Saturday, August 1, 2015


Book Roundup (2)

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.