Tuesday, August 4, 2015


Book Roundup (3)

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 shakey 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 occassionally 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 othern 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.