturk's nationalist movement defeating an invading Greek army and consolidating control of Turkey. This winds up being a very important piece of history, one previously covered by David Fromkin in one of the best-named books ever: A Peace to End All Peace: Creating the Modern Middle East, 1914-1922 (1989).
Simon Schama: The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BC-1492 AD (2014, Ecco): With a second volume (When Words Fail: 1492-Present) scheduled for November 15, with a PBS tie-in (the first season DVD, covering five episodes, is out). Schama also did a 15-hour PBS A History of Britain, accompanied by three volumes.
Nancy Sherman: Afterwar: Healing the Moral Wounds of Our Soldiers (2015, Oxford University Press): Philosophy professor, held a post at the Naval Academy, seems to have had a lot of contact with damaged returning soldiers. I'm suspicious that her "philosophical engagement" is meant to enable more war, but one can certainly find reasons here that argue for less. Also interested in her proposed changes for military courts, which have traditionally treated "shell shock" harshly as some form of cowardice. We seem to have given up any thought of reforming criminals, but right now soldiers are held in such empathy that we may be open to trying to save them, and there may be some lessons there. The book, however, doesn't seem to address cases like Henry Kissinger, where moral lapses are caused not by trauma but by cunning.
Emma Sky: The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq (2015, Public Affairs): Author went to Iraq to work for the Occupation in 2003 and stayed at least through 2010 (she was political advisor to US General Odierno). Touted as "an intimate insider's portrait of how and why the Iraq adventure failed" -- which is to say highly biased, but even blaming others (like "the corrupt political elites who used sectarianism to mobilize support") reveals much about one's own culpability. (She's British, so has a little distance from the Americans, but prefers the Americans she worked with -- Petraeus, Odierno, Crocker -- to the ones she didn't, and ultimately puts a lot of blame on Iran for the resurgence of sectarian violence under Maliki, a relationship her insider status didn't provide her privvy to.)
Cass R Sunstein: Choosing Not to Choose: Understanding the Value of Choice (2015, Oxford University Press): Political theorist, closely associated with Obama (although that probably does both of them a disservice and makes it all a bit creepy; Robert Reich with Clinton is a similar case, although Reich at least is consistently on Clinton's left). Co-wrote a book with Richard H Thaler, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (2008) arguing for a "libertarian paternalism" which gives people a fig-leaf of options while encouraging them to take the defaults selected for them. He follows up here with examples of how having choices can be burdensome. No doubt, but in a political and economic system so rife with corruption as ours is, it matters who sets defaults, how, and why. Sunstein's recent books seem aware of this, especially Why Nudge? The Politics of Libertarian Paternalism (paperback, 2015, Yale University Press); also: Simpler: The Future of Government (2013; paperback, 2014, Simon & Schuster); Valuing Life: Humanizing the Regulatory State (2014, University of Chicago Press); and Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter (with Reid Hastie; 2014, Harvard Business Review Press).
Adam Tooze: The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931 (2014, Viking): Author of a huge WWII book, Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy (2007), looks at the first world war or its aftermath with an eye toward the economy -- after all, economic capacity ultimately proved decisive in both wars.
Nick Turse: Tomorrow's Battlefield: US Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa (paperback, 2015, Haymarket Books): One of the few journalists covering nearly every facet of the US military in the world today, and the only one I've seen trying to keep track of the increasing wave of undeclared and unpublicized operations in Africa.
Gernot Wagner/Martin L Weitzman: Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet (2015, Princeton University Press): Tries to put a price tag on global warming, factoring in various risky scenarios, some quite severe. We generally know that denialism is rooted in specific economic interests (chiefly coal and oil). But how do those interests stack up against others that have little to gain by doing nothing and potentially much to lose?
Bernard Wasserstein: On the Eve: The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War (2012, Simon & Schuster): An encyclopedic survey of Jewish life all across Europe up to the start of World War and the Holocaust.
Wednesday, June 17. 2015
I figure enough books of possible interest come out each month to run a little feature noting 40 of them, but for a variety of reasons I've been lax and haven't run one of these since . . . July 3, 2014, so this is way late. I've tried at least to compensate by selecting the most obviously important books (at least as regards politics). I currently have 97 more grafs in the scratch file, and I still have a dozen or more pages of notes I took in bookstores on my NJ trip last fall. Maybe I'll manage to get a second batch together before my big trip northwest starts on Friday. Meanwhile, here's my top 40. Cover illustrations for those I've actually read in the meantime. (I also have, but haven't read yet, Alexander Cockburn, Thomas Geoghegan, Rick Perlstein, Joseph E Stiglitz's The Great Divide, and Astra Taylor.)
Christian G Appy: American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity (2015, Viking): In the 1950s we were brought up to believe that America was a force for good in the world. The Vietnam War destroyed that self-conception -- at least it did for me and for many of my generation. Appy's brief history reminds us of how dirty the war got -- he starts with a story of GIs playing "gook hockey" (using Jeeps to run down Vietnamese children) -- and reminds us how even LJB but especially Nixon and Kissinger extended the war beyond any hope of success, just to show the world their resolve, to demonstrate how much punishment we could inflict even in defeat. The book goes on to look at how the postwar memory has been sanitized, not least the propagation of a myth that the war was lost not by our brave soldiers but by the cowardly antiwar movement -- America's own Dolchstosslegende (as with Germany's, a license to resume further wars). Worse than defeat, America seems to have learned nothing from Vietnam. With this book, at least, you might learn something. Appy previously wrote Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered From All Sides (2004), an oral history.
Karen Armstrong: Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence (2014, Knopf): One of the better writers on the history of religion, a Christian but not limited thereby. Her thesis in The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions (2007) was that the religions that emerged in the first millennium BCE (as well as Greek rationalism) were developed primarily to limit and control violence, so it isn't surprising that she argues that wars today are not driven primarily by religion. I see the point, and recognize that religion provides a framework that supports many pacifists, but I doubt that would be my conclusion.
Anthony B Atkinson: Inequality: What Can Be Done? (2015, Harvard University Press): Economist, published his first paper on the subject back in 1970 when the problem seemed less dire, not that there was nothing to study then. Most likely an important book on the subject, not least for a lifetime's thought into how to overcome it.
Kai Bird: The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames (2014, Crown): Ames was a CIA operative in Beirut, killed in the 1983 bombing of the US embassy there. He evidently had uncommonly good contacts with Arab political figures as well as the ear of Americans up to president Ronald Reagan, which leaves Bird thinking that had Ames lived longer he might have nudged US policy in the Middle East a bit out of its horrible rut. Bird's memoir Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis shows his own distinctive and idiosyncratic sense of the region.
Steven Brill: America's Bitter Pill: Money, Politics, Backroom Deals, and the Fight to Fix Our Broken Healthcare System (2015, Random House): First significant book on the political struggle to pass the Affordable Care Act (ACA, aka Obamacare). As you know, Obama tried to come up with a solution that would be non-controversial -- at least in the sense that all the interested business groups could buy in, with the hope that the Republicans would recognize the bill as kindred to their own proposals. None of that worked: the result was a system that no one loved or much cared for, a set of expensive compromises that solved some problems and created many more. The book is reportedly good on explaining the underlying problems as well as the backroom deals, but less critical about the act's shortcomings.
Wendy Brown: Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism's Stealth Revolution (2015, Zone Books Ner Futures): I read Philip Mirowski's Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste in search of an explanation of why the 2008 crash didn't lead to any serious rethinking of what is wrong with conventional economic thought (aka neoliberalism), but that long book didn't get much deeper than pointing out the mental rut no one dared escape. This looks to explain that logic and its grip.
Alexander Cockburn: A Colossal Wreck: A Road Trip Through Political Scandal, Corruption and American Culture (2013; paperback, 2014, Verso): A journal of sorts, from 1995 to his death in 2012, offers a sharp (and often shrill) rewind of history, but reading samples here one finds much broader range than his fondness for slagging the Clintons.
Andrew Cockburn: Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins (2015, Henry Holt): This is the Cockburn brother who previously wrote Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall, and Catastrophic Legacy, as opposed to Patrick (writes mostly about Iraq) and Alexander (until his death one of the new left's most prolific essayists). This is about the US drone program, which makes it possible for the US to surgically assassinate its enemies with unprecedented precision. Of course, the reality is a bit messier than the theory, but the logic of the process is more dangerous. Drone killing is remote, unilateral, shrouded in secrecy. Once a nation decides it can kill its way to victory, that mentality becomes locked in and is impossible to change: after all, victory is only a few notches down your kill list, and you never have to do anything compromising, like negotiating with the real people you've decided are your enemies. Other recent drone books: William M Arkin: Unmanned: Drones, Data, and the Illusion of Perfect Warfare (2015, Little Brown); Peter L Bergen/Daniel Rothenberg, eds: Drone Wars: Transforming Conflict, Law, and Policy (paperback, 2014, Cambridge University Press); Marjorie Cohn, ed: Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues (paperback, 2014, Olive Branch Press); Lloyd C Gardner: Killing Machine: The American Presidency in the Age of Drone Warfare (2013, New Press); Richard Whittle: Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution (2014, Henry Holt); Chris Woods: Sudden Justice: America's Secret Drone Wars (2015, Oxford University Press).
Patrick Cockburn: The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution (paperback, 2015, Verso): Probably a revised reprint of last year's The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising (paperback, 2014, O/R Books). Cockburn has been one of the most reliable reporters on Iraq, so is probably the first book one should look if you want to learn more about ISIS than the standard news media propaganda. He was close to the first out with a book, but there is lots of competition now, many written to drum up support for US entry in the war. Competing books include (all 2015 except as noted, paperback = pb): Carter Andress: Victory Undone: The Defeat of al-Qaeda in Iraq and Its Resurrection as ISIS (2014, Regnery); Charles H Dyer/Mark Tobey: The ISIS Crisis: What You Really Need to Know (pb, Moody); Benjamin Hall: Inside ISIS: The Brutal Rise of a Terrorist Army (Center Street); Loretta Napoleoni: The Islamist Phoenix: The Islamic State (ISIS) and the Redrawing of the Middle East (pb, 2014, Seven Stories Press); Jay Sekulow: Rise of ISIS: A Threat We Can't Ignore (pb, 2014, Howard Books); Andrew Sharp: The Rise of ISIS: The West's New Crusade (pb, 2014, Create Space); Jessica Stern/JM Berger: Isis: The State of Terror (Ecco). Of these, only Stern's book is particularly substantial -- she was on Bill Clinton's NSC and wrote the book Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill (2004), so she's built her career on the War on Terror, while co-author Berger wrote Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam (2011). Napoleoni is the only leftist in the bunch. She writes about global capitalism as well as about terrorism, and has close to a dozen books: one intriguing title is Maonomics: Why Chinese Communists Make Better Capitalists Than We Do (2012).
David S Cohen/Krysten Connon: Living in the Crosshairs: The Untold Stories of Anti-Abortion Terrorism (2015, Oxford University Press): The anti-abortion movement is unusual (although not unprecedented) in the violence its supporters have directed against its supposed enemies -- chiefly doctors and health care professionals. By violence I don't just mean the occasional murder or threat, but the whole range of harrassment directed against providers and clients.
Juan Cole: The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation Is Changing the Middle East (2014, Simon & Schuster): A view of the Arab Spring, at least before it went sour, when it first seemed like an opening for secular progressives. Cole is an expert on Iraq's Shiites, and has written one of the most informative blogs on the Middle East for more than a decade.
Angus Deaton: The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality (2013, Princeton University Press): The "escape" seems to have been from the hardships that plagued life only a few centuries ago in "the developed world," more recently and sometimes still elsewhere. Deaton lists out such progress but also finds many setbacks -- I suspect that the persistance of inequality has much to do with these.
William Deresiewicz: Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (2014; paperback, 2015, Free Press): Yale professor, sees America's top universities "turning young people into tunnel-visioned careerists, adept at padding their resumes and filling their bank accounts but unprepared to confront life's most important questions." How old-fashioned not to think that careerism isn't the point of college? After all, exactly that education has long been held up as the answer to inequality -- if not for everyone, at least for the select few who give the system a gloss of meritocracy. Jane Jacobs, in Dark Ages Ahead, argued one of the key signs was "credentialism" -- an aspect of this same problem. Of course, that's a more general problem. This book seems to focus on elite universities, hence on future elites. That they're dumbing down is interesting, but only part of the problem.
G William Domhoff: The Myth of Liberal Ascendancy: Corporate Dominance From the Great Depression to the Great Recession (paperback, 2013, Paradigm): Sociologist, wrote one of the classic books on the distribution of wealth in America, Who Rules America? The Triumph of the Corporate Rich (1967, latest revision 2013). He shows how even during periods when liberals were able to reduce inequality (roughly 1933-69) business remained under the firm control of an upper class that never compromise their own power and were always poised to launch the conservative counterrevolution of the 1980s (once they lost their fear of revolution). Domhoff also wrote Class and Power in the New Deal: Corporate Moderates, Southern Democrats, and the Liberal-Labor Coalition (paperback, 2011, Stanford University Press).
Greg J Duncan/Richard I Murnane: Restoring Opportunity: The Crisis of Inequality and the Challenge for American Education (paperback, 2014, Harvard Education Press): It's long been felt that equal opportunity is more important than equal outcomes, and that the key to equal opportunity lies in improving the public schools system. However, as the economy becomes ever more inequal, the public schools have an ever harder time compensating on the opportunity front, and it isn't clear to me that they're even getting the chance. I don't know how the authors proposed to overcome this but it looks to me like they're trying to solve the symptom rather than the cause: only by reversing the overall economic picture can you start to get some traction from reforming the schools. Duncan/Murnane previously edited: Whither Opportunity? Rising Inequality, Schools, and Children's Life Chances (paperback, 2011, Russell Sage Foundation).
Stephen Emmott: Ten Billion (paperback, 2013, Vintage): The number is the projected near future population, raising the question of how such a population can be supported by available resources and technology -- basically an updated broadside along the lines of Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb. Ehrlich's book made short-term predictions of doom that didn't come true, so it's become much easier to deny the concern, but there can be no infinite trendlines, at least in a finite world: sooner or later something has to break. On the same subject: Danny Dorling: Population 10 Billion: The Coming Demographic Crisis and How to Survive It (paperback, 2013, Constable). On Ehrlich, see Paul Sabin: The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble Over Earth's Future (2013, Yale University Press).
Tom Engelhardt: Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World (paperback, 2014, Haymarket Books): Probably just a collection of TomDispatch posts, worth tracking although a bit more effort into turning them into a current book would be nice. The focus on the so-called intelligence agencies is more relevant than ever as they seem to be driving US military intervention around the world -- the recent discovery and bombardment of the Khorasan group in Syria is a prime example. Then there is the broader issue of how those agencies manage to suck up so much money for doing mischief that has so little value to the American people. Secrecy is a big part of their recipe for success, so any exposure is welcome.
Steve Fraser: The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power (2015, Little Brown): Throughout much of US history most Americans were quick to blame the rich for the inequities all around us, but in recent years that has changed -- giving the rich a free pass, which they have used to great political advantage.
James K Galbraith: The End of Normal: The Great Crisis and the Future of Growth (2014, Simon & Schuster): Important book, argues that the economic growth of much of the 20th century was inflated by a tendency to replace household work (not counted as GDP) with commercial outsourcing (counted as GDP), a trend that more recently has been if anything reversed. What this means is that economic growth will be harder to achieve in the future, so policies which depend on growth to work (like slowing down the increase of inequality) will be harder to achieve or fail completely. I should say this again: I thought Galbraith's The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too (2008) was the best political book of the last decade.
Thomas Geoghegan: Only One Thing Can Save Us: Why America Needs a New Kind of Labor Movement (2014, New Press): Labor lawyer, first book was a fine memoir -- Which Side Are You On? Trying to Be for Labor When It's Flat on Its Back (1991) -- then a few books more narrowly on law before he wrote an eye-opening book on the German welfare state, Were You Born on the Wrong Continent? (2011). This seems to be more of a political manifesto, and while I'm skeptical that unions are going to save us, I'm not going to reject any of his arguments out of hand. Next up on my reading table.
Marie Gottschalk: Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics (2014, Princeton University Press): This so-called "bastion of freedom" is the world's largest jailer, its justice system trapped in a spiral where the only fixes for past mistakes it can conceive of are more mistakes of the same sort. One blurb: "sheds new light on the relationship between criminal justice and the ideological shape, material conditions, and institutional structure of the broader political economy." Looks like an important book.
David Graeber: The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy (2015, Melville House): Radical anthropologist, best known for Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011), but more recently wrote The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement (2013) based on his involvement with Occupy Wall Street. The focus here is on bureaucracy, how it actually works, and how that affects our perceptions of how the world works (hint: not very well).
Johann Hari: Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs (2015, Bloomsbury USA): Wide-ranging history of the world's futile efforts to ban drug use, starting with the first prohibition one hundred years ago and leading up to at least one country that sensibly legalized the whole gamut. Lessons: "Drugs are not what we think they are. Addiction is not what we think it is. And the drug war has very different motives to the ones we have seen on our TV screens for so long."
Chris Hedges: Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt (2015, Nation Books): Extended screed on the many wrongs of the American state, and a call for resistance, rebellion, revolution. Hedges is such a skilled journalist he has little trouble filling out the critique and making it seem reasonable. Harder to gauge as an action manual, but that's always the hard part.
David Cay Johnston, ed: Divided: The Perls of Our Growing Inequality (2014, New Press): Various papers, with overviews by Barrack Obama, Elizabeth Warren, and Adam Smith, and more topical papers, most pretty basic -- focusing perhaps more on the fallout at the bottom of the scale rather than the real action at the top.
Jonathan M Katz: The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster (2013; paperback, 2014, Palgrave Macmillan): The only American news correspondent based in Haiti at the time of the 2010 earthquake, details the international relief effort ($16.3 billion in pledges) and how little it relieved.
Harvey J Kaye: The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great (2014, Simon & Schuster): Everyone knows that the US fought WWII for freedom, but hardly anyone knows about FDR's inspiring definition of what freedom means, probably because two of those four freedoms got junked almost immediately in America's postwar fight to oppose communism and (under more favorable terms to the US) to restore imperialism. I read Cass R Sunstein, who's hardly my idea of a visionary political thinker, The Second Bill of Rights: FDR's Unfinished Revolution -- and Why We Need It more Than Ever (2004), so I have an idea what Kaye is pushing for. I always saw FDR as a man of the upper class, whose aim was always to save capitalism from its own contradictions. But one thing all the Calvin Coolidge worship in the Republican Party has done is to make FDR relevant -- indeed, necessary -- again. These days, those four freedoms look like a pretty good deal.
Naomi Klein: This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (2014, Simon & Schuster): Canadian political writer, has written a series of bestselling books which seem to sum up the left's thinking about the rot of capitalism -- No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies (2000) on globalization, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007) factoring in the terrorism wars, and now this one taking notice of climate change.
Jeff Madrick: Seven Bad Ideas: How Mainstream Economists Have Damaged the World (2014, Knopf): Author of one of the best historical context books on the recent crash -- Age of Greed: The Triumph of Finance and the Decline of America, 1970 to the Present (2011, Knopf) -- broadens his critique to include a number of key ideas in economics. The ideas range from established zombies to key insights that are often misunderstood and misapplied (like Adam Smith's "invisible hand"). Some economists, like Alan Blinder, were not amused.
John Micklethwait/Adrian Wooldridge: The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State (2014, Penguin): Journalists for The Economist, they've written upbeat books on globalization (A Future Perfect: The Challenge and Hidden Promise of Globalization), conservatism (The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America, and fundamentalism (God Is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World). Their new riff is that the future belongs to the elites that are most effectively to usurp the power of the state. In this, they're more impressed by Singapore and China than the US, where the rich are trying to destroy democracy lest it ever yield to the masses.
Sendhil Mullainathan/Eldar Shafir: Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much (2013, Times Books): A piece on behavioral economics, answering much with little: "scarcity creates a similar psychology for everyone struggling to manage with less than they need." Of course, without scarcity there would be no economics, which is a big part of the reason businesses and economists work so hard to enforce scarcity. Also why so much changes when you imagine a transition to post-scarcity conditions. I doubt the authors will go there, but they should give you lots of reasons why you should.
Rick Perlstein: The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (2014, Simon & Schuster): Third huge volume in the author's history of the right-wing in America, following Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus and Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. Not a flashy period for the rise of the US right, but unless you believe Reagan was some sort of deus ex machina, the shift found some kind of traction in the half-decade's turmoil.
Robert D Putnam: Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (2015, Simon & Schuster): Sociologist, most famous for his study of the breakdown in social bonds in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000). He returns to his lower middle class home town here, tracks down what happened to his high school class, and finds that fate has been tough, with fewer and fewer Americans enjoying the opportunity for upward mobility. This won't come as a surprise to anyone who can unpack statistics, but the case examples may make an impression where numbers numb.
James Risen: Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War (2014, Houghton Mifflin): "War corrupts. Endless war corrupts absolutely." Risen has broken several major stories about that corruption, and adds a few more here. I'm not sure it rises to the level of synthesis of the above quote, but it should contribute to one.
Shira Robinson: Citizen Strangers: Palestinians and the Birth of Israel's Liberal Settler State (paperback, 2013, Stanford University Press): After 700,000 Palestinians fled the war zone in what became Israel, the remainder (now 15% of Israel's population) were offered a peculiar form of citizenship ("how to bind indigenous Arab voters to the state while denying them access to its resources"), setting up a tension that continues to the present day. This looks to be one of the few books to address this topic.
Joseph E Stiglitz/Bruce C Greenwald: Creating a Learning Society: A New Approach to Growth, Development, and Social Progress (2014, Columbia University Press): Lectures from a series named for Kenneth J. Arrow, focusing on the role of learning throughout the economy and society, but "lectures" sells this short -- this is a substantial book, well over 500 pages, and likely an important one (not least given how little regard the right has for learning).
Joseph E Stiglitz: The Great Divide: Unequal Societies and What We Can Do About Them (2015, WW Norton): Another volume on inequality, following the author's The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future (2012). This is probably a second choice in that it's built from essays written over several years, but Stiglitz is a brilliant economist and the problem is so huge and sweeping you have to come at it from many angles.
Astra Taylor: The People's Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age (2014, Metropolitan Books): Looks like this creates a strawman argument about what a democratic marvel the internet is then knocks it down showing how "a handful of giants" have cornered it and usurped it for their own nefarious ends. Then she tries to rescue the strawman from the giants. She has made documentary films before, including one on Slavoj Zizek and one she converted into the book, Examined Life: Excursions With Contemporary Thinkers (paperback, 2009, New Press).
Zephyr Teachout: Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin's Snuff Box to Citizens United (2014, Harvard University Press): For a variety of reasons, American politics has always been easy to tempt with corruption. The founding fathers struggled with the problem: George Washington famously strived to counter any suggestion that he might put his personal interests above the public's, while Aaron Burr was possibly the most notorious of many who sought office as a path to seeking riches. So there's a lot to write about here, especially lately. As is often the case, the problem may exist perpetually, but it only becomes really severe when we let our guard down, either by losing the sense of public interest or by glorifying the naked greed of self-interest. Both are flagrant problems these days.
Martin Wolf: The Shifts and the Shocks: What We've Learned -- and Have Still to Learn -- From the Financial Crisis (2014, Penguin): Chief economics commentator at the Financial Times in London; previously wrote Why Globalization Works (2005) and Fixing Global Finance (2008), which now seem to be part of the problem. At least he recognizes that there are problems, and Krugman sees value in most of his proposed reforms.
Wednesday, September 17. 2014
Every year dozens of books are published about a topic that only a handful of Americans care about: specifically, those with cushy "think tank" jobs, plus a few military officers and State department bureaucrats who aspire to those jobs. Most assume that the US has a rightful role running the World Order, with some fretting that China or some other nation is going to butt in and offering sage advice on how the US can secure its rightful role. Against these stalwart hegemonists, now and then someone will argue that a "multipolar" isn't such a calamity, but they are in the minority, and are still so obsessed with dominance they needn't fear about losing their status as Very Serious Thinkers.
The books, of course, are nonsense, predicated on unexamined ideas: that chaos and war are the natural state of the world, that order is so valuable you have to accept it from whoever can impose it, that inequality is the best we can do given man's venal nature. That is, of course, the way conservatives think about everything. Unfortunately, it is also the way liberals usually think about the foreign world, given how readily they have sucked up the prejudices of the West's imperial past. In 2003 Jonathan Schell published an antidote to that kind of thinking, a book called The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People. It was published just as the neocon ideology had become fashionable and powerful enough to "create new reality" in Iraq, and predicted failure for such hubris. Ten years later the results should be clear, but still the foreign policy elite natters on, too absorbed in their own prejudiced thoughts to have noticed their failures.
Case in point: a new book called World Order by America's most venerable war criminal, Henry Kissinger. Fortunately, we don't have to actually read the book: we can skim through the New York Times' review by John Micklethwait -- editor-in-chief of The Economist, the kind of journalist who makes his living chronicling the rarefied world of conservative "think tanks." (Micklethwait's most famous book is The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America, which every 4-5 pages reiterated the mantra that conservatives are America's "idea people." He also wrote A Future Perfect: The Challenge and Hidden Promise of Globalization  and God Is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World , extolling the wonders of free capital flows and fundamentalism, respectively. His latest is The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State, about how the future belongs to oligarchies that are able to usurp the powers of the state.) Rarely has reviewer and subject been so perfectly matched to bring out the worst in a book.
However, before we dive into the review, I should point out that there is an alternative approach to international relations that is wholly absent in the thinking of Kissinger and Micklethwait: the idea that order can be obtained through the consent of equal nations with a common commitment to basic, inalienable human rights and a just body of international law. In the wake of two horrific world wars, and the advent of even more destructive nuclear weapons, that idea got so far as the founding documents of the United Nations -- before that body got turned into a cartel of superpowers -- and the basic ideas have reappeared occasionally since. I could elaborate more, but for now just keep the idea in mind.
The first quarter of Micklethwait's review is sheer flattery:
It's not as if Kissinger didn't have the ear of the Bush Administration after 9/11. He was, after all, Bush's first pick to chair the commission that would report on the 9/11 attacks. (He turned the job down for fear of having to disclose who his consulting clients were.) If he had any reservations about Bush's approach to Iraq or anything, he was remarkably circumspect about voicing them. And since when has Churchill been an expert on anything? He always said he hadn't been elected to preside over the dismantling of the British Empire, but no one did more to wreck it, which he repeatedly did by insisting on substituting his prejudices for any understanding of or empathy for the empire's subjects. On the other hand, Kissinger's own record is nearly as bad. The suggestion that he would have handled Syria and Ukraine better than Obama has -- admittedly a low bar -- overlooks how much his own policies contributed to those conflicts today.
The Westphalia treaties ended the 30 Years War in 1648 with a set of agreements between nations/states/cities to respect each other's autonomy and work with each other in prescribed ways. This later led to an ever-adjusting set of alliances to maintain a balance of power -- which mostly worked to keep the peace in Europe (and to export war to the third world) until its colossal failure in 1914. Kissinger always thinks in the past, and far enough back as to ignore recent novelties like the European Union, so balance of power is the best he can do. Unlike the neocons, he recognizes that the US isn't the sole power in the world, one suspects this has less to do with realism than with the fact that it takes multiple powers to balance.
After all, while the neocons hate Kissinger, he has never really reciprocated. The reason, I think, is that both worship power. It's just that the neocons think they have so much power they can create their own reality, and Kissinger, well, he's never been to type to point out "the Emperor's new clothes" -- he's too much of a flatterer for that, too worshipful of power.
The review goes on and on iterating Kissinger's past examples, a litany of Richelieu, Metternich, Palmerston, Talleyrand -- curiously enough, courtiers like Kissinger and not the monarchs they served. Kissinger goes on to belittle the European Union:
For Kissinger, historical change not accomplished by force hardly counts. Then he explains Putin and Russia:
Again, nothing like a historical factoid to explain away current behavior or policy. This one is about as facile as trying to explain the Bush occupation of Iraq as the latest wrinkle on Manifest Destiny. It may indeed be that a nation capable of the former is predisposed to the latter, but that leaves a lot of intervening history unexamined in favor of a pat answer.
I suppose this is where you notice that Micklethwait is British: he can't quite fall for the poor, tiny, beleaguered Israel line that is political orthodoxy in the US. Kissinger has been around the block enough to know better too, but to say so would take principles, or courage, neither a Kissinger staple. Propounding ignorance about Islam, on the other hand, takes neither. It's right up his alley.
Another remarkable example of Kissinger's ability to look at al the complexities of history and only see power relationships, then to take the narrowest thread and explicate it through some totally unrelated event in European history. Sure, Britain united India politically -- more Bismarck than Napoleon, I'd say, until they also split it into two warring halves -- but they also destroyed India economically. (One thing I wonder is whether Kissinger would have been so successful had stayed in Europe, where his audiences and patrons might actually know much of the history he revels in.)
Middle Kingdom? Another example of forcing the present into the distant past so he can avoid having to understand what's happening there. I like the line -- "Good men do not become soldiers" -- but modern China does not lack for soldiers, or for nails. While modern China must in some sense continue to reflect and resonate ancient China, the nation's remarkable economic growth of the past 20-30 years is more due to forced modernization. This is a modern (perhaps even postmodern) phenomenon -- unexplainable through ancient history, but also non-analogous to the processes that created similar results in Europe and America. In particular, China (and most of East Asia, Japan a partial exception) achieved its wealth without building on imperialism, so is unlikely to look at the world the same way Europe and America do. Needless to say, that's a thought Kissinger is incapable of.
One of my favorite rock lyrics is from the band Camper van Beethoven, and goes like this: "If you weren't living here in America/you'd probably be somewhere else." There are several problems with being self-centered. One is that you can't see yourself as others see you, and as such you have no clue when you do something wrong. Back when the US army was smaller than Bulgaria's it still did things that were wrong -- 1890, the very year Micklethwait cites, was the date of the Wounded Knee Massacre -- but those wrong things were much smaller in scope and more isolated from the rest of the world than they are today. I don't know why Kissinger/Micklethwait complained about the size of the 1890 army. Back then, the US was already the most prosperous nation in the world, without getting into the trap of managing overseas colonies (although it often treated Central America like one). Nor was the US isolated: with the possible exception of the UK, no nation traded more all around the world. What more do they want?
The notion of America as an "indispensable nation" dates from WWII, when latent industrial might turned the tables against the Axis -- although we conveniently forget that most of the actual fighting was carried out by the Soviet Union and China. Unfortunately, Americans had too good a time in that war -- a massive Keynesian stimulus, strict profit controls, and a sense of common purpose pushed a previously depressed economy into overdrive, while all of the war's destruction took place elsewhere. By the time the war was over, over half of the world's industrial capacity resided in the US, and America alone had the financial power to jumpstart the world economy. After some early gestures to build a peaceful world community, Truman got distracted and decided that the US should side with capital in the international class war, so efforts like the Marshall Plan were turned into political weapons against not just the Soviet Union but the whole working class. The "Cold War" somehow managed not to destroy the world, but the US repeatedly supported desperate attempts by colonial powers to recapture their empires, and corrupt dictators and oligarchs when independence was inevitable, while isolating nations that had the gall to turn toward communism. Ultimately, the big loser of the Cold War wasn't the Soviet Union, which gave up the game, but America's own middle class democracy.
Micklethwait, possibly echoing but at least distilling Kissinger, described the Cold War thusly:
After the Soviet Union fell, America's foreign policy elites were beside themselves with triumphal glee -- proclaiming The End of History and looking forward to The Clash of Civilizations -- but their triumph was little more than a con. Had Reagan's rhetoric caused the Soviet Union to disintegrate, why did communist states the US confronted much more aggressively (like Cuba and North Korea) stay communist? If communism was a dead end, how was China able to post the world's strongest economic growth record over the last 25 years? Moreover, when you sift through the real rubble of the "Cold War" you find enormous chasms where the US took the wrong side of history and left enormous destruction in its wake: the "chaos in the Middle East" that Micklethwait bemoans is largely the result of America's Cold War embrace of Salafist jihadism -- a program, by the way, initiated in the 1970s when Henry Kissinger came up with the bright idea of propping the ultraconservative Saudi monarchy up as a US proxy in the Middle East (and soon thereafter Afghanistan). To say "America's moral order worked" is well beyond insane.
This isn't to say that the US should have no role in the world (although that would clearly be an improvement over the one the US has practiced for nearly seventy years now). Clearly there are useful and valuable things a large and rich nation can do in the world -- the $750 million Obama just proposed to fight the ebola epidemic is a nice gesture (although, as Nick Turse recently documented, the US has a terrible track record of running "humanitarian projects" in Africa). But what needs to be done is for the US to meet other countries in forums that give everyone a fair and equal shake, and for that to happen the US has to stop throwing its weight around, trying to bully everyone else into submission. More specifically, the US needs to develop a genuine commitment to peace and human rights, to equality and justice, to a sustainable stewardship of the earth. To do that, a good first step would be to stop listening to Henry Kissinger. In fact, a good step would be to extradite him to the Hague, to finally be tried as the war criminal he was (and is).
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.
Saturday, June 28. 2014
Tweeted this today:
The book is Daniel Schulman: Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America's Most Powerful and Private Dynasty. B&N has it on sale for 35% off -- a much better deal than Amazon offers (looks like the publisher is one of those Amazon's been trying to shake down). B&N's website lists is as the 7th best selling book in politics & current events, just ahead of Elizabeth Warren's A Fighting Chance and Glenn Greenwald's No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the US Surveillance State. Wichita is the home turf of the Koch family and their company, probably the second (or third) largest employer in town, so you'd think their would be more than average interest in the book here -- certainly not zero. So you don't have to be paranoid to wonder whether someone's arm's been twisted a bit.
I've seen a couple excerpts from Schulman's book in Mother Jones, and they strike me as basically fair:
I've also seen a piece (don't have link) where Schulman speculates that the Koch's libertarianism could help steer the Republicans back to more moderate positions on "culture war" issues. I've never seen any evidence of this. Presumably, for instance, as libertarians the Kochs support abortion rights, but no enough to break with any Republican who comes close to them on money issues. And they should be against drug prohibition and every aspect of America's military presence in Asia and Africa, but those issues never seem to factor into their political patronage.
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.
Tuesday, February 11. 2014
I knew I hadn't done a book thing in quite a while, but was surprised to check up and find the last one was on July 26. To try to force myself to do these things more regularly, I decided to limit them to 40 books each. This one actually runs a bit long (52 books) in an effort to clear out my backlog and get a fresh start. Not sure when I'll get the research done for the next one, but most likely the books are already out there.
By the way, I've actually read the Bacevich and Blumenthal books, as well as the three I list under new paperbacks (albeit in the illustrated hardcover editions). I recommend all five, especially Timothy Noah's The Great Divergence as a good general introduction to the inequality issue -- a topic Christopher Hayes' discussion of meritocracy feeds directly into.
Jack Abramoff: Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption From America's Most Notorious Lobbyist (2011, WND Books): Out of jail after 43 months, not like he killed anyone, just redistributed millions of dollars from the public till to needy clients ("a corporation, Indian tribe, or foreign nation"), congressmen, and himself and his fellow fixers. And now he's had a change of heart, trying to raise himself to muckraker from muck. Problem is, he hasn't had a change of character. As an Amazon reader put it: "This book could be really good if Abramoff wasn't such a total narcissist."
Akbar Ahmed: The Thistle and the Drone: How America's War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam (2013, Brookings Institution Press): One thing US intervention under the "global war on terror" guise has done is to break down traditional tribal hierarchies, as jihadists vie with elders as to how to defend communities against foreign (and to some extent anything modern counts) attack. Author is Pakistani but solidly wedged into the US foreign policy estate.
Kjell Aleklett: Peeking at Peak Oil (2012, Springer): An extensive review of the peak oil theory: the idea that the maximum point of oil extraction occurs when about half of all recoverable oil has been pumped, and is followed by declining production at elevated prices. US oil production peaked, as the theory predicted, in 1969, after which the US had to import oil to meet increasing demand (plus decreasing production). Recent advances in recovery technology have complicated things a bit, and the world (unlike the US in 1969) lacks a cheap external source to fill unmet demand, so the world production peak (predicted to have occurred some time in 2000-2010) has been a bit bumpy, but the basic facts remain: oil fields deplete, new ones become increasingly difficult to find and develop, and virtually no new oil is being created, so sooner or later we will run out, and along the way oil will become expensive, a painful way of weaning us from its use. All that and more should be in here.
Daniel Alpert: The Age of Oversupply: Overcoming the Greatest Challenge to the Global Economy (2013, Portfolio): Contends "the invisible hand is broken" by an "oversupply of labor, productive capacity, and capital relative to the demand for all three." Strikes me as true, largely the effect of technology on productivity but also growing inequality which converts those gains almost exclusively to capital. Not sure what an investment banker like Alpert wants to do about that, but demand could be increased by more equitable income distribution, and oversupply of labor can be reduced by increasing leisure time (which, if adequately supported, would also help out on the demand front).
Jonathan Alter: The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies (2013, Simon & Schuster): Thought this might be one of those "centrist" tomes that balances loathing for the left against a few nitpicks with the right, but turns out this is just a campaign book, a recap of the 2012 election, where Obama's centrism worked because the right went crazy. Alter's previous books were on FDR's 100 days and on the 100 days he hoped Obama would have in 2009, so figure he's been disabused of some illusions.
Marc Ambinder/DB Grady: Deep State: Inside the Government Secrecy Industry (2013, Wiley): Several obvious questions here: how much of what Edward Snowden is now being hounded for leaking was known by the "inside" authors here? And how much of what they knew has been obsoleted by Snowden's revelations? I don't doubt that anyone who cared to look could have found various pieces of what the NSA has been up to, and this may help to understand it all. But most likely we're still far from understanding it all, so this and similar books are far from definitive. (I notice that Amazon wants to bundle this with Mark Mazzetti: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth and Jeremy Scahill: Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield -- two other key pieces to the puzzle.)
Scott Anderson: Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East (2013, Doubleday): Every decade or two someone returns to T.E. Lawrence for further confirmation of the insights they've finally tuned into after further mayhem in the Middle East, yet they always miss the basic point: what makes Lawrence an effective critic of British (and more recently American) intervention is that he was helplessly at the center of the problem: he was convinced he could make it work. This also focuses on Aaron Aaronson, Curt Prüfer, and William Yale.
Reza Aslan: Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (2013, Random House): Wrote one of the more accessible histories of Islam, No God but God: The Origins and Evolution of Islam, and a book critical of the Jihadist impulse, Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in the Age of Globalization. Here he attempts a historical inquiry into the life of Jesus. Long ago I read Marcello Craveri's The Life of Jesus, a similar attempt to flesh out a historical character about whom little is known and much is imagined. Aslan must know this as well as anyone, but judging from the cover, I have to wonder whether the association of Jesus with the Jewish zealot movement isn't imposing something from the modern mind's must justified fear of violent fundamentalism.
Andrew J Bacevich: Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country (2013, Metropolitan Books): Continues the author's critique of American militarism -- cf. The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War (2005), The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (2008), Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War (2010) -- all useful books. Still, I think his argument here, that Washington has found it too easy to use (and abuse) the all-volunteer Army can be countered by restoring the draft, is misplaced. He surely recalls that having "citizen-soldiers" in Vietnam did little to prevent the politicians and brass from abusing them. Nor did the Army's later scheme to make itself unable to fight wars without calling up the reserves deter the Bushes. I don't doubt that the Afghanistan and Iraq wars have done immeasurable damage to the troops, but you're never going to end American militarism by fetishizing the troops -- they ultimately have too much stake in perpetuating the system to buck it, even if many wind up its victims.
Peter Baker: Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House (2013, Doubleday): Big (816 pp) instant history of the two Bush-Cheney terms, based on sympathetic insider interviews by a long-time White House correspondent. One angle seems to be questioning who called the shots when -- for much of this time Billmon commonly referred to the Cheney Administration, while only occasionally mentioning "Shrub." My impression is that after Cheney's chief of staff Libby was convicted the tables turned and we went from the Cheney menace to the Bush muddle, not that anything got better.
Max Blumenthal: Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel (2013, Nation Books): The hidden, and rather embarrassing, story revealed by living a couple years in Israel, of talking to right-wingers in Knesset and in the streets, to peace activists, and to strange folk who invariably wind up "shooting and weeping" like David Grossman. I'm not sure he covers all the bases, but he shows, for instance, how the schools are used to train Jewish Israelis for military service, and how that reinforces right-wing political culture. The result is a grossly distorted society.
David Carey/John E Morris: King of Capital: The Remarkable Rise, Fall, and Rise Again of Steve Schwarzman and Blackstone (2010; paperback, 2012, Crown Business): Puff book on the largest private equity company and its billionaire leader, and presumably a few words about his partner, Pete Peterson -- you know, the guy who wants to take your Social Security away. The authors buy into the great moral fallacy of our time: the belief that making obscene amounts of money is laudable no matter how you do it.
Thurston Clarke: JFK's Last Hundred Days: The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President (2013, Penguin Press): Much speculation about what Kennedy would have done had he lived and been reëlected, especially given how poorly Lyndon Johnson fared with Vietnam. McGeorge Bundy later observed that LBJ's basic Cold War attitude was to make sure he wasn't perceived as weak, JFK's approach was to make sure he was right. The author argues that JFK's openness made him a different man at the end of his life than he was when he ran for president.
Jonathan Crary: 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (2013, Verso): Short book (144 pp) on how capitalism's need to sell you things has chewed up the clock. I suspect this might dovetail nicely with James Gleick's Faster, had Gleick thought his book through better instead of just letting it bum rush him.
Diary of a Very Bad Year: Confessions of an Anonymous Hedge Fund Manager (paperback, 2010, Harper Perennial): Interviews with an anonymous hedge fund manager from September 2007 to late summer 2009: gives you a chance to view the panic from the inside, and also to lay out the perspective of a hedge fund trader, someone always on guard to exploit any given situation.
Barbara T Dreyfuss: Hedge Hogs: The Cowboy Traders Behind Wall Street's Largest Hedge Fund Disaster (2013, Random House): Another hedge fund disaster: Amaranth Advisors LLC, worth $9 billion one day, collapsed a few weeks later -- mostly the work of one trader's high-risk bets on natural gas prices. Hope there is some useful historical context. Amaranth collapse in 2006, before the crash; Galleon Group in 2009, after.
Terry Eagleton: Across the Pond: An Englishman's View of America (2013, WW Norton): One might think that the author's status as one of the world's foremost Marxist literary critics might have some bearing on how he views America, but most of the examples I see are stereotypically English views of generic Americans, easy to come by and more self-sure than is warranted. Other relatively recent Eagleton books (some reprints of older books, many university presses): How to Read Literature (2013, Yale); The Event of Literature (2012; paperback, 2013, Yale); Why Marx Was Right (paperback, 2012, Yale); On Evil (paperback, 2011, Yale); Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (paperback, 2010, Yale); The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction (paperback, 2008, Oxford); Literary Theory: An Introduction (3rd edition, paperback, 2008, Minnesota); Trouble With Strangers: A Study of Ethics (paperback, 2008, Wiley-Blackwell); How to Read a Poem (paperback, 2006, Wiley-Blackwell); Criticism and Ideology: A Study in Marxist Literary Theory (paperback, 2006, Verso).
Russell Faure-Brac: Transition to Peace: A Defense Engineer's Search for an Alternative to War (paperback, 2012, iUniverse): Short book (142 pp), but the basics seem obvious, requiring only a will to not do stupid and self-destructive things. Of course, coming out of a war culture, he probably has more stupidity to argue against.
Michael Fullilove: Rendezvous With Destiny: How Franklin D Roosevelt and Five Extraordinary Men Took America Into the War and Into the World (2013, Penguin Press): The "five" were envoys sent by Roosevelt to Europe to lay the foundations for the future US alliances in WWII, and ultimately the transformation of the US from isolationism to internationalism and ultimately to our hallucination of sole superpowerdom -- something that may have been more true in 1946 than in 1990 (or 2001). There has been a sudden confluence of eve-of-WWII books, including: Susan Dunn: 1940: FDR, Wilkie, Lindbergh, Hitler -- The Election Amid the Storm (2013, Yale University Press); Lynne Olson: Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America's Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941 (2013, Random House); David L Roll: The Hopkins Touch: Harry Hopkins and the Forging of the Alliance to Defeat Hitler (2013, Oxford University Press); Maury Klein: A Call to Arms: Mobilizing America for World War II (2013, Bloomsbury Press).
Charles Gasparino: Circle of Friends: The Massive Federal Crackdown on Insider Trading -- and Why the Markets Always Work Against the Little Guy (2013, Harper Business): Fox business analyst, which is probably where the "massive federal crackdown" rhetoric comes from. More dirt on the Galleon Group case, which is probably better covered by Anita Raghavan: The Billionaire's Apprentice and Turney Duff: The Buy Side. Gasparino previously wrote Bought and Paid For: The Unholy Alliance Between Barack Obama and Wall Street, which is true enough, but hardly the only "unholy alliance" Wall Street has.
Rosemary Gibson/Janardan Prasad Singh: Medicare Meltdown: How Wall Street and Washington Are Ruining Medicare and How to Fix It (2013, Rowman & Littlefield): Given the alternatives it's tempting to give Medicare a free pass, but the program isn't immune from the profit-driven US healthcare industry, and the greed of the latter is as much a threat as the political right. So this is a real problem, but I'm not sure this book is much of a solution. Thumbing through it, the "Fifteen Medicare Facts That Will Astonish You" are mostly astonishing for their abuse of statistics. Gibson and Prasad also wrote Wall of Silence: The Untold Story of the Medical Mistakes That Kill and Injure Millions of Americans (2003, Lifeline Press), The Treatment Trap: How the Overuse of Medical Care Is Wrecking Your Health and What You Can Do to Prevent It (2011, Ivan R Dee), and The Battle Over Health Care: What Obama's Reform Means for America's Future (2012, Rowman & Littlefield).
Henry A Giroux: America's Education Deficit and the War on Youth: Reform Beyond Electoral Politics (2013, Monthly Review Press): Blames "four fundamentalisms: market deregulation, patriotic and religious fervor, the instrumentalization of education, and the militarization of society." The other three are right-wing ideology, but the third is less a theory than a consequence. Conservatives want to shift the responsibility for success from society to the individual, which means there will be less wealth and what there is spread more inequitably. They figure this to be a good thing: if success is rarer we should appreciate it, and the virtues that help individuals accumulate it, more, but the net effect is to create a declining economy where education becomes an ever more dear tool. That strikes me as less a "war on youth" than gross indifference to the future of civilization. Giroux has also written: Disposable Youth: Racialized Memories, and the Culture of Cruelty (paperback, 2012, Routledge), and Youth in Revolt: Reclaiming a Democratic Future (paperback, 2013, Paradigm).
Doris Kearns Goodwin: The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism (2013, Simon & Schuster): Follow-up to her ridiculously acclaimed Lincoln book, Team of Rivals, taking another juicy slice of hyperbole and puffs it up to 848 pp.
Laura Gottesdiener: A Dream Foreclosed: Black America and the Fight for a Place to Call Home (2013, Zuccotti Park Press): How predatory lending and foreclosure have wracked black America, contributing to the failure to build real economic security on top of nominal civil rights gains.
Richard N Haass: Foreign Policy Begins at Home: The Case for Putting America's House in Order (2013, Basic Books): Veteran foreign policy mandarin, realist division, but not realist enough to concede that the gig is up. But he does realize that American power has always been built on the American economy, so that's something worth paying some attention to, especially if you hope to remain a foreign policy mandarin.
Carl Hart: High Price: A Neuroscientist's Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society (2013, Harper): A memoir, detailing the author's early interest in crack addiction as a user before he became a scientist and started researching others, rethinking how anti-drug laws work and what they are doing, especially given their racially-selective enforcement, and providing research on what drugs actually do, which is often not what you think.
Richard Heinberg: Snake Oil: How Fracking's False Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future (paperback, 2013, Post Carbon Institute): Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing promises to increase the amount of oil we can extract from already largely depleted oil fields, and to make the extraction of natural gas from widespread shale deposits economically attractive -- assuming you don't get too squeamish about the environmental risks, which for gas at least are considerable. Heinberg wrote a book in 2003 which declared The Party's Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies and followed that up in 2007 with Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines, and he's sticking to his guns here. For less dismal views of fracking, see: John Graves: Fracking: America's Alternative Energy Revolution (paperback, 2013, Safe Harbor); Vikram Rao: Shale Gas: The Promise and the Peril (paperback, 2012, RTI International); Tom Wilber: Under the Surface: Fracking, Fortunes, and the Fate of the Marcellus Shale (2012, Cornell University Press).
Rawn James Jr: The Double V: How Wars, Protest, and Harry Truman Desegregated America's Military (2013, Bloomsbury Press): One of the first important breakthroughs in post-WWII civil rights, partly because it could be done by executive order, but also, I suspect, because becoming gun fodder wasn't much of a step up, and trying to maintain segregation in a modern military as large as the US wanted for its "cold" and not-so-cold wars would have been a nightmare. Indeed, one can argue that segregation only survived in the South as long as feudalism did.
Gregg Jones: Honor in the Dust: Theodore Roosevelt, War in the Philippines, and the Rise and Fall of America's Imperial Dream (2012; paperback, 2013, NAL): Taking the Philippines from Spain was the easy part. Crushing their war for independence was a much larger and more arduous ordeal.
Simon Lack: The Hedge Fund Mirage: The Illusion of Big Money and Why It's Too Good to Be True (2012, Wiley): Formerly worked at JPMorgan making investments in hedge funds, only to find out that despite occasionally spectacular stories they didn't in general work out.
Mark Leibovich: This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral -- Plus Plenty of Valet Parking! -- in America's Gilded Capital (2013, Blue Rider Press): "There are no Democrats and Republians anymore in the nation's capital, just millionaires. That's the grubby secret of the place in the twenty-first century. You will always have lunch in This Town again. No matter how many elections you lose, apologies you make, or scandals you endure." So don't expect anything on the real problems America faces; just the surreal ones.
Michael Levi: The Power Surge: Energy, Opportunity, and the Battle for America's Future (2013, Oxford University Press): Bullish on US energy from all corners, covering the oil and gas booms as well as the ever-more-competitive renewables, seeing bright futures in both. The "battle" is likely to be more political than economic, as the Kochs and other oil partisans, for instance, would love to see solar and wind power stamped out. No indication that nuclear comes into play here at all.
Jonathan Macey: The Death of Corporate Reputation: How Integrity Has Been Destroyed on Wall Street (2013, FT Press): When you hire a banker to manage your money, he is supposed to work for you, to serve your interest. When he uses your money to buy his bank's toxic securities, he's taken your trust and used it to screw you. That, in a nutshell, is what banks have turned into since the "greed is good" age took over. Sure, mostly they screw other people, but as that becomes habitual it ceases to matter to them who they screw, or how. And the more they've gotten away with it, the more they do it: one of Macey's big points is the SEC, created to stop securities fraud, "got captured," becoming "toothless."
Sebastian Mallaby: More Money Than God: Hedge Funds and the Making of a New Elite (2010; paperback, 2011, Penguin Books): Big book on hedge funds, starts with the originators and tries to cover the field, taking a positive view and covering the "heroes" when the "villains" have become all the more noteworthy. Probably useful for all this history, even if the ethics seem a little shaky.
Jerry Mander: The Capitalism Papers: Fatal Flaws of an Obsolete System (paperback, 2013, Counterpoint): Former advertising executive, wrote Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television in 1977, In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology & the Survival of the Indian Nations in 1992, and cowrote with Edward Goldsmith The Case Against the Global Economy: And a Turn Toward the Local in 1997. In the post-Cold War period the suggestion that capitalism is obsolete is rank heresy, but it isn't so hard to see that a system dependent on infinite growth cannot be indefinitely sustained, or that the way we practice capitalism -- where the rich make up for their inability to grow adequately by hollowing out everyone else -- leaves much to be desired.
Geoff Mann: Disassembly Required: A Field Guide to Actually Existing Capitalism (paperback, 2013, AK Press): Short book (160 pp), reprising economic theory from Marx to Gramsci, looking at capitalism as a self-destructive as well as productive engine, and expecting the worst.
Richard Manning: Rewilding the West: Restoration in a Prairie Landscape (paperback, 2011, University of California Press): Author of the marvelous Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics and Promise of the American Prairie (paperback, 1997, Penguin) returns with a book on a project to create an "American Serengeti" where a large chunk of Montana is rewilded replete with buffalo, wolves, elk, grizzly, much as it was when Lewis and Clark first traipsed through it a scant two hundred years ago.
Leslie McCall: The Undeserving Rich: American Beliefs About Inequality, Opportunity, and Redistribution (paperback, 2013, Cambridge University Press): Research on a topic I can only speculate about. My impression is that throughout most of US history Americans were quick to condemn the rich, at least in bad times, but over the last 30-40 years that populist reaction has diminished -- at least partly due to the success the Cold War has had in characterizing and championing capitalism as freedom. On the other hand, the rich have taken advantage of this free pass, and are ripe for revulsion once again.
Greg Muttitt: Fuel on the Fire: Oil and Politics in Occupied Iraq (2012, Free Press): Denials to the contrary, oil was always a big subtext of the US decision to invade Iraq -- how could it have been otherwise when Bush and Cheney were so steeped in the oil industry culture? It's played out more slowly than those who carried "no war for oil" placards, or for that matter the rosy-eyed warmongers in the Bush administration, ever imagined, but ten years later most of the big western oil companies are doing business in Iraq, and booking reserves that have become increasingly hard to find anywhere else. So it's good that someone's finally pulling this history together. And, by the way, the oil companies made out on both ends: early on knocking Iraqi oil out of the market caused shortages and higher prices, and later the companies got those reserves.
Sönke Neitzel/Harald Welzer: Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing, and Dying (2012, Knopf): Based on 800 pages of declassified transcripts of interrogations of German POWs, the book offers "an unmitigated window into the mind-set of the German fighting man" -- before the Reich fell, before the "Final Solution" was final.
Anthony Pagden: The Enlightenment: And Why It Still Matters (2013, Random House): I'm not sure that the enlightenment ever achieved notably enlightened political rule, but the various insights gained proved (at least until recently) intractable, and as such moved the reference points for those in power, a considerable feat. Why it still matters may owe to my parenthetical: although conservatives have always opposed enlightenment, they have rarely been so successful as lately, so the story bears repeating. Indeed, the squalor of the past dark ages should argue strongly against the future dystopia that today's right-wingers so have their hearts set on.
Christopher S Parker/Matt A Barreto: Change They Can't Believe In: The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America (2013, Princeton University Press): Argues that the Tea Party isn't "simple ideology or racism" but draws on the psychological sense of losing one's country, a "fear that the country is being stolen from 'real Americans.'" And who believes that? Well, mostly racists and devotees of simple right-wing ideologies. It is ironic that they've never come closer to running the country than they are now, but their worst enemy is their own success, because all they truly offer is ruination. Also see: Lawrence Rosenthal/Christine Trost: Steep: The Precipitous Rise of the Tea Party (paperback, 2012, University of California Press); Ronald P Formisano: The Tea Party: A Brief History (2012, John Hopkins University Press).
Anita Raghavan: The Billionaire's Apprentice: The Rise of the Indian-American Elite and the Fall of the Galleon Hedge Fund (2013, Business Plus): Focuses on South Asian emigré hedge fund traders, especially Galleon Group founder Raj Rajaratnam, something the Malaysia-born author can relate to. For more on Galleon: Turney Duff: The Buy Side: A Wall Street Trader's Tale of Spectacular Excess (2013, Crown Business).
Jonathan Rowe: Our Common Wealth: The Hidden Economy That Makes Everything Else Work (paperback, 2013, Berrett-Koehler): Short book (144 pp) on the importance of "the commons" not just to the economy but to wealth and well-being of all. Published posthumously with forwards and afterwords by Bill McKibben, David Bollier, and Peter Barnes. I see numerous testimonies that Rowe was "a unique and original thinker," so it's nice to have him collected in a book.
Jeffrey D Sachs: To Move the World: JFK's Quest for Peace (2013, Random House): Focuses on four speeches Kennedy gave during his last days, covering similar ground to Thurston Clarke: JFK's Last Hundred Days: The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President. Sachs is an economist, best known for his contentious work on world development, so this is something of a pet project.
Jonathan Schlefer: The Assumptions Economists Make (2012, Belknap Press): It's hard to avoid the impression that most of what passes for economics is applied logic based on unexamined assumptions -- it's not that there is no empirical data, but it's so messy you need models to make sense of it, and most economists wind up believing their seductively logical models over their lying eyes. The point here is to examine the unexamined assumptions, starting with Adam Smith's "invisible hand."
Kevin Sites: The Things They Cannot Say: Stories Soldiers Won't Tell You About What They've Seen, Done or Failed to Do in War (paperback, 2013, Harper Perennial): Interviews with eleven US soldiers who did time in Iraq and/or Afghanistan. There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of memoirs from these wars -- way too many to list, and one thing they're unlikely to provide is any historical sense of how or why they were put into those wars. Karl Marlantes: What It Is Like to Go to War (2011, Atlantic Monthly Press; paperback, 2011, Grove Press) is similar on the Vietnam War. Nancy Sherman: The Untold War: Inside the Hearts, Minds, and Souls of Our Soldiers (2010; paperback, 2011, WW Norton) tries to cover both Vietnam and the Bush Wars.
Tom Standage: Writing on the Wall: Social Media -- The First 2,000 Years (2013, Bloomsbury): Looks at pre-Internet analogues to "social media" -- for instance, the much older practice of graffiti. Author previously wrote An Edible History of Humanity, A History of the World in 6 Glasses, and most relevantly, The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-line Pioneers.
Benn Steil: The Battle of Bretton Woods: John Maynard Keynes, Harry Dexter White, and the Making of a New World Order (2013, Princeton University Press): The system of monetary exchanges set up at the Bretton Woods conference held up from 1944 to 1973, a period of tremendous and widespread growth for both the US and Europe, so how it came about is bound to be an interesting story.
Chuck Thompson: Better Off Without 'Em: A Northern Manifesto for Southern Succession (2012; paperback, 2013, Simon & Schuster): You're more likely to hear southerners urging secession -- Rick Perry is one who made headlines, but then as a Texan he felt doubly entitled -- but when you look at the political and economic splits you get a sense of how much of a drag the South places on the rest of the country. I'm just worried that, living in Kansas, I might wind up on the wrong side of the border -- Gov. Brownback's whole agenda amounts to nothing more than Texas-envy, so he for sure would want to stick with the South.
Euclid Tsakalotos/Christos Laskos: Crucible of Resistance: Greece, the Eurozone and the World Economy (paperback, 2013, Pluto Press): Greek leftists, the former an economic professor who previously wrote 22 Things That They Tell You About the Greek Crisis That Aren't So, explain the Greek popular revolt against the Eurobankers' imposition of austerity programs, meant to solve a problem largely caused by the Euro.
Richard Wolfe: The Message: The Reselling of President Obama (2013, Twelve): Insider book on the 2012 presidential election from within the victorious Obama camp, a good chance for the author to compliment his own brilliance, if you're into that sort of thing. Wolfe's memoir of the 2008 campaign was Renegade: The Making of a President. Guess he couldn't use that title again.
Some recent paperbacks of books previously listed in hardcover:
Kurt Eichenwald: 500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars (2012; paperback, 2013, Touchstone): Figures the 18 months from 9/11/2001 to the invasion of Iraq tell us all we need to know about the emergence and development Bush administration's strategic thinking about war and terror, with a clarity that is only muddled by the subsequent 5-10 (and counting) years of grappling with the many failures and complications of such muddled thinking.
Christopher Hayes: Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy (2012, Crown; paperback, 2013, Broadway): Shows how the idea of meritocracy is a two-edged sword: on the one hand, it accustoms you to thinking that inequality is due to merit; on the other, Hayes shows how the meritocracy game can be rigged, and inevitably degrades into oligarchy. He also shows that we're so far gone down this road one scarcely bothers with meritocracy any more, even as a shallow excuse.
Timothy Noah: The Great Divergence: America's Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It (2012; paperback, 2013, Bloomsbury Press): Probably the first book to start with if you want to understand how incomes and wealth have diverged since 1973, with the rich and the superrich pulling ever further ahead while everyone else stagnates or worse.
Friday, July 26. 2013
Threw this one together quick, with no new research, mostly to drain the scratch file -- which means, sure, these are leftovers from one or possibly several previous columns. I usually just run 40 books each time, but expanded that a bit here. Again, the idea is to drain the swamp, so I figured no need to be arbitrary about it.
By the way, one thing missing here is any listing of recent conservative books. I've started diverting them into a separate scratch file for a "special" edition. Only have six at present: historically I've ignored most I've seen, but occasionally found something to comment on. Will probably find more, and look at them then. On the other hand, there are quite a few Israel books below -- mostly, I suspect, relatively minor ones since I hit up the more important ones the time before. Thought about doing an Israel special, but again didn't have that many, and I think that when I do I'll want to do a "best of" rather than just sample what's passing in the stream. (Of course, with the US right as it is, no such thing is conceivable.)
Jeremy Adelman: Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman (2013, Princeton University Press): Cass Sunstein wrote a review of this book, extolling Hirschman as one of the century's "most original and provocative thinkers." Not at all clear to me why, although he had an interesting life, narrowly escaping the Holocaust to land in academia.
Elizabeth A Armstrong/Laura T Hamilton: Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality (2013, Harvard University Press): Focuses on women, tracking their various paths through higher education, where they find that "the dominant campus culture indulges the upper-middle class and limits the prospect of the upwardly mobile."
Charles V Bagli: Other People's Money: Inside the Housing Crisis and the Demise of the Greatest Real Estate Deal Ever Made (2013, Dutton): Focuses on BlackRock as one of the more spectacular busts of the banking collapse.
Jack Beatty: The Lost History of 1914: Reconsidering the Year the Great War Began (2012, Walker): Looks like an interesting reexamination of the not-so-inevitable origins of WWI -- an evident contrast to Christopher Clark's The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. Beatty previously wrote Age of Betrayal: The Triumph on Money in America, 1865-1900 (2007), an important book on how money subverted democracy in the Gilded Age.
Walden Bello: Capitalism's Last Stand? Deglobalization in the Age of Austerity (paperback, 2013, Zed Books): Leftist author recycles various themes on how capitalism is falling apart. Deglobalization? Age of Austerity? An excerpt I read argues that Obama should have paid heed to Paul Krugman, which is true as far as it goes, but is that all the further a Marxist wants to go?
Amy J Binder/Kate Wood: Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives (2012, Princeton University Press): Studies young conservatives and how they interact with universities, which for all their reputed liberalism don't seem to be very effective at brainwashing would-be right-wingers.
Joshua Bloom/Waldo E Martin Jr: Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party (2013, University of California Press): Black guys with guns serving free breakfast, now what could be scarier? -- at least if you can imagine being J. Edgar Hoover. Big book (560 pp), seems to cover all the angles.
Gary M Burge: Jesus and the Land: The New Testament Challenge to "Holy Land" Theology (paperback, 2010, Baker Academic): Previously wrote Whose Land? Whose Promise? What Christians Are Not Being Told about Israel and the Palestinians (paperback, 2004, Pilgrim Press). I find the very concept of a "holy land," "holy places," even a "holy mountain" appalling, but people do get wound up in such diversions, and if you do this may help disabuse you of such nonsense. The conflict itself is real.
Christian Caryl: Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century (2013, Basic Books): One of those attempts to turn history around in a key year, one that featured the Iranian Revolution and its attendant oil shock, a Russian coup in Afghanistan that tempted the US to start the Jihadist war against the West, the key reforms that led by capitalist growth in China, the elevation of a Polish cold warrior as pope, and the disastrous rise of Margaret Thatcher -- Ronald Reagan was still a year away.
Christopher Clark: The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (2013, Harper): Refers to the domino-like march to war following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. A more astute analysis would recognize that all the powers of Europe had been continuously engaged in war against Asia and Africa for most of the previous century, and that most had meddled in two wars in the Balkans within the last decade. Moreover, most of the imperial wars had been successful, so both sides expected only further success in bringing the war home, against their real rivals. They may have sleepwalked, but mostly they dreamed . . . foolishly. Also new and more narrowly focused, Sean McMeekin: July 1914: Countdown to War (2013, Basic Books); also new, Charles Emmerson: 1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War (2013, Public Affairs).
Laila El-Haddad/Maggie Schmitt: The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey (paperback, 2013, Just World Books): El-Haddad previously wrote a down-to-earth memoir of living (and watching people die) in Gaza (Gaza Mom: Palestine, Politics, Parenting, and Everything in Between), so this sequel seems appropriate. Rest assured, the authors "traveled the length and breadth of the Gaza Strip to collect the recipes presented in this book" (that's 25 miles long and 3.7-7.5 miles wide, a bit larger than Manhattan).
Sylvia Federici: Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle (paperback, 2012, PM Press): Scattered essays dating back to 1975, on issues that were kicked around excitedly back then, less so now. Author was involved in Telos, which I also worked on way back in the day. She also wrote Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation (paperback, 2004, Autonomedia).
John Bellamy Foster/Robert W McChesney: The Endless Crisis: How Monopoly-Finance Capital Produces Stagnation and Upheaval From the USA to China (2012, Monthly Review Press): Foster is a Marxist economist who's been writing variations on this all his life. McChesney is a media critic who started out worried about the untoward influence of money -- e.g., Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times (1999; paperback, 2000) -- and wound up collaborating with the likes of Foster and Noam Chomsky -- Profit Over People: Neoliberalism & Global Order (paperback, 2011, Seven Stories Press).
Robert Gellately: Stalin's Curse: Battling for Communism in War and Cold War (2013, Knopf): Claims access to newly declassified documents tracking Stalin's strategic moves as head of Comintern and the Soviet Union, although the assumption that his regime's power interests had anything to do with communism is far-fetched and annoying. Gellately blames the Cold War on Stalin, ignoring the fact that conflict existed only if you grant that the US had interests that conflicted with Stalin's interests -- the pre-WWII "isolationist" US would have made no such claims.
Richard Hell: I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp: An Autobiography (2013, Ecco): One of the key musicians in the mid-1970s New York rock revolution, originally a founder of Television, later ran the Void-Oids. Seems to be a good writer as well as a focal point.
Dilip Hiro: Apocalyptic Realm: Jihadists in South Asia (2012, Yale University Press): Author continues working his way around the troublespots of Asia, focusing here on the Kashmir border, which is to say India and Pakistan, although I wouldn't discount Afghanistan, which in some ways is the shadow of this long-lived, stubbornly fought dispute.
Joel Isaac/Duncan Bell, eds: Uncertain Empire: American History and the Idea of the Cold War (paperback, 2012, Oxford University Press): A dozen scattered essays, no one I recognize and no clear political bent, but a couple look interesting -- "War Envy and Amnesia: American Cold War Rewrites of Russia's War"; "God, the Bomb, and the Cold War: The Religious and Ethical Debate Over Nuclear Weapons, 1945-1990"; "Blues Under Siege: Ralph Ellison, Albert Murray, and the Idea of America" -- and one that I wonder about: "Cold War culture and the Lingering Myth of Sacco and Vanzetti."
Walter Johnson: River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (2013, Belknap Press): A history of slavery in the US South, especially after the Revolution, the opening of the west, and the cotton boom.
Daniel Stedman Jones: Masters of the Universe: Hayek, Friedman, and the Birth of Neoliberal Politics (2012, Princeton University Press): The other two pictures on the cover: Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, both looking much younger than Hayek and Friedman. Neoliberalism is a term that never caught on among its right-wing adherents, but this is about them. Idea seems to be to illustrate Keynes' famous maximum about politicians in thrall to dead economists.
Paul Kennedy: Engineers of Victory: The Problem Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second World War (2013, Random House): WWII was won with Russian (and Chinese) blood and guts, with American industry, and with western engineering -- especially in the atom bomb project one can count a lot of significant refugees from the fascist powers. The Manhattan Project has been much written about elsewhere, so this most likely focuses on less esoteric technology, like radar, and pontoon bridges, and possibly decryption and logistics and the scientific approach to management, some stuff we've even forgotten about as the right has turned against government.
Razmig Keucheyan: The Left Hemisphere: Mapping Critical Theory Today (2013, Verso): A broad survey of Marxist thinkers in the post-Communist era (since 1993), prefaced by a brief history of the new left (1956-77) and the 1977-93 period "of decline." Not sure how important this is, but one thing that is clear is that post-Cold War triumphalism didn't have much to stand on: capitalism remained alienating, crisis-prone, and only got more so as political alternatives melted away.
Denise Kiernan: The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II (2013, Touchstone): Oak Ridge, TN, home of the Manhattan Project's uranium enrichment facility, focusing on the numerous women who worked there.
William K Kingaman/Nicholas P. Kingaman: The Year Without a Summer: 1816 and the Volcano That Darkened the World and Changed History (2013, St Martin's Press): The volcano was Tambora, in what is now Indonesia, which ejected a vast amount of ash and sulfur dioxide gas into the atmosphere, altering weather patterns all around the world.
Daniel C Kurtzer, ed: Pathways to Peace: America and the Arab-Israeli Conflict (2012, Palgrave Macmillan): "This book is the antidote to the fatalism and pessimism" -- or so says Tony Blair, who as much as anyone is the cause. Bill Clinton, Javier Solana, and Chuck Hagel also support the book. Kurtzer is a long-time US diplomat, former ambassador to Egypt and Israel, a guy with much experience talking the talk, none at walking the walk. Also wrote the lead piece in The Peace Puzzle: America's Quest for Arab-Israeli Peace, 1989-2011 (2013, Cornell University Press).
Les Leopold: How to Make a Million Dollars an Hour: Why Hedge Funds Get Away With Siphoning Off America's Wealth (2013, Wiley): How hedge funds work, and how their managers skim billions off nothing more substantial than bets with other people's money. Author previously wrote The Looting of America: How Wall Street's Game of Fantasy Finance Destroyed Our Jobs, Pensions, and Prosperity (2009).
Bruce Levine: The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South (2013, Random House): A Civil War history that emphasizes changes in the structure of southern society, presumably the end of the slaveholder aristocracy and its replacement by, well, what exactly? By the time Reconstruction was ended and Jim Crow laws were imposed it doesn't seem like much changed, does it?
Antony Loewenstein/Ahmed Moor, eds: After Zionism: One State for Israel and Palestine (paperback, 2012, Saqi): The "one state" case. One should recall that it was "facts on the ground" that made the "two state" scenario plausible. Before the segregation enforced by expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians during the 1948 war and the subsequent military occupation, the only fair solution was one nation with equal rights for all.
Robert W McChesney: Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism Is Turning the Internet Against Democracy (2013, New Press): The internet cuts both ways, opening up previously unimagined amounts of information, allowing extraordinarily wide participation, but also a tempting target of control, especially for the rich media empires and their political allies. So it's hard to overstate how important the struggle over control is. Relevant here: Rebecca MacKinnon: Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom (2012; paperback, 2013, Basic Books).
Jeffrey Melnick: 9/11 Culture (paperback, 2009, Wiley-Blackwell): Attempts to work out the reflections and resonances of the 9/11 attacks on the popular arts. Lots there to chew through, although now I think we over-indulged, aiding a political agenda intent on making the world worse than it was. My own thought from the very beginning was how do you contain this. Then Black Hawk Down came out.
Moisés Naím: The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being in Charge Isn't What It Used to Be (2013, Basic Books): Every tyrant ultimately depends on willing and competent obedience, and the author detects various trends that make such obedience harder to come by. Jonathan Schell seemed to be turned into this notion when he write The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People (2003, Metropolitan), but he neither explained it well enough nor drew many implications from the insight.
Vali Nasr: The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat (2013, Doubleday): Bloomberg Review columnist, former advisor to Richard Holbrooke, author of The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future and Forces of Fortune: The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and What It Will Mean for Our World, trying to position himself as a forecaster, has managed to posit this as "a wake up call" rather than a done deal. Seems a little glib to me: the US remains crazy-dangerous, and is almost oblivious to world opinion, even in the relatively sane hands of Obama, as opposed to the nutters he beat along the way. [April 23]
Annalee Newitz: Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction (2013, Doubleday): Meteor strikes, cosmic radiation, whatever it was that ended the Permian, those are all examples of events so colossal they wiped out the majority of the world's living species, and given that they have happened, you have to concede that they could. So how would humans fare under such brutal circumstances? This is all speculative, of course, but there is a lot one can do with the set up -- like get things wrong, evidently. Still another question might be whether humans will survive the the ongoing mass extinction event they are primarily responsible for -- something for which there is no historical evidence.
Diana Pinto: Israel Has Moved (2013, Harvard University Press): Tries to provide a broad strokes portrait of Israeli society today, something likely to be surprising given how profoundly strange Israel has become: it is by far the world's most militarized society; it is perhaps the most rigidly ethnocentric and racist; it is not quite the most isolated (that would be North Korea), but its view of the map is profoundly warped; it is well educated and technologically advanced, but has a profoundly powerful and reactionary religious sector. I have no idea how this sorts out, and doubt that this is anywhere near definitive.
Sam Pizzigati: The Rich Don't Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph Over Plutocracy That Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970 (paperback, 2012, Seven Stories Press): Yeah, but what would you rather have: a boring old middle class where most people are pretty much interchangeable, or Donald Trump?
Devon Powers: Writing the Record: The Village Voice and the Birth of Rock Criticism (paperback, 2013, University of Massachusetts Press): Focuses on the early work of Richard Goldstein and Robert Christgau at the Village Voice and the founding of rock crit as a serious (as well as fun) intellectual activity. Wasn't much later when I gave up on the Frankfurt School and read little but rock crit.
Monte Reel: Between Man and Beast: An Unlikely Explorer, the Evolution Debates, and the African Adventures That Took the Victorian World by Storm (2013, Doubleday): Paul Du Chaillu, who explored equatorial Africa 1856-59, discoverng the gorilla just in time for the debate over Charles Darwin's Origin of Species.
Marie-Monique Robin: The World According to Monsanto (2010; paperback, 2012, New Press): Pesticides, PCBs, patented GMO seeds, growth hormones, etc. Focuses on one key company.
Brant Rosen: Wrestling in the Daylight: A Rabbi's Path to Palestinian Solidarity (paperback, 2012, Just World Books): Author is a rabbi in Evanston, IL, with a blog called Shalom Rav which he has written since 2006.
Douglas Rushkoff: Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now (2013, Current): Media theorist, won a career achievement award named after Neil Postman, although the only book of his that I've read was his unconventional take on Judaism (Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism). Thesis here seems to be that when you have to absorb everything at once you get overwhelmed.
William J Rust: Before the Quagmire: American Intervention in Laos, 1954-1961 (2012, University Press of Kentucky): Not so sure about the period in question, but during 1961-63 Laos was more frequently an object of US anti-communist concern than Vietnam. Same sort of muddle and overkill, of course.
Robert O Self: All in the Family: The Reallignment of American Democracy Since the 1960s (2012, Hill & Wang): Buys into the notion that American politics turns on "family values" and that was the reason for the conservative surge -- sure they'll be flattered by that magic word -- from the 1970s until the Bush crash (and later? maybe the Tea Party was just shrapnel). There's something to that, but I wouldn't bet much on it.
Yehuda Shenhav: Beyond the Two-State Solution: A Jewish Political Essay (paperback, 2012, Polity): An engineered solution, most likely astute in its critique of all other so-called solutions, then myopic on its own. What the author is looking for is some sort of binational federation combining autonomy and coexistence in a fair and reasonable way.
William L Silber: Volcker: The Triumph of Persistence (paperback, 2013, Bloomsbury Press): The architect of the biggest recession between the 1930s and 2008, done on purpose to slay inflation, which effectively translated to crippling the working class. Democrats keep recycling the same hacks over and over, so it wasn't too surprising to see Obama leaning on the man who ensured Jimmy Carter was a one-term president. Maybe not all that bad, but it sure could have been done better.
Chip Walter: Last Ape Standing: The Seven-Million-Year Story of How and Why We Survived (2013, Walker): The story of human evolution, such as we understand it, over the period of time that separates us from our nearest surviving ape kin, during which many closer species evolved and became extinct, leaving just humans as we know and love/hate them.
Ben White: Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination and Democracy (paperback, 2011, Pluto Press): From 1948-67 Palestinians in Israel (those who avoided the expulsions) were subject to military rule, roughly similar to those in the occupied territories since 1967, and even after 1967 they've remained segregated, nominally citizens but constantly aware that "the Jewish State" isn't for them. And as the right wing has grown more powerful (and more extreme) they are increasingly threatened. Previously wrote Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner's Guide (2009).
Curtis White: The Science Delusion: Asking the Big Questions in a Culture of Easy Answers (2013, Melville House): Previously wrote The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don't Think for Themselves (2003; paperback, 2004, Harper One), which would be important if he came up with an answer, but I gather he didn't. (Evidently the book was scaled up from an essay deriding Terry Gross as a "schlock jock.") He also wrote one called The Barbaric Heart: Faith, Money, and the Crisis of Nature (paperback, 2009, Paradigm), so you can get a sense of his sense of big questions. Science doesn't satisfy him, nor does religion, nor do "the new atheists." Nothing easy here, but that doesn't make it right.
Keith W Whitelam: Rhythms of Time: Reconnecting Palestine's Past (2013, Ben Black Books): Short (124 pp, looks like Kindle-only) essay on ancient Palestinian history. Author previously wrote The Emergence of Early Israel in Historical Perspective (1987), The Invention of Ancient Israel: The Silencing of Palestinian History (1996), and edited Holy Land as Homeland? Models for Constructing the Historic Landscapes of Jesus (2011).
James Wolcott: Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in the Seventies (2011; paperback, 2012, Anchor): Journalist/culture critic, wrote for the Village Voice in the 1970s, where he made a strong impression on me. Later went on to be one of the first successful bloggers, probably out of scope here.
Lawrence Wright: Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief (2013, Knopf): Author of The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (2006), a fine book which has no special relevance here, other than to show his skill at making a strange ideology comprehensible without undue sympathy. Still, I've managed to go through life without needing to know a thing about L. Ron Hubbard, Dianetics, or Scientology, and figure I'll leave well enough alone.
No paperbacks this time.
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.
Tuesday, April 23. 2013
Still trying to unpack the overhang accumulated up to the March 14 post, with a second installment on March 16, although this one is delayed about as much as I should normally do -- one result is that the queue isn't getting noticeably shorter. So here's another batch of forty more/less recent book titles, with more to follow relatively soon.
Nicholson Baker: The Way the World Works: Essays (2012, Simon & Schuster): Fifteen years of short pieces by the mostly novelist, including a couple I would certainly want to read ("The Charms of Wikipedia," and "Why I Am a Pacifist," the first of three in the section on War). I haven't read his fiction, but Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization is a great book.
William J Baumol, et al: The Cost Disease: Why Computers Get Cheaper and Health Care Doesn't (2012, Yale University Press): An important subject, although it's not clear that Baumol has got the answer right: health care is a dysfunctional market with a lot of hidden (and frankly cancerous) monopolies. Other factors may add to this, including some Baumol identifies (labor costs, lack of productivity improvements).
William Blum: America's Deadliest Export: Democracy: The Truth About US Foreign Policy and Everything Else (paperback, 2013, Zed Books): Longtime critic of US foreign policy. Previous books include: The CIA: A Forgotten History (1986); Rogue State: A Guide to the World's Only Superpower (2000); West-Bloc Dissident: A Cold War Memoir (2002); Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II (2000; revised 2003); Freeing the World to Death: Essays on the American Empire (2004).
David Byrne: How Music Works (2012, McSweeney's): Talking Heads frontman, Luaka Bop honcho, applies his experience to a big topic, although I can imagine lots of different tangents for "works" to take off in. Most likely: how music works for me. Still, a topic of some interest.
Caitlin Carenen: The Fervent Embrace: Liberal Protestants, Evangelicals, and Israel (2012, New York University Press): The US has lots of reasons for being exceptionally sympathetic to Israel, ranging from the founding bond of both being white settler nations to the symbiosis of our overbloated arms industries, but one of the most important is how Israel has played in protestant thought -- both early on with liberal guilt over the Holocaust and later with evangelicals pining for the apocalypse.
Victor Cha: The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future (2012, Harper Collins): Former Bush admin NSC Korea hand -- you know, the folks who concocted "the axis of evil" meme -- tries to explain North Korea, something I'm not sure anyone can do. A couple years ago, when Barbara Demick wrote Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (2009) there weren't many books, but that's started to change. Relatively new: Andrei Lankov: The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia (2013, Oxford University Press); BR Myers: The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters (2010; paperback, 2011, Melville House); Bruce E Bechtol Jr: The Last Days of Kim Jong-Il: The North Korean Threat in a Changing Era (2013, Potomac Books). Still, I doubt if any on these shed much light on the latest round of threats and condemnations.
Noam Chomsky: 9-11: Was There an Alternative? (2001; revised paperback, 2011, Seven Stories Press): Right then, right now. Wish he could write better, but decades of being right and ignored have taken a toll on his patience.
Noam Chomsky: Occupy [Occupied Media Pamphlet Series] (paperback, 2012, Zucotti Park Press): Short (128 pp.) pamphlet, meant to advise the Occupy movement. Looks like there will be a series of these things, with additional titles by Stuart Leonard (Taking Brooklyn Bridge), Mumia Abu-Jamal (Message to the Movement), and Marina Sitrin/Dario Azzellini (Occupying Language).
Noam Chomsky: Power Systems: Conversations on Global Democratic Uprisings and the New Challenges to US Empire (paperback, 2013, Metropolitan Books): Continues a long series of interviews with David Barsamian, a context which draws out his wisdom without cluttering up the page.
Climate Central: Global Weirdness: Severe Storms, Deadly Heat Waves, Relentless Drought, Rising Seas, and the Weather of the Future (2012, Pantheon): Written by Emily Elert and Michael D Lemonick but credited to their "nonprofit, nonpartisan science and journalism organization"; with just-the-facts-style reporting, not that they ignore the applicable science.
Susan P Crawford: Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age (2012, Yale University Press): Argues that the 2011 merger of Comcast and NBC Universal "create the biggest monopoly since the breakup of Standard Oil a century ago." During much of that time AT&T monopolized the telephone industry, but at least it was recognized as such and tightly regulated -- so much so that it begged for breakup. The new monopoly combines content as well as networking, which is what makes it not just too expensive but far more dangerous.
Guy Debord: Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (1987; third edition, paperback, 2011, Verso): Debord's original essay was written in 1967. When I first read it (in Radical America, 1970) it illuminated all sorts of things, but the basic idea is simple enough it requires little elaboration. The essay is short, as are the comments (94 pp.); still, I've never figured out what you do with the concept -- more likely than not it just leaves you awestruck.
John De Graaf/David K Batker: What's the Economy For, Anyway?: Why It's Time to Stop Chasing Growth and Start Pursuing Happiness (2011; paperback, 2012, Bloomsbury Press): Good question, one also explored by Robert Skidelsky/Edward Skidelsky: How Much Is Enough? Money and the Good Life (2012); Juliet B Schor: Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth (2010); and Joseph E Stiglitz, et al., Mismeasuring Our Lives: Why GDP Doesn't Ad Up (2010). [link]
Ross Douthat: Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (2012, Free Press): Conservative New York Times columnist, tries to appear reasonable and rarely succeeds, wants to bring back that old time religion, or something like that. We would at long last do us a favor if he helps break the binds between religion and partisanship, but the old time religion never was much good at respecting others.
Peter Dreier: The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (paperback, 2012, Nation Books): Thumbnail biographies, 4-6 pages each (adding up to 512 pp.), political people you should know at least something about, even though one can nitpick the roster coming and going. Only two are younger than me (Michael Moore and Tony Kushner). Three of the last ten are musicians, and two are athletes, so the spectacle seems to have won out, especially over the writers who have provided so much insight and kept the flame going (Chomsky and Ehrenreich are about it since C. Wright Mills).
Jeff Faux: The Servant Economy: Where America's Elite Is Sending the Middle Class (2012, Wiley): Previous book was The Global Class War: How America's Bipartisan Elite Lost Our Future -- and What It Will Take to Win It Back, so presumably this returns to American specifics. Lots of recent books on the destruction of the middle class, the ripe corrollary to the same old, same old of rich-getting-richer and poor-getting-poorer.
Jonathan Fetter-Vorm: Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb (2012, Hill and Wang): Much shorter than Richard Rhodes' epochal The Making of the Atomic Bomb, but they say a picture is worth a thousand words. I've toyed with the idea of writing graphic histories on the Cold War and the Arab-Israeli Conflict -- critical assumption here is that I can get my nephew to illustrate -- mostly because I wish to sharply focus on key understandings rather than to just spew out a lot of narrative, and graphic histories seem to offer a unique opportunity to state and reinforce basic points.
Robert K Fitts: Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage, and Assassination During the 1934 Tour of Japan (2012, University of Nebraska Press): Previously co-edited Remembering Japanese Baseball: An Oral History of the Game and wrote Wally Yonamine: The Man Who Changed Japanese Baseball, reports on one of the most famous exhibition tours in history: a key event in Japan's adoption of America's pastime as its own favorite sport, but also cover for Moe Berg's espionage. Not sure who got assassinated.
Stephen M Gardiner: A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change (2011, Oxford University Press): A philospher's take on the problem, seeing ignorance and inaction as a lapse in ethics, looking into geo-engineering, etc.
Brandon L Garrett: Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong (2011; paperback, 2012, Harvard University Press): DNA evidence has shown that quite a few innocent people have been convicted of serious crimes. Analyzing those cases should help identify how the justice system gets it wrong and winds up creating injustice. Other recent books on this: Jim Petro/Nancy Petro: False Justice: Eight Myths That Convict the Innocent (2011, Kaplan); Daniel S Medwed: Prosecution Complex: America's Race to Convict and Its Impact on the Innocent (2012, NYU Press).
Wenonah Hauter: Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America (2012, New Press): "Local food" farmer, director of Food & Water Watch, explains how agricultural policy has been designed to aid Cargill, Tyson, Kraft, and ConAgra.
Tim Kane: Bleeding Talent: How the US Military Mismanages Great Leaders and Why It's Time for a Revolution (2012, Macmillan Palgrave): Right-wing economist (Hudson Institute, John McCain), former USAF "intelligence" officer, "startup maven" (to quote Bush economist Glenn Hubbard). I suspect his thesis is right, but I have my doubts that "great leaders" is something the we need the military to have, right now, or just about ever. Bean counters and shrinks, that's another story.
Frederick Kaufman: Bet the Farm: How Food Stopped Being Food (2012, Wiley): Starting with Domino's Pizza, hits all the usual stops surveying the contemporary food industry, how it's all related and tied more to finance than to old-fashioned interests like agriculture. Related: Kara Newman: The Secret Financial Life of Food: From Commodities Markets to Supermarkets (2012, Columbia University Press).
George Lakoff/Elisabeth Wehling: The Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking Democratic (paperback, 2012, Free Press): Lakoff thinks we can solve all our problems by coming up with better terminology to frame our arguments -- i.e., something other than what Frank Luntz comes up with. Supposedly this is that.
Chris Lamb: Conspiracy of Silence: Sportswriters and the Long Campaign to Desegregate Baseball (2012, University of Nebraska Press): Previously wrote Blackout: The Story of Jackie Robinson's First Spring Training, digs deeper here into the press attitudes that reinforced the color line in baseball, and a few journalists -- mostly blacks and/or communists, by the way -- who thought differently.
Charlie LeDuff: Detroit: An American Autopsy (2013, Penguin Press): Local journalist, has watched Detroit decline from 1.9 million people to fewer than 700,000, as people left the city for the suburbs or beyond while industry crumbled. I recall that when I was visiting Detroit it was hard to find books on the city, but that at least is looking up. For example, another is Mark Binelli: Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis (2012, Metropolitan).
Jonathan Lethem: The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc. (2011, Doubleday): A novelist based in Brooklyn dumps off scattered essays, mostly lit, some about music. Poking around Amazon's "look inside" I can't get a sense of the whole, but one fragment on "Disnial" is certainly sharp.
Jonathan Lethem: Talking Heads' Fear of Music (paperback, 2012, Continuum): Part of their 33 1/3 series of short books, where a writer picks out a single record and riffs on it. This is number 86, a rare case with a celebrity author.
Audrea Lim, ed: The Case for Sanctions Against Israel (paperback, 2012, Verso Books): Twenty essays here, including Omar Barghouti, Naomi Klein, Ilan Pappe, Joel Beinin, John Berger, Neve Gordon. Sanctions are a relatively non-belligerent way of expressing concern over Israel's manifest unwillingness either to free occupied Palestinians or to treat them equitably. Sanctions helped to tip the balance in South Africa to end the apartheid regime. At some point I fear they will be necessary to make any degree of progress toward peace and justice in Israel-Palestine. Also see: Omar Barghouti: Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights (paperback, 2011, Haymarket Books).
William Marsden: Fools Rule: Inside the Failed Politics of Climate Change (2011, Knopf Canada; paperback, 2012, Vintage Canada): Canadian journalist, so good chance this focuses more on Canadian politics than on riper targets in the US, not that the anti-science opposition in both countries isn't driven by the same oil and coal companies. Author previously wrote a book on oil shale: Stupid to the Last Drop: How Alberta Is Bringing Environmental Armageddon to Canada (and Doesn't Seem to Care).
GJ Meyer: The Borgias: The Hidden History (2013, Bantam): Of interest mostly, I suspect, if you've followed Neil Jordan's TV series and want to fill in some details, although it looks like this book takes some unexpected turns. Also available, and perhaps more conventional: Christopher Hibbert: The Borgias and Their Enemies: 1431-1919 (2008; paperback, 2009, Mariner Books).
Loretta Napoleoni: Maonomics: Why Chinese Communists Make Better Capitalists Than We Do (2011; paperback, 2012, Seven Stories Press): Previously wrote Rogue Economics: Capitalism's New Reality (2008), and ups the snark quotient here. Certainly is the case that China's economic growth has outpaced ever corner of the capitalist world for at least the last decade.
Mark Owen/Kevin Maurer: No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama Bin Laden (2012, Dutton): Also subtitled, The Autobiography of a Navy Seal. Second guy up the stairs. First guy to cash in. Isn't that -- making a killing out of a killing -- what America is really all about?
Joel Salatin: Folks, This Ain't Normal: A Farmer's Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World (2011; paperback, 2012, Center Street): The Virginia farmer who loomed so large in Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma speaks for himself -- not for the first time, either: previous books include: You Can Farm: The Entrepreneur's Guide to Start and Succeed in a Farming Enterprise (paperback, 1998, Polyface); Holy Cows & Hog Heaven: The Food Buyer's Guide to Farm Friendly Food (paperback, 2005, Polyface); Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal: War Stories From the Local Food Front (paperback, 2007, Polyface); The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer (paperback, 2010, Polyface).
Josh Schonwald: The Taste of Tomorrow: Dispatches From the Future of Food (2012, Harper Collins): Enthusiastic survey of speculations about how food will be engineered and manufactured in 2035.
James Gustave Speth: America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy (2012, Yale University Press): Environmentalist, previously wrote The Bridge at the Edge of the World, which questions growth for growth's sake. Should expand on that here.
John Swenson: New Atlantis: Musicians Battle for the Survival of New Orleans (2011; paperback, 2012, Oxford University Press): A rock critic of my generation goes to post-Katrina New Orleans and finds inspiration in the music -- where else would one work?
Gary Wills: Why Priests? A Failed Tradition (2013, Viking): Always an interesting writer, although his commitment to Catholicism has always baffled me, the issue here seeming like someone else's personal fight.
Bob Woodward: The Price of Politics (2012, Simon & Schuster): Another inside-out first draft of history, his second on Obama after four volumes on Bush, the first extolling his genius for leadership and the last wondering where all that went. Focuses on the budget battle with congressional Republicans, not anyone's best hour. New Yorker review: "Woodward, who has here the elements of a devastating study of Washingtonian pettiness, has instead written a book that in many ways exemplifies it."
Luigi Zingales: A Capitalism for the People: Recapturing the Lost Genius of American Prosperity (2012, Basic Books): Chicago economist, argues that American capitalism is dying as the market gets ever more regulated not just by "anti-market pitchfork populism" but by crony corruption he associates with "Europe and much of the rest of the world." Quick fix: trust the markets.
Still don't have the paperback report together. Maybe next time.