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Saturday, September 23, 2023
Last Book Roundup was on April 28, 2023, following only two in 2022. My practice then was to only post once I've accumulated a batch of 40 book notes. They aren't really reviews, because they are almost all based on reading about the books (e.g., but not exclusively, on Amazon). However, in recent years, I've added lists of related books to many entries, plus I add on an unmetered "briefly noted" list, so the absolute number of books mention has grown, making the posts huge. Last time I speculated I might cut the main list in half, to 20 books. This time I had 23 when I decided I should push this out, and much more due diligence to do, so I settled on 30. Next time will be 20 -- and hopefully less than six months. Draft file still has 88 partial drafts, 202 noted books. I've included a few books that haven't been published yet (dates in brackets) in the supplemental lists, but not as main or secondary listings.
The books on the right are ones I have read (or in Clark's case, have started -- I'm about 100 pages in). Two of those are in the supplementary lists. The second Hope Jahren is more timely, but I read (and wrote up) the memoir first. The Ther book I hoped would offer more insights into Ukraine, but had more to say about politics in Germany, Italy, and Poland. Still, someone needs to write a book that lives up to the title.
Several other books noted below are in my queue, waiting for my limited attention:
I should also mention, in my queue, Samuel Moyn's previous book: Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War. If I didn't have so much pending, I'd seriously consider adding Naomi Klein: Doppelganger. The title is a bit too clever, but the notion of finding perverse mirror images in the right-wing fever swamp is profound, maybe because it articulates something that's been smacking us upside the head for decades now. The long list of books I filed under Rufo is full of examples. These are books that cry out not for political debate but for psychological intervention.
As Klein notes, they often start with a kernel of truth -- often one that we on the left would at least partly agree with -- then twist it around, often blaming us for problems that their side actually caused, playing up their victimhood, less for sympathy from others than to stir up anger within their own identity cult. After all, it's not like they have any sympathy for suffering of victims outside their orbit. I've tracked quite some number of these right-wing tracts over the years, and they are clearly becoming more and more deranged.
The supplemental Iraq list is unusual here, in that it includes some books that are quite old, simply because I missed them at the time. (Christopher Hitchens is an example I don't have to scratch my head over missing. Victor Davis Hanson is one that was pretty ridiculous when it was written, but all the more so in hindsight. And Judith Miller was one held back until she thought the coast was clear.) The implicit backdrop to this list is the long list of books I've noted previously. These are collected in one huge file (6398 books, 350k words). At some point I should split this up into thematic guides. (A grep for "Iraq" finds 323 lines, which is probably close to 200 books. "Israel" finds 601 lines. "Trump" 780. "Biden" 56.)
Here are 30 more/less recent books of interest in politics, the social sciences, and history, with occasional side trips, and supplementary lists where appropriate:
Michael D Bess: Planet in Peril: Humanity's Four Greatest Challenges and How We Can Overcome Them (2022, Cambridge University Press): Fossil fuels and Climate Change; Nukes for War and Peacetime; Pandemics, Natural or Bioengineered; Artificial Intelligence. One thing that distinguishes all four is the need for international cooperation, which involves "taking the United Nations up a notch." He even tries to anticipate "rogues, cheaters, and fanatics," but only leaves six pages for the chapter on "What Could Go Wrong?"
Christopher Clark: Revolutionary Spring: Europe Aflame and the Fight for a New World, 1848-1849 (2023, Crown): Major historical work (896 pp). I've moved on to it after reading EJ Hobsbawm's The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848, which covered its six decades with remarkable concision, but didn't offer many details of the revolutionary events of 1848. People like to brag about how much wealth capitalism has bestowed on the world, but through 1848 only a very few had anything to show for it, and the new laboring class (including significant numbers of women and children) were mired in misery. Hobsbawm mentions various crop failures, famines, and crashes of the 1840s that did much to provoke revolt. But also, with nearly every nation in Europe gripped by absolute monarchy, the emerging business class had their own reasons, and ideology, for revolution. My thinking was that 1848 marked the end of an age of bourgeois revolution that started in America in 1775 and ended in 1848, after which the capitalists found they had more in common with aristocrats than with the newly militant proletariat, especially when the monarchies catered to the nouveaux riches they found themselves dependent on. One thing that Clark stresses is that even where the revolutions were successfully repressed, the victors were never able to restore their ancien regime.
NW Collins: Grey Wars: A Contemporary History of US Special Operations (2021, Yale University Press): Tries to present a broad picture of how elite military units have been used going back to 1980 (Desert One), without giving away too much, least of all anything that might damage reputations or question motives. More on special ops and clandestine war:
Cory Doctorow: The Internet Con: How to Seize the Means of Computation (2023, Verso): Science fiction writer, with Rebecca Giblin, co-wrote Chokepoint Capitalism: How Big Tech and Big Content Captured Creative Labor Markets, plus more listed below. First liine: "This is a book for people who want to destroy Big Tech." Unclear to me how you can do that (not that I don't understand the desire for interoperability), but his explanation of why is succinct and pretty compelling. Two parts: one about "seizing," the other answers to a bunch of "what about" questions.
Cara Fitzpatrick: The Death of Public School: How Conservatives Won the War Over Education in America (2023, Basic Books): Looking back, the surprise may be that public schooling ever got to be so popular in America in the first place. Before 1800 (or possibly 1830), schooling was largely the province of churches, and even then only for the training of a select few. But with the scientific and industrial revolutions of the 19th century, building on the enlightened liberalism of the nation's founding, public education grew, even if it was sometimes sold as a means to naturalize and domesticate unruly immigrants. Some religions, especially Roman Catholics, continued to hold out for their own schools -- when I was growing up, I knew kids who went, and was aware their parents fretted over the costs -- and the rich had their own private schooling. The private school movement got a boost with the fight against desegregation, and Republicans found political opportunities on at several fronts: vouchers would appeal to the Catholic voters they started courting as part of Nixon's "emerging Republican majority," and charter schools would fit their privatization propaganda, and hurt teacher unions (who tended to support Democrats). Since then, the Republican Party has only gotten dumber, meaner, and more self-destructive. I doubt that means the battle is over, as the world itself has only become more complex and demanding of expert knowledge (as well as judicious politics), and that stuff has to be taught. Also:
Franklin Foer: The Last Politician: Inside Joe Biden's White House and the Struggle for America's Future (2023, Penguin Press): Journalist, writes for Atlantic, has three previous books, none with obvious political subjects (e.g., How Soccer Explains the World), so this effort at doing insider reporting of Biden's first two years is possibly novel, and almost unique compared to hundreds of scandal seekers who have gone after Trump. I've never liked Biden, so it may be faint praise to admit that he's the first president in my lifetime who has surprised me in pleasing ways -- of course, not always, and often not as much as I would have liked -- and I'm curious about how that happened. Foer seems to credit Biden himself for political pragmatism, but the bigger question is why they decided to respond to big problems in serious ways, as opposed to the studied downplaying of everything under Obama, let alone the madcap fits of Trump. Also on Biden (not much):
Meanwhile, the right has been busy pumping out anti-Biden tracts:
Joshua Frank: Atomic Days: The Untold Story of the Most Toxic Place in America (2022, Haymarket Books): Hanford Nuclear Reservation, in Washington, initially built as part of the Manhattan Project, the site along the Columbia River where the plutonium used on Hiroshima was created from uranium and extracted, a process that extended long after the war. The site now contains some 56 million gallons of radioactive waste, with a cleanup price tag of $677 billion (and counting).
Thomas Gabor/Fred Guttenberg: American Carnage: Shattering the Myths That Fuel Gun Violence (paperback, 2023, Mango): They enumerate 37 myths, most of which you'll find dubious (many downright bonkers) even without the supporting documentation, in eleven chapters, each with its "bottom line" summary. We've been around this block several times before, so there's not much new to add, but:
Peter Heather/John Rapley: Why Empires Fall: Rome, America, and the Future of the West (2023, Yale University Press): Heather a historian of the late- and post-Roman period, Rapley a political economist. Reminds me that Cullen Murphy wrote a similar book in 2007: Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America. Unlikely that any of these authors asks the obvious question: what good are empires anyway? Sure, when Rome fell, it was promptly sacked by Germanic tribes (most famously the Vandals), because that's how the world worked then. But fates like that have been rare since 1945, unless you consider the IMF analogous. Most Americans might very well be better off without an empire. Same for the world.
Peter J Hotez: The Deadly Rise of Anti-Science: A Scientist's Warning (2023, Johns Hopkins University Press): Doctor, has written several books on public health, and has stepped up recently to counter the vast torrent of anti-vaccine nonsense coming from all (but mostly right-wing) quarters. Note that Amazon offered me a "similar items" list: virtually all of them were by anti-vax quacks (most notably RFK Jr.). [09-19]
Walter Isaacson: Elon Musk (2023, Simon & Schuster): Big biography (688 pp), by the "biographer of genius," or so the hype goes: his previous subjects include Leonardo Da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, Jennifer Doudna, and Steve Jobs. You may think you know enough about him already, but this seems to be another case where the father almost makes the son sympathetic (others include Charles Koch and Donald Trump, though at this point they should be recognized as evil in their own right). Also on Musk:
Hope Jahren: Lab Girl (2016, Knopf; paperback, 2017, Vintage): Memoir of growing up in a Norwegian-American household in Minnesota to become a paleobotanist, through grad school in California and teaching posts in Atlanta, Hawaii, and finally Norway, each with her main interest, a lab full of mass spectrometers and such. The most striking chapter is one on her pregnancy off the meds that kept her centered. Also chronicles Bill, her slightly more eccentric lab assistant who followed her from post to post. She also wrote:
Siddharth Kara: Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives (2023, St Martin's Press): Investigation into cobalt mining in Congo -- a mineral increasingly in demand for the rechargeable lithium-ion batteries used by everything from smart phones to vehicles, which Congo supplies 75% of the world market for. If you've read Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost, you may think that the exploitation of this former Belgian colony couldn't get worse, but independence under Mobutu defined the word kleptocracy, and since his demise, Congo has been ravaged by the world's longest and most devastating wars. And as always, nothing adds to human suffering more quickly than a rush for treasure.
More recent books on Africa (actually very hard to search for on Amazon):
Naomi Klein: Doppelganger: A Trip Into the Mirror World 2023, Farrar Straus and Giroux): Canadian left-political writer, one who has regularly shown a knack not just for understanding our world but for formulating that in politically meaningful ways -- perhaps most famously in The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007). New book is more personal, based as it is on the public frequently getting her confused up with Naomi Wolf, who wrote the third-wave feminist classic The Beauty Trap (1991), and who, like Klein, was involved in Occupy Wall Street. Since then, Wolf has veered erratically toward the right, and especially promoting Covid misinformation. Odd, though, that the blurb info on this book doesn't mention Wolf by name. Not unrelated:
Melvyn P Leffler: Confronting Saddam Hussein: George W Bush and the Invasion of Iraq (2023, Oxford University Press): A "fair and balanced" reappraisal of the debates and process that led to Bush's decision to invade Iraq, based on new interviews with "dozens of top officials" and "declassified American and British documents." Leffler has a long history of supporting American war policy. Some of his previous books, plus other recent books on Iraq:
Back on the 20th anniversary, I also collected this list of older Iraq books that I hadn't otherwise cited. Most of these are old, some embarrassingly so:
Jill Lepore: The Deadline: Essays (2023, Liveright): Harvard historian, has written books on a wide range of subjects, from King Phillip's War to the Simulmatics Corporation, and to round it all out, These Truths: A History of the United States, all the while knocking out a wide range of historically astute essays for The New Yorker. This collects 640 pp of them.
David Lipsky: The Parrot and the Igloo: Climate and the Science of Denial (2023, WW Norton): Seems like every batch has a hook on which I hang the most recent batch of climate change books. This is the latest "big idea must-read book," meant to finally batter down the door of resistance, even though he must know that the problem isn't resistance but diversion, all the sneaky little side-trips politicans can be enticed along rather than biting off a task that exceeds their patience and talent. His aim is to convince you through stories (he's mostly written fiction and memoir before this), and they're less about the underlying science, which you probably know (and are tired of) by now, and more about the arts of denial -- not that I doubt there's science behind it but I still insist it's mostly art.
Other recent books on climate:
Michael Mann: On Wars (2023, Yale University Press): British-American comparative historical sociologist, wrote a series of books on The Sources of Social Power, presents this as a career capstone, surveying the entire history of war, from ancient to modern, asking why and concluding: "it is a handful of political leaders -- people with emotions and ideologies, and constrained by inherited culture and institutions -- who undertake such decisions, usually irrationally choosing war and seldom achieving their desired results." While that's true enough of the past, when war was mostly fought for plunder, and as a contest for esteem among violent males, does any of that still make sense? Sure, we do still have would-be warriors, always with their minds stuck in past fantasies, but their track record over the last century (and perhaps much more) is so dismal they should be relegated to asylums (or professional sports?). An honest book, and I have no reason to think that this one isn't, would show as much, in endless detail, but the very question -- are wars rational? -- should be unthinkable, but lamentably is still here.
John J Mearsheimer/Sebastian Rosato: How States Think: The Rationality of Foreign Policy (2023, Yale University Press): In order for the realist foreign policy to work, one must start by assuming the underlying rationality in all actors: that they understand their interests, that they can anticipate how various strategies will work or fail, and that they can adjust their strategy to their best advantage. Given that none of those assumptions are sound, it's hard to imagine why they call the resulting policy "realism." The authors have been critical of US foreign policy of late for being too bound up in ideology, and seek to rein that in with reason, but even their examples come out cock-eyed: Putin's decision to invade Ukraine may have been rigorously rational, but it was based on a set of plainly wrong assumptions, making it clearly a bad decision, one that has hurt Russia more than Putin could ever have hoped to gain. Same can be said for Bush in 2003 Iraq, except that the authors discard that decision in the irrational bucket. The two cases are remarkably similar, starting with the imagined own interests, the unacknowledged desire for independence, and the belief that overwhelming power ("shock and awe") would result in immediate capitulation.
Samuel Moyn: Liberalism Against Itself: Cold War Intellectuals and the Making of Our Times (2023, Yale University Press): In the 1960s, I got very upset at liberals who supported the Vietnam War. Liberals were on top of the world in 1945, but by 1948 nearly all of them had been shamed, cajoled, and/or terrorized into turning on the left, both abroad, where the US converted failing European colonies into safe havens for further capitalist exploitation, and at home, where they allowed labor unions to be purged and curtailed. Liberalism's goal of freeing all individuals seemed revolutionary compared to the aristocracy, feudalism, and slavery that preceded it, but freedom was a two-edged sword, leaving losers far more numerous than winners. With the New Deal, some liberals started to bridge the gap with the left, offering a "safety net" to help tame the worst dysfunctions of capitalism. During the Cold War, liberals split into two camps: one turning neoconservative, the other still committed to the "safety net" but less so to labor unions, and not at all to solidarity with workers and the poor abroad. Moyn tackles this problem through six portraits of early post-WWII liberals: Judith Shklar, Isaiah Berlin, Karl Popper, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Hannah Arendt, and Lionel Trilling: not the first names I thought of, but suitable for purpose, which Moyn states clearly in his first line: "Cold War liberalism was a catastrophe -- for liberalism."
Other recent books on liberalism (philosophy and its limits):
Samir Puri: The Shadows of Empire: How Imperial History Shapes Our World (2021, Pegasus Books): British, of both Indian and African heritage, an international relations professor with a background in diplomacy, has a newer book on Ukraine (see Zygar, below). The cover blurb by neo-imperialist Robert D Kaplan isn't promising, but there can be little doubt that the centuries of European imperialism have left lasting marks both on the former rulers and on the formerly ruled. I've argued that the essential mission of American foreign policy after WWII was to salvage the former colonies for capitalism, which mostly involved keeping local leaders on retainer, often arming them to suppress local rebellions, sometimes sending American troops in to do the job (as in Vietnam), and sometimes failing at that (ditto). The conceit that Americans still have of leading the "free world" is a residue of the imperial mindset. So was Britain's wish in 2003 to fight another war in Iraq. So is France's desire to "help out" in Mali and Niger. So is Russia's notion that Ukraine should be grateful for their civilization. For most people, imperialism was revealed as disaster and tragedy by WWII, but these residues linger on. It's hard to change bad habits until you're conscious of them. That I take to be the point of this book. Also (his book on Ukraine is listed under Mikhail Zygar):
James Risen: The Last Honest Man: The CIA, the FBI, the Mafia, and the Kennedys -- and One Senator's Fight to Save Democracy (2023, Little Brown): A biography of three-term Senator Frank Church, the last Democrat from Idaho, an early critic of the Vietnam War, and perhaps best known for his investigations exposing all sorts of malfeasance by the CIA and FBI -- the Kennedys and the Mafia factor into this through the CIA plots against Cuba. No figure in American politics saw his reputation disintegrate more totally than J Edgar Hoover, and that was largely due to Church's discoveries. As I recall, the War Powers Act, much ignored by presidents from Reagan on, was another of his legacies.
Christopher F Rufo: America's Cultural Revolution: How the Radical Left Conquered Everything (2023, Broadside Books): That's news to me, but so claims the guy touted as "America's most effective conservative intellectual [as he] proves once and for all that Marxist radicals have taken over our nation's institutions." The "ultimate objective" of this sinister conspiracy? "replacing constitutional equality with a race-based redistribution system overseen by bureaucratic 'diversity and inclusion' officials." In other words, this book is too stupid to even make fun of. Such a vast incomprehension is only to be pitied. (By the way, if you do want to make any sense of this, consider that the Marx and later leftists as the true apostles of Enlightenment liberalism, the ones who truly aspired to liberty and justice for all, as opposed to the would-be elites who jumped off the revolutionary train as soon as they secured their rights. "Thinkers" like Rufo recall that red-baiting worked once, so they assume it will work again. Had they actually read some Marx, they'd recall the quip about history repeating first as tragedy, then as farce.) Of course, there is more right-wing paranoid delusion coming your way:
It's worth noting that not everyone on this team right wants to seem insane. Some have written more sensible-sounding books, but they're usually based on the same paranoid assumptions. E.g.:
Paul Sabin: Public Citizens: The Attack on Big Government and the Remaking of American Liberalism (2021, WW Norton): The New Deal produced a broad consensus that government could work with business (especially big business) and labor unions to benefit everyone. This was attacked relentlessly by conservative business interests, especially after 1970 when productivity slowed, inflation increased, and businesses decided they should be more predatory in order to maintain their expected level of profits. Nicholas Lemann sums up this shift in his Transaction Man: The Rise of the Deal and the Decline of the American Dream (2019). Sabin's throwing another wrinkle into this story, arguing that the 1960-70s advent of "environmentalists, social critics, and consumer advocates like Rachel Carson, Jane Jacobs, and Ralph Nader" also contributed to the erosion of liberal faith in government. This strikes me as a bit far-fetched, as it's hard to imagine who they might expect other than a democratic government might stand up for public interests. It is true that the reputation of liberal politicians as public servants was damaged by various mistakes -- chief of which was the Vietnam War -- as well as a massive increase in corporate lobbying and media. But it is also true that "public citizens" accomplished much of what they had set out to before the political tide turned conservative. Where they failed was in not securing enough political power to protect the public's gains against the corporate lobbyists and political money.
Joanna Schwartz: Shielded: How the Police Became Untouchable (2023, Viking): UCLA law professor, teaches courses on civil procedure, police accountability, and public interest lawyering. Police are very rarely held accountable for their prejudices, mistakes, judgment lapses, and unnecessary violence, as they are shielded by many layers, starting with their willingness to lie and cover for each other, their unions, administrators, lawyers (including prosecutors), judges, and enablers among the "law and order" politicians.
More on police violence:
Richard Norton Smith: An Ordinary Man: The Surprising Life and Historic Presidency of Gerald R Ford (2023, Harper): A massive production (832 pp) for the House minority leader from Michigan, who got drafted to be Vice President to help bury the tarnished Spiro Agnew, then elevated to President to pardon and escape Richard Nixon, who then managed to hold off Ronald Reagan and secure the Republican nomination in 1976, only to lose to Jimmy Carter -- which set Reagan up nicely for 1980, in what really was one of the most adversely consequential elections of our lifetime. In his time, Ford was a guy who no one really hated, because he never was that important. But Republicans managed to name an aircraft carrier for him, and now he gets a big biography, even though the title admits he wasn't up to it.
Norman Solomon: War Made Invisible: How America Hides the Human Toll of Its Military Machine (2023, New Press): Author has several books on media, as well as two previous ones on war: War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death (2005), and his memoir, Made Love, Got War: Close Encounters With America's Warfare State. This starts the selling of the Global War on Terror after 9/11, with how it was exploited when it was popular, and how as enthusiasm faded it gradually got swept out of sight. Still, one needs to look further back to get the point: Vietnam was touted as the "living room war" as daily broadcasts showed the war degenerating into a hopeless quagmire as dissent grew. If the military learned anything from that war, it was the importance of better managing the press. That seemed to work in the 1990 Gulf War, and the many embedded journalists in the 2003 drive to Baghdad did as they were told, but Iraq fell apart even faster than Vietnam, so the press was virtually shut down after Bremer left, with very few reporters free to dispute press office claims, and diminishing interest in finding out more.
Astra Taylor: The Age of Insecurity: Coming Together as Things Fall Apart (paperback, 2023, House of Anansi Press): Author of important books on democracy and the internet, activist in Occupy Wall Street and the Debt Collective, as sharp and as broadly knowledgeable as anyone writing today. These essays were written for the CBC Massey Lectures, but sum up a world view, for a world where politicians pride themselves as guardians of our security, while plunging us into ever greater precarity.
Peter Turchin: End Times: Elites, Counter-Elites, and the Path of Political Disintegration (2023, Penguin Press): Attempts to work out a scientific framework for comparative history, or rather claims to have worked one out, with a vast range of data points ("CrisisDB"), and is now intent on applying it to the anomaly that is present-day America. Much of this hangs on his concept of the over-production of elites (themselves a slippery concept, given that one can be elite in something without having effective power over anything else). The ability to jump so widely makes for a heady mix, but you mostly wind up grasping at hints.
Mikhail Zygar: War and Punishment: Putin, Zelensky, and the Path to Russia's Invasion of Ukraine (2023, Scribner): A year after the invasion comes the first wave of books trying to explain how and why it happened -- most mixed in with more than a dollop of self-serving propaganda. This is one of the more credible prospects (at least I've found interviews with him to be credible): Zygar, a Russian now based in Berlin, has many years as an independent journalist, which got him close enough to write and distant enough to publish All the Kremlin's Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin. He starts here by going deep into history to show how Russians and Ukrainians came to hold very different views of each other -- a basic cognitive dissidence that American hawks, stuck with their own myths, show no interest in. Other recent books on the conflict (Matthews and Plokhy are most comparable, and Puri offers an interesting viewpoint; others are more specialized, running the range of views; none strike me as pro-Russian, but a couple are critical of the US):
Additional books, noted without comments other than for clarity. I reserve the right to return to some of these later (but probably won't; many are here because I don't want to think about them further).
Michele Alacevich: Albert O Hirschman: An Intellectual Biography (2021, Columbia University Press): Second biography I've seen, after Jeremy Adelman: Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O Hirschman (2013), reportedly stronger on Hirschman's economic theories.
Charles Camic: Veblen: The Making of an Economist Who Unmade Economics (2020, Harvard University Press).
Rachel Chrastil: Bismarck's War: The Frano-Prussian War and the Making of Modern Europe (2023, Basic Books).
James C Cobb: C Vann Woodward: America's Historian (2022, The University of North Carolina Press).
Trae Crowder/Corey Ryan Forrester/Drew Morgan: The Liberal Redneck Manifesto: Draggin' Dixie Outta the Dark (paperback, 2017, Atria).
Trae Crowder/Corey Ryan Forrester: Round Here and Over Yonder: A Front Porch Travel Guide by Two Progressive Hillbillies (Yes, That's a Thing) (2023, Harper Horizon).
Sandrine Dixson-Declève/Owen Gaffney/Jayati Ghosh/Jorgen Randers/Johan Rockström/Per Espen Stoknes: Earth for All: A Survival Guide for Humanity (paperback, 2022, New Society): "A Report to the Club of Rome (2022) Fifty Years After The Limits to Growth (1972)."
Robert Elder: Calhoun: American Heretic (2021, Basic Books).
Roland Ennos: The Age of Wood: Our Most Useful Material and the Construction of Civilization (2020, Scribner).
Samuel G Freedman: Into the Bright Sunshine: Young Hubert Humphrey and the Fight for Civil Rights (2023, Oxford University Press).
Newt Gingrich: March to the Majority: The Real Story of the Republican Revolution (2023, Center Street): Memoir of the 1994 election that made Gingrich Speaker of the House.
Josh Hawley: The Masculine Virtues America Needs (2023, Regnery): US Senator (R-MO), famous Jan. 6 track star.
David Horowitz: I Can't Breathe: How a Racial Hoax Is Killing America (2021, Regnery).
Robert Kagan: The Ghost at the Feast: America and the Collapse of World Order, 1900-1941 (2023, Knopf): Carries on from his 2006 book, Dangerous Nation: America's Foreign Policy From Its Earliest Days to the Dawn of the Twentieth Century.
Patrick Radden Keefe: Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty (2021, Doubleday).
Cody Keenan: Grace: President Obama and Ten Days in the Battle for America (2022, Mariner Books): Obama speechwriter, focuses on the speeches of 10 days in June 2015.
Keith Kellogg: War by Other Means: A General in the Trump White House (2021, Regnery).
Michael G Laramie: Queen Anne's War: The Second Contest for North America, 1702-1713 (2021, Westholme).
Marc Levinson: The Box: How a Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger (2nd edition paperback, 2016, Princeton University Press).
Marc Levinson: Outside the Box: How Globalization Changed From Moving Stuff to Spreading Ideas (2020, Princeton University Press).
Robert Lighthizer: No Trade Is Free: Changing Course, Taking on China, and Helping America's Workers (2023, Broadside Books): Trump's US Trade Representative.
Stephen A Marglin: Raising Keynes: A Twenty-First-Century General Theory (2021, Harvard University Press): 928 pp.
Ben Mezrich: The Antisocial Network: The GameStop Short Squeeze and the Ragtag Group of Amateur Traders That Brought Wall Street to Its Knees (2021, Grand Central).
Walter Benn Michaels/Adolph Reed Jr: No Politics but Class Politics (paperback, 2023, Eris).
Adolph L Reed Jr: The South: Jim Crow and Its Afterlives (2022, Verso).
James Rickards: Sold Out: How Broken Supply Chains, Surging Inflation, and Political Instability Will Sink the Global Economy (2022, Portfolio).
Peter Robison: Flying Blind: The 737 MAX Tragedy and the Fall of Boeing (2021, Doubleday; paperback, 2022, Anchor).
Kermit Roosevelt III: The Nation That Never Was: Reconstructing America's Story (2022, University of Chicago Press).
Julio Rosas: Fiery (But Mostly Peaceful): The 2020 Riots and the Gaslighting of America (2022, DW Books): Sees ANTIFA under every rock.
Mike Rothschild: The Storm Is Upon Us: How QAnon Became a Movement, Cult, and Conspiracy Theory of Everything (2021, Melville House).
Marco Rubio: Decades of Decadence: How Our Spoiled Elites Blew America's Inheritance of Liberty, Security, and Prosperity (2023, Broadside Books).
Kohei Saito: Karl Marx's Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy (paperback, 2017, Monthly Review Press).
Kohei Saito: Marx in the Anthropocene: Towards the Idea of Degworth Communism (paperback, Cambridge University Press): Argues that Marx had a long-suppressed ecological critique of capitalism.
Craig Shirley: April 1945: The Hinge of History (2022, Thomas Nelson): Wrote Newt Gingrich's authorized biography.
Thomas Sowell: Social Justice Fallacies (2023, Basic Books).
David Stasavage: The Decline and Rise of Democracy: A Global History From Antiquity to Today (2020, Princeton University Press).
Greg Steinmetz: American Rascal: How Jay Gould Built Wall Street's Biggest Fortune (2022, Simon & Schuster).
James B Stewart/Rachel Abrams: Unscripted: The Epic Battle for a Media Empire and the Redstone Family Legacy (2023, Penguin Press): The struggle for succession at Paramount Global.
Cass R Sunstein: How to Interpret the Constitution (2023, Princeton University Press).
Owen Ullmann: Empathy Economics: Janet Yellen's Remarkable Rise to Power and Her Drive to Spread Prosperity to All (2022, Public Affairs).
Volker Ullrich: Germany 1923: Hyperinflation, Hitler's Putsch, and Democracy in Crisis (2023, Liveright).
Nikki Usher: News for the Rich, White, and Blue: How Place and Power Distort American Journalism (2021, Columbia University Press). Studying recent trends in newspapers, including the New York Times.
Maurizio Valsania: First Among Men: George Washington and the Myth of American Masculinity (2022, Johns Hopkins University Press).
Thomas D Williams: The Coming Christian Persecution: Why Times Are Getting Worse and How to Prepare for What Is to Come (2023, Crisis Publications): Catholic theologian.
Friday, April 28, 2023
Seems like I've been working on this Book Roundup forever. The last one was October 22, 2022, preceded by one on May 1, 2022. I keep an open scratch file, sorted into things ready to go for the two sections: 40 substantial blurb-reviews, some with associated lists of related books, and a variable number of simple mentions, some with a line or two for identification. Everything I've done in the past gets copied into a monster archive file, which I consult to avoid repetition.
Someone once asked me about creating a database for book entries. I thought I responded with interest, but never heard from that person again. For what it's worth, my Next Draft file is public, but not in any of my navigation menus. I'm even giving some consideration to coming up with specialized posts on music and/or cooking, but have made little progress on that. It is always possible you'll find those subjects below.
I've been doing batches of 40 for quite a while, but as the sublists keep growing, it occurs to me that 20 would be a more reasonable chunk size, which would also help with the problem of stretching intervals. As it is, it's been a struggle to get this one out, and feel a bit bad doing so before completing a research round. (I left an incomplete one a couple months ago, then back to last fall.)
Rather unusually, nothing in the main section that I've read. I did buy a copy of Reality Blind, but read instead a previously noted book along those lines: Brian T Watson: Headed Into the Abyss: The Story of Our Time and the Future We'll Face. I am most tempted to order Kruse/Zelizer: Myth America, and Oreskes/Conway: The Big Myth. I've read previous books by Andrew Bacevich, Ha-Joon Chang, Timothy Egan, Norman G Finkelstein, Chris Hedges, China Miéville, David Quammen, Bernie Sanders, Quinn Slobodian, and Michael Walzer (long ago, his first book from 1965, The Revolution of the Saints, and at least some of his 1970 essay collection, Obligations).
I should note that while I look for items of interest, these are not recommendations (unless explicit). I write about a small number of books each time to criticize or make fun of, and I often note highly dubious books by well-known right-wing authors with little or no comment (Niall Ferguson and Victor Hanson Davis are obvious examples below). Books by political figures are usually noted and dismissed (like Ro Khanna, but I stopped to write something on Bernie Sanders).
There are also a fair number of historical tomes in the second section, especially where they are self-explanatory and not of immediate personal interest. I also tend to pass on left-wing political tomes, especially in the Marxist tradition (like David Harvey).
In the sublists, I made a partial effort to separate possibly worthwhile books from certainly bad ones, at least on climate change and Covid-19. I didn't on abortion. I'm really in no mood to consider anti-abortion views, even to ridicule them, or for that matter attempts to try to see the merits of both sides. Conversely, I didn't go far toward building up a pro-abortion list. I started intent on noting Mary Ziegler's other work, then found a couple more titles in that vein, and one political tract I can wholeheartedly endorse (Without Apology).
I held back a bunch of partly written drafts, plus a lot of barely noted books, especially where they seemed likely to be expanded and/or grouped later on (books on white supremacy and woke fit here; same for China, India, and policing). On the other hand, I grabbed up all the climate stuff I could find but hadn't mentioned earlier. It's certainly impossible to blame our political failures there on lack of information.
Andrew Bacevich: On Shedding an Obsolete Past: Bidding Farewell to the American Century (paperback, 2022, Haymarket Books): Conservative anti-militarist, head of Quincy Institute, collects a batch of essays initially written for TomDispatch from 2016-21. Donald Trump was president for most of that stretch, but without a coherent idea how to adapt American foreign policy after the broken hubris of the War on Terror, he mostly broke things, which was maddening for critics like Bacevich. Biden's solution was to revive the "obsolete past" Bacevich wants him to shed, so he's still not happy, but at least he has lots to critique.
Margaret A Burnham: By Hands Now Known: Jim Crow's Legal Executioners (2022, WW Norton): In what's been called "a paradigm-shifting investigation of Jim Crow-era violence, the legal apparatus that sustained it, and its enduring legacy." Or: "if the law cannot protect a person from lynching, then isn't lynching the law?" Lynching was in fact so fundamental to the white supremacist order that the civil rights movement spent most of its energy from 1920 to 1940 in trying to secure a federal anti-lynching law. After all, if you can't live, what else can you do? By the way, the first federal anti-lynching bill passed was in 2022, signed by Joe Biden, and named for Emmett Till, who was lynched in 1955. The Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill had been passed by the House in 1922, but filibustered in the Senate.
Ha-Joon Chang: Edible Economics: A Hungry Economist Explains the World (2023, Public Affairs): Korean economist, started studying developing economies, and came to suspect that much of what fellow economists were teaching on the subject didn't work, and more so, was wrong (see Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism). Since then, he's sought to debunk capitalist economics in a series of primers, like 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism, and Economics: A User's Guide. Here he tries a different tactic, using food for examples, tossing in a few recipes. Perhaps he's familiar with Upton Sinclair's line: "I aimed for the public's heart, and hit it in the stomach."
Christopher O Clugston: Blip: Humanity's 300 Year Self-Terminating Experiment With Industrialism (paperback, 2019, Booklocker): There are lots of optimistic books about sustainable energy sources and not much worry about running out of other NNR (nonrenewable natural resources). This book, and its predecessor, offer the flipside to those books. The cover chart reminds me of one Richard Heinberg plotted on oil use and population, extended to project a downside mirroring the upward slant. I can think of reasons why the downside isn't necessary, but I can also imagine what happens when you add a couple more charts to the mix: one would track the efforts from the poorer parts of the world to achieve parity with the richer ones (by development and/or by emigration; it turns out that reducing population growth has little effect here); and the other (harder to quantify but easier to imagine) would track the increasing political stupidity in the richer countries. From those charts it would be a short step to war and revolution. Earlier:
Christopher J Coyne/Abigail R Hall: Manufacturing Militarism: US Government Propaganda in the War on Terror (paperback, 2021, Stanford University Press): "The US government's prime enemy in the War on Terror is not a shadowy mastermind dispatching suicide bombers. It is the informed American citizen." They start by inflating threats, then frame them so that military force is the only option. Hence, we fund vast globe-spanning military networks to deal poorly with threats that pale in comparison to the wildfires, chemical spills, and other disasters that routinely occur. Coyne and Hall have been aware of this for some time. They are among the few who recognize that militarism directed abroad damages democracy and everyday life at home. Also:
Ron DeSantis: The Courage to Be Free: Florida's Blueprint for America's Revival (2023, Broadside Books): "He played baseball for Yale [while most were studying?], graduated with honors from Harvard Law School, and served in Iraq and the halls of Congress [not just Congress? he was a hall monitor?]. But in all these places, Ron DeSantis learned the same lesson: He didn't want to be part of the leftist elite." Nah, he wanted to be part of the far-right elite (although between Yale, Harvard, Iraq, and Congress, I doubt he met very many actual leftists. This, of course, is his campaign brief. (Amazon's "frequently bought together" offer adds Mike Pompeo's Never Give an Inch and Mike Pence's So Help Me God), so one would normally expect it to be long on homilies and short on details. Of course, his homilies are pretty dark, like "The United States has been increasingly captive to an arrogant, stale, and failed ruling class." And also: "Florida has stood as an antidote to America's failed ruling class." The table of contents not only includes chapters on "For God, for Country, and for Yale" and "Honor, Courage, and Commitment," but also "The Magic Kingdom of Woke Corporatism" and "The Liberal Elite's Praetorian Guard." And if you have any doubt that he's running, the books ends with "Make America Florida." All this in a succinct 286 pages. He's every bit as seductive as Satan. More campaign briefs (also see Mike Pompeo, separately; nothing yet for Larry Elder, Asa Hutchinson, Mike Rogers, or other phantom candidates I've heard about -- although Elder has a half-dozen books 2001-19, the last of which was a lame pitch for Trump; by the way, Trump's latest is in the second section):
Timothy Egan: A Fever in the Heartland: The Ku Klux Klan's Plot to Take Over America, and the Woman Who Stopped Them (2023, Viking): Focuses on D.C. Stephenson, Grand Dragon of the KKK in Indiana during its 1920s resurgence, a rich and charismatic demagogue with his sights on high political office. The woman in the subtitle was Madge Oberholtzer, whom he abducted and raped, and who got a tiny bit of redemption with her "deathbed testimony." Egan is a fine writer with a knack for fishing fascinating stories out of history, but this one would feel better if she had lived to see her tormenter's downfall. I previously noted two Egan books: The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl (2005), and The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America (2009). Some others:
Norman G Finkelstein: I'll Burn That Bridge When I Get to It! Heretical Thoughts on Identity Politics, Cancel Culture, and Academic Freedom (paperback, 2023, Sublation Media): A critique (544 pp) of "identity politics and cancel culture" and lament on "academic freedom" from a guy whose steadfast critique of Israel gets him canceled more often than any self-proclaimed right-wing "victim" can imagine. On the other hand, the experience seems to be taking a toll, making him even more cranky. I've cited most of his books, but missed these:
Peter Frankopan: The Earth Transformed: An Untold History (2023, Knopf): 736 pp. Big picture history as futurology, tracking climate change from the "dawn of time" -- billions of years where the release of atmospheric oxygen dwarfs any climate change we can imagine -- to the present and beyond. Along the way, the points is to see how many major world events can be tied to disturbances in the environment. I've seen other books trample this ground, perhaps less extensively, like David Keys: Catastrophe: An Investigation Into the Origins of Modern Civilization, and Jared Diamond: Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Author previously wrote:
John Taylor Gatto: Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling (1992; 25th Anniversary Edition, paperback, 2017, New Society): Libertarian NYC teacher, eventually resigned, saying he no longer wished to "hurt kids for a living." Reminds me of Paul Goodman's classic Compulsory Miseducation (1964). For that matter, also reminds me of my own experience in the public schools, where I escaped the curses of indifference and dependency by radical insubordination. Admittedly, I've known a few people who responded well to school, who found it affirmative, and who built brilliant careers and lives on its foundation. And I know that most teachers don't mean to be ogres, and I doubt that even their supervisors have such malign intent, but rather have set up a system where the assumption of superiority makes the harm Gatto rails against all but inevitable. Gatto aso wrote:
Rebecca Giblin/Cory Doctorow: Chokepoint Capitalism: How Big Tech and Big Content Captured Creative Labor Markets, and How We'll Win Them Back (2022, Beacon Press): This deals with monopoly powers in books, music, etc., but chokepoints go back a fair ways -- my first thought was how Hewlett-Packard connived to force me to buy ink service for a printer I naively bought from them (never again!), but IBM was notorious for similar practices back in the 1950s. Giblin is an Australian lawyer involved in several interesting projects, and Doctorow is a science fiction writer with similar interests. Still, I'm pretty skeptical about that "how we'll win them back" line.
Anand Giridharadas: The Persuaders: At the Front lines of the Fight for Hearts, Minds, and Democracy (2022, Knopf): Having written a book (Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World) about how the rich use philanthropy less to assuage their guilty consciences than to head off potential change, he now turns to, well, I'm not sure. The prologue starts off with a section about Russian trolls and propaganda, but reviews suggest this is a series of portraits of activists trying to get their messages across, so how can you be persuasive in a world riddled with misdirection?
Jason D Greenblatt: In the Path of Abraham: How Donald Trump Made Peace in the Middle East -- and How to Stop Joe Biden From Unmaking It (2022, Wicked Son): Author worked for the Trump administration in negotiating the Abraham Accords, a project Jared Kushner has taken much of the credit for. The AA are a series of agreements between Israel, the US, and various Arab countries, where the latter normalizing relations with Israel, and therefore are allowed to buy more sophisticated arms from the US. This is basically just a continuation of the arrangement Carter negotiated with Egypt in the 1970s, and which Jordan signed on to in the 1990s. The resulting arms shipments (including from Israel) do nothing to secure peace in the region: they contribute to an arms race with Iran, and to internal conflicts like in Yemen. And the whole deal bypasses the more fundamental injustice Israel imposes within its own illegally-expanded borders on Palestinians, even on those nominally considered citizens of Israel. (On paper, there is also a "Peace to Prosperity" component for the Palestinians, but Israel has never shown any interest in it, and Trump's team are not the sort to get pushy.) The praise for Trump and the threat to Biden just proves that Greenblatt understands his fundamentally partisan role. In point of fact, Biden has no desire or need to roll back any of the Abraham Accords. The only "threat" he offers is that he might resurrect the JCPOA with Iran, which would end the potential threat Iran might poise to Israel, but would deprive Israeli leaders of an enemy they need to justify their militarism. Also:
Nicholas Guyatt: The Hated Cage: An American Tragedy in Britain's Most Terrifying Prison (2022, Basic Books): British historian, books have covered a wide range of topics, this would seem to be a relatively obscure story: Britain's Dartmoor Prison, which held some 5,000 American sailors during and after the War of 1812 (where "they had been left to rot by their government"), and many were massacred in 1815. But it has contemporary resonance, as race, power, and dehumanization are still very much with us. Guyatt previously wrote:
Stephen J Hadley, ed: Hand-Off: The Foreign Policy George W Bush Passed to Barack Obama (2023, Brookings Institution Press): Big (774 pp) collection of transition papers prepared by the outgoing Bush administration for Obama, compiled by Bush's second-term National Security Advisor, with a foreword by Bush and introductions by Hadley and Condoleezza Rice (who held the NSA post before Hadley, before she became Secretary of State). Lots of disappointments in Obama's early administration, but the extent to which he maintained continuity with Bush foreign policy was among the most shameful (and stupid).
Pekka Hämäläinen: Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest of North America (2022, Liveright). Attempts to recast the history of North America from the vantage point of its indigenous inhabitants. Still, only two chapters set the pre-1492 stage, reflecting the lack of written records for the 11-12 thousand years between their arrival from Asia and Alaska and the invaders from Europe. After that, there's a lot of history to report, though it's hitherto usually been told from the standpoint of the conquerors.
Johann Hari: Stolen Focus: Why You Can't Pay Attention -- and How to Think Deeply Again (2022, Crown): Superficially, this seems to fit into the tradition of anti-media screeds like Amusing Ourselves to Death, although the self-help bit wedged into the title adds a bit of the marketing the book would be better off railing against. How much self help is even possible? The table of contents enumerates twelve causes for this loss of focus, leaving scant room for solutions. How deeply do we want (or need) to think, anyway? I see blurb praise from Naomi Klein, Hillary Clinton, and Arianna Harrington, which makes me think that maybe focus is less the problem than the lack of principles and responsibility from the public figures we need to keep check on.
Mehdi Hasan: Win Every Argument: The Art of Debating, Persuading, and Public Speaking (2023, Henry Holt): British-American journalist, started with Al Jazeera English, has moved in more respectable circles recently, and yes, he's a very erudite and penetrating interviewer. Still, seems a bit odd to frame this as a self-help book for pundits who care more about winning arguments than finding the best answers. Still, like Machiavelli's Prince, you can probably flip this around and see it as an exposé of people who win arguments with cheap tricks. Some time back, I read a book that purported to have every known sales close technique. then noted that if you don't want to buy, just list the techniques just used on you, and the salesperson will be defeated.
Chris Hedges: The Greatest Evil Is War (2022, Seven Stories Press): A former divinity student who once got his kicks as a war correspondent, seeking action everywhere from Central America to the Balkans through the Middle East and into Africa, he now offers "a blistering condemnation of war in all forms and for all reasons." I would say "about time," but it looks like he's collected these writings from a couple decades of columns. Still, those of us who consistently oppose war from the start rarely need to rewrite much.
Wes Jackson/Robert Jensen: An Inconvenient Apocalypse: Environmental Collapse, Climate Crisis, and the Fate of Humanity (paperback, 2022, University of Notre Dame Press): Short (184 pp), Jackson is an important agriculture reformer in Kansas (a folk hero, really), and Jensen is a journalism professor whose concern for the planet led him to write a book about Jackson. Title plays on Al Gore's 2006 book and film An Inconvenient Truth, but Gore's title fit together into something profound, whereas this title has a whiff of irony and desperation: sure, the situation is graver now, but apocalypse is still a bit hyperbolic, and being nonchalant about it doesn't help. Hard to tell whether this goes beyond rote alarmism. A look back at their many previous books suggests increasing pessimism.
Michael Kazin: What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party (2022, Farrar Straus and Giroux): Broad strokes history of the Democratic Party's many struggles to win elections, starting with Jackson (or actually, his smarter alter ego Martin van Buren), and extending to the present. The title is a curious one, given that mostly Democrats didn't manage to win, often (1860, 1896, 1972) because the Party bigwigs preferred losing to Republicans over losing to other Democrats. (The Republicans returned the favor in 1912, giving us the mixed blessings of Woodrow Wilson.) Kazin favors the left wing of the Democratic Party, and has written several books about it:
Kevin M Kruse/Julian E Zelizer, eds: Myth America: Historians Take On the Biggest Legends and Lies About Our Past (2023, Basic Books): Looks like an interesting collection of revisionist essays on controversial topics in American history, like "Founding Myths" and "Vanishing Indians" up to more contemporary topics like "White Backlash," "Police Violence," and "Voter Fraud." As they point out, "Many of the lies and legends in this collection . . . stem from deliberate campaign of disinformation from the political Right." While some of these myths have deep roots in historiography, others were largely invented by the Right in recent years, in their conscious attempt to recast American history in a self-justifying light. Refuting those myths doesn't automatically place you on the Left, but the Left has rarely hid injustices in the past, because the Left exists to correct them.
Glory M Liu: Adam Smith's America: How a Scottish Philosopher Became an Icon of American Capitalism (2022, Princeton University Press). Scottish author of economics ur-text The Wealth of Nations in the pivotal American year of 1776, a coincidence that some Americans have taken as manifest destiny. This focuses on American readings of Smith's book, especially how they've been weaponized for private gain. For instance: "the so-called Chicago School's distillation of Smith's ideas into a popular and powerful myth: that rational self-interest is the only valid premise for the analysis of human behavior, and that only the invisible hand of the market, not the heavy hand of government, could guarantee personal and political freedom." That "invisible hand" has often been taken as the magic that converts personal greed into public good: not the only time a joke has been taken as gospel.
Andrew Morton: The Queen: Her Life (2022, Grand Central): The British monarchy has been dead weight since . . . well, as an American, I'd start with George III . . . but few monarchs have retreated into their useless world more gracefully than Elizabeth II. Morton is a hack who does "celebrity biographies" (Tom Cruise, Angelina Jolie, Madonna) when he's not riding piggyback on the tabloid monarchy, but he scored one career-defining coup in getting Princess Diana to spill her guts into the book he subtitled "Her True Story -- In Her Own Words." My best guess is that this book has been lurking in his cabinet, waiting the Queen's inevitable death for an element of timeliness (it's not as if he didn't have other wares to flog). Still, this one's handy enough to hang a few more slices of useless but sometimes titillating royal gossip (the length perhaps owing to my lack of interest in the subject):
Eric Metaxas: Fish Out of Water: A Search for the Meaning of Life (2021, Salem Books): Autobiography. Everything I read about him spells "huckster," albeit a rather clever and successful one, with his syndicated radio show, his bestsellers, and his constant stroking of common religious conceits in America, while trying to reclaim moral and intellectual high ground (against slavery, against Nazism, for American liberty, for science; miracles never cease).
China Miéville: A Spectre, Haunting: On the Communist Manifesto (paperback, 2022, Haymarket Books): British writer, started writing speculative fiction (novels, stories, comic books), branched out into criticism (Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction, 2009) and history (October: The Story of the Russian Revolution, 2017). Here he re-reads 1848's The Communist Manifesto, both in light of the history it inspired and the history we wound up with today, and he finds it surprisingly resonant.
Gretchen Morgenson/Joshua Rosner: These Are the Plunderers: How Private Equity Runs -- and Wrecks -- America (2023, Simon & Schuster): Longtime financial reporters, wrote a book in 2011 on how greed wrecked the economy (Reckless Endangerment: How Outsized Ambition, Greed, and Corruption Led to Economic Armageddon), zeroes in on the worst of the worst here: the private equity companies that buy companies and bleed them dry, making off with billions while employees lose their jobs, customers lose options, and we wind up having to pick up the pieces. (You may recall that Mitt Romney's Bain Capital was one such firm.)
Naomi Oreskes/Erik M Conway: The Big Myth: How American Business Taught Us to Loathe Government and Love the Free Market (2023, Bloomsbury): Possibly an important book. Authors wrote about how companies spin PR to protect toxic products -- Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues From Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (2010). The difference here is that they're pushing political ideas: they want us to hate government because they fear government -- the face they paint on democracy -- might defend public interests against private greed. So they play up corruption (mostly their own clandestine interference) and bureaucratic inefficiency as intrinsic flaws. Meanwhile, they try to paint a pretty picture of a "free market," which is actually something the entire MBA program is training to subvert. Part of the reason they've gotten away with this is that the idea of free markets is so promising. But to work, you have to have ample competition, perfect information, transparency, and integrity -- conditions that would be impossible even if tried, which is something no actual business wants.
Mike Pompeo: Never Give an Inch: Fighting for the America I Love (2023, Broadside Books): Another campaign brief, this one from "the only four-year national security member of President Trump's Cabinet, he worked to impose crushing pressure on the Islamic Republic of Iran, avert a nuclear crisis with North Korea, deliver unmatched support for Israel, and bring peace to the Middle East." Note that none of those things actually worked, as he left the world in worse shape than when he joined Trump. But also note that there are issues where he wants to distance himself from Trump, as when he explains "why Trump thought his Secretary of State was too tough on China," and why Trump needed to be tougher. The first blurb reads: "Mike is a real-life Tom Clancy American hero." Perhaps running for president isn't just an ego thing with him. Maybe he just wants to start World War III. He's already abandoned his presidential campaign, so expect to find this cheap.
David Quammen: Breathless: The Scientific Race to Defeat a Deadly Virus (2022, Simon & Schuster): Natural science writer, his book on evolution (The Song of the Dodo is a classic), but he's also ventured into diseases, with books on AIDS and Ebola, as well as (most presciently) Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, so him tackling the Covid-19 pandemic is all but inevitable. I expected by now that we'd be seeing more serious books on Covid, but a quick check through Amazon reveals only a few plausible titles, along with a bunch of more/less paranoid hysteria:
Let's also throw in a sample of the more extreme political screeds -- not all on the right, and some merely looking suspicious.
I'm not sure which of the above lists the "lab leak" stories belong in:
Bernie Sanders: It's OK to Be Angry About Capitalism (2023, Crown): Not a typical political brief, and not just because it's unlikely he'll run for president in 2024 (although he does write about his run in 2020) -- more like because he has serious things to say. Sanders is not to my left on issues, but he sometimes strikes me as unnecessary taking risks with rhetoric, as when his 2016 stump speech wound up with a call for "political revolution." Even with the qualification, that struck me as risky, and not sufficiently clear. I've long been taking pains to stress that reforms would be just fine. Similarly, I'm inclined to accept that capitalism has some virtues, as long as it's sufficiently regulated, of course. But Sanders may be striking the right note here: after all, if you can't get angry enough, what chance do you have of putting those regulations (and other compensations) in place? Besides, there is no word more accurate: Ryan Cooper's How Are You Going to Pay for That? has lots of good ideas, but trying to dodge "capitalism" by complaining about "propertarianism" isn't one of them.
Jeff Sharlet: The Undertow: Scenes From a Slow Civil War (2023, WW Norton): Author has written previous books on the intersection of right-wing politics and religion -- The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism as the Heart of American Power (2008), and C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy (2010) -- and this follows his subjects into the post-Trump apocalypse, where "political rallies are as aflame with need and giddy expectation as religious revivals." This idea of a "slow civil war" strikes me as apt, reminding me of how slow neutrons can sustain nuclear reactions to generate heat and radioactivity short of blowing everything up. When we think of civil war, we automatically think of 1861, when each state started with its own organized militia. But civil wars usually start small and grow as the injuries compound.
Quinn Slobodian: Crack-Up Capitalism: Market Radicals and the Dream of a World Without Democracy (2023, Metropolitan Books): This is about the increase in the number of special zones, which are countries or enclaves which allow business to operate with little or no democratic accountability. Businesses can avoid taxes and other regulations by shopping for favored zones, and the more they have to choose from, the more leverage they have. The book opens with the long-established Hong Kong, but there are many more, some as local as the "innovation zones" being promoted by your local and state governments. Slobodian previously wrote Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism, which seems like old hat compared to this.
Jeremi Suri: Civil War by Other Means: America's Long and Unfinished Fight for Democracy (2022, Public Affairs). "Worries about a new civil war in America are misplaced because the Civil War never fully ended. Its lingering embers have burst into flames at various times, including during our own." Much of this story has been told in Heather Cox Richardson's How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America, but the neo-Confederate wins from Jim Crow into the 1950s haven't stood unchallenged either, as we see in the still ongoing struggle to remove Confederate monuments, or the appearance of Confederate flags in the January 6 assault on the Capitol.
Greta Thunberg: The Climate Book: The Facts and the Solutions (2023, Penguin Press): At 15, she emerged as an iconic leader in the campaign to take climate change seriously. She has a couple previous books -- No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference (2019), and Our House Is on Fire: Scenes of a Family and a Planet in Crisis (2020) -- but one of the advantages of being a leader is you don't have to do it all yourself. She assembled, or at least put her name on (the word on the frontispiece is "created"), this mini-encyclopedia (464 pp) from the work of over 100 experts, with her own section intros. Also lots of pictures and graphs. More recent books on climate change (also see Wes Jackson, above; of course, I've published many such lists before):
I suppose we can mention a few recent examples of right-wing denialism and/or escapism:
Marian L Tupy/Gale E Pooley: Superabundance: The Story of Population Growth, Innovation, and Human Flourishing on an Infinitely Bountiful Planet (2022, Cato Institute): Basically, they define abundance as the product of population times freedom, where the latter is plain laissez-faire capitalism. Given the latter, population is the variable, and the more the merrier. Never mind the naysayers, with their cant about finite resources, as our planet (or whatever planet these two think they live on) is "infinitely bountiful." This is, of course, extremely stupid, and as I scan down the list of raving blurbs, I can cross most of the names from the list of people to take seriously (names I recognize: George Gilder, Paul Romer, Steven Pinker, Jordan Peterson, Jason Furman, George Will, Matt Ridley, Lawrence Summers, Michael Schellenberger). A customer caught the spirit and quoted Ronald Reagan: "There are no limits to growth and human progress when men and women are free to follow their dreams." That's a nice line, but the actual political system it ushered in not only slowed growth but made sure it was ever more inequally shared. And while I wouldn't say that abundance is an unimaginable goal, I will say that it only matters if it is widely distributed, which cannot happen under the political regime the Cato authors serve.
Michael Walzer: The Struggle for a Decent Politics: On "Liberal" as an Adjective (2023, Yale University Press): Billed as "one of the most prominent political philosophers of our era," his epic efforts to rationalize "just wars" have marked him as practically useless and more than a little evil. This slim (172 pp) volume examines the word "liberal" as attached to eight nouns: Democrats, Socialists, Nationalists and Internationalists, Communitarians, Feminists, Professors and Intellectuals, and Jews, then asks "Who Is and Who Isn't?" That few people today identify as liberals is due to two things: the failure of liberals from the 1960s and beyond to deliver FDR's freedom from want and from fear (largely due to their embrace of capitalist neo-colonialism, most notably in Vietnam); and the hatchet job the right did on liberals as a source of disorder (basically, they were given a lose-lose choice, and managed to do both). Still, Walzer is right that the word does survive somewhat honorably as an adjective, as his cases show, but only when it adds something to the noun it refines (e.g., liberal socialists seek equality and social solidarity, but also respect and tolerance for individuals -- not always a strong point on the historical left).
DJ White/NH Hagens: The Bottlenecks of the 21st Century: Essays on the Systems Synthesis of the Human Predicament (paperback, 2019, independent): This is sort of a "whole earth catalog" with nothing for sale, just a mess of concepts about how the world works, and facts about how it's all going to hell. Some sections: "A Probabilistic View of the Future"; "Human Cognitive Biases" (filed under "Delusional R Us"); "Receding Horizons and Peak Everything"; "Fifth Years of Buffer for a Million Years of Slime" (under "Our Faustian Ocean"); "Resetting Your Hedonic Ratchet." Hard to tell if this is crazy, or perhaps not crazy enough. Some more or less related books:
Andrea Wulf: Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self (2022, Knopf): Asks the question: "when did we begin to be as self-centered as we are today?" Finds answers in 1970s Germany (Goethe, Schiller, Novalis, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, various Schlegels, Alexander von Humboldt), contrasting them to the more mundane revolutionaries of France. She's explored this terrain extensively before. Reminds me that in order to dominate nature, you first have to name it. Previously wrote:
Mary Ziegler: Dollars for Life: The Anti-Abortion Movement and the Fall of the Republican Establishment (2022, Yale University Press): I've long felt that the Republican establishment embrace of anti-abortion extremism was purely cynical: they wanted to break Catholics away from the Democratic Party, and saw abortion as a cheap and easy wedge issue -- one that, as it turned out, also resonated with fundamentalist protestants, who became an important political constituency in the 1980s, especially in the white South and northern suburbs (where racist "law and order" posturing was an even more powerful wedge). Ziegler ties the issue to campaign finance regulation, arguing that the anti-abortion faction came to dominate the Republican Party due to their financial prowess. I'm not so sure there ever was a monolithic Republican establishment (Mark Hanna may have come closest), but this seems to be conflating two things: the ideological purity the anti-abortion movement has successfully demanded; and the division of party power among its now unlimited elite donors and a base that is almost totally shaped by Fox and its splinter media competitors. Other books by Ziegler (including a later one, plus some recent ones on abortion):
Additional books, barely or at least briefly noted. I reserve the right to return to them later (but probably won't). Some of these are just meant to be dismissive, while others just seem self-explanatory.
Sarah Adams/Dave Benton: Benghazi: Know Thy Enemy (2022, Askari Global): Written by two former CIA officers.
Martín Arboleda: Planetary Mine: Territories of Extraction Under Late Capitalism (paperback, 2020, Verso).
Nona Willis Aronowitz: Bad Sex: Truth, Pleasure, and an Unfinished Revolution (2022, Plume).
Lucas Bessire: Running Out: In Search of Water on the High Plains (2021; paperback, 2022, Princeton University Press): The vanishing Ogallala Aquifer, which underlies a stretch of plains from the Texas panhandle to the Dakotas.
Katherine Blunt: California Burning: The Fall of Pacific Gas and Electric -- and What It Means for America's Power Grid (2022, Portfolio).
Michael Booth: Super Sushi Ramen Express: One Family's Journey Through the Belly of Japan (2016, Picador).
HW Brands: Our First Civil War: Patriots and Loyalists in the American Revolution (2021, Doubleday).
HW Brands: The Last Campaign: Sherman, Geronimo and the War for America (2022, Doubleday).
Douglas Brinkley: Silent Spring Revolution: John F Kennedy, Rachel Carson, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and the Great Environmental Awakening (2022, Harper).
Frank Costigliola: Kennan: A Life Between Worlds (2023, Princeton University): Major (648 pp) biography of George F Kennan, founder and critic of the Cold War.
Neta C Crawford: The Pentagon, Climate Change, and War: Charting the Rise and Fall of US Military Emissions (2022, The MIT Press).
Matthew Dallek: Birchers: How the John Birch Society Radicalized the American Right (2023, Basic Books).
Tom Dunkel: White Knights in the Black Orchestra: The Extraordinary Story of the Germans Who Resisted Hitler (2022, Hachette).
Noah Feldman: The Broken Constitution: Lincoln, Slavery, and the Refounding of America (2021, Farrar Straus and Giroux; paperback, 2022, Picador).
Niall Ferguson: Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe (2021, Penguin Press).
Orlando Figes: The Story of Russia (2022, Metropolitan Books): British historian with many books on Russia, with this one covering the most ground in the fewest pages (368 pp).
Richard M Fried: A Genius for Confusion: Joseph R McCarthy and the Politics of Deceit (2022, Rowman & Littlefield).
Beverly Gage: G-Man: J Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century (2022, Viking).
David Graeber: Pirate Enlightenment, or the Real Libertalia (2023, Farrar Straus and Giroux): "Graeber's final posthumous book."
Victor Davis Hanson: The Dying Citizen: How Progressive Elites, Tribalism, and Globalization Are Destroying the Idea of America (2021, Basic Books).
Malcolm Harris: Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World (2023, Little Brown): 720 pp.
David Harvey: A Companion to Marx's Grundrisse (paperback, 2023, Verso).
Jon Hilsenrath: Yellen: The Trailblazing Economist Who Navigated an Era of Upheaval (2022, Harper Business).
Cedric G Johnson: After Black Lives Matter (2023, Verso).
Robert D Kaplan: The Tragic Mind: Fear, Fate, and the Burden of Power (2023, Yale University Press).
Harvye J Kaye: The British Marxist Historians (1984; paperback, 2022, Zero Books): Foreword by Eric Hobsbawm, with a new preface by the author.
Ro Khanna: Progressive Capitalism: How to Make Tech Work for All of Us (paperback, 2023, Simon & Schuster): US Representative (D-CA). Hardcover published as Dignity in a Digital Age: Making Tech Work for All of Us (2022, Simon & Schuster).
Brian Kilmeade: The President and the Freedom Fighter: Abraha Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and Their Battle to Save America's Soul (2022, Sentinel): "Fox & Friends" co-host, like Bill O'Reilly has a sideline of writing politically correct histories for his smug followers. Four of his previous tomes have been conveniently boxed as America's Heroes and History: A Brian Kilmeade Collection (2021).
Charles Leerhsen: Down and Out in Paradise: The Life of Anthony Bourdain (2022, Simon & Schuster).
Jonathan Martin/Alexander Burns: This Will Not Pass: Trump, Biden, and the Battle for America's Future (2022, Simon & Schuster): Covers the 2020 election and the first year of the Biden presidency, still focused on the subject they'd rather be writing about: Trump.
Forrest A Nabors: From Oligarchy to Republicanism: The Great Task of Reconstruction (2017, University of Missouri).
David Pietrusza: Roosevelt Sweeps Nation: FDR's 1936 Landslide and the Triumph of the Liberal Ideal (2022, Diversion Books).
Diana Preston: The Evolution of Charles Darwin: The Epic Voyage of the Beagle That Forever Changed Our View of Life on Earth (2022, Atlantic Monthly Press).
Michael Pye: Europe's Babylon: The Rise and Fall of Antwerp's Golden Age (2021, Pegasus Books).
Alissa Quart: Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselvs From the American Dream (2023, Ecco). Executive director of Economic Hardship Reporting Project, a nonprofit founded by Barbara Ehrenreich.
Scott Reynolds Nelson: Oceans of Grain: How American Wheat Remade the World (2022, Basic Books).
Kim Stanley Robinson: The High Sierra: A Love Story (2022, Little Brown): Science fiction novelist, appears to be a combination memoir and travel guide, with some science mixed in.
Stacy Schiff: The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams (2022, Little Brown).
Ronald H Spector: A Continent Erupts: Decolonization, Civil War, and Massacre in Postwar Asia, 1945-1955 (2022, WW Norton). Covers the same terrain as the author's In the Ruins of Empire: The Japanese Surrender and the Battle for Postwar Asia (2007).
Margaret Sullivan: Newsroom Confidential: Lessons (and Worries) From an Ink-Stained Life (2022, St Martin's Press): Longtime journalist, eventually made journalism itself her beat as "public editor" for the New York Times and "media columnist" for the Washington Post.
Matt Taibbi/Anonymous: The Business Secrets of Drug Dealing: An Almost True Account (2021, OR Books).
Nina Totenberg: Dinners With Ruth: A Memoir on the Power of Friendships (2022, Simon & Schuster): NPR legal affairs correspondent schmoozes with Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
Donald J Trump: Letters to Trump (2023, Winning Team): "Donald J Trump is the very definition of the American success story, continually setting the standards of excellence while expanding his interests in real estate, sports, and entertainment." Picture book, 320 pp, 4.15 lbs, $99.00. Amazon's "frequently bought together": Our Journey Together by Donald J Trump; Melania Trump: Elegance in the White House by LD Hicks.
Marcus M Witcher: Getting Right With Reagan: The Struggle for True Conservatism, 1980-2016 (2019, University Press of Kansas): Emphasizes how roundly criticized Reagan was by conservatives for never being as right-wing as they wanted.
Martin Wolf: The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism (2023, Penguin Press): Financial Times economist.
Saturday, October 22, 2022
Last Book Roundup was on May 1, the second of a burst of two. This one should have a follow up relatively soon, although this one was so difficult to pull together that it's hard to imagine when the next one will be ready. This is not for lack of books I know about: my draft file has nearly 300 books noted (at least before adding the short note section below, but those are in theory still eligible for a longer write up). My rule of thumb is to publish a post when I get 40 books for the top section, but a smaller number might make more sense, especially given my tendency to tack on supplementary lists. We have a lot of Russia and China this time: Abelow, Brands, Gaeotti, Hoffman, Short. A special case of sublists is when I list previous books by authors (Levine, Lopez, Mead, Moyn, Scialabba; I don't count Chomsky here because I'm only listing new books by him and co-author Prashad).
Two sublists are things I haven't done before: Under Short, I give you a select list of other books on Putin, as well as a much more indiscriminate one of books I hadn't noted before. In theory, you could look them up, but that would be a pain. It would be nice to break the big file up into topical ones, and try to sort out the potentially useful titles from the rest, including some way to flag right-wing nonsense (to varying extents: Brands, Concha, Hegseth/Goodwin, Jones, Mandelbaum, Mead, as well as a number of sublist selections).
I also sorted the Leibovich sublist into two sets: one of books which (like Leibovich) offer useful reporting on Trump (especially in his last months in office), and a second one of self-serving memoirs, mostly of Trump associates. Normally, I would have lifted one of those items to the head of the list, but none seem worthy. On the other hand, a couple books that could have been developed as longer items got stuck on sublists (under Milbank, Corn is a book that I'm actually reading). I also left Shrecker under Bunch, as the two books seemed complementary. On the other hand, I did wind up breaking Haberman out of its original perch under Leibovich. And I wound up writing an entry for Hoffman's old (2011) book as an anchor for Khodorkovsky's new one. Hoffman's book is also relevant to the Short (Putin) list, but stands a bit apart.
As I've explained repeatedly, this is basically a research exercise, meant to gain a sense of the state of knowledge and understanding of the world, reflected in book form. With few exceptions, the descriptions are based on blurbs, samples, and sometimes reviews, mostly from digging through Amazon (as unpleasant as that often is). The only books below that I've read much from are: DeLong, Leibovich, Corn, and Smil. I've ordered copies of: Cooper, Levine, Milbank, Moyn. I've also read other books from: Bunch, Chemerinsky, Chomsky, Fischer, Hochschild, Hoffman, McKibben, Draper, Purdy, Gessen, Satter, Tomasky, and further down: Berry, Heinberg, Meier, and Rushkoff.
Benjamin Abelow: How the West Brought War to Ukraine: Understanding How US and NATO Policies Led to Crisis, War, and the Risk of Nuclear Catastrophe (paperback, Siland Press): A short (88 pp) summary, valid as far as it goes, but unlikely to shed much light on why the "provocations" led to such an egregious response from Putin. I would argue that although the US wanted to expand NATO to grow its arms market, and found that the easiest way to sell expansion was to fan old and new fears of Russian power, they never had the slightest desire to actually go to war with Russia, and it's strange that Putin could ever think so. On the other hand, while traditional economic ties and Russia's imperial legacy suggest why Russians like Putin think of Ukraine should be a subservient satellite, those attachments don't justify invasion and destruction, with its attendant risk to Russia's world standing. Several blurb writers, like Noam Chomsky, praise Abelow's telling of one part of the story that is widely ignored in the US, but there are other stories that need to be integrated. For more general books on Russian history, see Galeotti below. For books specifically on Putin, see Short. Here are a few more books on the Ukraine-Russia War, a few written since the 2022 invasion, a few more going back to 2014:
Walt Bogdanich/Michael Forsythe: When McKinsey Comes to Town: The Hidden Influence of the World's Most Powerful Consulting Firm (2022, Doubleday): Major consulting firm, their services are available anywhere a company wants to squeeze a little extra profit from their business, or rationalize and cover up their own misdeeds. A blurb from Joseph Stiglitz reads: "Every page made my blood boil as I read about McKinsey's flawed reasoning and vast profits made from ethically dubious work for governments, polluting companies and big pharma." Somewhere in my readings, I remember a piece of advice given to would-be managers: if they really want to scare their employees, just threaten them with bringing McKinsey in.
Kevin Boyle: The Shattering: America in the 1960s (2021, WW Norton): A "lively" history of the decade, expanding the decade a few years on either side, by a historian whose previous books were on civil rights and labor. I'm not sure how well this lives up to its title, a catchphrase that denotes some catastrophe that befell America, whereas I would argue that we started to find a new unity and vision that was then squelched and perverted by the political reaction of the 1970s (Nixon) and 1980s (Reagan), leaving Democrats too traumatized to even attempt to recover. I have no idea whether this book continues to ostracize the left movements of the extended 1960s, or hopes to find a way to move forward by sifting through the rubble.
Hal Brands/Michael Beckley: Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict With China (2022, WW Norton): The authors, professors and senior fellows at the American Enterprise Institute, start from a belief common among American foreign policy mandarins: "The Sino-American contest is driven by clashing geopolitical interests and a stark ideological dispute over whether authoritarianism or democracy will dominate the 21st century." That's dangerous nonsense on several levels: neither country depends on propagating its political system abroad: the US likes to talk about democracy, but is more interested in business, demanding that its "allies" open themselves to global profiteering, and pay up monopoly rents. Conflicts with the US happen when countries decline to submit to American dictates on how they do business. China is the big one, because it's the largest economy, it has the most foreign trade, and it follows a go-along-to-get-along philosophy, making it easier to deal with than the US often is. But also note that US foreign policy is largely (and increasingly, or so it seems) defined by the marketing of US arms: "allies" are countries (democratic or not) that buy US arms, "enemies" are countries that buy from someone else like Russia and China (or build their own and try to compete, like Russia and China). The "danger" comes in mostly because arms races are destabilizing, regardless of who promotes them. Also note that within this mindset, other commodities can be viewed as security issues, including chips, oil, even food. Recent (and a few forthcoming) books on China (many more in previous reports):
Will Bunch: After the Ivory Tower Falls: How College Broke the American Dream and Blew Up Our Politics -- and How to Fix It (2022, William Morrow): Ever since WWII college has been sold as the ticket to success. Early on, we made an effort to promote opportunity by keeping the costs low, but as inequality increased, and the unions which protected blue collar workers were undermined, the powers that be realized that the penalties for not getting a higher education were such that they could charge more for access to privilege. One goal was to stifle political dissent (aka free thinking). Another was to restore the advantages of the wealthy. Of course, they couldn't fully revert to the elitism of the pre-WWII university system, but by shifting costs to students and suckering them into increasingly deep debt, they effectively closed the doors of the class system while maintaining a hint of openness. Granted, poor but truly exceptional students could still rise through the gauntlet but by then they were likely to be properly acculturated -- Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are good examples of this. Related:
Erwin Chemerinsky: Worse Than Nothing: The Dangerous Fallacy of Originalism (2022, Yale University Press): Author has a number of books on The Conservative Assault on the Constitution (2011), as well as the more positive We the People: A Progressive Reading of the Constitution for the Twenty-First Century (2018). So you can guess what he thinks of the legal theory Antonin Scalia popularized as Originalism. My own take is that it's awfully convenient to have a theory that says the law should mean whatever you think the original authors must have intended. Of course, it's bullshit, but not uncommon among conservatives, who love to claim long pedigrees for whatever their current prejudices dictate. A second problem is how Originalism fights the notion that constitutional law should be flexible enough to adapt to changing conditions.
Noam Chomsky/Vijay Prashad: The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and the Fragility of U.S. Power (2022, New Press). Based on conversations, although the former's knowledge and understanding of American power is encyclopedic, and seemingly on instant recall. Prashad wrote one of the broader (and deeper) histories of the modern world: The Darker Nations: A People's History of the Third World. Related:
Joe Concha: Come On, Man! The Truth About Joe Biden's Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Presidency (2022, Broadside Books): Starts by railing about "open borders, record inflation, and skyrocketing crime." In what universe are those even things? "The withdrawal from Afghanistan left thirteen U.S. service members dead and hundreds of Americans stranded as Afghans fell from airplanes." The entry of the U.S. into Afghanistan (remember GW Bush?) left 2,426 American soldiers dead, and millions of Afghans displaced (or worse). Biden ended that, not on the best terms imaginable, but given the cards he was dealt. "Though Biden may seem like a doddering idiot, stumbling from one mistake to the next, his blunders always hew closely to progressive dreams for American policy." Like making sure all Americans have food to eat, and health care that doesn't bankrupt them? No: "Dreams like saving the planet by attacking Elon Musk and strengthening the middle class by making gas prices higher than Hunter Biden in a motel room."
Ryan Cooper: How Are You Going to Pay for That? Smart Answers to the Dumbest Questions in Politics (2022, St Martin's Press): Good idea for a book, but I was thinking more literally: a compendium of dumb questions (like the title one), each followed by a smart answer. Rather, Part I at least is a discourse in the history of economics, with something called "neo-propertarianism" singled out for especially harsh rebuke. He seems to mean neo-liberalism, but without any noble intents or rationales, which brings it back to old-fashioned capitalism, another term he'd rather duck. I've only seen the TOC for Part II, which offers more topical chapters: labor, healthcare, "the social climate," inequality, "a new collective American freedom," and finally "How to Argue with Propertarians."
J Bradford DeLong: Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century (2022, Basic Books): An economist teaching at UC Berkeley, the author has published a modest blog as long as I can remember, generally echoing and reinforcing the liberal views of Paul Krugman, all the while working on this "magnum opus" on the biggest question of our time, which is what's changed during our time. His 20th century is a long one, from 1870 to 2010, his starting date reflecting an American (as opposed to a British) bias: the industrial revolution may date back a bit earlier in England, but it really takes off after the US Civil War. The end date seems arbitrary, but the decade since doesn't (yet) have a lot to show for itself. We've seen extraordinary technological advances in this period, for the first time generating material wealth way beyond population growth. DeLong pegs the break at 1870: before then new technology was converted into population growth, but not per capita wealth, and the endpoint following the debacle of neoliberalism in the 2008 recession. He doesn't insist that the end point is terminal, but does note that the progress of the long century has repeatedly been interrupted by backsliding into war and recession, obstacles largely triggered by reactionary politics -- something we have yet to overcome, and a mental problem that may be getting even worse.
Gary Dorrien: American Democratic Socialism: History, Politics, Religion, and Theory (2021, Yale University Press): Big book (752 pp), includes chapters on the Socialist Party of Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas, also on later figures who extolled socialism without a party framework, and winds up with Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but the first couple chapters start with the Christian formulation of a "social gospel" and with Jewish Universalism. Dorrien has written 18 books, six with Theology in the title, and one subtitled Political and Religious Roots of European Socialism. It's good to be reminded of this history, and that the impulse behind social justice has always acted as a counterweight to the more touted focus on individualism.
David Hackett Fischer: African Founders: How Enslaved People Expanded American Ideals (2022, Simon & Schuster): Notable historian, one I first encountered in his Historians' Fallacies (1970), although his main work was Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America (1989), which meticulously traced cultural threads from England to America. Here he tries something similar, only with the much more deliberately obscured connections from Africa through people brought to America as slaves. It's remarkable that he's come up with so much material (960 pp). Also on early American history:
Francis Fukuyama: Liberalism and Its Discontents (2022, Farrar Straus and Giroux). Intends a defense of "classical liberalism," which he traces back to late 17th century arguments "for the limitation of the powers of government through law and ultimately constitutions, creating institutions protecting the rights of individuals living under their jurisdiction." To do that, he has to rescue his preferred doctrine from later "neoliberalism," but also from conventional "left-of-center" political interests: those who recognize that the more complex the world becomes, the more we need reasonable government regulation that limits the tendency of the rich and powerful to prey on the poor and weak. That doesn't leave him with much more than abstract principles to stand on, making it hard to convince people such hyper-individualism is in their interest.
Mark Galeotti: A Short History of Russia: How the World's Largest Country Invented Itself, From the Pagans to Putin (2022, paperback, Hanover Square Press): One thing that's become painfully obvious in the last six months is that the Americans who direct or report on foreign policy understand very little about Russia in general and Putin in particular. They also seem to be blind to America's own contribution to the rewarming of the Cold War (see my Abelow comment above; I suppose I should reiterate my standard disclaimer here: nothing the US has done with Ukraine or NATO justifies Putin's invasion, and nothing Putin has done or can do will rectify the errors the US has committed). I don't know whether Galeotti is a good or bad observer of Russia, but in 2019 he published a short book called We Need to Talk About Putin: How the West Gets Him Wrong, and the chapters there cover a lot of sensible ground. This book here boils Russian history, including Putin, probably up to the eve of the invasion, down to 240 pp, which probably isn't enough but is certainly more than most Americans know. He also has a book coming out in November on Putin's Wars: From Chechnya to Ukraine, which was mostly written before the invasion but at least deals with it. There are a couple other competing histories of Russia, as well as more specialized tracts:
Maggie Haberman: Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America (2022, Penguin): New York Times reporter assigned to Trump starting with his campaign, pictures a younger Trump on the cover because she goes back further to merge her reporting and observations with a background character study. As such, this appears to be one of the more definitive tomes in a ridiculously large shelf of writings on Trump. Coming so late may seem to diminish its immediate usefulness, but as one of the more comprehensive studies, its utility may grow, especially once we have the luxury of regarding Trump in hindsight. (I originally listed this with similar books under Leibovich below, but decided it merited its own note.)
Oona A Hathaway/Scott J Shapiro: The Internationalists: How a Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World (2017; paperback, 2018, Simon & Schuster): A history of the 1928 Paris Peace Pact, which is isn't exactly recalled today as having "remade the world," and for that matter is hardly remembered at all (even as, using the name better known in the US, the Kellogg-Briand Pact). The book puts it in a much broader context, after a Part I on "Old World Order," in the first half of Part II ("Transformation") before it gets blown up by WWII, winding up with Part III ("New World Order"), where the first three chapters merit some pondering: "The End of Conquest," "War No Longer Makes Sense," and "Why Is There Still so Much Conflict?"
Peter Hegseth/David Goodwin: Battle for the Amerian Mind: Uprooting a Century of Miseducation (2022, Broadside Books): Fox News host, reduces his co-author to a "with" credit, but Goodwin is the one with experience in what they call "classical Christian education," where they "assigned the classics, inspired love of God and country, and raised future citizens that changed the world." Much as they seek to brainwash children to follow their political prejudices, they fear their enemies are doing the same, and winning: "Today, after 16,000 hours of K-12 indoctrination, our kids come out of government schools hating America. They roll their eyes at religion and disdain our history." It's possible that public education has become more liberal, but in my day public schools were well stocked with teachers dedicated to installing conservative identities in pupils. My own radicalism was not taught to me but found on my own after I became aware of the hypocrisy and worse of the established powers. The authors might counter than even in the 1950s education was gripped by liberal ideals -- most dangerously with the notion that learning was good for its own sake -- which introduced the possibility of doubt. (They do, after all, declaim a "century of miseducation.") I was taught that America's wars were just and advanced freedom (most notably those against monarchy, slavery, and Nazism), which raised the question what the US was trying to do in Vietnam. I was taught that the founding principle of the Declaration of Independence was that "all men are created equal," yet even then it was a major struggle to secure basic civil rights for all. Despite occasional school prayers (and the rote recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance), I don't remember God being a major part of school, but I got plenty of that in church (which, finally, also backfired). What makes this book worrying is that it seems to be a blueprint for the right-wing political movement to impose ever more draconian and dim-witted restraints on what it is permissible to discuss in school: in effect, turning them into indoctrination camps like we were taught Communists ran. I'm concerned that these schemes will turn future generations into brainless automatons at a time when we more than ever need people skilled in critical thought, but that effect will be mitigated by rebellion. Perhaps even more so, I see this kind of schooling as a cruel punishment of children who are anxious to learn and find their way in the world, but are still awfully naive and gullible.
Adam Hochschild: American Midnight: The Great War, a Violent Peace, and Democracy's Forgotten Crisis (2022, Mariner Books): Historian, has written several books about the emergence of conscience as dissent from imperialism, starting with King Leopold's Ghost about the depradation of the Congo, backtracking to the anti-slavery movement (Bury the Chains), then forward to dissent against World War I (To End All Wars). This moves to America and picks up toward the end of the "war to make the world safe for democracy," with its "lynchings, censorship, and the sadistic, sometimes fatal abuse of conscientious objectors in military prisons," through the first great Red Scare, the collapse of the American left, and the closing of immigration.
David E Hoffman: The Oligarchs: Wealth and Power in the New Russia (2002; paperback, 2011, Public Affairs): This book is rather dated now, but written two years after Putin's rise to power, it provides a portrait of the oligarchy he was given by Yeltsin's corrupt mismanagement of the transition from state control to "shock treatment" markets. The scheme adopted for distributing assets let those most able to raise quick crash -- often the same crooks who ran Russia's black markets -- to grab immense fortunes dirt cheap. Part one profiles six: Alexander Smolensky, Yuri Luzhkov, Anatoly Chubais, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Boris Berezovsky, Vladimir Gusinsky. After the many disasters that befell Russia in the 1990s, Putin had his hands full. His first move was to rally the military to take back Chechnya (which had effectively broken away in what's now called the First Chechen War). That gave him some popular support, but to consolidate power he needed to bring the oligarchs under control, which started with the prosecution of Khodorkovsky. I was reminded of this when I came across the following book. We should beware that some of Putin's loudest critics are oligarchs who fell out of favor (cf. Bill Browder). Of course, there are other oligarchs who saved their empires by remaining loyal to Putin.
Alex Jones: The Great Reset: And the War for the World (2022, Skyhorse): TV crackpot, in the news recently for losing a libel case filed by the families of victims in a school shooting he claimed was fake news. Joe Rogan says "he's the most misunderstood guy on the planet." Roger Stone says he's "the most maligned patriot in the country." Tucker Carlson says "maybe Alex Jones is onto something." The best Donald Trump can come up with is Jones's "reputation is amazing."
Mark Leibovich: Thank You for Your Servitude: Donald Trump's Washigton and the Price of Submission (2022, Penguin Press): Journalist, has written profiles of the rich and famous in technology and football, as well as in Washington, which he depicted as a den of thieves in his book This Town (2013: "There are no Democrats and Republicans anymore in the nation's capital, just millionaires"). The rich have often demanded subservience, but few more so than Donald Trump. Leibovich chronicles the flattery and groveling of Republicans desperate to curry favor with Trump. I recall an early cabinet meeting where they went around the table, where everyone had to praise and thank Trump -- none more so than "chief of staff" Reince Priebus, who ultimately offered a blurb for this book: "It's a hundred times worse than you've been hearing." More recent (and some forthcoming) books on Trump:
We also have more memoirs from the Trump administration and fellow travelers. None of these appears to merit its own section head:
Bruce E Levine: Resisting Illegitimate Authority: A Thinking Person's Guide to Being an Anti-Authoritarian -- Strategies, Tools, and Models (paperback, 2018, AK Press): "The capacity to comply with abusive authority is humanity's fatal flaw." Although this talks of tools and models for resistance, the intro focuses on why anti-authoritarians should be valued in the first place. As it is, much social effort has been directed at breaking such people, sometimes going to the point of declaring them mentally ill. Much of this resonates with my own life, where anti-authoritarianism was an unknown but defining trait of my teenage years. Strange to see someone writing about it now, but then authoritarians have never left us, and in some respects are making a comeback. Levine also wrote:
Barry Lopez: Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World: Essays (2022, Random House). Nature writer (1945-2020), bibliography is about half fiction, though titles there tend to read like Desert Notes: Reflections in the Eye of a Raven, Crow and Weasel, and Lessons From the Wolverine. One title here is "Our Frail Planet in Cold, Clear View." Introduction by Rebecca Solnit. Selected nonfiction:
William MacAskill: What We Owe Each Other (2022, Basic Books): Oxford philosophy professor, cofounded the Centre for Effective Altruism ("which has raised over $1 billion for charities"), based on his working concept about how we should be living our lives. He's gotten a lot of press in the last couple months, which makes one naturally skeptical, although I am at least impressed that one of his rave reviews comes from Rutger Bregman, whose Utopia for Realists: How We Can Build the Ideal World is itself a powerful argument that we can make the world much better through practical steps. Still seem a stretch that, as one Amazon reviewer put it, "people might look back in millions of years and say this was the most important book ever written." Related:
Michael Mandelbaum: The Four Ages of American Foreign Policy: Weak Power, Great Power, Superpower, Hyperpower (2022, Oxford University Press): Implies the hits just keep on coming, but his time divisions -- Weak 1765-1865, Great 1865-1945, Super 1945-1990, and Hyper 1990-2015 -- suggest he's not so sure about the Trump effect (probably too early for him to weigh in on Biden), and that's the least of his problems. During the so-called "weak" period, Americans successfully fought two wars of independence against Britain -- that was Madison's view of the War of 1812, and while the war results were mixed, it finally ended Britain's attempts to control American shipping -- and an expansionist war against Mexico, as well as minor scraps with Barbary pirates and the opening of the China trade, and it ended with a Civil War where the Union became the technically most advanced fighting force in the world. American power was always base on economic power, which exceeded Britain's by the end of the 19th century. With WWII the US economy reached 50% of worldwide GDP, and in its fight against Germany and Japan, the US built a network of bases that straddled the globe, less concerned with empire -- which the war had proven was no longer a viable principle for ordering the world -- than with protecting a vast expansion of corporate business interests. Still, it's sheer hubris to call American power in that period "super," and even more so "hyper." US economic power started to slip after its WWII apogee. By 1990, Europe had achieved parity with the US, and Japan was richer per capita, and China was starting its rapid rise. The Soviet Union collapsed less because the US outbid it in the arms race than because Eastern Europe wanted to join in the bounty of Western Europe. Since then, the US has not only become an ever-smaller slice of the world economy, its enormous arms advantages have proven to be useless and often counterproductive, although that doesn't seem to have sunk into the blinkered brains of the people who work the "hyperpower" grift. The Table of Contents doesn't seem too bad here, so this is probably a decent recounting of the history, but looking over his past book list, he strikes me as a hack or an idiot, and possibly both. QED: in 2011, he was co-author of That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, with Thomas Friedman (who is definitely both).
Bill McKibben: The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon: A Graying American Looks Back at His Suburban Boyhood and Wonders What the Hell Happened (2022, Henry Holt): Seems like he's been writing the same book over and over since his critical book on climate change, The End of Nature (1989). I guess it was the one that convinced me some years later when I read it on a midsummer trip to Florida, although I never stopped hating the much-too-sharp "end of nature" dividing line, and always suspected him of being a sanctimonious scold. The twist here is that it's structured as a memoir, so we should get a glimpse of his class and educational background (Harvard), but at 240 pp I wouldn't expect much detail on the devolution of the American Dream. As for "graying," he's ten years younger than me, so he missed out on the 1950s, the decade when we really enjoyed burning cheap gasoline.
Walter Russell Mead: The Arc of a Covenant: The United States, Israel, and the Fate of the Jewish People (2022, Knopf): Big (672 pp) tract on the "special relationship" between Israel and the United States, and its supposed benefits for the Jewish people, with pretensions of "demolish[ing] the myths that both pro-Zionists and anti-Zionists have fostered over the years" -- always in favor of the prevailing security doctrines. Blurbs are all from reliable supporters of Israel, most firmly ensconced on the right. As Dan Senor puts it a bit too revealingly, "Walter shows that US support for Israel is ingrained in American political culture and critical to America's strategy for world order." I can imagine architects of American world order not binding themselves so helplessly to Israel, but none since James Baker (or maybe Dwight Eisenhower) have so much as entertained the thought. This book is intended to make it even harder to break the common bonds of colonialism and occupation. Mead has also written:
Dana Milbank: The Destructionists: The Twenty-Five-Year Crack-Up of the Republican Party (2022, Doubleday): Washington Post columnist, but (hopefully) not just recycling his recent columns, as the promise here is to offer some historical context, showing that today's Republicans are linear descendents of at least several decades of past Republicans, with Newt Gingrich a key transitional figure on the way to today's gallery of crazy. (I would have started with Nixon and Reagan, although I can see arguments for older and less successful figures, like Goldwater and McCarthy.) The mainstream press seems to be the last haven of reporters desperately trying to find rare voices of reason among Republicans. On the other hand, consider how similar is the title of Thomas Frank's 2008 book: The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Ruined Government, Enriched Themselves, and Beggared the Nation. Related:
Samuel Moyn: Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War (2022, Farrar Straus and Giroux): Author has a background of writing about human rights, which gives this book a peculiar frame of mind, asking whether war can be made humane (I'd say certainly not) as opposed to a different question, whether a war can have an effect which is on balance humanitarian (I'm doubtful but it's harder to be certain, because it's conditioned on an unknowable future). Americans have argue in favor of both, and especially since the end of the Cold War those arguments have come to dominate debate over whether to go to war: at least public debate, where advocates of war like to dress their motives (most often revenge or intimidation) with higher-minded arguments. Also by Moyn:
David Pepper: Laboratories of Autocracy: A Wake-Up Call From Behind the Lines (paperback, 2021, St Helena Press): Lawyer, has written several novels (political thrillers), examines how Republicans have taken over statehouses and used them as political forums for suppressing votes, gerrymandering, pushing their culture war agendas, and tripping over each other in competition to shower business interests with special favors. I would expect something on ALEC here: the Republican organization that crafts model laws for state legislature, leading to the systematic sweep of bad ideas across every state Republicans have seized power in. (A prime example of their work is the "stand your ground" laws promoting gun violence.)
Jedediah Purdy: Two Cheers for Politics: Why Democracy Is Flawed, Frightening -- and Our Best Hope (2022, Basic Books): Serious thinker, was touted as a homeschooled genius from West Virginia in 1999 when his first book appeared (For Common Things: Irony, Trust, and Commitment in America Today -- as I recall, he was anti-irony), but even then had graduated from Harvard and would go on to Yale Law School, a post as an Appeals Court clerk, a fellow at the New America Foundation, then on to teaching law at Duke. Six books later, he sensibly writes: "Politics is not optional, even though we may wish it were." The basic reason is that if you don't stop them, people who seek to take over and use government for their own private interests will enjoy a free run to loot and pillage. On the other hand, people rarely perceive public interests clearly, due to flaws in the system and in the people who campaign in it. Seems likely to me that the 23 years since he first wrote have pushed him to the left, even if he remains a stick-in-the-mud.
George Scialabba: How to Be Depressed (2020, University of Pennsylvania Press). Author made his reputation as a social critic with freelance book reviews, eventually collected in several volumes. This is sort of a memoir: a collection he's kept of notes from various psychiatrists who have attempted to treat his depression over the years (he was 72 when this came out), which as Barbara Ehrenreich points out, winds up being "a devastating critique of psychiatry." His other books:
Matthias Schmelzer/Andrea Vetter/Aaron Vansintjan: The Future Is Degrowth: A Guide to a World Beyond Capitalism (2022, Verso). Argues that "economic growth isn't working, and it cannot be made to work." Needs to be more specific. It's a common liberal convenience to see growth as the solution that benefits all, therefore saving us from having to tackle inequality. Of course, in a resource-limited world, growth cannot be infinite, which makes the inequality problem all the more pressing. As growth is so tightly bound up with capitalism, many sketches of a more equitable degrowth society go by "postcapitalism," a word this title points at.
Peter Shinkle: Uniting America: How FDR and Henry Stimson Brought Democrats and Republicans Together to Win World War II (2022, St Martin's Press): I generally accept the argument that Franklin Roosevelt thought American involvement in WWII was inevitable, and that he rather relished the leading the nation in that fight. That's likely why he chose to run for an unprecedented third term. True, he ran as an anti-war candidate in 1940, but so had Wilson in 1916. While Wilson quickly changed course in 1917, leaving a lot of ill-feeling even after winning the war, Roosevelt was patient, waiting for right moment, which was served up by Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, followed immediately by declarations of war by Japan and Germany. Anti-war sentiment on both the right and left evaporated almost immediately. This book suggests another reason for such unity in entering the war: in 1940, Roosevelt laid the groundwork by inviting prominent Republicans to take over the War Department (Henry Stimson, Secretary of State under Hoover) and the Navy (Frank Knox, 1936 VP nominee). A chart early in the book shows that many more Republicans were given strategic positions even before Pearl Harbor. The bipartisan alliance survived the war, and even in the hyper-polarized present both parties can be counted on to line up behind wars like Afghanistan and Ukraine. (Iraq had a few dissenting Democrats, but every one of the 2004 presidential hopefuls rallied to the cause. The only 2008 exception was Obama, who closed ranks with the hawks after becoming president, and who kept one Republican Secretary of Defense, then later replaced him with another.) I have serious reservations against calling WWII "the good war" -- it was horrible any way you slice it, ultimately turning the US as genocidal as its opponents, leaving the "losers" destroyed and the "winners" insufferably conceited and soulless -- but FDR made it look so easy few appreciate what a remarkable job he did in running it. No later US president has come remotely close.
Philip Short: Putin (2022, Henry Holt): Weighing in at 864 pp, this is billed as "the first comprehensive, fully up-to-date biography of Vladimir Putin," but its July release means it's missing an all-important chapter on the decision to invade Ukraine in March and the still on-going war, with Putin challenged as never before by international sanctions, internal dissent, and military frustration. Author has previously published biographies of François Mitterand, Pol Pot, and Mao, as well as a book from 1982 called The Dragon and the Bear: Inside China & Russia Today. I've cited numerous books on Putin the past, most notably:
Some recent ones I had missed:
Daniel Sjursen: A True History of the United States: Indigenous Genocide, Racialized Slavery, Hyper-Capitalism, Militarist Imperialism and Other Overlooked Aspects of American Exceptionalism (paperback, 2021, Steerforth Press/Truth to Power): Author spent 18 years in US Army, taught history at West Point, retired a Major (long using that rank as part of his byline). I don't much like it when an author claims their book to be a true story, but in Sjursen's world of antiwar conservatism everything must be cut-and-dry. In any case, he has a lot of myth and rationalization to cut through, and does so in a sensible 688 pp. Seems like I've read a bunch of this online, and while truth may be elusive, he's rarely wrong.
Vaclav Smil: How the World Really Works: The Science Behind How We Got Here and Where We're Going (2022, Viking): Bill Gates' favorite author, a Czech-born Canadian scientist with several dozen books, mostly relating to energy policy. The title tempted me to pick this up -- after all, good policy must be rooted in "how the world really works" -- but learned little I didn't already know, and found his imagination overly constrained by fossil fuels. (Perhaps this should have been expected, given that one of his titles from as recent as 2015 is Natural Gas: Fuel for the 21st Century.) He has lots of books, but I'll only note a couple recent ones:
Michael Tomasky: The Middle Out: The Rise of Progressive Economics and a Return to Shared Prosperity (2022, Doubleday): Political writer, edits Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, has a couple books, including one in 1996 announcing that the left is dead (Left for Dead), and one in 2019 that tried to salvage the center (If We Can Keep It), seems to have rediscovered the progressive sympathies he always claimed to have -- probably because the title has been presented as an ovearching concept for Biden's Build Back Better agenda. He has some suggestions, like critiquing economics that put self-interest over public needs, and recognizing that such traditional American ideals as freedom and democracy need to be grounded in a sense of shared equality, which has been all but killed by the neoliberal consensus.
Gaia Vince: Nomad Century: How Climate Migration Will Reshape Our World (2022, Flatiron Books): For the last 30-40 years, we have been divided into two camps: one recognized that people were changing the atmosphere in ways that would affect global climate, with far-ranging risks but couched in assurances that we could save ourselves through more/less easy reforms; the other denied that climate change this was happening, or denied that it would make much real difference, or trusted in God and/or capitalism to swiftly correct any problems that did occur. Perhaps we need a third approach, which admits we've failed to prevent climate change but takes seriously how to deal with the myriad problems it causes. One such problem is that as climate changes, some parts of the world will become uninhabitable, and others will become unsuitable for current uses. This will push many people to leave their current homes, and seek new abodes, and often new occupations. That's what this book is about: noting, for instance, that in 2018 1.2 million people in the US were displaced by extreme conditions, up to 1.7 million in 2020, as the US "averages a billion dollar disaster every eighteen days." Other parts of the world are in even more peril. ("In India alone, close to a billion people will be at risk.") There are other reasons why people move away from their homes, and that's been happening for some while, but it would be surprising if it didn't accelerate in coming years. How well we handle this change will say much about us as people, and about our future.
Brian T Watson: Headed Into the Abyss: The Story of Our Time, and the Future We'll Face (paperback, 2019, Anvilside Press): I could imagine writing a book like this, which starts with a long laundry list of systemic problems (Capitalism, Technology, Webworld, Politics, Media, Education, Human Nature, The Environment, Human Population, Transportation, Miscellaneous Forces) then winds up showing how any (let alone all) of them are unlikely to be solved (that chapter is called "Possible Reforms and Their Likelihood"). I'd shuffle the deck a bit -- in the 1990s, when I started thinking along these lines, I started with resources and environment, but back then I at least had some faith in reason to see a way through technical obstacles, but that idea has taken a beating ever since. So I see no more reason to be optimistic than the author, not that I would deny that the very act of looking into the abyss implies a certain unreasoned hope. Missing here is recognition of the unknown: e.g., no mention of pandemic a mere year before Covid-19 hit. While climate was most likely mentioned under Environment or Population, it's at least as much a headline as "Webworld." Another big topic is war: both as a cause of destruction and as a likely consequence, in both its conventional and annihilationist modes. Bibliography is just a list of mostly familiar books relevant to each chapter.
Additional books, with very brief (or in most cases no) comments. There is no count limit here per post (although I kept a lot of books back for lack of time to consider them; current count = 232). It's possible I will write a further entry on these at a later date.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present (2020; paperback, 2021, WW Norton): Previous subtitle: How They Rise, Why They Succeed, How They Fall. List of "protagonists" runs from Idi Amin to Donald J Trump.
Wendell Berry: The Need to Be Whole: Patriotism and the History of Prejudice (paperback, 2022, Shoemaker).
Alan S Blinder: A Monetary and Fiscal History of the United States, 1961-2021 (2022, Princeton University Press).
Cori Bush: The Forerunner: A story of Pain and Perseverance in America (2022, Knopf): US Representative (D-MO).
Jelani Cobb/David Remnick, eds: The Matter of Black Lives: Writing From the New Yorker (2021, Ecco): 848 pp.
Ted Cruz: Justice Corrupted: How the Left Weaponized Our Legal System (2022, Regnery): The only "weaponizing" going on is on the right. If Cruz were more perceptive, he'd be a happy man.
Mike Davis: Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics and Economy in the History of the U.S. Working Class (1986; 1999; 2018, paperback, 2018): His first book, reprinted with similar covers along with: City of Quartz (1990), Ecology of Fear (1998), Late Victorian Holocausts (2001), Planet of Slums (2006), Buda's Wagon (2007), and The Monster Enters: Covid-19, the Avian Flu and the Plagues of Capitalism (2020, a revision of his 2005 book The Monster at Our Door).
Ludo De Witte: The Assassination of Lumumba (2001; paperback, 2022, Verso).
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: Not a Nation of Immigrants: Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy, and a History of Erasure and Exclusion (2021, Beacon Press).
Russ Feingold/Peter Prindiville: The Constitution in Jeopardy: An Unprecedented Effort to Rewrite Our Fundamental Law and What We Can Do About It (2022, Public Affairs): Former US Senator (D-WI).
Phil Gramm/Robert Ekelund/John Early: The Myth of American Inequality: How Government Biases Policy Debate (2022, Rowman & Littlefield): Former US Senator [R-TX], a prime architect not just of increasing inequality but specifically of the 2008 financial meltdown.
Max Hastings: The Abyss: Nuclear Crisis Cuba 1962 (2022, Harper): "Author of twenty-eight books, most about conflict."
Richard Heinberg: Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival (paperback, 2021, New Society).
Will Hurd: American Reboot: An Idealist's Guide to Getting Big Things Done (2022, Simon & Schuster): Former US Congressman (R-TX) and CIA officer.
Andrew Kirtzman: Giuliani: The Rise and Tragic Fall of America's Mayor (2022, Simon & Schuster).
Henry Kissinger: Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy (2022, Penguin). Sections on: Konrad Adenauer, Charles de Gaulle, Richard Nixon, Anwar Sadat, Le Kuan Yew, and Margaret Thatcher.
Arthur B Laffer/Brian Domitrovic/Jeanne Cairns: Taxes Have Consequences: An Income Tax History of the United States (2022, Post Hill Press): Supply-side guru, argues that economies boom when cutting marginal taxes, lag when taxes goes up. Almost always wrong.
Andrew Meier: Morgenthau: Power, Privilege, and the Rise of an American Dynasty (2022, Random House): 1072 pp.
Scott Nations: A History of the United States in Five Crashes: Stock Market Meltdowns That Defined a Nation (2017; paperback, 2018, William Morrow): 1907, 1929, 1987, 2008, 2010 (the "flash crash").
Benjamin Netanyahu: Bibi: My Story (2022, Threshold Editions): Former Prime Minister of Israel. Note far-right publisher.
Michael Ratner: Moving the Bar: My Life as a Radical Lawyer (paperback, 2021, OR Books). Worked for Center for Constitutional Rights and National Lawyers Guild. Died 2016.
Douglas Rushkoff: Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires (2022, WW Norton): The most obvious are Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, with their rocket ship companies promising literal escape from Earth, but the mentality in the tech world is more widespread.
William Shatner/Joshua Brandon: Boldly Go: Reflections on a Life of Awe and Wonder (2022, Atria Books).
Sheldon Whitehouse/Jennifer Mueller: The Scheme: How the Right Wing Used Dark Money to Capture the Supreme Court (2022, The New Press).
Richard D Wolff: The Sickness Is the System: When Capitalism Fails to Save Us From Pandemics or Itself (paperback, 2020, Democracy at Work).
Julian E Zelizer, ed: The Presidency of Donald J Trump: A First Historical Assessment (paperback, 2022, Princeton University Press): Historian, similar books on Bush and Obama.
Sunday, May 1, 2022
These are basically leftovers from my April 3 Book Roundup. That one was the first in nearly a year (since April 18, 2021), so I made an effort to pick out the most important books, and I was able to pad the usual 40 entries out with a lot of related books. I even had, from my own reading, seven book cover pics I could share. On the other hand, I haven't read any of the books below. Some interest me. Some repulse me. I think it's worth knowing that the others exist.
Randall Balmer: Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right (2021, Eerdmans): Short (141 pp), but makes a simple point: that the political engagement of right-wing evangelicals was a response not to Roe v. Wade (abortion), but to Green v. Connally, a ruling that threatened the tax-exempt status of racially discriminatory institutions (such as Bob Jones University, in 1976). Nor is this the first time someone has looked beneath ostensible arguments on the right to find racism underneath.
Glenn Beck/Justin Haskins: The Great Reset: Joe Biden and the Rise of Twenty-First-Century Fascism (2022, Forefront Books). Ridiculous paranoia from the TV/radio mogul, aided by Justin Haskins, identified as director of the Stopping Socialism Center at The Heartland Institute. Three chapters lay out the rationale for the "fascist" takeover of America: the pandemic, climate change, and modern monetary theory. The amusing twist is that the forces of fascism aren't the unwashed masses, but a conspiracy of "woke" globalized corporations and their coordinating groups like the World Economic Forum. Rest assured that Beck has a plan for "Derailing the Great Reset." I haven't read that far, but it probably involves buying a lot of T-shirts and mugs.
Gal Beckerman: The Quiet Before: On the Unexpected Origins of Radical Ideas (2022, Crown): Argues that "radical ideas" -- could be novel ideas or innovations, but author is explicitly thinking about social and political movements -- are best (or only) developed in "quiet, closed networks that allow a small group to incubate their ideas before broadcasting them widely." That makes for a backhanded critique of social media, where everything is exposed and damned little of it matters.
Leslie MM Blume: Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-up and the Reporter Who Revealed It to the World (2020; paperback, 2021, Simon & Schuster): The journalist was John Hersey, who managed to visit Hiroshima before the US Army locked it down, and famously reported on it in The New Yorker, the essay that became the book Hiroshima. Hersey went on to become a bestselling novelist, but he wrote another classic piece of quick journalism, The Algiers Motel Incident, in 1967 on the Detroit Riot.
Ray Dalio: The Changing World Order: Why Nations Succeed and Fail (2021, Simon & Schuster): Founder and cochairman of Bridgewater Associates ("the largest and best performing hedge fund in the world"), offers a sweeping history of everything, not so much to enlighten, especially not critique, but more as a betting guide for the excessively rich. Blurb list includes: Bill Gates, Henry Paulson, Mark Cuban, Jamie Dimon, as well as useful idiots like Larry Summers, Tim Geithner, and Henry Kissinger. Makes you wonder who he's conning now, to what purpose.
David M Drucker: In Trump's Shadow: The Battle for 2024 and the Future of the GOP (2021, Twelve): Instantly disposable fodder for political junkies only, trying to sort out what options Republicans have for a future when they're still stuck in their own past. Some other books assaying the Republican future:
Caroline Elkins: Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire (2022, Knopf): Big book (896 pp), but lots of blood to cover. Even before there was a British Empire, England was littered with kings and aristocrats that met violent ends, struggles between clans, and efforts by the crown to put down popular revolts. The British Empire was one long pageant of violence, against the natives they marauded and/or enslaved, against rival empires, even against their own settlers. From before the 1763 war with France through the 1964 independence of Kenya, it's unlikely there was a single year when the British weren't fighting someone somewhere. So this book seems about right. Indeed, it seems like the logical progression for a writers who started out with Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya. More on British history:
Steve Forbes/Nathan Lewis/Elizabeth Ames: Inflation: What It Is, Why It's Bad, and How to Fix It (2022, Encounter Books): File this short (168 pp) under "opposition research": a compendium of what rich Republicans are saying whenever wage workers start to get a leg up. Forbes inherited a business media empire before running for president, Lewis is a hardcore gold bug, and Ames probably wrote the book to order. One suspects the hyperbole is going to be off the charts when they start talking about "1970s's-style 'Great Inflation'" (a line coined by Robert Samuelson and rarely used by anyone else), but then they disclose that "some observers even fear a descent into the kind of Weimar-style hyperinflation that has torn apart so many nations." I'm not saying that inflation is good: it hurts some people and helps others (e.g., it allows people to pay off debts with inflated dollars, which reduces the return to the lenders. Since the former tend to be poorer than the latter, the rich scream bloody murder every time it ticks up, and plot to exact their revenge on everyone else.
Amy Fried/Douglas B Harris: At War With Government: How Conservatives Weaponized Distrust From Goldwater to Trump (2021, Columbia University Press): It's hard to live if you can't trust the people around you to behave predictably, to follow laws and rules, and show you some respect and maybe even kindness. For better or worse, most of us grew up learning to trust government to act in the public interest, but conservative Republicans have repeatedly attacked the very foundations of public trust, and it turns out much harder to restore trust than to degrade it. This matters because many of the problems we face can only be addressed as public works.
Matthew Gabriele/David M Perry: The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe (2021, Harper): Title implies a radical departure from the traditional characterization of Europe's "Dark Ages" -- one that has partly fallen out of favor as historians have tried to blur the traditional demarcation between Medieval and Renaissance, but still, this book starts around 430 CE, with the Roman Empire crumbling but not quite fallen, and they allow the Middle Ages to end around 1321. Some more recent books on medieval European history:
David Gelles: The Man Who Broke Capitalism: How Jack Welch Gutted the Heartland and Crushed the Soul of Corporate America -- and How to Undo His Legacy (2022, Simon & Schuster): During his tenure as CEO of General Electric, Welch was touted as a great business leader, an innovator even. But much of what he did was to bring back the lean-and-mean mentality of an earlier (pre-union) stage of capitalism, combined with cold analysis. I wouldn't say he "broke capitalism," but he did much to restore its bad name, and as such it's nice to see his name drug through the mud again.
Gary Gerstle: The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order: America and the World in the Free Market (2022, Oxford University Press): Big picture historian -- has previous books on American Crucible: Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century and Liberty and Coercion: The Paradox of American Government From the Founding to the Present -- tries to construct a "rise and fall" scenario for neoliberalism after a couple chapters on the New Deal and the managerial capitalism it produced (or allowed). It's not clear to me that neoliberalism has fallen, as the business interests that benefited from it are still very much in power, but its intellectual cachet for everyone else is in tatters.
Garrett M Graff: Watergate: A New History (2022, Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster): Big new book (832 pp) on a scandal which I suppose seems relevant again with the impeachment of Trump (twice), perhaps less so because it continues to shock than because we're starting to feel nostalgic for an era when a disgraced president resigned, in large part because his own party refused to follow lock step in the coverup. Other recent books on Nixon/Watergate:
Karen J Greenberg: Subtle Tools: The Dismantling of American Democracy From the War on Terror to Donald Trump (2021, Princeton University Press): Edited Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib, wrote The Least Worst Place (2009) on the Guantanamo gulag, summed up her worries on lawlessness in Rogue Justice (2016), so the main thing that this also incorporates is the contempt for democracy showed repeatedly by Trump and his administration.
Linda Greenhouse: Justice on the Brink: The Death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Rise of Amy Coney Barrett, and Twelve Months That Transformed the Supreme Court (2021, Random House): Sure, there are a lot of books about the hypothetical demise of American democracy, but this is a case study of what seems very likely be a significant turning point. With the Supreme Court effectively packed by Republican presidents -- in two critical cases elected by the Electoral College after losing the popular vote -- and a Senate where power is seriously skewed, conservative strategists are increasingly turning toward the courts to dictate policies that lack popular support and to disrupt ones that are popular. Related:
Jane Harman: Insanity Defense: Why Our Failure to Confront Hard National Security Problems Makes Us Less Safe (2021, St Martin's Press): Former US Representative (D-CA), ranking member of House Intelligence Commitee, supported Bush's Iraq war, "served on advisory boards for the CIA, Director of National Intelligence, and the departments of Defense, Homeland Security, and State."
Kyle Harper: Plagues Upon the Earth: Disease and the Course of Human History (2021, Princeton University Press): "A sweeping germ's eye view of history from human origins to global pandemics." Big subject, even for 704 pp., with the development of agriculture, the increasing population density of cities, and the migration of people and their animals (and their germs) to new territories playing major roles.
Katja Hoyer: Blood and Iron: The Rise and Fall of the German Empire, 1871-1918 (2021, Pegasus): Surprisingly short (272 pp) for a story that comprises so many wars (albeit brief ones until the big loss of 1914-18), a madcap stab at colonial empire building in Africa and the Pacific, and the legal and bureaucratic innovations of perhaps the most famous political figure of the 19th century, Otto von Bismarck.
Ian Ona Johnson: Faustian Bargain: The Soviet-German Partnership and the Origins of the Second World War (2021, Oxford University Press): My first thought was that this was about the 1939 "pact" between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union which defined a partition of Poland, allowing Germany to grab most of Poland without risking a deeper war with Russia (which got German permission to do some grabbing itself, which turned out badly for Stalin both coming and going). But the book focuses more on an earlier "bargain" between Imperial Germany and the Bolsheviks, which led to the Russian Revolution, and subsequent armistice which ceded much Russian territory to Germany, as well as ending the two-front war Germany was fighting. Evidently, German-Soviet cooperation didn't end there, although I'm a little sketchy on the details.
Jonathan M Katz: Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, the Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America's Empire (2021, St Martin's Press): Butler was "the most celebrated warfighter of his time" -- from the Spanish War of 1898, the Philippines, the "gunboat diplomacy" occupations of Nicaragua and Haiti, up to the eve of WWII -- but he's better known for book he wrote about his experiences, called War Is a Racket.
Chuck Klosterman: The Nineties: A Book (2022, Penguin Press): Born in 1972, so I imagine he relates to the 1990s rather like I did to the 1970s, when everything seemed new and full of opportunity. The two decades are similar (yet distinct from earlier and later decades) in a couple respects: they offered relatively liberal interludes between wars (Vietnam into the 1970s, the Cold War into the 1990s) and later reaction/remilitarization (Reagan in the 1980s, Bush in the 2000s). While I was young enough to enjoy parts of the 1990s, it rather seems like a wasted decade now, and one I feel no nostalgia for. (Seth Myers, does a bit I find incongruous called "In My Time," where he waxes nostalgic for artifacts of his youth, which turn out to be from the 1990s. He was born in 1973.) Klosterman wrote his first book on glam metal (which suggests that at root he's a fellow rock critic; even if we don't like the same shit, it's a style thang), and followed that up with a couple novels and several essay collections, so this may be his bed for a magnum opus. Or it may just be a scrapbook, a bunch of things he lived through and thought were neat at the time. Some other Klosterman books:
Elizabeth Kolbert: Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future (2021, Crown): New Yorker writer, wrote Field Notes From a Catastrophe (about climate change) and The Sixth Extinction (about how humans, not just through climate change, have decimated the biosphere). When I was young, the last 10,000 years of geological history was called the Recent, but the more common terms these days is the Anthropocene, where nature reflects the many changes wrought by human beings. Three essays: "Down the River," "Into the Wild," "Up in the Air."
Robert Kuttner: Going Big: FDR's Legacy, Biden's New Deal, and the Struggle to Save Democracy (2022, New Press). Short (192 pp), meant to flatter Biden, to lift him to the stature needs demand, or at least to suggest the possibility. Kuttner has written a number of big books on politics and the economy -- the one I was most impressed with was The Squandering of America: How the Failure of Our Politics Undermines Our Prosperity (2007) -- but this is more reminiscent of his quickie, Obama's Challenge: America's Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency. Stripped of hope, today we're left with his 7th chapter, "Obama's Missed Moment." That leaves "America's Last Chance" as chapter 8. Here's hoping that optimism is contagious.
Christopher Leonard: The Lords of Easy Money: How the Federal Reserve Broke the American Economy (2022, Simon & Schuster): Business reporter, previously wrote The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America's Food Business (2014), and Kochland: The Secret History of Koch Industries and Corporate Power in America (2019). His critique of the Fed echoes points more commonly aired on the right (Republicans have always railed against quantitative easing), but a core problem with depending on the Fed to regulate the economy is that their only real tool to simulate the economy is their ability to push money out to banks, who are then more likely to bid up assets than to make productive investments. Conversely, the Fed's only tool for fighting inflation is to raise interest rates (i.e., to inflate the cost of borrowing), in the hope that the resulting constriction will put people out of work, depress consumer demand, and eventually affect prices. Still, I've always assumed that a growing economy is better than a strangled one (as was the case 1979-82), so I figured quantitative easing must have been a good thing. But unwinding it may pose new problems. Also on the Fed:
Mark R Levin: American Marxism (2021, Threshold Editions): Fox News star, has a bunch of bestselling, crowd-pleasing books. I'd be interested in a book on this subject, but not from this clown. Tell me more about Paul Sweezy, Eugene Genovese, Paul Piccone. But these titles are just exercises in confusion: "Hate America, Inc."; "Racism, Genderism, and Marxism"; "'Climate Change' Fanaticism."
Jonathan Levy: Ages of American Capitalism: A History of the United States (2021, Random House): Big (944 pp) single-volume history of America, its division into "ages" of: commerce (1660-1860), capital (1860-1932), control (1932-80), and chaos (1980-). The terms are somewhat arbitrary -- "control" and "chaos" refers to the role of the state in the economy, with increasing regulation stailizing a broader affluence, and decreasing regulation fracturing into greater inequality. "Commerce" and "capital" are covers for mercantilism and industrialization, with the shift from bonded- to wage-slavery, with capital accumulating as machines scaled up surplus value. But the periods precisely line up with my political era scheme, aside from combining the Jefferson-to-Buchanan era with its mostly colonial prehistory, because Jefferson's "second revolution" did little to alter the economy -- other than opening up the western frontier for expansion, a distinctive aspect of American capitalism, but not a new direction (after all, gobbling up native land was central from the start). One question the periodization raises is whether the political shifts were consequences of economic changes, or vice versa.
Eugene Linden: Fire and Flood: A People's History of Climate Change, From 1979 to the Present (2022, Penguin Press): This covers a fairly short period of time (not much more than 40 years), yet people today are more likely to be surprised by how much was known that far back, given how little we tried to do about it. Sections run decade by decade, examining each on its own scale: the reality of climate change; the scientific consensus about it; public opinion and political will; and business and finance. Linden previously wrote:
Nesrine Malik: We Need New Stories: The Myths That Subvert Freedom (2021, WW Norton): Chapter titles enumerate six myths: the Reliable Narrator, a Political Correctness Crisis, the Free Speech Crisis, Harmful Identify Politics, National Exceptionalism, Gender Equality. These are myths that have taken up residence in the minds of the right, filling them with fear and loathing.
Alfred W McCoy: To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change (2021, Haymarket Books): Longtime critic of America's empire, with pathbreaking coverage of The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia and a major book on the Philippines (Policing America's Empire), among much more. Goes deep into history here, starting around 1300 and looking forward to 2300 (two chapters after "Pax Americana" are on China and climate change). For someone supposedly critical of American power, he seems oddly stuck in the notion that someone has to order the world.
Heather McGhee: The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together (2021, One World): An "expert in economic and social policy," "former president of the inequality-focused think tank Demos," "now chairs the board of Color of Change, the nation's largest online racial justice organization." The obvious subject here is to try to quantify the social and economic costs of racism, including "for white people, too." That seems intuitively obvious, but clearly some people need it spelled out. One step is to explain "that life can be more than a zero-sum game." I wonder whether she goes further and explains that racism is a negative-sum game: one where one person's losses don't accrue to any other person; they're just wasted.
Sean McMeekin: Stalin's War: A New History of World War II (2021, Basic Books): Long (864 pp.), claims "Stalin -- not Hitler -- was the animating force of World War II." Which is totally wrong, as he seems to be reconstructing through Cold War prejudices. He even goes so far as to credit Stalin with nudging Japan into bombing Pearl Harbor, "unleashing a devastating war of attrition between Japan and the 'Anglo-Saxon' capitalist powers he viewed as his ultimate adversary." The result is one of the most distorted and deranged readings of history since, well, McMeekin's own The Ottoman Endgame: War, Revolution, and the Making of the Modern Middle East (2015).
J David McSwane: Pandemic, Inc.: Chasing the Capitalists and Thieves Who Got Rich While We Got Sick (2022, Atria/One Signal): ProPublica writer, follows the money (over $10 billion). "I have resisted the notion that capitalism itself is to blame for all of this." But isn't capitalism the system that ensures that whatever customers (in this case the government) are willing to spend will be sucked up by one firm or another, fraudulent or not? Good regulation, including transparency, may make the market more efficient and/or effective, but the isn't the drive to corrupt deep in the genes? And isn't it obvious that a political system built on, by, and for private money, is going to be easy pickings?
Neel Mehta/Adi Agashe/Parth Detroja: Bubble or Revolution? The Present and Future of Blockchain and Cryptocurrencies (paperback, 2019, Paravane Ventures): My attitude toward cryptocurrency is fundamentally hostile: on the one hand, I'm annoyed that such a thing (or whatever it is?) even exists (or is even imagined to?); on the other, I suspect that everyone associated with it is up to no good. Of course, on a conceptual level, the same things can be said about money -- and one need hardly look beyond Wall Street to find copious examples it it being used for no good. But conventional money has proven to be very useful, even essential: without it, everything would have to be continuously revalued according to everything else, and little else would get done. But if conventional money works find, why invent crypto? One possibility is that it provides a means for criminals to transfer funds without alerting the government. Another is that it gives rich people something more they can speculate on. Maybe there are other uses, and other angles to be considered. Kim Stanley Robinson, in The Ministry for the Future, seems to regard blockchain as useful for limiting the ills of finance. I don't understand how he thinks that, and have little interest in figuring it out, but there's enough crap going around about cryptocurrency I figured I could collect a book list (looking for general books, and ignoring virtually everything that seems to be pitched toward investors).
Ethan Michaeli: Twelve Tribes: Promise and Peril in the New Israel (2021, Custom House): I read another book some time ago (possibly Richard Ben Cramer's How Israel Lost: The Four Questions) that broke Israeli Jews down into six or so groups, suggesting that one reason they never seriously tried to defuse the conflict with Palestinians was that a common enemy was the only thing that held them together. Further division echoing the biblical twelve shouldn't be too hard. I often look at Amazon reviews to get a sense of a book. Here I found a rare case where a 1-star review made the book seem more interesting (usually they just reveal the reviewer to be a moron): "Stay away from this book unless you like reading about falafel and Israeli salad under the disguise of a pseudo existential interpretation of contemporary Israeli society." But isn't breaking bread together a good way to get to know others? And that reminds me that Cramer had a whole section on Israeli "white meat" (pork, from pigs who spend their lives on platforms so their feet never touch Israeli soil). More on Israel/Palestine:
Moisés Naím: The Revenge of Power: How Autocrats Are Reinventing Politics for the 21st Century (2022, St Martin's Press): Wrote The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being in Charge Isn't What It Used to Be (2013), which argued that power has intrinsic limits, especially a dependence on competent followers. Here he seems to be backtracking (not that he approves). The interrim has seen a number of autocrats rise to greater power, but how stable are they really?
Evan Osnos: Wildland: The Making of America's Fury (2021, Farrar Straus and Giroux): Former China correspondent, subject of his first book, wrote a big biography of Joe Biden for his second (one of a mere handful of 2020 campaign books on Biden, compared to many hundreds on Trump). This is more like a memoir, an attempt to make some sense of what happened to America between Sept. 11, 2001 and Jan. 6, 2021 ("two assults on the country's sense of itself").
Richard Overy: Blood and Ruins: The Last Imperial War, 1931-1945 (2022, Viking): British military historian, dates WWII from the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, rather than waiting for Germany to invade Poland (1939) or for Japan to bomb Pearl Harbor (1941). Big subject, big book (1040 pp). One thing that is poorly remembered today is that the World Wars were fought (initially, anyway) by nations that believed empire was a supreme good, one they sought to expand. (The US and the Soviet Union were less interested in territory, and more into the slightly nebulous notion of hegemony.)
Gideon Rachman: The Age of the Strongman: How the Cult of the Leader Threatens Democracy Around the World (2022, Other Press): The list seems ominous enough: Putin, Trump, Bolsonaro, Erdogan, Orban, Xi. But aside from Xi, how successful have they been? We seem to be riding a stronger authoritarian wave than we've seen since the 1930s (and how did that turn out?). But aside from Xi, everyone on the list got elected in something like a fair democratic election -- not that they haven't tried to use their power to lock themselves in and their opponents out. Their skill seems to have been the ability to sell bigotry to the masses while garnering support from the rich -- which is basically the definition Robert Paxton came up with in The Anatomy of Fascism. But fascists in the 1930s used their charisma to strengthen state power, whereas today's "strongmen" tend to weaken the state (except for repressive political purposes), shifting real power to a private sector that is primarily motivated by greed. It's hard to see them remaining viable enough to last, but like a vermin infestation they may be hard to clear out. Rachman previously wrote:
Matthew Rose: A World After Liberalism: Philosophers of the Radical Right (2021, Yale University Press): Short (208 pp) survey of five "thinkers": Oswald Spengler ("The Prophet"), Julius Evola ("The Fantasist"); Francis Parker Yockey ("The Anti-Semite"); Alain de Benoist ("The Pagan"); Samuel Francis ("The Nationalist"); with a final chapter on "The Christian Question." Might seem more important if there was more evidence of thinking on the right, at least among the supposedly literate talking heads.
Gordon S Wood: Power and Liberty: Constitutionalism in the American Revolution (2021, Oxford University Press): Author of The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (1969), which I've long regarded as the standard book on the politics of the American Revolution. This is a set of lectures on the idea of constitutionalism during the Revolution, a subject no one knows better.
Jia Lynn Yang: One Mighty and Irresistible Tide: The Epic Struggle Over American Immigration, 1924-1965 (2020; paperback, 2021, WW Norton): Covers a period cleanly defined by two immigration laws: the 1924 law extended racial exclusions and established a quota system which discriminated against countries that had provided most immigrants over the previous 30 years (notably Italy, Poland, and Russia, effectively ending Jewish immigration); and the 1965 law which ended the quota system and other racial and religions bans. The 1924 law was probably the peak moment of post-Civil War racism, while 1965 coincided with major civil rights legislation: the same forces coalesced behind both, drawing on a new understanding of what the nation had fought against in WWII.
Other recent books of interest, barely noted (I may write more on some of these later).
Matthew Algeo: All This Marvelous Potential: Robert Kennedy's 1968 Tour of Appalachia (2020, Chicago Review Press).
William M Arkin: The Generals Have No Clothes: The Untold Story of Our Endless Wars (2021, Simon & Schuster).
Jung Chang: Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister: Three Women at the Heart of Twentieth-Century China (2019, Knopf).
Erwin Chemerinsky: Presumed Guilty: How the Supreme Court Empowered the Police and Subverted Civil Rights (2021, Liveright).
Joshua L Cherniss: Liberalism in Dark Times: The Liberal Ethos in the Twentieth Century (2021, Princeton University Press).
Jennet Conant: The Great Secret: The Classified World War II Disaster That Launched the War on Cancer (2020, WW Norton).
Geoff Dyer: The Last Days of Roger Federer: And Other Endings (2022, Farrar Straus and Giroux).
Erika Fatland: The Border: A Journey Around Russia Through North Korea, China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Norway, and the Northeast Passage (2021, Pegasus Books).
Marie Favereau: The Horde: How the Mongols Changed the World (2021, Belknap Press).
Jeffrey Frank: The Trials of Harry S Truman: The Extraordinary Presidency of an Ordinary Man, 1945-1953 (2022, Simon & Schuster).
John Ghazvinian: America and Iran: A History, 1720 to the Present (2021, Knopf).
Marie Gottschalk: Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics (paperback, 2016, Princeton University Press).
Jon Grinspan: The Age of Acrimony: How Americans Fought to Fix Their Democracy, 1865-1915 (2021, Bloomsbury).
Sergei Guriev/Daniel Treisman: Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century (2022, Princeton University Press).
Colin Jerolmack: Up to Heaven and Down to Hell: Fracking, Freedom, and Community in an American Town (2021, Princeton University Press).
John B Judis: The Politics of Our Time: Populism, Nationalism, Socialism (2021, Columbia Global Reports).
Robert D Kaplan: Adriatic: A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Age (2022, Random House): Amazon review: "Lazy, superficial travelogue posing as historical insight."
Michael G Laramie: King William's War: The First Contest for North America, 1689-1697 (2017, Westholme).
Roger Lowenstein: Ways and Means: Lincoln and His Cabinet and the Financing of the Civil War (2022, Penguin Press).
Bruno Maçães: History Has Begun: The Birth of a New America (2020, Oxford University Press): Portuguese geopolitics guru, based in Istanbul, previous books The Dawn of Eurasia: On the Trail of the New World Order and Belt and Road: A Chinese World Order.
David Mamet: Recessional: The Death of Free Speech and the Cost of a Free Lunch (2022, Broadside Books): Wide-ranging essay collection from a famous playwright and right-wing crank.
Mark Mazower: The Greek Revolution: 1821 and the Making of Modern Europe (2021, Penguin Press).
Douglas Murray: The War on the West (2022, Broadside). Thin-skinned, xenophobic right-winger claiming victimhood 500+ years after Columbus. Previously wrote:
Kathryn Olivarius: Necropolis: Disease, Power, and Capitalism in the Cotton Kingdom (2022, Belknap Press): On New Orleans, "where yellow fever epidemics killed as many as 150,000 people during the nineteenth century."
Reece Peck: Fox Populism: Branding Conservatism as Working Class (paperback, 2019, Cambridge University Press).
Nathaniel Philbrick: Travels With George: In Search of Washington and His Legacy (2021, Viking; paperback, 2022, Penguin Books).
Ari Rabin-Havt: The Fighting Soul: On the Road With Bernie Sanders (2022, Liveright): Deputy campaign manager for Sanders in 2020.
Martin Sandbu: The Economics of Belonging: A Radical Plan to Win Back the Left Behind and Achieve Prosperity for All (2020, Princeton University Press).
Vaclav Smil: Numbers Don't Lie: 71 Stories to Help Us Understand the Modern World (paperback, 2021, Penguin Books).
Ray Takeyh: The Last Shah: America, Iran, and the Fall of the Pahlavi Dynasty (2021, Yale University Press).
Nicholas Wapshott: Samuelson/Friedman: The Battle Over the Free Market (2021, WW Norton): Author previously wrote Keynes/Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics (2011).
Olivier Zunz: The Man Who Understood Democracy: The Life of Alexis de Tocqueville (2022, Princeton University Press).
Sunday, April 3, 2022
It's been a year since my last round of Book Roundups -- I posted two sets in 2021, one on April 4, the other on April 18. The format is to provide 40 one-paragraph review/blurbs, followed by an arbitrary number of one-or-zero line notices: books I felt like noting the existence of but didn't feel like writing up anything more substantial (although I may return to them later). The main section has also grown of late, ever since I started listing "related" books in a bullet list under the main reviews. These are books that might otherwise have dropped to the second section, but are more usefully grouped in the first. I used to do a section on paperback reprints of previously mentioned books, but haven't kept those listings up to date.
The Book Roundups are useful for me inasmuch as they give me a broad survey of what's recently available, and what we know about the world. I mostly follow politics, economics, and history here, because that's almost always my current reading. (It's less that that's what I'm interested in than that's what little I have time for.) The reviews eventually get stuffed into a big file. I had a reader once inquire about setting up a database for reviews like that, I expressed some interest, but he never got back to me, so it's still just an idea.
Needless to say, I've hardly read any of these books -- a more or less accurate list of what I have read is here. I mostly find these books by browsing through Amazon, reading the blurbs there, sometimes the reviews, and sometimes bits of the books ("look inside"). That, along with whatever previous information I've accumulated, gives me a rough sense of what the book is about, and what sort of angle it takes.
As with last year, I wouldn't be surprised to follow this with a second post. I have a couple dozen more reviews written, but also have accumulated a list of about 200 books in my scratch file (before adding the second section here), so I have plenty of material to work with.
I'm struck by how many of the entries below provoke thoughts about how to understand the Putin invasion of Ukraine. The big one, to which I've hung another 24 books, is ME Sarotte's book on NATO expansion, Not One Inch, where most of the books now read as obsolete, and many as totally unhinged. The following bit on Peter Schweizer's Red-Handed shows you that American misunderstanding of China is if anything even more dangerous and deranged. Still, it's pretty easy to predict that once the shooting stops in Ukraine, the result is going to look a lot like the status quo ante (aside from thousands of people killed, millions displaced, and many billions of dollars of physical damage, none of which had to happen) -- although the only prediction more certain is that none of the participants will learn the right lessons from the ordeal, mostly because they didn't ask the right questions before.
Yasmeen Abutaleb/Damian Paletta: Nightmare Scenario: Inside the Trump Administration's Response to the Pandemic That Changed History (2021, Harper). Washington Post reporters, evidently had a fair degree of inside access to the White House and its "toxic environment of blame, sycophancy, and political pressure" -- very characteristic of the president himself, whose concerns never went beyond appearances, and whose instincts were almost always wrong. The result was that the US response to the pandemic was the worst, at least in terms of outcomes, of any large/wealthy nation anywhere, but he left the entire issue so politically polarized that his idiocy continued to plague the nation a year later. We're starting to see books on various aspects of the pandemic, like these:
Spencer Ackerman: Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump (2021, Viking). I don't doubt that the War on Terror has taken a tragic toll on the nation's psyche, both in its leaders' blind faith in the efficacy of force and the sense of superiority possession of such terrible firepower has engendered. On the other hand, that the author could see Trump as the endpoint of such rot and degradation suggests a lack of imagination. Or perhaps it only reflects what a disaster Trump's election and administration was.
Kai Bird: The Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter (2021, Crown): Big book (784 pp), a major attempt to provide a fresh reading on an often-maligned one-term president -- in my division of US history into eras I group him with Buchanan, Hoover, and Trump among the dead-ends opposite Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Reagan -- by a skilled writer who's never stooped to routine political biography before. With one exception, his books have dealt with security cases: Robert Oppenheimer, McGeorge and William Bundy, John J McCloy, Robert Ames. The exception is Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978, a memoir from growing up there -- his father was a US Foreign Service Officer, so he also has Beirut, Dhahran, Cairo, and Mumbai experiences -- expanded into a sharp history, but that may have drawn him to Carter. It's often said that the New Deal/Great Society model had run its course by 1980, and Americans were hungry for some kind of change. In retrospect, it looks like Carter paved the way for Reagan, hurting him with old Democrats while unable to find a new coalition. But Carter was much smarter and much less glib than Reagan, and he had real empathy with people, who Reagan and the Repubicans treated like suckers. Whatever complaints one has about Carter as president, it's clear that he's been a remarkable ex-president -- a credit to a country that has too few of them left.
Mark Bowden/Matthew Teague: The Steal: The Attempt to Overturn the 2020 Election and the People Who Stopped It (2022, Atlantic Monthly Press): Bowden is a bestselling author of nonfiction thrillers like Black Hawk Down (on Somalia), Killing Pablo (drug kingpin Escobar), and The Finish (on killing Osama Bin Laden). So he wasn't an obvious journalist to expose Trump's efforts to deny and steal victory after losing the 2020 election, but he can be counted on to bring breathless energy to the subject. Trump's scheming to overturn the 2021 election, including his call to Washington on January 6 to storm the Capitol, has produced yet another wave of Trump books, along with a few more latecomers:
Andrew Cockburn: The Spoils of War: Power, Profit and the American War Machine (2021, Verso): Back in (and slightly before) WWII, the US military directed private companies to build weapons, and paid them handsomely (with a guarantee of costs +10% profit). Still, capitalism has a genius for exploiting margins, so over time the arms industries went from taking orders to dreaming up and selling products to an ever-eager defense bureaucracy, the result being Eisenhower's "military-industrial complex." Since then, it's only gotten worse, especially as the hybrid war machine scours the world for conflicts to sell into, with extra profits whenever the shooting and bombing starts.
Donald Cohen/Allen Mikaelian: The Privatization of Everything: How the Plunder of Public Goods Transformed America and How We Can Fight Back (2021, New Press). It's long been argued that government-owned firms are inefficient, incompetent, and/or simply political, and that many such functions could be taken over by private firms, which were touted as so much more efficient they could save taxpayers money as well as earning a profit. This has been done hundreds, maybe thousands of times, and the track record has been abysmal, yet the onslaught of lobbyists and profiteers is relentless, and the political system is so prone to corruption that ordinary people wind up spending a lot of time fighting their scams. But rather than having to deal with them on a case-by-case basis, we need to wise up to the fundamental flaw at the root of all these plots.
Jack E Davis: The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea (paperback, 2018, Liveright): Environmental historian takes a broad and deep look at the Gulf of Mexico, starting 150 million years ago, but mostly since 1513, and most of that since 1945. Won a Pulitzer Prize.
Mike Davis/Jon Wiener: Set the Night on Fire: LA in the Sixties (2020, Verso): Big book (800 pp). Davis has written many, wide-ranging books, including a previous one on Los Angeles, City of Quartz (1990), and Planet of Slums (2006). Wiener has written a number of books, including Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files (2000), and How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey Across America (2012). The new book focuses on social and political movements in the 1960s. Both authors are in their upper 70s, and have slowed down. Chances are they see this book as where their careers have been heading.
Alan Dershowitz: Cancel Culture: The Latest Attack on Free Speech and Due Process (2020, Hot Books): Famously liberal Democrat, but always willing to lend a helping hand to rapists and murderers, as long as they're filthy rich. Consequently, the blurbs here skew a bit to the right: Steve Forbes: "Alan Dershowitz is a living profile in courage." Benjamin Netanyahu: "The truth has no greater defender than Alan Dershowitz." Ted Cruz: "Courage and principle are rare today. Professor Dershowitz has them both." But "cancel culture" isn't about free speech. It's about power, and how much the powerful whine when someone questions their judgment. First time I heard the phrase was from Ivanka Trump, who somehow wangled an invite to speak at a Wichita State University commencement, then got disinvited when nearly everyone who heard about it said, "what the fuck?" Let's face it, no one gets "canceled" unless they got scheduled in the first place. Also (later):
Joseph Fishkin/William E Forbath: The Anti-Oligarchy Constitution: Reconstructing the Economic Foundations of American Democracy (2022, Harvard University Press): A substantial effort (640 pp) not just to re-examine the US Constitution as an effort to limit oligarchy, but also reviewing the major progressive moments in American history (including Reconstruction, the Progressive Era, the New Deal, the Great Society, and a final chapter on "Building a Democracy of Opportunity Today." The founders have taken a beating recently, both from the mythmaking "originalists" and from critics of their repeated failures to challenge racism, but within limits at key junctures the best (and best-remembered) of them opposed conservative impulses to harden the stratas of inequality. Also by the authors:
Catherine Coleman Flowers: Waste: One Woman's Fight Against America's Dirty Secret (2020; paperback, 2022, New Press): The single most effective public health measure US government has taken, by far, has been the construction of modern sewage systems, but evidently they haven't been built everywhere, and you won't need many guesses as to which people and places got left out. The author grew up in Lowndes County, Alabama, and this is the story of her fight to get help there, and elsewhere.
Lily Geismer: Left Behind: The Democrats' Failed Attempt to Solve Inequality (2022, Public Affairs): "The 40-year history of how Democrats chose political opportunity over addressing inequality -- and how the poor have paid the price." Actually, not just the poor: the so-called middle class has gotten hit pretty hard as well (debt for college has been a major factor there, as has the loss of unions and the consequent loss of jobs). Geismer is correct that Democrats have been complicit in this -- especially the New Democrats who supported Clinton and Gore, but also politicians who went with their flow like Obama, Cuomo, and Rahm Emmanuel. So while Republicans wholeheartedly plotted to pump up the rich, they could also point to Democrats as corrupt elitists, out of touch with the downtrodden working class (at least the white part). Those Democrats can point to higher rates of growth under their administrations, but by overlooking equity, they've weakened their own political base -- perhaps fatally, had Republicans not been working so hard to represent themselves a public menaces, a threat so dire that Democrats could count on votes from people they almost never paid any attention to. I suspect that the worst of this wasn't what Democrats actually did but how they tacitly legitimized concerns and approaches that Republicans claimed for purely tactical reasons (e.g., market-oriented carbon trading credits, or the sloppy patchwork reform that came to be known as Obamacare).
Amitav Ghosh: The Nutmeg's Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis (2021, University of Chicago Press): Indian novelist and essayist, originally from Kolkata, Ph.D from Oxford, lives in New York. His novels are historical, exploring stories related to colonialism, with several set around Britain's Opium War with China. He has a recent essay collection called The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2017), and ties many of his interests together here, starting with the Dutch slaughter of natives to corner the nutmeg trade, extending to today's climate crisis, with much emphasis on wisdom native peoples have despite (or because of) being trampled in the mad rush to empire.
Peter S Goodman: Davos Man: How the Billionaires Devoured the World (2022, Custom House): New York Times global economics correspondent, previously wrote Past Due: The End of Easy Money and the Renewal of the American Economy (2009), which was about more than the "masters of the universe" as the economy collapsed. This time he singles out five "Davos men" (defined as "a member of the global billionaire class," named for the ritzy resort "where the species is known to gather annually to cleanse its reputation"), but realizes you can't understand their significance without looking at the devastation they leave behind. I suppose one could complain that the anointed five are famous Americans (Jeff Bezos, Stephen Schwarzman, Larry Fink, Jamie Dimon, Marc Benioff) but the species is truly global, as are their victims.
David Graeber/David Wengrow: The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (2021, Farrar Straus and Giroux): Major project, posthumous for Graeber, a famous anthropologist and political activist -- Debt: The First 5,000 Years is his major work -- co-written with the British archaeologist, reviews much of the factual record around the early development of agriculture, cities, states, and classes, finding many bones to pick with previous popularizers of the age, but mostly concluding that anything is possible, and nothing is inevitable. I've cited most of Graeber's books, at least since Debt (2011), but here are ones I missed:
Nikole Hannah-Jones: The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story (2021, One World): Eighteen essays exploring the not just the history of slavery but its lasting legacy, combined with 36 poems and works of fiction "illuminating key moments of oppression, struggle, and resistance," and an archive of photographs. As history it may go a bit overboard into alternative mythmaking, but the right had already seized on this book as the one they most wanted to make sure young people in America won't get exposed to. And it's not because they don't want young people to be made to feel bad for being Americans. It's because they recognize how little they have done to overcome slavery's legacy, and fear that young people will blame them for their inaction. I'm reminded of how older Germans never talked about Nazism and the Holocaust after 1945, but in the 1960s a new generation of postwar babies grew up and learned to face the past, largely because they were never part of it. That could happen here, but not if the vested political interests of the right have any say.
Jason Hickel: Less Is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World (2021, paperback, Windmill Books): Capitalism demands infinite growth, but nothing can continue infinitely, so the real question is when and how those expectations break down. Add this to the growing literature on ecological limits and post-capitalism. Other books:
Elizabeth Hinton: America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s (2021, Liveright): The "race riots" of the 1960s are remembered much more than the acts of police violence that triggered many of them (and that conditioned the rest). Hinton not only surveys root causes, she shows how the "riots" can be reframed as rebellions, as acts determind to affect change. Looks like an important book, as does her previous From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America (2016).
Bradley Hope/Justin Scheck: Blood and Oil: Mohammed bin Salman's Ruthless Quest for Global Power (2020, John Murray; paperback, 2021, Hachette): In recent decades, the Saudi crown has been passed through a line of elderly brothers, who took a cautious role, dishing out money to buy stability, anything to not rock the boat. That changed in 2017 when King Salman promoted his 32-year-old seventh son to Crown Prince, and gave him effective control over the government. Initially touted as a reformer, MBS is now best known for his cruel war in Yemen and for ordering the murder of critical journalist Jamal Khashoggi -- acts which have started to erode US support (although nothing Trump wasn't comfortable with). Lately, MBS has conspired with Russia to prop up oil prices, which got to be a problem with the Ukraine War. With its vase oil reserves, the Saudi dictatorship has long been a potential threat to world peace, but with MBS in control, that threat is becoming real.
Martin Indyk: Master of the Game: Henry Kissinger and the Art of Middle East Diplomacy (2021, Knopf): Hard to think of a less appealing pairing of author and subject. Kissinger did a bit of what was called "shuttle diplomacy" between Israel and various Arab states, but had nothing to show for it, which was exactly the way Israel liked it. It was not until Jimmy Carter before Israel was willing to take a deal with Egypt that basically took the risk of a future war with Arab states off the table. Kissinger's own interest rarely strayed from his Great Game with the Soviet Union -- the main effect in the Middle East was his scheme to line up Saudi Arabia and Iran as proxy partners. The former took the alliance as license to proselytize their fundamentalist brand of Islam, leading to jihadists volunteering first to fight the Soviet Union, then America. Meanwhile, close association with the Shah in Iran turned the revolution against America. Indyk is small potatoes compared to Kissinger, which may be why he's so deferential, but he was one of the Clinton people who helped wreck the Oslo Accords.
Edward-Isaac Dovere: Battle for the Soul: Inside the Democrats' Campaigns to Defeat Trump (2021, Viking): Atlantic staff writer, got stuck with covering the Democratic side of the 2020 election, and seems to be taking his bad luck out on us. You'd think that every election would produce at least one major chronicle, something following the line of tomes Theodore H White wrote for 1960, 1964, and 1968. Yet while there were tons of books published on Trump in and after 2020, including several major ones on his post-defeat shenanigans, the only other one I've noticed so far was the Jonathan Allen/Amie Parnes quickie, Lucky: How Joe Biden Barely Won the Presidency -- the title suggesting not just that their hearts weren't into the book, but their brains weren't engaged either. This is ironic, because virtually all of the substantive policy arguments that surfaced during 2019-20 occurred within the diverse Democratic Party field. But then, after the hotly contest Iowa/New Hampshire contests were settled, making Bernie Sanders the front-runner, with Michael Bloomberg the "great white hope" of the oligarchy. When it became clear that Bloomberg had no more appeal to Democrats than Trump did, Democrats panicked and threw their personal and policy preferences aside, making Joe Biden the compromise no one wanted. Someone who cared could have mined those stories for meaning, especially compared to the superficiality of the mainstream media, but no one did. Rather, we spent the last six months of the campaign whether a majority of voters were insane enough to give Trump four more years, and hoping Biden didn't further embarrass himself. Still, with billions of dollars in play, against the unprecedented pandemic backdrop, there's a big story to be sorted out. It deserves something deeper than a cliché like "battle for the soul." Aside from Lucky (previously reported), this is all I could find (not explicitly focusing on Trump):
Fred Kaplan: The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War (paperback, 2021, Simon & Schuster): Military affairs columnist for Slate, not as hostile to the world of arms as I am, but clear-headed enough to useful -- e.g., his 2008 book Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power, which picked apart the neocon conceits (RMA, for "revolution in military affairs") led to the catastrophe in Iraq. He starts this with mention of Trump's "fire and fury" threat, then goes back to show that such thinking has been common since 1945, even if rarely exposed from a figure with so little grasp of reason and consequences. The chapter on "Madman Theories" brings to mind Nixon, who coined the term, but also Putin putting Russia's nuclear forces "on alert," in the latest gambit to fight a conventional war shielded by intimations of apocalypse. At least between Nixon and Brezhnev (or Kennedy and Krushchev) the underlying assumption was that both sides could be depended on to act rationally. It's hard to be so confident now: Putin's invasion of Ukraine is at least a species of madness; on the other hand, while Biden is much saner than Trump, what passes for sanity when "thinking about the unthinkable" is pretty shady, especially since the 1990s, when the neocons reformulated American policy to justify "preventive war" against any potential challenge to American "hyperpower." Some other books on nuclear weapons:
Michael E Mann: The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet (2021, PublicAffairs): Must it be a war? Everyone loses in war, initially by being foolish enough to think winning is possible. Mann has several books on the dangers of climate change. This one reviews how vested interests have deflected reform by an intense campaign of denial and/or deflection ("misinformation and misdirection"). You probably know that, although some sections (e.g., "It's YOUR Fault," "Put a Price on It. Or Not.") have yet to become commonplaces. Of course, he offers hope at the end. And of course, his next book will be even more dire. Many more books on climate change have appeared since my last roundup:
Louis Menand: The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War (2021, Farrar Straus and Giroux; paperback, 2022, Picador): Author won a Pulitzer for his major intellectual history of America in the late 19th century, The Metaphysical Club (2001), here tackles an even larger subject: the period from WWII to Vietnam he grew up in, one of extraordinary vigor for American industry, one which finally shrugged off the feelings of being second to Europe, yet one that was circumscribed by censorious politics. Sample line: "If you asked me when I was growing up what the most important good in life was, I would have said 'freedom.' Now I can see that freedom was the slogan of the times. The word was invoked to justify everything." I'm not sure how he winds up squaring that off, but the period is rich in material. And he does devote much of the first chapter to George Kennan, who we rarely think of as an intellectual figure but who more than anyone else set the course of the Cold War. That chapter ends with a John Adams quote: "Power always thinks it has a great Soul."
Edward S Miller: Bankrupting the Enemy: The US Financial Siege of Japan Before Pearl Harbor (2007, Naval Institute Press): I normally don't note books this old, but I hadn't noticed this one before, and it turns out to be timely. This is the story of sanctions the US imposed on Japan before the attack on Pearl Harbor -- some that I was aware of, but with more details that I didn't know. Japan had invaded and conquered Manchuria in 1929, and was fighting in eastern China from 1937 on. The US wasn't formally allied with China, but Chiang Kai-Shek (or at least his wife and her family) had important ties in the US, and that's where Roosevelt's sympathies lied. Japan had no domestic oil, and under sanctions could no longer buy oil or arms from the US, so they could either back down on the war effort, or double down on it, which for oil meant capturing Dutch Indonesia. And that's what they did, in a clear example of sanctions leading to much broader war.
Nicholas Mulder: The Economic Weapon: The Rise of Sanctions as a Tool of Modern War (2022, Yale University Press): History of early efforts (1914-45) to formulate economic weapons both as implements and as alternatives to war. The first iteration, of course, was Winston Churchill's blockade of Germany, by which he hoped to inflict mass starvation, thinking that might lead the German people to revolt against their leaders and sue for peace. Blockades returned with a vengeance during WWII, war so total that economic forces were decisive. In between, it was hoped that the mere threat of economic deprivation could influence the behavior of nations. It rarely, if ever, did. Another much larger book could be written to cover the post-WWII period, again redolent of folly and spitefulness, but the critical chapter on Ukraine is still unclear. Biden has promised not to engage troops, but vowed to impose he most costly sanctions ever as punishment for Russia's rogue behavior. That's certainly a saner course than escalating toward Armageddon, but will it be effective, or just another exercise in callous disregard for the people at the bottom of the political pyramid?
William Neuman: Things Are Never So Bad That They Can't Get Worse: Inside the Collapse of Venezuela (2022, St Martin's Press). I'm skeptical of anything Americans write about Venezuela, but it's also clear to me that the Chavez-Maduro regimes have made some mistakes, especially in their handling of oil resources -- e.g., they've "shared the wealth" by selling gasoline locally cheap, rather than investing the profits in things that would actually raise living standards. Neuman's bias is evident in his framework, "tragic journey from petro-riches to poverty." It's not like there was no poverty before Chavez, when the "petro-riches" belonged to foreign capital and their local lackeys. All along, Chavez and Maduro have had to struggle with those economic elites and their increasingly vicious support from the US (especially under Trump, but Biden hasn't done much different).
George Packer: Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal (2021, Farrar Straus and Giroux): Journalist, still bitterly remembered for his non-trivial role in promoting war in Iraq, has usually written more thoughtfully about American society, although I have to wonder about his conceptual skills when he tries to divide America up into four tranches: Free America ("individuals serving the interests of corporations and the wealthy"), Smart America ("the professional elite"), Real America ("the white Christian nationalism of the heartland"), and Just America ("members of identity groups that inflict or suffer oppression") -- not, of course, that he approves of such division and polarization. But if America is so afflicted, what on earth justifies the title cliché?
Jeremy W Peters: Insurgency: How Republicans Lost Their Party and Got Everything They Ever Wanted (2022, Crown): Reporting on "how did the party of Lincoln become the party of Trump?" but as he only starts with Sarah Palin, the real subject is the rise of extreme crazy in the GOP, and cutting the story off with the 2020 election leaves him a few chapters short. Previous histories of the Republican far right move tend to focus on dark money forces, and they still deserve credit and blame. But there seems to be a psychological force driving Republicans inexorably to the right, even as they prove more and more inept at solving problems. Some more recent books on the right-wing fringe (for more, especially pointing toward violence, see Barbara F Walter below):
Adrian Phillips: Fighting Churchill, Appeasing Hitler: Neville Chamberlain, Sir Horace Wilson, & Britain's Plight of Appeasement: 1937-1939 (2019, Pegasus Books): Poor Neville Chamberlain, savaged again for being a silly peacenik despite being the Prime Minister who ultimately plunged the UK into a world war it was unprepared for, which ultimately broke the bank and the empire that built it. His rival Churchill revived his career on second-guessing Chamberlain, who has remained the butt of pro-war fantasists ever since. This book is clearly partisan, faulting Chamberlain from every conceivable angle. Related:
Serhii Plokhy: Nuclear Folly: A History of the Cuban Missile Crisis (2021, WW Norton): Ukrainian historian, teaches at Harvard, previous books include The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine (2015), and Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe. I've recently read several writers try to draw constructive precedents from the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962), but I'm more struck by this: "more often than not, the Americans and Soviets misread each other, operated under false information, and came perilously close to nuclear catastrophe." When he writes his inevitable history of Russia's attack on Ukraine in 2022, he will likely be able to recycle that line.
Elizabeth D Samet: Looking for the Good War: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness (2021, Farrar Straus and Giroux): Professor of English at West Point, has written books about teaching soldiers to read literature, like Soldier's Heart (2007), and No Man's Land (2014). I find this bizarre, but Tom Engelhardt (as steadfast a war critic as we have) praised her, and reading a few pages exploding myths about WWII (Studs Terkel's subject in The Good War) is interesting, even if she's more ambivalent than I would be.
ME Sarotte: Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of Post-Cold War Stalemate (2021, Yale University Press): Putin's invasion of Ukraine will soon be written about by many people, but those writers will have to start with the enlargement of NATO, which is the subject here. Except we now know that what it led to wasn't a stalemate, and that those who figured that Putin wouldn't do anything crazy as he was boxed in calculated badly. The backlash NATO and other attempts to flip Ukraine provoked has already caused an enormous amount of pain and suffering, and risks much greater disaster. This is as good a place as any to hang a list of other recent books on NATO, Ukraine, and Putin (including a couple books I've mentioned earlier, but have more to say about now):
Peter Schweizer: Red-Handed: How American Elites Get Rich Helping China Win (2022, Harper): Right-wing hack, started with hagiographies of Reagan and the Bush Family, has a remarkable ability to see virtue in conservatives (who "work harder, feel happier, have closer families, take fewer drugs, give more generously, value honesty more . . . and even hug their children more") and evil in liberals (one subtitle is Profiles in Liberal Hypocrisy). Still, his hatred for the latter occasionally leads him to do some actual reporting -- e.g., Clinton Cash (2015), even if (as Clinton described his own welfare bill) it's "wrapped up in a sack of shit." This is another such sack, but sure, a lot of Americans have cozied up to China over the years, and some of them may well be liberals, still it's more likely that they did so not to "help China win" (whatever that means) but simply to make money -- not an exclusively liberal trait. The bigger problem is how this sort of red-baiting fits in with the arms-funded great power games that have been trying to increase tensions between the US and China (as they have between the US and Russia). Some samples (not all from the right, but you can probably figure out who's in the business of stoking this conflict):
Brendan Simms/Charlie Laderman: Hitler's American Gamble: Pearl Harbor and Germany's March to Global War (2021, Basic Books): As I understand it, Franklin Roosevelt was more desirous of entering war with Germany than with Japan, although the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, gave Roosevelt the opening he had been waiting for. Still, it was Germany that declared war first, on Dec. 11, saving Roosevelt the trouble. This book focuses on Hitler's thinking in that five-day window. Hitler and WWII remain a popular book subject. Some recent titles:
Astra Taylor: Remake the World: Essays, Reflections, Rebellions (paperback, 2021, Haymarket Books): Author of two fairly major books I read recently -- The People's Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age (2014), and Democracy May Not Exist: But We'll Miss It When It's Gone (2019) -- with a couple of documentary movies to her credit, collects 15 substantial essays on matters that interest her, especially debt ("Wipe the Slate Clean" -- a project, the Debt Collective, that grew out of her involvement in Occupy Wall Street), but also "activism" vs. organizing, education, democracy, listening, capitalism as "The Insecurity Machine," social media ("The Dads of Tech"), automation, "Who Speaks for the Trees?" I'm often blown away by the depth of her reading, the breadth of her travels, the quality of her thinking, and her commitment to making this a better world. [PS: Looking at her Wikipedia page, I see that she was "unschooled" until entering 9th grade at 13, then "abandoned high school" at 16 to attend college classes, and did a year at Brown. Much I can relate to there, especially dropping out of high school at 16, although it took me much longer to move on, and I'll never have as much to show for my troubles.] Some other books she's involved with:
Adam Tooze: Shutdown: How Covid Shook the World's Economy (2021, Viking): Economic historian, made his reputation with The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy (2007), and since then has only gotten more ambitious -- The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931 (2014) -- and more timely -- Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World (2018). This time he's first out of the gate, his book rushed out a mere year after the first virus lockdowns, so he has nothing like the decade accorded to Crashed. Still, the events were unprecedented, and revealed several cracks in prevailing neoliberal theory that had managed to withstand the 2008 collapse, so he has plenty to write about, and is likely to be as comprehensive, measured, and insightful as always.
Barbara F Walter: How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them (2022, Crown): An attempt to develop a typology of civil war genesis from dozens of recent conflicts (but not really including our own familiar Civil War, except as a data point on one of her scales). She certainly shows that the chances of civil war are higher now then they've been since the late 1960s, when we went through the upheavals and reactions over civil rights, race relations, war, and other issues. Whether that makes civil war likely now is hard to say, but a high point of the book is Walters' prescise description of the January 6 riot/insurrection. Related, including several items on white supremacists, since they seem to be the most keen on triggering violence:
Isabella M Weber: How China Escaped Shock Therapy: The Market Reform Debate (2021, Routledge): The 1980s saw much debate in both Russia and China, at least in elite circles, about economic reform, market development, and political freedom. In Russia, Gorbachev tended to look toward liberal European models, imagining a transition to a more democratic socialism. The debate in China is less known, partly due to the opaque cloaking of the ruling circles, but it's easy to imagine them looking more at Russia, but more in fear than envy. When Russia finally broke for "shock therapy," China recoiled and tightened central control, allowing markets and entrepreneurialism to develop but without political power. The results were a disastrous economic collapse in Russia, followed by a slow recovery owned by oligarchs, versus exceptionally long and strong growth in China. One suspects that a big part of recent American antipathy toward China is rooted is the fear that China may gain influence abroad by exporting their development model.
Craig Whitlock: The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War (2021, Simon & Schuster): Washington Post reporter put his name to this, but my impression is that the raw sources were compiled by the Pentagon in a fit of introspection much like their history of the Vietnam War, better known as The Pentagon Papers. The book was reported on before the US withdrew and the Taliban took over, but didn't appear until days later. It shows what some of us knew all along: that the war was destined for failure, and that the military and the politicians lied systematically to mask their failures. Some more (but not many) recent Afghanistan books:
Vladislav M Zubok: Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union (2021, Yale University Press). Supposedly a "major reinterpretation" of the Gorbachev years, starting with the death of Brezhnev and the elevation of KGB chief Yuri Andropov, who supposedly wanted to reform the Soviet system but (unlike his protege Gorbachev) would brook no dissent along the way. Describing Gorbachev's reforms as "misguided" tells us little. More telling is the charge that he "deprived the government of resources and empowered separatism." One can imagine Andropov plotting a course similar to what the Chinese actually did: economic reforms while not allowing any independent political voice. It's worth remembering that Gorbachev survived a major coup effort from prominent elements in the military and party apparatus, but fell to a second coup, this one launched from the SSR level, after Yeltsin got the leaders of Belarus and Ukraine to join him in breaking up the Soviet Union -- a coup which looked like further reform in the direction Gorbachev had already established by allowing dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, but which was actually a conservative power grab by officials in the old hierarchy. (The Baltic states, Armenia, and Georgia were already agitating for independence, and would likely break away, but in all other cases local party leaders discovered the spoils of privatizing their local fiefdoms.) This matters because nominal independence didn't threaten Russia's sense of superiority, until with Ukraine it finally did. Zubok, who teaches at the London School of Economics, previously wrote:
Other recent books of interest, barely noted (I may write more on some of these later):
Theodor W Adorno: Aspects of the New Right-Wing Extremism (paperback, 2020, Polity): Lectures, from 1967.
Anne Applebaum: Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism (2020; paperback, 2021, Anchor).
Joshua Bloom: Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party (2013; paperback, 2016, University of California Press).
Anthony Bourdain/Laurie Woolever: World Travel: An Irreverent Guide (2021, Ecco).
Ron Chernow: Grant (2017; paperback, 2018, Penguin Books): 1104 pp.
Noam Chomsky: The Precipice: Neoliberalism, the Pandemic and the Urgent Need for Radical Change (paperback, 2021, Haymarket Books): Interviews by CJ Polychroniou.
Ron Formisano: American Oligarchy: The Permanent Political Class (paperback, 2017, University of Illinois Press).
Hannah Gadsby: Ten Steps to Nanette: A Memoir (2022, Ballantine Books): Australian comedian.
Janet M Hartley: The Volga: A History of Russia's Greatest River (2021, Yale University Press).
Heather Havrilesky: Foreverland: On the Divine Tedium of Marriage (2022, Ecco).
Martin Jay: Splinters in Your Eye: Essays on the Frankfurt School (paperback, 2020, Verso).
Walter Johnson: The Broken Heart of America: St Louis and the Violent History of the United States (2020, Basic Books).
Zachary Karabell: Inside Money: Brown Brothers Harriman and the Amerian Way of Power (2021, Penguin).
Amy Klobuchar: Antitrust: Taking on Monopoly Power From the Gilded Age to the Digital Age (2021, Knopf).
Elie Mystal: Allow Me to Retort: A Black Guy's Guide to the Constitution (2022, New Press).
Nick Offerman: Where the Deer and the Antelope Play: The Pastoral Observations of One Ignorant American Who Loves to Walk Outside (2021, Dutton).
Thomas Piketty: Time for Socialism: Dispatches From a World on Fire, 2016-2021 (2021, Yale University Press): Compilation of short (op-ed?) pieces.
Thomas Piketty: A Brief History of Equality (2022, Belknap Press). [04/19]
Ben Rhodes: After the Fall: Being American in the World We've Made (2021, Random House).
Donald A Ritchie: The Columnist: Leaks, Lies, and Libel in Drew Pearson's Washington (2021, Oxford University Press).
Sarah Smarsh: She Come by It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs (2020, Scribner).
Rebecca Solnit: Orwell's Roses (2021, Viking).
Elizabeth Warren: Persist (2021, Metropolitan Books): US Senator (D-MA).
Joby Warrick: Red Line: The Unraveling of Syria and America's Race to Destroy the Most Dangerous Arsenal in the World (2021, Doubleday): Syria's chemical weapons?
Alexander Zevin: Liberalism at Large: The World According to the Economist (2019, Verso Books).
Sunday, April 18, 2021
I had quite a few tabs left open when I posted my April 4 Book Roundup. I wanted to tidy them up, so I kept writing and searching and writing some more. I also had a bunch of old blurbs left over -- some going back a couple years -- that I wanted to get rid of, so in short order I wound up with enough for another Book Roundup.
In putting this together, I found a bunch of books that I should have listed under my previous Josh Rogin (China-US rivalry) and Ned and Constance Sublette (slavery) entries, so added them as PS lists to the previous column (link above). The new China list is even longer than my original, and somewhat more varied, but doesn't generally go very far back into Chinese history. (Saving that for a future entry.)
Only book here I've even started to read is Russell Cobb's on Oklahoma. Seems like I'm falling ever farther behind, but at least this exercise moves some unknown-unknowns into known-unknowns.
Götz Aly: Europe Against the Jews: 1880-1945 (2020, Metropolitan Books): Not just the Nazis, but the broader historical context of anti-semitism in which the Nazis rose to power, found strategic allies as they expanded their power over Europe, and committed their genocide.
Michael Barone: How America's Political Parties Change (And How They Don't) (2019, Encounter Books): Long-time co-author of The Almanac of American Politics (25 editions since 1971) brings his considerable expertise to the question of whether Trump's 2016 election signaled a realignment of parties. Answer seems to be not much, but note: Barone appears to be solidly ensconced on the right end of the political spectrum.
David A Bell: Men on Horseback: The Power of Charisma in the Age of Revolution (2020, Farrar Straus and Giroux): Historical sketches of revolutionary leaders, most of whom let their charisma go to their heads, turning into despots: Pasquale Paoli, George Washington, Napoleon Bonaparte, Toussaint Louverture, and Simon Bolivar. (Washington was the exception, in that he twice walked away from power that was his for the taking.)
Jason Bisnoff: Fake Politics: How Corporate and Government Groups Create and Maintain a Monopoly on Truth (2019, Skyhorse). On how corporations and right-wing lobbyists fund protests to make it look like their special interests are clamored for by "grassroots" movements. Some cases covered here: "the tea party, oil industry, big tobacco, big data, and news media."
Mark Bittman: Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, From Sustainable to Suicidal (2021, Houghton Mifflin): As a cookbook author, he's tended toward the encyclopedia while trying to remain accessible -- e.g., How to Cook Everything: Simple Recipes for Great Food (1998). Here he's looking for something deeper: a global history of food, merged with a political tract about what we should be growing and eating now.
Russell Cobb: The Great Oklahoma Swindle: Race, Religion, and Lies in America's Weirdest State (2020, Bison Books). I spent a fair amount of time in Oklahoma when I was growing up, and two things struck me as especially weird: one is that every small town we stopped at had a Civil War cannon in the town square, even though Oklahoma wasn't part of the Confederacy, and didn't become a state until 1908; the other is that most of the people we knew there had stronger Southern accents than the people we knew from Arkansas. In the early 1800s Oklahoma was a dumping ground for Indians forced off their lands in the South. From the 1870s the US government started carving off chunks for settlers, nearly all of whom came from the South -- most whites who claimed the state for Dixie. By the 1920s Oklahoma had become reliably racist and Democratic, evolving in the 1970s to Republican. I've found that it shares a number of traits with New Hampshire, like collecting a lot of state revenues from badly maintained toll roads. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, and Oklahoma has enough to fill a book -- perhaps this one. Also on Oklahoma:
Jonathan Cohn: The Ten Year War: Obamacare and the Unfinished Crusade for Universal Coverage (2021, St Martin's Press): Major history of the passage of Obama's Affordable Care Act, its troubled implementation and aftermath as Republicans sought to repeal or at least sabotage the law. Cohn wrote one of the more important books on health care before ACA: Sick: The Untold Story of America's Health Care Crisis -- and the People Who Pay the Price (2007). He recapitulates that story in the first part, then reviews its passage and subsequent Republican attempts to repeal or at least sabotage. Although ACA made a bad situation a bit less worse, it also missed the point, which is that you can't get to universal coverage while requiring people to buy private insurance, and you can't manage the health care system sensibly while leaving it in the hands of profit-seeking intermediaries.
Mike Davis/Jon Wiener: Set the Night on Fire: LA in the Sixties (2020, Verso): Both authors have long histories of writing book about radical politics -- Wiener is best known for his work on John Lennon, but he also wrote Conspiracy in the Streets: The Extraordinary Trial of the Chicago Seven; Davis has a long bibliography, including two previous books on Los Angeles: City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (1990), and Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster (1998). This covers the whole range of political upheaval in the 1960s, but much of it will be about racism and the civil rights struggle.
Abdul El-Sayed/Micah Johnson: Medicare for All: A Citizen's Guide (2021, Oxford University Press). The solution isn't going away, because the problem isn't going away. Sure, it's possible to improve Obamacare, but that's mostly by throwing money at it, as the system is designed to preserve the profits of a parasitic and unnecessary middle layer in every transaction. Still, that's not the worst problem with private insurance. More important is a guarantee that everyone is covered, and that everyone is taken care of equally. Consistency pays for itself in efficiency, and those savings can be converted to better care: more comprehensive, and more robust. More recent books on health care:
Robert Gellately: Hitler's True Believers: How Ordinary People Became Nazis (2020, Oxford University Press): Seems like a fair question, but I doubt there's an easy or clear answer. It's not clear how many Germans supported how much of Hitler's program, or when, or why. I'm reminded of the characterization of conservative political thought as nothing but "irritable mental gestures." I suspect that the racism and anti-semitism that were central to Nazi ideology were taken as little else, until Hitler raised and legitimized them. More important were resentment over the Great War loss and reparations, which turned to pride as Hitler's renascent militarism seemed to cower the formerly victorious France and Britain. The result was that most Germans were fiercely loyal to Hitler until the end of the war, after which they discarded their Nazi heritage as quickly as possible. On the other hand, I suspect that Gellately will try to pin everything on ideology. After all, that was his tack in his previous book, Stalin's Curse: Battling for Communism in War and Cold War. Stalin's purges showed him to be pragmatic and cynical, with no consistent ideology. Other recent books on Nazi Germany, especially its origins and control:
Jamal Greene: How Rights Went Wrong: Why Our Obsession With Rights Is Tearing America Apart (2021, Houghton Mifflin): Law professor, perhaps explaining his desire to nitpick, especially to object when judges decide "rights" trump conflicting interests. I'm reluctant to go along, seeing as how much progress over the last century has come from expanding the realm of personal rights. On the other hand, as the judiciary has been stocked with right-wing cadres, we're seeing novel claims of "rights" used for reactionary purposes (e.g., political spending is "free speech," and regulations are being stripped where they're in conflict with "religious choice").
Robert Harms: Land of Tears: The Exploration and Exploitation of Equatorial Africa (2019, Basic Books): Covers three decades from 1870 as western explorers (and exploiters) finally penetrated the Congo basin and East Africa, lands they had traded with through coastal intermediaries for centuries (not that the slave trade didn't have ramifications far inland). This was "the scramble for Africa," the period when European powers competed to fill in the maps of Africa with their colonial colors, while collecting ivory, rubber, and whatever else of value they could cart off.
Gregory B Jaczko: Confessions of a Rogue Nuclear Regulator (2019, Simon & Schuster): Political memoir of the one-time (2009-12) head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a time that includes the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster. Jaczko was one of the very few critics of nuclear power to ever get inside this "watchdog" agency -- his appointment was pushed by Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) with the express agenda of opposing the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste depository. He has since gone on to found "a clean energy development company," so it's fair to say that his rogue-ness has always been consistent with his incentives. That doesn't necessarily make him wrong, and he does offer a contrast to the much longer history of NRC chairs and members with long-standing interests in the nuclear power industry.
Adam Jentleson: Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate and the Crippling of American Democracy (2021, Liveright): They like to call it "the world's greatest deliberative body," but the main purpose of all that deliberation was to stall any sort of changes, but especially progressive reforms. The Senate has always been skewed against popular control, more check than balance, and that undemocratic bias has been locked in: in today's 50-50 Senate, Democrats represent 41 million more people than Republicans, but have the same number of votes. A big part of this is the filibuster, hence it looms large in this book, but there's more if you scratch deeper.
Marc C Johnson: Tuesday Night Massacre: Four Senate Elections and the Radicalization of the Republican Party (paperback, 2021, OUP): The election was in 1980, when Ronald Reagan took the presidency from Jimmy Carter, and the Republicans gained control of the Senate, in large part by purging well-known liberal Democrats Frank Church (ID), George McGovern (SD), John Culver (IA), and Birch Bayh (IN).
Tony Keddie: Republican Jesus: How the Right Has Rewritten the Gospels (2020, University of California Press): "Jesus loves borders, guns, unborn babies, and economic prosperity and hates homosexuality, taxes, welfare, and universal healthcare." Keddie, a historian of the early Christian period, cares to argue those "outrageous misreadings." I'm sure he's right, but care less, having long ago rejected a far more benign understanding of Christianity.
Charles R Kesler: Crisis of the Two Constitutions: The Rise, Decline, & Recovery of American Greatness (2021, Encounter Books): Editor of Claremont Review of Books, seems to be regarded as an actual thinker among pro-Trump conservatives. I read an interview with him, and gleaned no insights into his thinking, other than a muddle of dislikes and vague fears. He's even more evasive on the providing any substance for his sub-title: When was America great? Why isn't it now? How can it be great in the future? Or, simply, what the fuck does "great" mean in regard to nations?
Patrick Kingsley: The New Odyssey: The Story of the Twenty-First Century Refugee Crisis (2017, Liveright): British, writes for The Guardian. Details various stories of refugees struggling to flee dangers in Africa and the Middle East to reach asylum in Europe.
Elizabeth Kolbert: Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future (2021, Crown): Geologic time is divided into epochs, with the recent ice ages dubbed the Pleistocene. The relatively short sliver of time since their retreat was simply "The Recent," but as we become aware of the extraordinary changes wrought by human beings, a new name has been gaining currency: Anthropocene. New Yorker writer Kolbert has written a number of essays on this, compiled into two important books: Field Notes From a Catastrophe and The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. More essays, this time chronicling efforts to undo the thoughtless attack on nature through better thinking.
Bruce Levine: Thaddeus Stevens: Civil War Revolutionary, Fighter for Racial Justice (2021, Simon & Schuster): Abolitionist, politician, a leader of the "radical Republicans" and their push for "a second American revolution," advanced through the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, and the short-lived reconstruction of the defeated slave regime. Due for a revival as we finally shake those last Confederate cobwebs from our collective consciousness.
Benjamin Lorr: The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket (2020, Avery): Based on hundreds of interviews over five years into every facet of the product chain that winds up filling grocery store shelves, which is to say most of what we eat every day.
Rachel Maddow/Michael Yarvitz: Bag Man: The Wild Crimes, Audacious Cover-Up, and Spectacular Downfall of a Brazen Crook in the White House (2020, Crown): When Richard Nixon insisted "I am not a crook," he may well have been thinking of Spiro Agnew, his vice-president, figuring all things are relative. He did, at least, dispose of Agnew before handing in his own resignation -- a small favor, but a real one. Perhaps with Trump as president, now is a good time to be reminded of past instances of unsavory greed in or near the White House. However, I find it hard to see how the MSNBC broadcaster would have had time or inclination to write on a story so far from her established interests, so I wouldn't be surprise if this is really Yarvitz's book, with Maddow using her fame and notoreity to help peddle it.
Heather McGhee: The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together (2021, One World): Attempts some kind of cost-benefit analysis of racism, which can be difficult because many of the costs are second- or third-degree effects. E.g., wouldn't we have a higher minimum wage, more public benefits, better health care, etc., if government activity that helps people equally wasn't disparaged by racists. Chapter 2 is called "Racism Drained the Pool." It starts with a discussion of infrastructure, which has been neglected because racism divides us, limiting public interest. McGhee travels around the country, sniffing out concrete examples. Fundamentally sound point.
Wesley Morgan: The Hardest Place: The American Military Adrift in Afghanistan's Pech Valley (2021, Random House): "Military affairs reporter," evidently knows which side his bread is buttered on, but can't quite sugar coat everything. Typical blurb: "captures the heroism, fear, and exultation of combat while laying out a damning portrait of military leaders who rushed into battle against an enemy they didn't understand and ultimately couldn't beat." Book covers 2002-17, with author first visiting Pech/Kunar in 2010. Despite all evidence to the contrary, embedded journalists cling to the belief that US troops mean well, and that they are somehow allaying an even worse fate. But they are the catastrophe.
Gary Saul Morson/Morton Schapiro: Minds Wide Shut: How the New Fundamentalisms Divide Us (2021, Princeton University Press). Authors are literary scholars, which may be why they love to pick up a good cliché. On page 23, they write: "Fundamentalists are hedgehogs." They believe that literature teaches us to be foxes, even though novels are full of tragic hedgehogs. Isaiah Berlin's parable is famous enough it scarcely needs footnoting, but I wonder whether the authors haven't fallen into their own trap in siding with the foxes. Their argument turns on defining fundamentalism, which turns out to be a one-size-fits-all reduction of all sorts of disagreeable beliefs, ultimately defined by little more than the stubborn certainty with which they are held. I don't disagree that dialogue is preferable, but wonder whether insisting on it isn't another fundamentalism, one denying any core principles. As I've found that the denial of principles is itself one, I doubt their house of cards will stand. Authors also wrote:
John Mueller: The Stupidity of War: American Foreign Policy and the Case for Complacency (2021, Cambridge University Press): I've been waiting for a book to back up this title, but I'd probably start with the balance sheet: it's impossible to win at war, or even anticipate the costs and consequences; even when you have something that looks like victory, it's likely to turn into a trap. As military operations, the US in Afghanistan and Iraq easily seized territory and set up compliant governments, but were unable to sustain control, settling into quagmires. History is full of examples, but focus on history risks obscuring how the equations have changed since the decline of colonial empires. Up through WWII, aggressive politicians could imagine gains from conquest, but with more and more people demanding independence and autonomy, the world has, in Jonathan Schell's phrase, become unconquerable. That should result in nations cutting back on their military expenses, and as that happens, there is ever less need for military defense. Early in the 20th century, there were diplomatic efforts to outlaw war and to promote disarmament. One would have expected such efforts to resume after the conflagration of WWII, but the US sought a different kind of world dominance, and to that end disguised its War Department as Defense, projecting power through a worldwide network of bases and "mutual defense pacts." True, the Soviet Union reciprocated, giving the US a "threat" to defend against, but when that "threat" ended, the US became if anything even more aggressive. Mueller argues that the US has systematically exaggerated threats ever since 1945. This has enabled a huge bureaucracy to accumulate an enormous arsenal to fend off imaginary threats -- something that would have been mere waste had it not buttressed an arrogant foreign policy which has itself provoked resistance and led to self-debilitating wars. He goes on to argue that "a policy of complacency and appeasement likely would have worked better." If the word "appeasement" sticks in your craw, it's because we've been indoctrinated for 75 years to think that the cause of WWII was not Hitler's madness (conditioned by centuries of European imperialism, and by the punitive sanctions placed on Germany after WWI) but Neville Chamberlain's "appeasement" to Hitler's pre-war demand for a slice of Czechoslovakia. Mueller could have picked less inflammatory words, but his point is apt. Most post-WWII conflicts could have been managed better with diplomacy and the promise of trade and development, and more safely without the peril of arms and annihilation. What I'd like to see is the US unwind its imperial posture through negotiations with the rest of the world. No nation really benefits from nuclear weapons, foreign bases, or cyberwarfare, so why not agree to eliminate them? And given that the US is far and away the world's greatest threat, why would other countries not agree to follow suit? If that seems like a dream, it's actually one that's more than 100 years old -- only the technology has changed, but the advent of machine guns, poison gas, and aerial bombing was already terrifying enough. But isn't the first step toward realizing that dream recognizing the stupidity of war?
Serhii Plokhy: Nuclear Folly: A History of the Cuban Missle Crisis (2021, WW Norton). Author teaches Ukrainian history at Harvard, so don't expect him to be a Krushchev fan, but he's had the luxury of sifting through recently opened Soviet archives, which offer a broader perspective than the usual American take on the 1962 crisis -- usually presented as hagiography, a tribute to John F Kennedy's steely resolve and cool reason. It seems more likely that all three leaders (also Fidel Castro) had their blind spots, misapprehensions, and rash tempers, which contributed to the peril as well as its resolution.
Serhii Plokhy: The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union (paperback, 2015, Basic Books): I've likened the end of the Soviet Union to a wrestling match where one fighter collapses with a heart attack, and the other seizes the opportunity to pounce on his disabled opponent and claim victory. That isn't Plokhy's metaphor, but he cites a "victory" speech by GWH Bush the day after Gorbachev resigned that illustrates it perfectly. Plokhii attributes the end mostly to the growing independence movements (especially in Ukraine and Russia, which was Boris Yeltsin's power base), having little to do with US pressure (which if anything was paralyzed by fear and misunderstanding).
Varshini Prakash/Guido Girgenti, eds: Winning the Green New Deal: Why We Must, How We Can (paperback, 2020, Simon & Schuster). Sixteen essays on various aspects and arguments, written before the 2020 election. Biden campaigned in the primaries against GND, but offers a subset in his big infrastructure bill and his newfound climate focus, along with jobs support -- the New Deal part of GND. As long as you combine more sustainable energy policy with economic support to minimize the effects of dislocations, it doesn't matter what you call it. Some recent Green New Deal (and climate-related) books:
Dennis C Rasmussen: Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America's Founders (2021, Princeton University Press): We tend to blindly celebrate the wisdom of the American Republic's founders, but this points out most of them soon had misgivings. This focuses on Washington (rued "the rise of partisanship"), Hamilton ("felt that the federal government was too weak"), Adams ("believed the people lacked civic virtue"), and Jefferson (bemoaned "sectional divisions laid bare by the spread of slavery"). Also discusses the exception to the rule: James Madison.
Eric Rauchway: Why the New Deal Matters (2021, Yale University Press): Historian, previously wrote the even briefer The Great Depression & the New Deal: A Very Short Introduction (160 pp vs 232 here), as well as more detailed monographs on the same period. One thing that seems strange in retrospect was how little we were taught about Franklin Roosevelt during my childhood (1955-67), especially compared to the way Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, and (especially) Lincoln were lionized after less epochal presidencies. (Republicans have since given Reagan the same treatment, to somewhat lesser effect).
Touré F Reed: Toward Freedom: The Case Against Race Reductionism (paperback, 2020, Verso): Not obvious to me what "race reductionism" means -- perhaps the single-minded focus on one factor (in this case, race) to the exclusion of all others. "Reed argues that Afro-Americans' quest for freedom has been most successful when a common-good, rather than identity-group, strategy has determined tactics and alliances." If that's all the point is, sure.
Lawrence Rosenthal: Empire of Resentment: Populism's Toxic Embrace of Nationalism (2020, New Press): Missed this in last autumn's survey of Trump books, possibly because it aspires to greater generalities. Like fellow Kansan Thomas Frank, I've never accepted the notion that Trump had any connection to populism, but if you do buy the link, the real question is why did "populists" choose to align themselves with conservatives, whose real agenda is simply the preservation of a hierarchy defined principally by wealth. Conservatives have long tried to broaden their base by capturing nationalist and religious fancies, so if "populists" accept the rightful rule of the rich, of course they're going to pick up the extra baggage -- which in America is laced with racism and gun fetishism.
Guy Smith: Guns and Control: A Nonpartisan Guide to Understanding Mass Public Shootings, Gun Accidents, Crime, Public Carry, Suicides, Defensive Use, and More (2020, Skyhorse). Founder, Gun Facts Project ("We are neither pro-gun nor anti-gun. We are pro-math and anti-BS"). Despite this "nonpartisan" angle, note that the NRA has been especially vigilant about preventing any statistical survey and analysis of gun incidents. By the way, an Amazon search for "gun control" yields many more pro-gun books than anti-, starting with two books by Stephen P Halbrook crying over Gun Control in the Third Reich and Gun Control in Nazi-Occupied France, John R Lott Jr's many books, like the clearly unsound More Guns Less Crime -- a rationale that can only be justified by excluding overwhelming evidence. Also: Stalked and Defenseless: How Gun Control Helped My Stalker Murder My Husband in Front of Me. Some recent, less obviously ridiculous books on guns:
Daniel Susskind: A World Without Work: Technology, Automation, and How We Should Respond (2020, Metropolitan Books): Oxford economist, sees the future and thinks, hey, that's not necessarily a bad thing. I'm sympathetic to that point of view, but understand that to make it work you have to have a public support network that eases the transitions, and that provides support for people unable to make them. I've had two careers that were pretty much ended by technology shifts, which to some extent I nudged forward. I always figured that the more of my work that could be automated, the more I could do new things -- and that's pretty much how it worked out, although not necessarily to my profit. So I think this will be an increasingly important subject. At least, unless we get wiped out by stupid shit in the meantime. Related, which leads to post-scarcity economics and postcapitalism:
Frederick Taylor: 1939: A People's History of the Coming of the Second World War (2020, WW Norton): This starts with September 1938, as Hitler starts to make aggressive moves east, and follows the diplomacy until it becomes purely military. Also on the War:
Larry Tye: Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy (2020, Houghton Mifflin): Big (608 pp) biography of the Wisconsin Republican Senator, whose name is synonymous with red baiting. His fall, after extending his slanders to the Army, was so precipitous that McCarthyism is remembered as an abomination, even by those following in his footsteps -- e.g., Donald Trump, whose early mentor was McCarthy's own counsel, Roy Cohn.
Clive Thompson: Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World (2019, Penguin Press): A fairly breezy survey of the art and history of software engineering, from ENIAC to (or past) Facebook. Having made a decent living at this for over 20 years, this is comfortable turf for me, the more nuts and bolts the better.
Dietrich Vollrath: Fully Grown: Why a Stagnant Economy Is a Sign of Success (2020, University of Chicago Press): Argues "our current slowdown is, in fact, a sign of our widespread economic success. Our powerful economy has already supplied so much of the necessary stuff of modern life, brought us so much comfort, security, and luxury, that we have turned to new forms of production and consumption that increase our well-being but do not contribute to growth in GDP." This argument may not be so unconventional, as it is suggested by Robert J Gordon: The Rise and Fall of American Growth, who shows that reduced growth after 1970 is connected to a shift in consumption factors, and James Galbraith: The End of Normal. This focuses on America, but when I first read the title I thought first of Japan: economists have complained about slack growth there since 1990, but the standard of living seems stable. This makes me wonder if the left shouldn't focus more on safety net and risk issues, as opposed to wage increases (unions and minimum wage). Longer term, this is good news, as infinite growth was never going to happen anyway. Also that political strategies based on shared growth aren't going to work. In fact, I believe businessfolk realized this around 1970, when growth rates started to drop significantly. From that point, the only way they could satisfy their own growth expectations was to take more from the rest of us, which is what they've been doing for 50 years now.
Jia Lynn Yang: One Mighty and Irresistible Tide: The Epic Struggle Over American Immigration, 1924-1965 (2020, WW Norton): In 1924, Congress passed a law restricting immigration by imposing national quotas, which discriminated against recent waves of immigrants from south-and-eastern Europe (as well as previously restricted Africa and Asia). In 1965, the quota system was repealed, allowing immigration to expand with demand. More focus on how immigration got opened up than how it got shut down, including bits on the author's parents.
Other recent books of interest, barely noted (I may write more on some of these later):
Scott Anderson: The Quiet Americans: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War -- A Tragedy in Three Acts (2020, Doubleday).
Nicholas Aschoff: The New Prophets of Capital (paperback, 2015, Verso): Critiques of Sheryl Sandberg, John Mackey, Oprah Winfrey, and Bill & Melinda Gates.
Joel Bakan: The New Corporation: How "Good" Corporations Are Bad for Democracy (paperback, 2020, Knopf): Effectively an update to Bakan's 2005 book, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power.
Charles M Blow: The Devil You Know: A Black Power Manifesto (2021, Harper).
Lynne Cheney: The Virginia Dynasty: Four Presidents and the Creation of the American Nation (2020, Viking).
Marie Favereau: The Horde: How the Mongols Changed the World (2021, Belknap Press).
Steve Fraser: Mongrel Firebugs and Men of Property: Capitalism and Class Conflict in American History (paperback, 2019, Verso).
Timothy Frye: Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin's Russia (2021, Princeton University Press).
Eddie S Glaude Jr: Begin Again: James Baldwin's America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own (2020, Crown).
Glenn Greenwald: Securing Democracy: My Fight for Press Freedom and Justice in Bolsonaro's Brazil (2021, Haymarket Books).
Eliza Griswold: Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America (2018, Farrar Straus and Giroux; paperback, 2019, Picador Books): Won Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.
Peter Guralnick: Looking to Get Lost: Adventures in Music and Writing (2020, Little Brown).
Tom Holland: Dominion: How the Christian Rvolution Remade the World (2019; paperback, 2021, Basic Books).
Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling: A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (2020, PublicAffairs).
John B Judis: The Socialist Awakening: What's Different Now About the Left (paperback, 2020, Columbia Global Reports).
Fred Kaplan: The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War (2020, Simon & Schuster).
Robert D Kaplan: The Good American: The Epic Life of Bob Gersony, the US Government's Greatest Humanitarian (2021, Random House).
Alexander Keyssar: Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College? (2020, Harvard University Press).
Susan W Kieffer: The Dynamics of Disaster (2013; paperback, 2014, WW Norton).
Ümit Kurt: The Armenians of Aintab: The Economics of Genocide in an Ottoman Province (2021, Harvard University Press).
Victoria Law: "Prisons Make Us Safer": And 20 Other Myths About Mass Incarceration
Edward N Luttwak: Coup D'État: A Practial Handbook (1968; revised, paperback, 2016, Harvard University Press).
Charlton D McIlwain: Black Software: The Internet & Racial Justice, From the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter (2019, ).
Alexander Mikaberidze: The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History (2020, Oxford University Press): 960 pp.
Thant Myint-U: The Hidden History of Burma: Race, Capitalism, and the Crisis of Democracy in the 21st Century (2019; paperback, 2021, WW Norton).
Tom Nichols: The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters (2017; paperback, 2018, Oxford University Press).
Susan Page: Madam Speaker: Nancy Pelosi and the Lessons of Power (2021, Twelve).
Jeremy D Popkin: A New World Begins: The History of the French Revolution (2019, Basic Books).
Eric A Posner/E Glen Weyl: Radical Markets: Uprooting Capitalism and Democracy for a Just Society (2018, Princeton University Press).
Michael Provence: The Last Ottoman Generation and the Making of the Modern Middle East (paperback, 2017, Cambridge University Press).
Thomas E Ricks: First Principles: What America's Founders Learned From the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country (2020, Harper).
Ritchie Robertson: The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of Happiness, 1680-1790 (2021, Harper): Big (1008 pp).
Martin Sandbu: The Economics of Belonging: A Radical Plan to Win Back the Left Behind and Achieve Prosperity for All (2020, Princeton University Press).
James Shapiro: Shakespeare in a Divided Ameria: What His Plays Tell Us About Our Past and Future (paperback, 2021, Penguin Books).
David O Stewart: George Washington: The Political Rise of America's Founding Father (2021, Dutton).
Cass R Sunstein: This Is Not Normal: The Politics of Everyday Expectations (2021, Yale University Press): Essay collection.
Hadas Thier: A People's Guide to Capitalism: An Introduction to Marxist Economics (paperback, 2020, Haymarket Books).
Karen Tumulty: The Triumph of Nancy Reagan (2021, Simon & Schuster): 672 pp.
Sunday, April 4, 2021
Thought it might be a good time to do another Book Roundup. Last ones were October 16 and October 14, just before the 2020 election, when I was trying to round up anything (and everything) out on Trump. Those followed two more 2020 posts, from May 21 and May 16. I doubt Trump caused more people to read in 2020, but he sure stimulated more people to write.
Ground rules here: 40 books in the main section, some of which got me to tack on a supplemental reading list, and a final section of books I noticed but decided not to comment on (other than minor notes; e.g. on author identity). I may expand on the short listings in the future, but most often I just want to put the books behind me.
Very little out yet on the big stories of 2020: the pandemic, the recession, and the election, but see the Allen and Zakaria entries below -- oddly enough, given how much was written about the 2008 recession, there is as yet very little specifically on 2020's economic downturn. On the other hand, there is a lot about US foreign policy, including the long and interminable proclivity for war. I missed several opportunities to combine entries, but the books I focused on seem like significant ones. I limited my China entry to current affairs, especially the superpower rivalry that has Washington hawks so excited. I found more historical books on China, but didn't get them organized, so they'll wait.
Robert Christgau wrote a review of the Sublettes' book, so I figured I should look at it, even though it's a few years old (2016). At the time, I was reading Michael W Twitty's The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South, which covers the same territory from an opposite tack: reconstructing the past from what it's left in the present. I then started looking for other books on slavery, and was surprised to come up with a long set of monographs I hadn't previously noted before. Also surprised to find that most of them were based outside of the US, with some viewing the slave trade from Africa and/or Europe.
Only books I've read from the following list are those by: Mike Konczal, Stephen Wertheim. (I've also read a lot by Millhiser in Vox.) Nothing else on the shelf or on order. I usually find several books I'm eager to read, so this seems like slim pickings, but my writing projects are so up in the air I'm not sure which direction to look. Certainly not to the several right-wing books noted below, which are unlikely to offer anything but evidence of how conservatism has devolved into nothing but more than a deranged and pathetic mental state. I've done similar things in the past, but the supplemental list under Soukup sets a new record for unhinged paranoia. The common perception here is that it's the left that's out to destroy America, which strains credulity two ways: what do they mean by destroy? and who is this left that has so much influence and power? The mind boggles. (Many on the left have chosen not to contest the right over patriotism, given its close association with militarism and chauvinism, but as the right becomes ever more blatant in their antipathy to democracy, we're now starting to see articles arguing that it's the right that's become un-American. A welcome piece here: Zack Beauchamp: The conservative movement is rejecting America.)
I probably have enough books for a follow-up post, but have yet to write much about half of what I'd need. I'm also thinking about doing separate posts on music and cooking books, but I'd be hard-pressed to come up with enough of either, unless I extended by time window.
Jonathan Allen/Amie Parnes: Lucky: How Joe Biden Barely Won the Presidency (2021, Crown): Political reporters for NBC News and The Hill, were first out the gate with their 2016 election book Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton's Doomed Campaign, evidently figured they'd match that with a quickie account of how Biden was similarly doomed, then when he won had 30 seconds or so to choose a new title. The lucky campaigner both times was Trump, but by 2020 he had dug such a deep hole that even his luck couldn't pull him out. More on the 2020 election (ignoring books on how Trump was robbed):
Albena Azmanova: Capitalism on Edge: How Fighting Precarity Can Achieve Radical Change Without Crisis or Utopia (paperback, 2020, Columbia University Press): I don't think I ever heard "precarity" before about a year ago, but it must have popped up a dozen times since. Same root as "precarious," but refers to the general condition, where everything is precarious, which is to say optimized and marginalized to the point where it could break any moment. In 2020, even before any significant numbers of people became infected with Covid-19, before retail stores were locked down, highly optimized "just-in-time" supply lines crippled the economy. Then within a few weeks health care and retail firms broke down due to shortages. For another example, in March 2021 a ridiculously oversized ship got blown into a bank of the Suez Canal, disrupting worldwide shipping. A month before that, a cold snap broke the power grid in Texas, which in turn broke water systems. So yeah, precarity is everywhere. This isn't unrelated to what Naomi Klein calls "disaster capitalism," but shows that Klein was far too optimistic in her expectation that capitalists would continue to profit from disasters. Clearly, there are limits, and that opens up political opportunities for challenging precarity. To cite one example, it's long been clear to me that it's too late to prevent global warming. Sure, there are things one can still do to keep it from getting much worse, and as an engineer I appreciate the advantages of prevention over repair, but the pressing need now is for disaster contingency and recovery. And that may mean rolling back and limiting capitalism's drive for profit.
Nicholson Baker: Baseless: My Search for Secrets in the Ruins of the Freedom of Information Act (2020, Penguin Press): A history of "Project Baseless": "a crash Pentagon program begun in the early fifties that aimed to achieve 'an Air Force-wide combat capability in biological and chemical warfare at the earliest possible date.'" Or perhaps that's just the prism for a book on what we can glean from what the government tries to hide from us, imperfectly illuminated by the law's requirement that the government is obligated to answer (not all that completely) the public's questions. "Along the way, he unearths stories of balloons carrying crop disease, leaflet bombs filled with feathers, suicidal scientists, leaky centrifuges, paranoid political-warfare tacticians, insane experiments on animals and humans, weaponized ticks, ferocious propaganda battles with China, and cover and deception plans meant to trick the Kremlin into ramping up its germ-warfare program."
Vincent Bevins: The Jakarta Method: Washington's Anticommunist Crusade and the Mass Murder Program That Shaped Our World (2020, PublicAffairs): Details the systematic massacre of hundreds of thousands of alleged leftists in Indonesia in 1965-66, supported by the US and to a large extent directed by the CIA. This was one of the most egregious examples of a pattern repeated elsewhere, especially in Latin America (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia, Venezuela), and even more brutally under cover of war (Vietnam, Cambodia). And, of course, most recently with the "targeted [and less discriminating] killings" of the "Global War on Terror." Related:
Rosa Brooks: Tangled Up in Blue: Policing the American City (2021, Penguin Press): OK, this one is weird. Author is daugher of trained scientist and radical journalist Barbara Ehrenreich, who (among much else) went undercover to work shit jobs and wrote a bestseller about her experiences. Brooks became a lawyer, married a career soldier, got a job working in the Pentagon, wrote a book about it -- more pro-military than I'd like, but not stupid either. For her second book, she immersed again, becoming a sworn, armed reserve police officer in the Washington, DC Metropolitan Police Department. She trained like a regular cop but just worked 24 hours per month, patrolling streets and busting suspects, while keeping her tenured job teaching at Georgetown. I read a few pages, and her experiences are interesting enough. I haven't seen her conclusions, but probably not stupid either.
Nick Bryant: When America Stopped Being Great: A History of the Present (2021, Bloomsbury): Greatness, even more than beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. America hasn't seemed great to me since the mid-1960s, and what changed then had more to do with my growing understanding of history than tarnished reality (not that the Vietnam debacle didn't drive my review). By 1970, my disillusionment was so complete that later evocations of greatness, like Trump's Make America Great Again boast, struck me as nonsensical (or maybe just a disingenuous way of saying "Make America White Again"). So I was a bit curious to find an author promising to pin down an actual turning point. However, I doubt anyone will like this book. Bryant is British, which means he grew up with his own delusions of greatness, and transferred them to the America that supplanted Britain as the cornerstone and hegemon of world capitalism. Bryant dates this decline from Reagan's ascendency in 1980, and traces the rot through "Bill and Newt" (3rd chapter title) to Donald Trump (last third of the book). There is real substance to that decline, although you had to actually live here to understand the real impact of Reagan-to-Trump (a good book in that regard is Kurt Andersen's Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America). But the idea of greatness has always depended on blind spots. When Britain was such a great empire in the mid-19th century, wasn't Dickens writing about ragpickers in London? Indeed, isn't pining for greatness some kind of mental illness? Before Trump, the American politician most associated with the word was Lyndon Johnson, the architect of the Great Society. As I recall, Bill Moyers tried to talk Johnson into calling his social welfare programs the Good Society, but good wasn't good enough for Johnson: he wanted great, which turned out to be unattainable.
Francisco Cantú: The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches From the Border (2018; paperback, 2019, Riverhead Books): Born on the American side of the US-Mexico border, descended from immigrants from the other side, the author worked for the Border Patrol, then quit when the "dehumanizing enterprise" got to be too much for him. A memoir, with further investigations and meditation.
Anne Case/Angus Deaton: Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism (paperback, 2021, Princeton University Press): "Deaths of despair from suicide, drug overdose, and alcoholism are rising dramatically in the United States, claiming hundreds of thousands of American lives." I don't doubt that predatory capitalism and inequality are to blame, but I'd like to expand the matrix to see how war and debt relate -- not independent factors, but concrete manifestations of more general maladies. Harder to measure is how the conservative creeds of self-reliance and distrust in public social services weigh in. Deaton previously wrote The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality (2013).
Paul Thomas Chamberlin: The Cold War's Killing Fields: Rethinking the Long Peace (2018; paperback, 2019, Harper): The "Cold War" wasn't so cold, and while it could have been much worse, the wars fought for and against "communism" took a huge toll, especially in Asia. Chamberlin cites 14 million dead from 1945-90, which is about one fifth of the WWII death toll and a third of WWI. Focuses on Asia, with early chapters on China, Korea, and Indochina, moving on to Indonesia, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Iran, and the Middle East, but doesn't seem to cover Europe, Latin America or Africa -- significant arenas of conflict, albeit with lesser body counts. Still, while we should welcome a reminder of how high those body counts were, the most extraordinary thing about America's anti-communist crusade was how global it was. The US sought global power, not through direct rule but by installing a hegemonic politico-economic system everywhere, or failing that by isolating noncomforming nations so they're excluded from the world system. It's hard to exaggerate the amount of hubris that mission required. No surprise it led to millions of careless deaths. Nor did it end in 1990. After the Soviet Union imploded, the quest for domination only grew more determined, as did the inevitable resistance.
Steve Deace/Todd Erzen: Faucian Bargain: The Most Powerful and Dangerous Bureaucrat in American History (paperback, 2021, Post Hill Press): I guess hyperbole sells, at least in certain quarters: "#1 Best Seller" at Amazon, "As seen on Tucker Carlson Tonight, As heard on Glenn Beck." I can understand why the authors don't like knowledgeable authorities, but not why they consider Anthony Fauci either powerful or dangerous. He had little effect within the Trump administration, and rarely challenged the rampant nonsense around him. On the other hand, to be the most "in American history," he has to beat out some seriously powerful and dangerous bureaucrats. Of the top of my head: J Edgar Hoover, Floyd Dominy, Harry Anslinger, Andrew Mellon, Alan Greenspan, Edward Teller, Allen Dulles, Henry Kissinger -- when you start getting into spooks and warlords, the list mushrooms. And beneath the Federal level, you get characters like Robert Moses and William Mulholland -- you can make a pretty strong case for them.
Luke Epplin: Our Team: The Epic Story of Four Men and the World Series That Changed Baseball (2021, Flatiron Books). On the 1948 Cleveland Indians, the first team to integrate in the American League (actually in 1947, after Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers). The four men are owner Bill Veeck ("as in wreck"), Larry Doby (young black outfielder), Bob Feller (Hall of Fame pitcher, not one of his better years at 19-15 -- actually Bob Lemon had the better year, at 20-14, 2.82 ERA, plus 2-0 in the World Series), and Satchel Paige (old black pitcher). Whereas Dodger GM Branch Rickey looked for a can't miss black player in his prime (Robinson was a 28-year-old rookie in 1947, hit .297, with 125 runs, 12 HR and 29 SB), Veeck sought to blow up all the rationalizations (at least too green and too old) why blacks couldn't play in the majors. Feller was the team's star, but Cleveland hadn't come close until 24-year-old Doby hit .301 with 14 HR and 41-year-old Paige went 6-1 with a 2.48 ERA. By the way, Veeck continued to break patterns in hiring black players, adding Luke Easter and Minnie Minoso in 1949.
Philip H Gordon: Losing the Long Game: The False Promise of Regime Change in the Middle East (2020, St Martin's Press): Certified foreign policy mandarin, Obama's Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs (2009-13) and White House Coordinator for the Middle East (2013-15), so he's had plenty of opportunity to see "well-intentioned plans" go awry: Libya, Syria, Yemen, and the coup that ended Egypt's brief democracy all occurred on his watch. He also inherited the longer-term consequences of Bush's signature regime change projects: Afghanistan and Iraq. Not to mention efforts going back to 1953 to decide who rules Iran, and for whom. Despite all this empirical evidence -- and this is just the Middle East; one could write similar books on Latin America, Africa, and the Far East -- not clear whether Gordon spells out the core fallacy behind regime change: the belief that other governments should serve not their own people but US national interests. Still, a step in the right direction. Albeit another example of someone who got smarter after leaving the job, having been replaced by others who have yet to learn the same lessons.
Martin Gurri: The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium (2014; 2nd Edition, 2018, Stripe Press): Former CIA analyst, complains about how the glut of "open media" today limits the ability of elites to hoodwink the public, leaving most people deeply distrustful. Second edition offers an "I told you so" on Trump, although the list of things he claims to have anticipated also includes Brexit and Arab Spring. I read Sean Illing's interview with this guy at Vox, and didn't get anything useful out of it. I suspect two problems. One is that "elites" have become much more compartmentalized over time: while they still dominate their institutions, they are less linked, and as such have less influence beyond their limited spheres of control. Someone should take a shot at updating C Wright Mills' The Power Elite, not that such a task will be easy. The second is that while elites may have had some widespread value in the past, their prime directive has always been self-preservation, and that becomes harder the easier it is for the public to examine their lives. The simplest explanation for the "revolt of the public" is that most people have come to know better than to trust elites. That some charlatans and posers like Trump have taken advantage only shows that the loss of trust has caused some confusion.
Sarah Jaffe: Work Won't Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone (2021, Bold Type Books): Antonio Gramsci had a concept he called Fordism, where factory work had become so thoughtlessly repetitive workers could disengage and let their minds wander, in some sense reclaiming their own time. That turned out to be a phase, as machines claimed most of those jobs. Since then companies have an ever larger slice of worker time and mind share, as jobs (or more fashionably, careers) follow you home and fill your dreams. This surveys a wide range of work, the common denominators that the employer demands ever more while returning what? Since the 1970s, economists have been preaching that businesses have only one purpose, which is to maximalize investor returns, and as that lesson sunk in, management has become hard pressed to offer any comfort to their workers. Sure, workers are encouraged to find their own value in their dedication. But the returns go elsewhere. Related:
Mike Konczal: Freedom From the Market: America's Fight to Liberate Itself From the Grip of the Invisible Hand (2021, New Press): Drawing on a wide range of historical examples, tries to make the case that the path to greater freedom comes through more free things. Eight chapters, each starting with "Free": Land, Time, Life, Security, Care, Health, Economy, and Education. This contrasts with the neoliberalism, which tries to create markets for everything, assuming their magic will always work for the best.
Ivan Krastev/Stephen Holmes: The Light That Failed: Why the West Is Losing the Fight for Democracy (2020, Pegasus Books): Maybe because the West doesn't really believe in democracy? I mean, sure, it's OK for us, within the constraints of corporate-owned media, but what happens with impoverished masses start electing parties that favor popular interests over those of business elites? You get coups like Guatemala, Iran, Greece, Congo, Brazil, Argentina, Indonesia, Chile (all US-backed, 1950s-1970s), or maybe something more subtle, like the "Washington Consensus" IMF, or the ECB's limits placed on Greece's Syriza government. Trump's "coddling" of authoritarians and plots to overthrow left-leaning governments in Venezuela and Bolivia isn't new policy not likely to change in the Biden restoration. Holmes wrote a good book back in 2007: The Matador's Cape: America's Reckless Response to Terror. Krastev runs something called the Centre for Liberal Strategies, in Sofia, Bulgaria.
Charles A Kupchan: Isolationism: A History of America's Efforts to Shield Itself From the World (2020, Oxford University Press): The first thing to understand about "isolationism" is that it was a word invented to discredit anyone opposed to or skeptical of the global interventionism which developed in and around the Second World War and its anti-communist aftermath -- a formula which has led to endless war and great hardships at home. Before the rise of "liberal internationalism" Americans, starting with George Washington, sought to interact with the world without forming imperial alliances or (for the most part) foreign colonies. Kupchan understands this, but still warns about a resurgence of "isolationism" as a backlash against the repeated failures of the interventionists. It's a phony argument, aimed at no one real, its sole purpose to shelter the disastrous record of its partisans.
Diana Lind: Brave New Home: Our Future in Smarter, Simpler, Happier Housing (2020, Bold Type Books): As far as I can tell, another entry in a recent flurry of books arguing for denser urban living -- antecedents include David Owen's Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability, perhaps even Jane Jacobs' pro-urban Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) and James Howard Kunstler's anti-suburban The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape (1993). I suspected this new urbanism took a hit with the 2020 pandemic, but maybe it's more important than ever. Related books:
Bjorn Lomborg: False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet (2020, Basic Books): The "skeptical environmentalist" (title of his 2001 book) is still in business, as one of the most skillful opponents of climate change activism, not really trying to deny the problem but always insisting that we refrain from rash acts and be conscientious about costs, offering the odd proposal that isn't acted on either -- a typical title is Smart Solutions to Climate Change, Comparing Costs and Benefits (2010). He might be more credible had he not been latched onto by companies that profit from burning carbon-based fuels. Related:
Erik Loomis: A History of America in Ten Strikes (2018, New Press): Focuses on pivotal events, from the Lowell Mill Girls Strike in the 1830s to the Air Traffic Controllers (1981) and Justice for Janitors (1990). Some are famous, like the Flint Sit-Down Strike (1937), while others were lesser known -- indeed, Slaves on Strike (1861-65) wasn't an event but a protracted, persistent resistance, like the labor's entire history, only fraught with even more danger.
Valeria Luiselli: Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions (paperback, 2017, Coffee House Press): Born in Mexico City, grew up in South Africa, wrote a couple novels, wound up working in US immigration courts as a translator, helping others (mostly children) trying to find their way through the labyrinth and gauntlet. Short (128 pp) and judicious, structured inspired by the questionaires that try to pigeonhole people who rarely fit.
Mahmood Mamdani: Neither Settler nor Native: The Making and Unmaking of Permanent Minorities (2020, Belknap Press): Born of the Indian diaspora in East Africa, one way British imperialists created minority schisms in their colonies. That's not the explicit subject here, but a viewpoint, as Mamdani devotes chapters to: The Indian Question in the United States; Nuremberg: The Failure of Denazificiation; Settlers and Natives in Apartheid South Africa; Sudan: Colonialism, Independence, and Secession; The Israel/Palestine Question.
Ian Millhiser: The Agenda: How a Republican Supreme Court Is Reshaping America (paperback, 2021, Columbia Global Reports): Covers the courts for Vox, a source I've found to be invaluable. As he notes, from 2011-20, while "Congress enacted hardly any major legislation outside of the tax law President Donald Trump signed in 2017," "the Supreme Court dismantled much of America's campaign finance law, severely weakened the Voting Rights Act, permitted states to opt out of the Affordable Care Act's Medicaid expansion, created a new 'religious liberty' doctrine permitting someone who objects to the law on religious grounds to diminish the rights of third parties, weakened laws shielding workers from sexual and racial harassment, expanded the right of employers to shunt workers with legal grievances into a privatized arbitration system, undercut public sector unions' ability to raise funds, effetively eliminated the president's recess appointment power, and halted President Obama's Clean Power Plan." I think we have a tendency to see disasters as future (and therefore preventable), but the right has long been obsessed with capturing the courts and using their power to force their agenda. While the worst may still be to come, the bad is very much with us. More on law and the courts:
Pankaj Mishra: Bland Fanatics: Liberals, Race, and Empire (2020, Farrar Straus and Giroux): Essay collection, scattered subjects, many pointing out how western liberals have often fallen short of their proclaimed ideals, especially where empires and colonies are concerned. Born in India, based in UK, wrote substantial histories both of western political thought (Age of Anger: A History of the Present) and of colonial efforts to come to grips with it (From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia).
Anne Nelson: Shadow Network: Media, Money, and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right (2019, Bloomsbury): On the Council for National Policy, founded in 1981 by "a group of some fifty Republican operatives, evangelicals, oil barons, and gun lobbyists . . . to coordinate their attack on civil liberties and the social safety net," developing into "a strategic nerve center for channeling money and mobilizing votes behind the scenes." The group includes and/or aligns with many of the better known financiers of the far-right, like the Koch, Mercer, and DeVos families. Follows the money.
John Nichols: The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party: The Enduring Legacy of Henry Wallace's Antifascist, Antiracist Politics (2020, Verso): FDR's Agriculture Secretary, and pick for Vice President in 1940, was booted off the ticket in 1944 in a revolt that elevated Harry Truman to president after Roosevelt's death in 1945 instead of the more progressive Wallace. One of the great unanswerable questions is whether as President Wallace would have steered the US away from the "Cold War" conflict with the Soviet Union and made the UN a more viable international organization. Wallace did run in 1948, promising to restore cooperation with the Soviet Union, and was subjected to a merciless barrage of red-baiting, and was defeated so decisively that he was never again a factor in American politics, so whatever "fight for the soul" Nichols imagines must have occurred, and been lost, much earlier. Wallace was a genuinely interesting figure, worth taking a closer look at, though more for his transition from Republican farmer advocate to ardent New Dealer than for his place in any pantheon of Democratic Party progressives. I doubt Nichols is doing anyone any favors by tacking pictures of Jesse Jackson, Bernie Sanders, and AOC onto the cover along with Wallace and FDR. Other books on Wallace:
Robert D Putnam: The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again (2020, Simon & Schuster): Sociologist, wrote the famous Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000), flawed most by the failure of revival. He's still looking and hoping here, the new insight being the recognition that highly individualistic times today aren't unprecedented -- he looks back to the Gilded Age of the late 1800s -- and sees an alternative in the more egalitarian New Deal/Great Society period.
Thomas Rid: Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare (2020, Farrar Straus and Giroux): Starts with the Russian Revolution, which its protagonists saw as the first step toward worldwide class revolution, and its enemies saw as a threat to their class privileges and imperial force. Therefore, the book is largely organized around the Cold War, although the techniques and ulterior motives for lying and misrepresenting are a much broader subject.
Josh Rogin: Chaos Under Heaven: Trump, Xi, and the Battle for the Twenty-First Century (2021, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt): Washington Post/CNN correspondent, focuses on Trump's incoherent and ineffective grappling with China. One might draw useful lessons from recent history, but Rogin's "battle of the twenty-first century" shows no understanding beyond a flair for headlines. It's not unusual for unreflective people to project their own views onto others, so it's not surprising that many Americans suspect that China seeks to rule the world -- the first fallacy there is that while the US has been fortunate to gain widespread acceptance of its ordering principles, the US never has ruled the world, and never can. Much of the world has tolerated US leadership only so long as it's been benign, which is what Trump's "America First" rhetoric threatened to undo. China's offense has been to play the US-led system to its advantage, growing its own wealth at a rate far exceeding America's, with enough size and technology to match or exceed the US. More on China and/or superpower rivalry:
PS: Shortly after posting, I ran into another batch of books I should have included here:
Amity Shlaes: Great Society: A New History (2019, Harper): Right-wing historian, was employed by the GW Bush library (although I don't see that in her credits; instead, she won a Hayek Book Prize, wrote for the Wall Street Journal editorial board, and "chairs the board of the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation"). Her mission in life is to show that everything good in American politics was really bad (e.g., her book on the New Deal, The Forgotten Man), and vice versa (see her Coolidge). This extends the hatchet job to LBJ's social welfare programs, including the immensely popular Medicare. According to Alan Greenspan, this "reads like a novel" (meaning like it was made up?), "covering the high hopes and catastrophic missteps of our well-meaning leaders." The only "catastrophic misstep" I can clearly attribute to LBJ was the Vietnam War, but that's probably now what these right-wing assholes have in mind. The fact is, the War on Poverty [sic] was very successful until Nixon came along and put Donald Rumsfeld in charge of the Office of Economic Development.
Robert Skidelsky: What's Wrong With Economics? (2020, Yale University Press): Has written a major biography of John Maynard Keynes, as well as several other interesting books. Fair to say he follows Keynes' model, but more important is that like Keynes he stops to ask what good is economics for how we live, for us to enjoy our lives. That's still pretty radical within what many of its protagonists like to call the "dismal science."
Jerome Slater: Mythologies Without End: The US, Israel, and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1917-2020 (2020, Oxford University Press): A substantial (512 pp) effort to cover the whole history of the conflict, from the Zionist plan to colonize Palestine, British sponsorship of the project, the founding of Israel and the expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians, through Israel's subsequent wars with Arab states and the Palestinian people. Extra focus on American attitudes and policies, which have vacillated between peacemaking efforts and reflexive support for Israel's military and colonial projects, which have made peace impossible (or, at least to right-wing Israelis, undesirable). Should take its place as the best introductory text for Americans. Other recent books:
Stephen R Soukup: The Dictatorship of Woke Capital: How Political Correctness Captured Big Business (2021, Encounter Books): Few things are more galling to the far-right than how the very corporations they work so hard to enrich betray them by trying to come off as "woke" -- anti-racist, pro-LGBTQ, sensitive to women and/or the environment. They see this as the sinister effect of the Left's "slow, methodical battle for control of the institutions of Western civilization," as opposed to a mere bottom-line calculation that there's no profit in insulting and degrading diverse customers and citizens. (Of course, where there is a profit to be gained from war, fraud, and/or ruin, there are plenty of corporations eager to jump in.) Of course, this is just one example of the crazed stupidity that the right publishes. For more recent examples:
Paul Starr: Entrenchment: Wealth, Power, and the Constitution of Democratic Societies (2019, Yale University Press). The concept here is how political actors try to perpetuate their rule by locking in (entrenching) their agenda, to make it hard to change or undo even if they lose power. Some of this is baked into the system, like the Constitution's supermajority requirement for amendments and impeachment, as well as built-in biases like equal representation for states. Some have been contrived (but are defended as tradition), like gerrymandering and the filibuster. Needless to say, conservatives are more dedicated to entrenchment than progressives (although FDR made a point how Social Security was designed to make it impossible to take away). The Republican obsession with packing the courts is probably the most obvious and ambitious example of entrenchment. Starr provides historical examples of entrenchment, and sometimes overcoming it, as with slavery.
Ned and Constance Sublette: The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry (2016; paperback, 2017, Lawrence Hill): Major history of slavery in America, from its introduction to emancipation, with particular emphasis on the business of breeding and selling people. Blurb describes this as "an alternative history," but since when does focusing on the real costs of slavery without sparing the feelings of dead politicians alternative? Sounds like what history should do. Ned Sublette previously wrote major books on Cuban music and New Orleans, while Constance Sublette has written several novels. Other recent books on slavery (and its aftermath):
PS: Shortly after posting, I ran into another batch of books I should have included here:
David Vine: The United States of War: A Global History of America's Endless Conrflicts, From Columbus to the Islamic State (2020, University of California Press): The phrase "endless war" is a recent coinage, reflecting the fact that the very definition of the Global War on Terrorism ensures that there will always be challengers, even in the unlikely chance where "victory" appears total -- not that there are any such cases. Still, given the forward-looking concept, it's tempting to also look back, and Vine finds so many wars so far back they all blur into endlessness. More specifically, he reminds us that America was founded in conquest and occupation, bound to belief in racial and cultural superiority, and those factors have tainted all subsequent wars. Indeed, they define the blind fault lines of recent failures. After all, what is an endless war but one that cannot be won by a nation too blind to accept its futility? Vine previously wrote Base Nation: How American Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World (2015, Metropolitan Books).
Stephen Wertheim: Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of US Global Supremacy (2020, Belknap Press): Starts with an introductory section on what "internationalism" meant before interventionists -- the small sliver of elites eager to join the war against Germany, as they had in 1917 -- coined the term to slander those who recognized George Washington's warnings against foreign alliances and standing armies, many of whom were in favor of agreements to limit or outlaw war, and who supported America's "open door" trade policies. The rest of the book covers the evolving thinking of said elites during a narrow slice of time, from the fall of France in May 1940 to the defeat of Germany and Japan in 1945. Early on, when Germany seemed likely to be a long-term world power, those elites flirted with the idea of some kind of regional hegemons, where the US, UK, and Germany could split up the world. (Russia, China, and Japan were afterthoughts, at best.) But rather quickly, the elites gravitated to a postwar aim of world dominance, which became possible as the German invasion of the Soviet Union stalled, and the US entered the war both in Europe and the Pacific. Indeed, by the time the war was won, the US had bases strung all around the world, and a manufacturing economy that exceeded the rest of the world. The book doesn't cover how this ambition and capability for world domination was then refashioned into a struggle against communism and its potential anti-colonial allies, but the notion that the US should dominate all around the world made both the quest and the resistance that resulted all but inevitable. Indeed, the only force that might have throttled those ambitions was the traditional American aversion to empire and foreign entanglements, which was neatly bottled up as "isolationism" and disparaged by the postwar Red Scare. Recent books on post-WWII foreign policy, up to the present moment, where interventionist disasters have led to ever more strident denunciations of isolationism:
Daniel Yergin: The New Map: Energy, Climate, and the Clash of Nations (2020, Penguin Press). He wrote a big history of the oil industry -- The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power (1991) -- and parlayed his reputation into a consulting company, closely aligned with the industry and hostile to those pesky climate change obsessives. So his "maps" are closely aligned with the supply of oil and gas, with only the last two (of six) sections briefly considering anything else -- most likely not as necessary change but as marginal risks.
Julian E Zelizar: Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party (2020, Penguin Press): The history of the Republican Party from 1968 on presents us with a series of major figures who tried (and partly succeeded) in moving the political world ever further to the right. Nixon may look like a liberal in retrospect, and Reagan may look like a folksy optimist, but they were among the most successful at finding pressure points that worked for the right. The line moves on through Newt Gingrich, GW Bush, and Donald Trump. This covers Gingrich, who relative to his time was probably the most extreme and ruthless, leaving in his wake an unprecedentedly shameless militancy in the Republican rank-and-file.
Fareed Zakaria: Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World (2020, WW Norton): Always quick on the draw -- his most famous book is The Post-American World (2008, revised as Release 2.0 in 2011) -- he is the first semi-famous person to weigh in on how the pandemic will change things, at least at book length. The most common take elsewhere is that it won't change things so much as accelerate pre-existing trends, something he's collected a huge dossier on. Still, I can't say as I'm impressed by "lessons" like: "What Matters Is Not the Quantity of Government but the Quality," "Markets Are Not Enough," "Life Is Digital," "Inequality Will Get Worse," "Globalization Is Not Dead," and "The World Is Becoming Bipolar." I wouldn't have bothered, but this was the best hook I could find on which to hang -- most "post-pandemic" books published so far are pitched at investors, some appearing as early as April 2020 (I've skipped the earliest):
Other recent books of interest, barely noted:
Stacey Abrams: Lead From the Outside: How to Build Your Future and Make Real Change (paperback, 2019, Picador): Retitled reissue of her 2018 book, Minority Leader: How to Lead From the Outside and Make Real Change.
Stacey Abrams: Our Time Is Now (2020, Henry Holt).
Theodor W Adorno: Aspects of the New Right-Wing Extremism (paperback, 2020, Polity): A lecture from 1967.
Nancy J Altman: The Truth About Social Security: The Founders' Words Refute Revisionist History, Zombie Lies, and Common Misunderstandings (paperback, 2018, Strong Arm Press).
Hunter Biden: Beautiful Things: A Memoir (2021, Gallery Books).
John Boehner: On the House: A Washington Memoir (2021, St Martin's Press): Former Speaker of the House (R-OH, 1991-2015).
Hal Brands/Charles Edel: The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order (2019, Yale University Press).
Ian Bremmer: Us vs Them: The Failure of Globalism (2018, Portfolio).
Dorothy A Brown: The Whiteness of Wealth: How the Tax System Impoverishes Black Americans -- and How We Can Fix It (2021, Crown).
Wendy Brown: In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West (paperback, 2019, Columbia University Press): "The Wellek Library Lectures."
Jessica Bruder: Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century (paperback, 2018, WW Norton): The book behind the movie.
Robert Bryce: A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations (2020, Public Affairs).
William J Burns: The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal (2019; paperback, 2020, Random House): Former State Department official, Ambassador to Russia (2005-08), now Biden's CIA Director.
W Joseph Campbell: Lost in a Gallup: Polling Failure in US Presidential Elections (2020, University of California Press): Chronicles repeated polling failures from 1936 through 2016, just in time for another one in 2020.
James R Copland: The Unelected: How an Unaccountable Elite Is Governing America (2020, Encounter Books): Conservative think tank fellow attacks the regulatory state. Same title could be written from the left.
Tammy Duckworth: Every Day Is a Gift: A Memoir (2021, Twelve): US Senator (D-IL).
Joan Didion: Let Me Tell You What I Mean (2021, Knopf): Essay collection.
Ben Ehrenreich: Desert Notebooks: A Road Map for the End of Time (2020, Counterpoint).
Bill Gates: How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need (2021, Knopf).
Henry Louis Gates Jr: The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song (2021, Penguin Press).
Ruth Bader Ginsburg/Amanda L Tyler: Justice, Justice Thou Shalt Pursue: A Life's Work Fighting for a More Perfect Union (2021, University of California Press).
Thom Hartmann: The Hidden History of American Oligarchy: Reclaiming Our Democracy From the Ruling Class (paperback, 2021, Berrett-Koehler).
David Harvey: A Companion to Marx's Capital: The Complete Edition (paperback, 2018, Verso): 768 pp.
Theo Horesh: The Fascism This Time: And the Global Future of Democracy (paperback, 2020, Cosmopolis Press).
Wiliam G Howell/Terry M Moe: Presidents, Populism, and the Crisis of Democracy (paperback, 2020, University of Chicago Press).
Adam Jentleson: Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate and the Crippling of American Democracy (2021, Liveright).
Garett Jones: 10% Less Democracy: Why You Should Trust Elites a Little More and the Masses a Little Less (2020, Stanford University Press).
Irshad Manji: Don't Label Me: An Incredible Conversation for Divided Times (2019, St Martin's Press).
Piers Morgan: Wake Up: Why the World Has Gone Nuts (2020, Harper Collins).
Ilhan Omar: This Is What America Looks Like: My Journey From Refugee to Congresswoman (2020, Dey Street Books): US Representative (D-MN).
Ben Sheehan: OMG WTF Does the Constitution Actually Say? A Non-Boring Guide to How Our Democracy Is Supposed to Work (2020, Black Dog & Leventhal). Executive producer at Funny or Die, founder of OMG WTF in six battleground states, "projects he's been involved with have received over a billion views."
Cass R Sunstein: Too Much Information: Understanding What You Don't Want to Know (2020, MIT Press).
Cass R Sunstein: Liars: Falsehoods and Free Speech in an Age of Deception (2021, Oxford University Press).
Julia Sweig: Lady Bird Johnson: Hiding in Plain Sight (2021, Random House).
Michael Swanson: The War State: The Cold War Origins of the Military-Industrial Complex and the Power Elite, 1945-1963 (paperback, 2013, CreateSpace).
Joe William Trotter Jr: Workers on Arrival: Black Labor in the Making of America (2019, University of California Press).
Friday, October 16, 2020
Having pushed all the Trump books out earlier this week, here's a batch of 40 more book blurbs, plus another 110 books briefly noted -- 48 in the following section, plus 62 tacked onto main section notes. [PS: Added some books after this count. Also note that I added more Trump-related books to the previous post.]
I find this exercise useful to keep track of what the world knows -- at least, what knowledgeable people in America are saying about what concerns them. But there's also an element of nostalgia at work here. For most of my life, I visited book stores two or more times a week, spending innumerable hours poking through the shelves. I slacked off when Borders was driven out of business. Hasn't helped that Barnes & Noble has mostly turned into a toy store. Blame it on Amazon if you want, but they're my main source for these notes.
Still, I keep feeling that I'm not getting as systematic a survey as I'd like. Amazon has replaced their related suggestions with "books you may like," which are so redundant from page to page that they smell like ads. Their browsing system is even lamer, leading me at times to search for other sources -- to little avail. I keep thinking this list is rather arbitrary. In fact, I have as many book titles jotted down in my draft file, but didn't feel like writing up at the moment of discovery, and haven't taken the time to backtrack. Meanwhile, I'm including Ted Cruz, because the moment I saw the book I knew what to say.
I was figuring four times a year would be a reasonable pace, but then came up with the idea of briefly noting titles I didn't feel like writing about. That probably reduces the need to 2-3 times per year. This is the second this year (not counting the two Trump sets). Could do a third, but may not get to it.
Books from the main section I've read so far: Danielle S Allen: Our Declaration; Thomas Frank: The People, No; Jacob S Hacker/Paul Pierson: Let Them Eat Tweets. Just started Sheri Berman: Democracy and Dicatorship in Europe, and have Kurt Andersen: Evil Geniuses on deck. I haven't updated the archive yet. It's too big to be useful for readers, but I use it to check whether I've written on a book before. As such, I need to get it updated before working on a new installment. I've jotted down enough book titles for another post, but don't plan on writing them up until after the election.
Danielle S Allen: Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality (2014; paperback, 2015, Liveright): A deep reading of all 1,337 words, often taking several chapters to work through a single sentence, disentangling multiple authors and printers who added their own distinct touches, the historical context, and the debates that were ultimately obscured in compromise. I've long been convinced that the only way to gain agreement is through equality, and Allen shows how this works in very specific ways.
Kurt Andersen: Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America (2020, Random House): More of a novelist and humor writer (3 and 5 books respectively -- a 1980 humor title is Tools of Power: The Elitist's Guide to the Ruthless Exploitation of Everybody and Everything) until recently, when he tried to sum up the whole of American history as Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire (2017), offers a brief recap of the 1970s and before, then surveys the many things that have gone wrong since -- I assume properly assigning blame to right-wingers who fit the title, not that there haven't been plenty more who came up a bit short in the "genius" department.
Anne Applebaum: Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism (2020, Doubleday): Like Timothy Snyder, an historian who thinks her research on Eastern Europe -- e.g., Red Famine: Stalin's War on Ukraine (2018) -- gives her the authority to comment on the rise of illiberalism and the eclipse of democracy under Republicans in America. While it can be occasionally amusing to compare Republican Party discipline to Soviet apparatchiki, it misses much, like the fundamental Communist commitment to serve the working class -- nothing like that among America's anti-democrats. Isn't it much more likely to find anti-democratic roots in American history, with its legacy of colonial rule, slavery, capitalism, and empire?
Sheri Berman: Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe: From the Ancien Régime to the Present Day (2019, Oxford University Press): A broad comparative history of political systems in Western Europe -- the table of contents doesn't offer anything east of Germany and Italy, or earlier than the late 18th century, but the introduction starts earlier and looks further. Lots of recent books on current threats to democracy from would-be dictators, but few go back further than the 1930s, obscuring two essential points: the promise of democracy was to expand and equalize power, in most cases achieved only through revolution against autocracy; would-be dictators almost always sought to defend or restore autocratic power. Of course, the earlier term was aristocracy, but conservatives have proven flexible enough to stand up for any class that enjoys the privileges of wealth.
David Brooks: The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life (2019, Random House): Right-wing pundit/hack, likes to exult the moral superiority of conservatives, a profession of whitewashing that's been hard to sustain since Trump became his followers' leader. This seems to have nudged him into resistance, but here he mainly tunnels into his own personal conviction of moral superiority, thinking that will protect him from the evils of his former comrades, as well as from the masses he's always dedicated himself to keeping in their place.
Lee Camp: Bullet Points and Punch Lines: The Most Important Commentary Ever Written on the Epic American Tragicomedy (paperback, 2020, PM Press). Left political commentator, has a rep as a comedian, but his chapter titles aren't very funny -- "The Pentagon Can't Account for 21 Trillion Dollars (That's Not a Typo)," "Nearly 100 Thousand Pentagon Whistleblower Complaints Have Been Silenced," "Everyone Has Fallen for Lies about Venezuela," "Trump's Miliary Drops a Bomb Every 12 Minutes, and No One Is Talking about It," etc.), and each piece comes with footnotes. Jimmy Dore (another "comedian") wrote the introduction, and Chris Hedges (a moralist with no discernible sense of humor) the foreword. They, too, have books:
Sarah Chayes: On Corruption in America: And What Is at Stake (2020, Knopf): Journalist, covered the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, made herself at home there, wrote a book about how corruption undermined whatever best intentions some of the American occupiers might have had -- The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban (2006) -- winding up on the US payroll as "special advisor to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff" on corruption. She moved on to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and wrote another big book on corruption: Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security. Here she finally reaches the major leagues, looking at corruption in America. Table of contents suggests her interests fade out past the 1990s, which is a shame considering that Trump's worth a long book all by himself. I guess it's hard to write history while it's still happening. Much as it's hard to rebuild a country while you're still blowing it to shit.
Ellis Cose: The Short Life & Curious Death of Free Speech in America (2020, Amistad). Journalist, twelfth book though I hadn't noticed any of the earlier ones, many dealing with racism. Blurb here describes this as "about the stranglehold the rich and powerful have on free speech." This fits in with my definition of advertising as not free but very expensive speech, priced to form a barrier to entry against those who cannot afford it. I'm not sure this even gets around to advertising, as he starts with hate speech and incitement to violence, and moves on to consider how the right's "defense" of "free speech" on campus attempts to stifle it. Some other books by Cose:
Ted Cruz: One Vote Away: How a Single Supreme Court Seat Can Change History (2020, Regnery): Seems like uncanny timing, but what he's really arguing is that losing a seat from the 5-4 right-wing majority would give "the left the power to curtail or even abolish the freedoms that have made our country a beacon to the world." I'd ask "what the fuck?" but he kindly enumerates the threat: "One vote preserves your right to speak freely, to bear arms, and to exercise your faith." Given that two of those are much more carefully protected by liberals, it really just comes down to the guns, doesn't it? Well, and things Cruz doesn't publicize, because they protect and further empower privileged elites, like Cruz.
David Dayen: Monopolized: Life in the Age of Corporate Power (2020, New Press): "Today, practically everything we buy, everywhere we shop, and every service we secure comes from a heavily concentrated market." This concentration generates most of the profits businesses enjoy, sucking money up to feed the ever-growing wealth of the very richest people on the planet. Focuses more on case studies than on statistical scale, but works even more inexorably there. Along with money, monopoly sucks up power, giving corporations and their masters ever more control over our lives. Dayen previously wrote Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street's Great Foreclosure Fraud (paperback, 2017, New Press). Other recent books on monopoly:
By the way, searching for "monopoly" also brought up some older books (one might even say classics):
Robert Draper: To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America Into Iraq (2020, Penguin Press): Seems like this whole saga has been recounted many times before, but I doubt it hurts to be reminded of how arrogant and mendacious the Bush administration was to sell their plot to invade and occupy Iraq. It's all but universally agreed now that doing so was a very foolish thing -- many of us could have told you so at the time, yet the self-conception of the neocons demanded that the war be pursued and insisted that its success was inevitable (their only debates were if, or more likely when, they'd push on through Syria and Iran). Draper's previous books include Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W Bush (2007).
Thomas Frank: The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism (2020, Metropolitan Books): Like myself, a Kansas-bred author with a long interest in and sympathy for the Peoples Party, which swept into power in Kansas around 1890, and fizzled as a political party after aligning with William Jennings Bryan's Democrats in 1896. Frank covers the opposition to Bryan in 1896, and the less successful opposition to Franklin Roosevelt in 1936, in some detail, finding common threads of "anti-populism." He then jumps to the present day, finding anti-populism once more on the rise, but anomalously among the coastal liberal elites who have taken over the Democratic Party -- a group he skewered in his 2016 book Listen, Liberal: Or What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?. I'm less impressed by that part of the book. I don't doubt that liberal elites have their blind spots, but the right still embodies the anti-populism of 1896 and 1936 in near pristine form, and they're still the biggest problem.
Beth Gardiner: Choked: Life and Breath in the Age of Air Pollution (2019, University of Chicago Press): Air quality decreased steadily in the US until laws were passed to regulate it in the 1970s -- laws which worked, although it's hard to say for how long given the Trump administration's resolve to limit enforcement of the regulations it isn't able to overturn directly. Elsewhere the situation is often worse -- in London, where the author lives, and even worse in places she visits like Poland and India. All told, "air pollution prematurely kills seven million people every year." Related:
Mary Grabar: Debunking Howard Zinn: Exposing the Fake History That Turned a Generation Against America (2019, Regnery). The book Grabar attacks is Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, which revisits American history with eyes open to the experiences and views of those people treated most harshly by American power -- people who have often been forgotten when respectable histories were written. Whether Zinn actually "turned a generation against America" is questionable. He certainly opened some eyes to past (and present) injustices, giving us a clearer idea of what needs to be changed in moving forward. He's also upset a lot of conservatives, who are happy with their myths.
Steven Greenhouse: Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor (2019, Knopf): Journalist, covered labor for New York Times 1983-2014, previously writing The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker (2008, Knopf), so he has a long, detailed view of the dismantling of labor power in America, but he should also be able to point out cases of increased worker militancy over the last few years, as well as the revived interest of left Democrats in unions. I'd expect there to be more books on this, but I'm having trouble finding them.
Jacob S Hacker/Paul Pierson: Let Them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality (2020, Liveright): Authors have a long line of important books on the rise of the right since 2000 -- their The Great Risk Shift: The Assault on American Jobs, Families, Health Care, and Retirement and How You Can Fight Back (2007) -- is one of the most insightful. This adds a few Trump ruffles, but is most important for reminding us that Trump's worst policies are long-term Republican projects, the purpose of which is to make the rich not just richer but more powerful, aiming to lock their advantages in well into the future.
Yuval Noah Harari: 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018, Spiegel & Grau): Israeli historian, wrote big picture books like Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014) and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2017), takes a swing at a scattering of topics, like "Civilization" ("there is just one civilization in the world"), "Nationalism" ("global problems need global answers"), "War" ("never underestimate human stupidity"), "Ignorance" ("you know less than you think"), "Meaning" ("life is not a story").
Sarah Stewart Holland/Beth A Silvers: I Think You're Wrong (but I'm Listening): A Guide to Grace-Filled Political Conversations 2019, Thomas Nelson): "Sarah from the left and Beth from the right," share a podcast called Pantsuit Politics, fill a small niche for folks who don't live in any of our self-defined, self-affirmed ideological ghettoes, who run into people from warring political camps and don't want to shy away from the subject. I think that's a different concern from the so-called centrists, who are often as narrow-minded as the extremists but are sneakier, pretending to be reasonable while trying to covertly push self-serving agendas. Related:
Seth Masket: Learning From Loss: The Democrats 2016-2020 (2020, Cambridge University Press): Democratic Party strategist, sees Joe Biden's nomination as "a strategic choice by a party that had elevated electability above all other concerns." That's far from the only possible lesson that could be discerned from Hillary Clinton's loss in 2016, but it's certainly true that the Democratic left is much more united behind Biden than the right/center would have been behind Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. Whether Democrats can sell Biden to marginal voters (both ones tempted to vote for Trump or some other candidate and ones who prone to skipping the vote) remains to be seen. I'm no Biden fan, but I'm not unhappy with this resolution. But it's clear to me that another lesson from 2016 is that the Democrats have to learn to deliver results, and have to make a case and a stink when Republicans block them -- the sudden backtracking of Clinton in 1993 and Obama in 2009 led to catastrophic losses in Congress, and while both remained personally popular enough to win second terms, neither delivered on more than a tiny fraction of their campaign promises. Their loss of faith was a major factor in Hillary Clinton's loss in 2016.
Stephanie Kelton: The Deficit Myth: Modern Monetary Theory and the Birth of the People's Economy (2020, Public Affairs): All about MMT, which would seem to rationalize much more extensive government deficit spending than is commonly regarded as prudent. If valid, it would provide an answer to the naysayers who always reject left proposals by declaring them too expensive. I can't say as I understand it, and will note that many Keynesian economists remain skeptical or worse (and these are people who generally believe that more deficit spending is a good thing). Related:
Ibram X Kendi: How to Be an Antiracist (2019, One World): Historian, wrote a major book Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (2016), which explored five Amerian figures in depth: Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, WEB DuBois, and Angela Davis. This book recounts his family life, events which revealed racism in various guises, leading to a taxonomy he contrasts with "antiracism"; some examples: "assimilationist"/"segregationist," "biological," "ethnic"; also "internalized racism." This book became a belated bestseller after the George Floyd killing.
Matthew C Klein/Michael Pettis: Trade Wars Are Class Wars: How Rising Inequality Distorts the Global Economy and Threatens International Peace (2020, Yale University Press): "A provocative look at how today's trade conflicts are caused by governments promoting the interests of elites at the expense of workers." That's certainly what happens when the US negotiates trade deals: businesses lobby for advantages (especially for the collection of rents on patents and copyrights), while opposition from unions concerned about jobs and wages is casually ignored. The US has run trade deficits ever since 1970, and that turns out to be an efficient way to transfer wealth from workers/consumers to the rich, as those deficits are recycled through the banks to help prop up the assets of the rich.
Richard Kreitner: Break It Up: Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America's Imperfect Union (2020, Little Brown): A history going back to the colonial period of movements to unite and divide the American colonies/states. While the history is interesting, its utility to thinking about the recent Red/Blue State split is less clear. Every state has a substantial purple minority, at least partly protected by the federal government and economic and cultural union. Division would increase polarization, both within and between nascent states. One could instead have looked at secession and division around the world, where the results have most often been ominous. Aside from numerous border clashes and internal purges, the most common result is an increase in government plunder and oligarchy. One critique I've seen of this book [actually, of the David French book below] is that it's way too optimistic. This is precisely the sort of subject which inspires high hopes and bitter disappointment.
David Paul Kuhn: The Hardhat Riot: Nixon, New York City, and the Dawn of the White Working-Class Revolution (2020, Oxford University Press): About the New York City mob -- supposedly unionized construction workers -- that went berserk attacking anti-war protesters in the days after the Kent State massacre in 1970. Nixon had escalated the war in Vietnam, and was rationalizing his act by claiming support of a "silent majority" of Americans, so he was delighted to see some such group emerge from silence. Nowadays, this is seen as a pivotal event in the turn of the white working class toward Republican reaction. It did seem to have a class aspect to it, given that at this point the antiwar movement was mostly associated with middle-class (and wealthier) students at universities (although veterans were becoming increasingly prominent).
Jill Lepore: If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future (2020, Liveright): Historian, major early work was on King Philip's War in the colonial period, but she's jumped around a lot, landing here post-WWII when computers were first used for Cold War propaganda and plotting political campaigns. I read a precis of this in The New Yorker and figured it to be a stand-alone essay, so I have no idea how she expanded that to 452 pages. Except, I guess, that "the future" is one of those expansive subjects.
Evan Osnos: Joe Biden: The Life, the Run, and What Matters Now (2020, Scribner): New Yorker writer, looks like a quickie (192 pp) but not available until a week before the election (which is to say a week before the most important fact becomes known). Even so, there is very little serious competition, despite the fact that Biden has been a shoe-in for the nomination since mid-March, after having been the front-runner for most of 2015, and was well known long before. If anything, this pathetic list suggests that who he is or what he stands for hardly matters next to the horrors of his opponent. [October 27] Other Biden books (including previous mentions*):
Dave Rubin: Don't Burn This Book: Thinking for Yourself in an Age of Unreason (2020, Sentinel): Author, who describes himself as "a former progressive turned classical liberal," claims to have "the most-watched show about free speech and big ideas on YouTube." But his "free thinking" is mostly borrowed from Jordan Peterson, and his received nonsense is anything but free. Rather, it supports a factless rant against an imaginary left, which is based on his failure to understand the first thing about the real left, which is that all people deserve respect and support, in a way that fairly balances individual desires with collective needs. Classical liberalism started to understand that, before falling into a hedonism that celebrated the greediest individuals as they trampled over everyone else. They flatter themselves as "free thinkers" when all they really are is self-indulgent. It's all very sad.
Michael J Sandel: The Tyranny of Merit: What's Become of the Common Good? (2020, Farrar Straus and Giroux): Another look at the false promise and sordid reality of meritocracy -- the notion that people rise to their level of ability, which easily gets twisted around to rationalizing that inequality as it exists is a reflection of merit. Chris Hayes wrote a good book on this subject -- Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy (2012), and there have been others, like Daniel Markovits: The Meritocracy Trap: How America's Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite (2019). Sandel is more of a philosopher, with previous books like Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? (2009), and What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (2012).
Jared Yates Sexton: American Rule: How a Nation Conquered the World but Failed Its People (2020, Dutton): I suppose you could say that the genius of the American political system is its ability to satisfy all special interests, as long as they aren't seen as impinging on one another (and by design they are rarely seen otherwise). This, rather than deep ideological beliefs, explains a lot of American foreign policy. Thus, the US happily does the bidding of companies in foreign countries. Conversely, interests that aren't strongly represented among Washington lobbyists have no clout, and their number includes almost everyone in the world. But sometimes, the indifference and casual cruelty of US foreign policy comes back to bite us, so maybe the system doesn't balance interests off so well after all? I think that's what the author is getting at here, but with Trump on the one hand and his neoliberal/neoconservative critics on the other, there's a lot of extra muck to wade through. But one has to conclude that the persistent practice of injustice abroad eventually leads to injustice at home.
David Shimer: Rigged: America, Russia, and One Hundred Years of Covert Electoral Interference (2020, Knopf): Tries to put Russia's "interference" with the 2016 US election into historical context, finding that both the US and Russia have mucked each other about, and much of the rest of the world, for a long time. He gets to 100 years by citing Russia's attempt to lead Communist Parties around the world through Comintern. Not sure whether he mentions that the US (like Great Britain and a few others) sent troops to Russia in 1918 to fight against the Revolution. (He does allow that "Foreign democracies assumed the Comintern had powers it did not.") Of more concern here is the recent cyberwarfare, not least because it seems like a low-risk way to do under-handed things. Sensible leaders would negotiate agreements to reduce or end the problem. Trump and Putin aren't sensible.
Bryant Simon: The Hamlet Fire: A Tragic Sory of Cheap Food, Cheap Government, and Cheap Lives (2017, New Press): The story of a fire in a chicken processing plant in Hamlet, NC (1991), killing 25 workers -- an omen that the days of the famous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire are returning.
Neal Simon: Contract to Unite America: Ten Reforms to Reclaim Our Republic (2020, Real Clear Publishing): Author ran as an independent for Senate from Maryland, and lost, of course. He suffers from the typical myopia of centrists: thinking the two parties are mirror opposites, and insisting there is more common ground (and no crippling differences) between them than there is. Accordingly, his ten reforms are almost purely procedural: Open Primaries Act, Educated Electorate Act ("A nonpartisan Federal Debate Commission will be created to ensure the fairness and caliber of presidential and congressional election debates"), Term Limits Constitutional Amendment, Elections Transparency Act, Campaign Finance Constitutional Amendment ("Government may distinguish between corporations and people, and Congress and the states can apply reasonable limits on campaign spending"), Ballot Access Act, Fair Districts Act, Fair Representation Act, Congressional Rules, and Creating a Culture of Unity ("We call on our next president to form a bipartisan administration, for Congress to sign a civility pledge, for Americans to participate in national service, and for our schools to revive civics education"). The reality is that American politics has become polarized around the deepest divide of the modern era: between the rich and the masses. As self-appointed agents of the rich, the Republicans have come to view democracy as a trap, which is why they feel no qualms about lying, cheating, and stealing. And as they have become successful at exploiting loopholes and inequities in law and even in the Constitution, some Democrats are realizing that they, too, have to fight dirty, even if they can justify to themselves the need to restore and preserve democracy. Related:
Roberto Sirvent/Danny Haiphong: American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People's History of Fake News -- From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror (2019, Skyhorse): By "fake news" they mean propaganda, more specifically stories that were spun by apologists of power, hoping to convince people that Americans are more exceptional and more innocent than is plainly the case. I've long thought that "American exceptionalism" was a self-flattering myth wrapped around a set of trivial truths, such that you could never really pick it apart, even as it was used to justify unconscionable deeds. "American innocence" is harder to explain, no matter how far you go back or afield, so that angle poses a fat target for these authors.
Timothy Snyder: Our Malady: Lessons in Liberty From a Hospital Diary (paperback, 2020, Crown): The historian and author of On Liberty: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century got sick, and (barely) lived to write about it. Doesn't reflect well on the American health care system . . . or on American democracy, which are not unrelated.
Jim Tankersley: The Riches of This Land (2020, Public Affairs): The post-WWII economic boom built the most expansive middle class in American history, a novelty at the time, and today an increasingly distant memory. What happened? Good question, but I'm not so sure about his answer: "He begins by unraveling the real mystery of the American economy since the 1970s -- not where did the jobs go, but why haven't new and better ones been created to replace them." The secret of the middle class was never that everyone had all of the education and opportunity to get the best jobs they could. The secret was that all jobs, even menial ones, paid enough to live on. That didn't last because wages failed to keep up with inflation and productivity gains -- because workers got screwed coming and going. Of course, it's true that America was never as middle class as white folks thought, and that weakness started the slide.
Alex S Vitale: The End of Policing (paperback, 2018, Verso): This book and author got a fair amount of attention after the "defund the police" meme spread following the George Floyd murder. Matthew Yglesias wrote a review, finding Vitale's arguments not quite convincing. That's probably right in some final analysis, but unless you start to question the principles behind policing, prosecution, incarceration, etc., it's impossible to straighten out the mess we're in. For instance, I think we need more policing of spam and hacking on the Internet, but don't necessarily see jail as the solution. I looked through my books file and found just 12 references to "police" and 10 to "policing," including: Paul Butler: Chokehold: Policing Black Men (2017); Angela Davis, ed: Policing the Black Man: Arrest, Prosecution, and Imprisonment (2017); Virginia Eubanks: Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor (2018); Jordan T Camp/Christina Heatherton, eds: Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter (2016); James Forman Jr: Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America (2017). A quick search uncovered some more (and no doubt still more will appear soon):
Isabel Wilkerson: Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (2020, Random House): A book on how inequality gets preserved and locked in inherited systems passed on from generation to generation. Compares several such systems, starting with the now-banned caste system in India. Wilkerson's specialty is Afro-American history -- her major book was The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration (2010) -- so it's easy enough to see how one might try to view racial inequality through the lens caste provides. The third system Wilkerson considers is the race hierarchy instituted by Nazi Germany, but the latter was short-lived and frankly genocidal, whereas the American system lasted for hundreds of years, and the Indian one for thousands. No doubt this is informative, not least when she gets personal, but doesn't it obscure at least one key point? Inequality persists even after formal caste systems are ended, at which point isn't class the more relevant concept?
Meaghan Winter: All Politics Is Local: Why Progressives Must Fight for the States (2019, Bold Type Books): Title comes from former House Speaker Tip O'Neill's slogan, which in itself doesn't make it convincing or appealing. Still, the argument that the left needs to campaign everywhere is important. It's certainly something that the right understands, not least because in a multi-tiered political system any jurisdiction they can seize can be used to throttle opposition, to prohibit change, and to consolidate power. The right is always seeking to increase its power, thereby increasing inequality and injustice. Any success they have generates resistance, which makes for fertile ground for the left to organize. Or you could look at it from the wrong end of the telescope: we've actually had Democratic presidents with no interest or success at building local parties, and they've proven ineffective and sometimes downright dangerous.
Matthew Yglesias: One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger (2020, Portfolio): Possibly the most successful pundit of the blog era, parlayed that into co-founder of Vox, which is where I get a high percentage of my Weekend Roundup articles from. Won a poll as "neoliberal shill of the year" recently, which doesn't mean all the horrors we often associate with that label, but does still indicate a strong focus on market pricing mechanisms and unbounded growth. This book expands on his posts extolling the benefits of immigration, which is how he hopes to triple the population of the United States. Why that may even be a good thing is hard to say, but evidently he gins up old clichés about keeping or making American number one, faced as it is with competitors like China and India which already have their billion people. That's a really bad reason. By the way:
Daniel Ziblatt: Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy (paperback, 2017, Cambridge University Press): Co-author, with Steven Levitsky, of How Democracies Die (2018), a book much in vogue recently as Trump has eroded and further bespoiled the system of graft and manipulation that has long passed for democracy in America. In his comparative study of the growth of democracy in Europe from 1830 to 1933, Ziblatt argues that expansion of the vote has depended more on what conservative parties decided to allow than on collective action by the middle and/or working classes. Still, don't discount fear of revolution as motivation for conservatives -- Russia is the exception that proves the rule. Another formula for disaster: when conservative parties tried to claw back aristocratic privileges, as the fascists did in the 1920s and 1930s, and the Republicans have tried to do since 1980.
Other recent books, briefly noted.
Peter Baker/Susan Glasser: The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A Baker III (2020, Doubleday): 720 pp.
Susan Berfeld: The Hour of Fate: Theodore Roosevelt, JP Morgan, and the Battle to Transform American Capitalism (2020, Bloomsbury).
John O Brennan: Undaunted: My Fight Against America's Enemies, at Home and Abroad (2020, Caledon Books): Obama's CIA director.
Pete Buttigieg: Trust: America's Best Chance (2020, Liveright).
Irin Carmon/Shana Knizhnik: Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (2015, Dey Street Books).
Alexis Cole: You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington (2020, Viking).
Andrew Cuomo: American Crisis: Leadership Lessons From the Covid-19 Pandemic (2020, Crown): New York governor.
Elizabeth Currid-Halkett: The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class (2017; paperback, 2018, Princeton University Press).
Jeremy Dauber: Jewish Comedy: A Serious History (paperback, 2018, WW Norton).
Alan Dershowitz: The Case for Liberalism in an Age of Extremism: Or, Why I Left the Left but Can't Join the Right (2020, Hot Books).
Robin DiAngelo: White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (paperback, 2018, Beacon Press).
Leonard Downie Jr: All About the Story: News, Power, Politics, and the Washington Post (2020, Public Affairs).
Rod Dreher: Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents (2020, Sentinel): "Crunchy Con."
Wolfram Ellenberger: Time of the Magicians: Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Cassirer, Heidegger, and the Decade That Reinvented Philosophy (2020, Penguin Press).
Abdul El-Sayed: Healing Politics: A Doctor's Journey Into the Heart of Our Political Epidemic (2020, Abrams Press).
Federico Finchelstein: A Brief History of Fascist Lies (2020, University of California Press).
Stanley Fish: The First: How to Think About Hate Speech, Campus Speeh, Religious Speech, Fake News, Post-Truth, and Donald Trump (2019, Atria/One Signal).
Raúl Gallegos: Crude Nation: How Oil Riches Ruined Venezuela (2016, Potomac Books).
Barton Gellman: Dark Mirror: Edward Snowden and the American Surveillance State (2020, Penguin Press).
Daniel Q Gillion: The Loud Minority: Why Protests Matter in American Democracy (2020, Princeton University Press).
Ruth Bader Ginsburg: My Own Words (paperback, 2018, Simon & Schuster).
Philip H Gordon: Losing the Long Game: The False Promise of Regime Change in the Middle East (2020, St Martin's Press).
Trey Gowdy: Doesn't Hurt to Ask: Using the Power of Questions to Communicate, Connect, and Persuade (2020, Crown Forum).
Ryan Grim: We've Got People: From Jesse Jackson to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement (paperback, 2019, Strong Arm Press): Looks like several years of reporting, perhaps going back to the 1980s, but such early stories are constructed (or selected) with an eye to the present.
Richard Haass: The World: A Brief Introduction (2020, Penguin Press). Bush administrations diplomat, Council on Foreign Relations.
Malcolm Harris: Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials (2017, Little Brown; paperback, 2018, Back Bay Books).
John Higgs: Stranger Than We Can Imagine: An Alternative History of the 20th Century (paperback, 2015, Soft Skull Press).
Katie Hill: She Will Rise: Becoming a Warrior in the Battle for True Equality (2020, Grand Central): Elected to Congress, resigned at first hint of scandal, wrote a book.
Harvey J Kaye: Take Hold of Our History: Make America Radical Again (paperback, 2019, Zero Books).
James Kirchick: The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age (2017, Yale University Press).
Jane Kleeb: Harvest the Vote: How Democrats Can Win Again in Rural America (2020, Ecco).
Anthony T Kronman: The Assault on American Excellence (2019, Free Press).
Lawrence Lessig: They Don't Represent Us: Reclaiming Our Democracy (2019, Dey Street Books).
Verlan Lewis: Ideas of Power: The Politics of American Party Ideology Development (paperback, 2019, Cambridge University Press).
Robert Jay Lifton: Losing Reality: On Cults, Cultism, and the Mindset of Political and Religious Zealotry (2019, New Press).
Fredrik Logevall: JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956 (2020, Random House): 816 pp.
Eric Lonergan/Mark Blyth: Angrynomics (paperback, 2020, Agenda).
HR McMaster: Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World (2020, Harper).
Jon Meacham: His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope (2020, Random House). Major biographer, with books on Jefferson, Jackson, Franklin and Winston.
Russell Muirhead/Nancy L Rosenblum: A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy (2019, Princeton University Press).
Thomas E Patterson: How America Lost Its Mind: The Assault on Reason That's Crippling Our Democracy (2019, University of Oklahoma Press).
Thomas E Patterson: Is the Republican Party Destroying Itself? And Why It Needs to Reclaim Its Conservative Ideals (paperback, 2020, independent).
Joshua L Powell: Inside the NRA: A Tell-All Acount of Corruption, Greed, and Paranoia Within the Most Powerful Political Group in America (2020, Twelve): Author was a NRA senior strategist and chief of staff to NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre.
Markus Prior: Hooked: How Politics Captures People's Interest (paperback, 2019, Cambridge University Press).
Alex Ross: Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music (2020, Farrar Straus and Giroux). 784 pp.
Douglas Rushkoff: Team Human: Our Technologies, Markets, and Cultural Institutions -- Once Forces for Human Connection and Expression -- Now Isolate and Repress Us. It's Time to Remake Society Together, Not as Individual Players but as the Team We Actually Are (2019, WW Norton).
Jeffrey D Sachs: The Ages of Globalization: Geography, Technology, and Institutions (2020, Columbia University Press).
Mark Salter: The Luckiest Man: Life With John McCain (2020, Simon & Schuster): The late Senator's long-time ghostwriter.
Antonin Scalia: The Essential Scalia: On the Constitution, the Courts, and the Rule of Law (2020, Crown Forum).
Nathan Schneider: Everything for Everyone: The Radical Tradition That Is Shaping the Next Economy (2018, Bold Type Books).
Al Sharpton: Rise Up: Confronting a Country at the Crossroads (2020, Hanover Square Press).
Vandana Shiva: Who Really Feeds the World? The Failures of Agribusiness and the Promise of Agroecology (paperback, 2016, North Atlantic Books).
Margaret Sullivan: Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy (paperback, 2020, Columbia Global Reports): Washington Post media columnist, 105 pp.
Jennifer Taub: Big Dirty Money: The Shocking Injustice and Unseen Cost of White Collar Crime (2020, Viking).
George F Will: The Conservative Sensibility (2018; paperback, 2020, Hachette Books).
Leandra Ruth Zarnow: Battling Bella: The Protest Politics of Bella Abzug (2019, Harvard University Press).
Wednesday, October 14, 2020
More Trump Books
Back in May, I was working on a book roundup, my first since October 2019. I found I had so many books on Trump, his administration, and the 2020 presidential campaign that I thought it best to break them out into a separate post (see: Trump Books), before proceeding to a non-Trump Book Roundup a few days later. In an effort to be comprehensive, I did two things I don't normally do: I included a list of books I had previously noted (some with new or trimmed-down blurbs), and I looked ahead to identify forthcoming books up through the election. I thought I did a pretty thorough job, but it turns out I missed a bunch of books -- especially several bestsellers. I wrote a bit about them in the blog, including a general roundup note on September 7. I promised then to catch up with my next book roundup. Turns out that once again there's enough Trump material -- including a few forthcoming books -- to warrant a separate post.
Again, this will be followed shortly with a regular book roundup. This next post will cover several significant critiques of the Trump era, albeit ones that don't obsess over Trump himself -- prime examples are: Jacob S Hacker/Paul Pierson: Let Them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality, and Thomas Frank: The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism. I may look at the Democratic Party side of the election, but there doesn't seem to be much new there -- I wrote up a fairly long list in the Trump Books post, under Dan Pfeiffer: Un-Trumping America: A Plan to Make America a Democracy Again -- but I do have something written for Seth Masket: Learning From Loss: The Democrats 2016-2020. I'm thinking I might hang a list of Joe Biden books under Evan Osnos' still-forthcoming biography, but it won't be very long.
* Book added since initial posting.
Michael Anton: The Stakes: America at the Point of No Return (2020, Regnery): Publisher is all the signal you need, but here's some background: Anton wrote a famous essay calling 2016 "The Flight 93 Election," because he figured it was better to storm the cockpit and crash the plane than to let Hillary Clinton win. He explains "the stakes" here: "The Democratic Party has become the party of 'identity politics' -- and every one of those identities is defined against a unifying national heritage of patriotism, pride in America's past, and hope for a shared future. . . . Against them is a divided Republican Party. Gravely misunderstanding the opposition, old-style Republicans still seek bipartisanship and accommodation, wrongly assuming that Democrats care about playing by the tiresome old rules laid down in the Constitution and other fundamental charters of American liberty." Previous and related:
Devlin Barrett: October Surprise: How the FBI Tried to Save Itself and Crashed an Election (2020, Public Affairs): How FBI head James Comey threw the 2016 election to Donald Trump -- "a pulsating narrative of an agency seized with righteous certainty that waded into the most important political moment in the life of the nation, and has no idea how to back out with dignity."
Maria Bartiromo/James Freeman: The Cost: Trump, China, and American Revival (2020, Threshold Editions). Fox Business face, name much larger on the cover of this propaganda tract, lashing out at Trump's enemies both within government and beyond, but especially "the Chinese communist government." Conclusion: "The destruction caused by the coronavirus is the latest and greatest test for the Trump prosperity agenda." [October 27]
Bob Bauer/Jack Goldsmith: After Trump: Reconstructing the Presidency (paperback, 2020, Lawfare Institute): Fifty recommendations for reforming the Presidency, most likely sensible ones especially given the fears that electing a deranged sociopath like Trump elicits. Authors have worked in the White House under Bush II and Obama.
Paul Begala: You're Fired: The Perfect Guide to Beating Donald Trump (2020, Simon & Schuster): Chief strategist for the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign, ran a pro-Obama Super PAC in 2012, has co-authored two books with James Carville. Starts with a "Mea Culpa" for 2016, then a chapter on "Coronavirus," before he starts recycling his greatest hits (e.g., "It's Still the Economy, Stupid."
Tom Burgis: Kleptopia: How Dirty Money Is Conquering the World (2020, Harper): "He follows the dirty money that is flooding the global economy, emboldening dictators, and poisoning democracies. From the Kremlin to Beijing, Harare to Riyadh, Paris to the White House," warning that "the thieves are uniting," and "the human cost will be great." Previously wrote The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa's Wealth (2015).
Michael Cohen: Disloyal: The True Story of the Former Personal Attorney to President Donald J Trump (2020, Skyhorse): Given how many sensible policy reasons one can enumerate for opposing Trump, no one needs to read (much less pay for) this book. But if you want dirt, the premise here is that nobody knows more about a scumbag than another one.
Jerome R Corsi: Coup d'État: Exposing Deep State Treason and the Plan to Re-Elect President Trump (2020, Post Hill Press): Best-selling right-wing author and unindicted Roger Stone co-conspirator. Not sure how I missed this -- perhaps it seemed like a reprint of his 2018 book, Killing the Deep State: The Fight to Save President Trump. His conspiracy theories have the advantage of targeting unseen forces that are every bit as troubling to the left, if not to the sort of Democrats who get security clearances. On the other hand, I've missed Corsi books in the past. Here are some:
John W Dean/Bob Altemeyer: Authoritarian Nightmare: Trump and His Followers (2020, Melville House): The conservative conscience of Nixon's Watergate scandal, became an outspoken critic of GW Bush -- cf. Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W Bush (2004), Conservatives Without Conscience (2006), and Broken Government: How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Branches (2007) -- was overdue for a broadside on Trump. Probably overwhelmed.
Norman Eisen: A Case for the American People: The United States V. Donald J Trump (2020, Crown): Democrats' special impeachment counsel on the House Judiciary Committee.
Greg Geisler: The Top 300 Reasons Why You Shouldn't Vote for Donald Trump (Even if You Are a Lifelong Republican) (paperback, 2020, independent). First one reads: "Trump is an existential threat to our republic. Trump derogates our long-standing, shared beliefs that have represented who we are as a nation:" -- then enumerates 20 such beliefs, and refers to "Appendix A" for quotes. Amazon's sample doesn't stops before number 3 ("Trump commits treason . . .") is done enumerating the many ways Trump appeases "our enemy, Russia." That's not even a point I would make.
Masha Gessen: Surviving Autocracy (2020, Riverhead Books): Russian, fled to New York as her vitriol against Vladimir Putin increased, has written extensively on him and the stifling of reform politics in Russia. Attempts to draw lessons from there for dealing with Trump here, although a key early chapter is "Waiting for the Reichstag Fire" -- reminding us that autocracy (and for that matter evil) takes various forms which reinforce common assumptions. I don't think it's necessary to view Trump as a malignancy comparable to Hitler or even Putin, but it's also no accident (and really no shame) that some people do.
Jeffrey Goldberg, ed: The American Crisis: What Went Wrong. How We Recover. (paperback, 2020, Simon & Schuster). Fairly substantial (576 pp) collection of essays from The Atlantic, including a 165 page section called "The Age of Trump." There's a lot here, like a 2018 article by Ed Yong called "When the Next Plague Hits" which predicts that Trump won't handle it well.
John R Hibbing: The Securitarian Personality: What Really Motivates Trump's Base and Why It Matters for the Post-Trump Era (2020, Oxford University Press). Posits a slight but key difference between Trump supporters and the supporters of 1930s fascist parties Theodor Adorno characterized in The Authoritarian Personality. These Trumpists crave "protection for themselves, their families, and their dominant cultural group from these embodied outsider threats," while other threats "such as climate change, Covid-19, and economic inequality" hardly phase them at all. That doesn't sound so different to me. Both feel aggrieved, blame others, and seek to crush them and gain privileges thereby, with few qualms about violence -- indeed, many relish the prospect.
Harold Holzer: The Presidents vs the Press: The Endless Battle Between the White House and the Media -- From the Founding Fathers to Fake News. By now there must be a whole shelf of books which pick a topic where Donald Trump is an extreme, unprecedented outlier, and show how the other 44 presidents had their own slightly checkered records. George Washington didn't like how the press treated him, but kept it to himself. John Adams had a much thinner skin. Theodor Roosevelt and John Kennedy were particularly adept at currying favor with reporters. Trump hasn't gone as far as Adams in banning unfavorable press, but he has weaponized the media in ways no one before imagined.
Stephen F Knott: The Lost Soul of the American Presidency: The Decline Into Demagoguery and the Prospects for Renewal (paperback, 2020, University of Kansas Press). Cover pictures George Washington, Andrew Jackson, and Donald Trump. Jackson and Trump count among the demagogues, with Knott blaming Jefferson for "paving the way" toward Jackson. Knott, a professor at the US Naval War College, cites several presidents who "resisted pandering": Washington, John Quincy Adams, Abraham Lincoln, William Howard Taft -- note that two of those were unpopular single-term rejects.
Carlos Lozada: What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era (2020, Simon & Schuster): A Washington Post book critic surveys "some 150 volumes claiming to diagnose why Trump was elected and what his presidency reveals about our nation," and finds them "more defensive than incisive, more righteous than right." I'd like to see the reading list. (Publisher website mentions, without giving authors: Hillbilly Elegy [JD Vance]; On Tyranny [Timothy Snyder]; No Is Not Enough [Naomi Klein]; How to Be an Antiracist [Ibram X Kendi]; The Corrosion of Conservatism [Max Boot].)
Suzanne Mettler/Robert C Lieberman: Four Threats: The Recurring Crises of American Democracy (2020, St Martin's Press): History, explores four threats ("political polarization, racism and nativism, economic inequality, and excessive executive power") through "five moments in history when democracy in the US was under siege: the 1790s, the Civil War [1850s], the Gilded Age [the 1890s], the Depression [1930s], and Watergate [1970s]." As they point out, the present is no less grave.
James A Morone: Republic of Wrath: How American Politics Turned Tribal From George Washington to Donald Trump (2020, Basic Books): Historian, focuses on key elections including most of the ones in Suzanne Mettler/Robert C Lieberman: Four Threats: The Recurring Crises in American History. Polarization is symptomatic of those crises, although the causes are rooted more in injustices that cannot be easily resolved. Last chapter gloms 1968-2020 together as "We Win, They Lose" -- politics as a zero-sum game. Shouldn't be like that.
Michael S Schmidt: Donald Trump V. the United States: Inside the Struggle to Stop a President (2020, Random House): A detailed history more of the steps leading up to the special counsel appointment of Robert S Mueller than of the subsequent investigation, or the later impeachment case.
Allison Stanger: Whistleblowers: Honesty in America From Washington to Trump (2019, Yale University Press): Short book, the historical period ("From the Revolution to 9/11") a mere 106 pages but helps establish that the need to expose the secretive machinations of government isn't new with "The Internet Age" (the second, shorter part, with Edward Snowden getting his own chapter). Trump is mentioned in the title but slighted in the text: it was, after all, a "whistleblower complaint" that led to his impeachment charges, and that was just one of many, beyond the even more common leaks and efforts to halt them.
Peter Strzok: Compromised: Counterintelligence and the Threat of Donald J Trump (2020, Houghton Mifflin): FBI Deputy Assistant Director of Counterintelligence, 22 years with the FBI focusing on Russian espionage threats, purged for his supposed hostility to Trump.
Kevin Sullivan/Mary Jordan: Trump on Trial: The Investigation, Impeachment, Acquittal, and Aftermath (2020, Scribner): Front cover also lists Washington Post, and a "previous books" page leads with four of the newspaper's books, followed by books by Sullivan and/or Jordan. Title page adds "Steve Luxenberg, Editor." They say journalism is the first draft of history, and that's what you get here: yesterday's yellowed papers.
Kristin B Tate: The Liberal Invasion of Red State America (2020, Regnery). Curiously, she tries to have it both ways: claiming there's an exodus from blue states because Democrats have made it too expensive to live there, but also blaming those same "refugees" for making red states purplish or even blue (Colorado and New Hampshire are examples of the latter). A serious scholar could try to refine this further, but wouldn't get her book published by Regnery.
Mary L Trump: Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World's Most Dangerous Man (2020, Simon & Schuster): The President's niece, daughter of his older brother Fred Jr, also flaunts her PhD in psychology, which gives her a unique angle, and an insider advantage over the other shrinks who have merely imagined Trump on their couches. It's one thing to check off the boxes on mental maladies like narcissistic personality disorder, another to locate their causes in this peculiar family dynamic.
Madeleine Westerhout: Off the Record: My Dream Job at the White House, How I Lost It, and What I Learned (2020, Center Street). Former executive assistant to Trump. Not clear what her faux pas was, but even after being fired she's still sucking up to Trump.
Tim Weiner: The Folly and the Glory: America, Russia, and Political Warfare 1945-2020 (2020, Henry Holt): Author of major books on the CIA (Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA) and the FBI (Enemies: A History of the FBI). The Cold War chapters are probably old hat, succinctly told, but I have to wonder how deep he gets into the post-Soviet era, especially US efforts to rig elections in the Ukraine, and even in Russia itself (Yeltsin was not a US puppet, but various Clinton aides worked for his election).
Andrew Weissmann: Where Law Ends: Inside the Mueller Investigation (2020, Random House): Lead prosecutor under Mueller, whose unredacted report still hasn't been made public.
Stephanie Winston Wolkoff: Melania and Me: The Rise and Fall of My Friendship With the First Lady (2020, Gallery Books): Former aide to Mrs. Trump, "trusted adviser," and event planner, burns a friendship going back to 2003, revealing both author and subject to be as vain and tedious as you'd expect.
Bob Woodward: Rage (2020, Simon & Schuster): The exalted court reporter's second Trump book, after 2018's Fear, burned some bridges this time, especially with his February recording of a semi-coherent understanding of the coronavirus pandemic threat even before he started minimizing the threat in public, paving the way for his incompetent management -- the only sense in which he can claim to have made America "number one."
More Trump books are briefly noted below. I'm roughly dividing this into two lists: the first is by Trump/Republican partisans, which should give you an idea of how deceitful and/or deranged they can be; the other not just by opponents, but includes academics and other writers who strive to be fair, balanced, and objective. Of course, those who succeed, and retain a shred of concern for their fellows, wind up being opponents. The top section includes some of both, but they should be easy enough to sort out from the blurbs. (If you need help, I would have filed the following under propaganda: Anton, et al.; Bartiromo; Corsi; Tate; Westerhout. Several others started out in the Trump camp, or at least counted themselves as conservatives, before developing doubts.)
Trump propaganda, briefly noted:
TM Ballantyne Jr: Trump: The First 100 Days: The Assault Intensifies (paperback, 2017, Ballantyne Books).
Allum Bokhari: #Deleted: Big Tech's Battle to Erase the Trump Movement and Steal the Election (2020, Center Street).
Dan Bongino: Follow the Money: The Shocking Deep State Connections of the Anti-Trump Cabal (2020, Post Hill Press). [October 6]
Brian Burch: A New Catholic Moment: Donald Trump and the Politics of the Common Good (paperback, 2020, independent).
*Michael R Caputo: The Ukraine Hoax: How Decades of Corruption in the Former Soviet Republic Led to Trump's Phony Impeachment (2020, Bombardier Books).
Steve Cioccolanti: President Trump's Pro-Christian Accomplishments (paperback, 2020, Discover Media).
Dan Crenshaw: Fortitude: American Resilience in the Era of Outrage (2020, Twelve): A "rising star in Republican politics."
Dinesh D'Souza: United States of Socialism: Who's Behind It. Why It's Evil. How to Stop It. (2020, All Points Books).
*Tom Fitton: A Republic Under Assault: The Left's Ongoing Attack on American Freedom (2020, Threshold Editions). [October 20]
Matt Gaetz: Firebrand: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the MAGA Revolution (2020, Bombardier Books).
*Rick Gates: Wicked Game: An Insider's Story on How Trump Won, Mueller Failed, and America Lost (2020, Post Hill Press).
Sean Hannity: Live Free or Die: American (and the World) on the Brink (2020, Threshold Editions).
Mike Huckabee/Steve Feazel: The Three Cs That Made America Great: Christianity, Capitalism and the Constitution (2020, Trilogy Christian Publishing).
Jerome Hudson: 50 Things They Don't Want You to Know About Trump (paperback, 2020, Harper Collins): Entertainment editor at Breitbart.com. [October 27]
Michael Knight: President Trump and the New World Order: The Ramtha Trump Prophecy (paperback, 2017, North Star).
*Fred V Lucas: Abuse of Power: Inside the Three-Year Campaign to Impeach Donald Trump (2020, Bombardier).
*Theodore Roosevelt Malloch/Felipe J Cuello: Trump's World: Geo Deus (2020, Humanix Books).
Matt Margolis: Airborne: How the Liberal Media Weaponized the Coronavirus Against Donald Trump (paperback, 2020, Bombardier Books).
Florance McKoy: What Donald Trump Means to America: A Black Woman Shares What God Shows Her About This 45th President of the United States (paperback, 2020, Impact Communications).
Devin Nunes: Countdown to Socialism (paperback, 2020, Encounter Books).
Candace Owens: Blackout: How Black America Can Make Its Second Escape From the Democrat Plantation (2020, Threshold Editions).
Carter Page: Abuse and Power: How an Innocent American Was Framed in an Attempted Coup Against the President (2020, Regnery).
TJ Paine: Qanon Phenomenon: A Detailed Report on the "Storm" That Is About to Destroy the Deep State That Conspires Against the United States and on the "Great Awakening" That Will Make America Great Again! (paperback, 2020, independent).
Rand Paul: The Case Against Socialism (2019, Broadside Books).
Jeanine Pirro: Don't Lie to Me: And Stop Trying to Steal Our Freedom (2020, Center Street).
Joel B Pollak: Red November: Will the Country Vote Red for Trump or Red for Socialism? (2020, Center Street).
Phil Robertson: Jesus Politics: How to Win Back the Soul of America (2020, Thomas Nelson): Duck Dynasty dude.
Darrell Scott: Nothing to Lose: Unlikely Allies in the Struggle for a Better Black America (2020, Post Hill Press).
Robert Isaac Skidmore: Edge of the Abyss: The Usefulness of Antichrist Terminology in the Era of Donald Trump (2020, Chiron Publications).
Lee Smith: The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020, Center Street).
Franko Solar: The Sky Is Falling! Blame Trump: Why Democrats Want to Impeach Donald J Trump (paperback, 2020, La Maison).
Neville Teller: Trump and the Holy Land 2016-2020: The Deal of the Century (paperback, 2020, Troubador).
Cal Thomas: America's Expiration Date: The Fall of Empires and Superpowers . . . and the Future of the United States (paperback, 2020, Zondervan).
Donald Trump Jr: Liberal Privilege: Joe Biden and the Democrats' Defense of the Indefensible (2020, Donald J Trump Jr).
Harry Turtledove/James Morrow/Cat Rambo: And the Last Trump Shall Shound: A Future History of America (paperback, 2020, Caezik).
Kendall L Walker: A Biblical Evaluation of the Morals and Ethics of Donald Trump (paperback, 2020, independent).
Other Trump-related books, briefly noted. These are not necessarily useful or interesting, but aren't obviously right-wing propaganda. My earlier post included a whole section of humor/parody books, but I didn't find more of those worth noting. (Humor has been invaluable during the last 3.75 years, but I'm not feeling it at the moment.)
Daniel Allott: On the Road in Trump's America: A Journey Into the Heart of a Divided Nation (2020, Republic). [October 20]
*Christopher F Arndt: The Right's Road to Serfdom: The Danger of Conservatism Unbound: From Hayek to Trump (paperback, 2016, Bulkington Press).
*Anthony Atamanuik/Neil Casey: American Tantrum: The Donald J Trump Presidential Archives (paperback, 2019, Harper Collins): Satire.
Isaac J Bailey: Why Didn't We Riot? A Black Man in Trumpland (2020, Other Press). [October 6]
Amanuel Biedemariam: The History of the USA in Eritrea: From Franklin D Roosevelt to Barack Obama and How Donald Trump Changed the Course of History (paperback, 2020, Lulu.com).
Nina Burleigh: The Trump Women: Part of the Deal (paperback, 2020, Gallery Books).
*Geraldo Cadava: The Hispanic Republican: The Shaping of an American Political Identity, From Nixon to Trump (2020, Ecco).
Zachary Callen/Philip Rocco, eds: American Political Development and the Trump Presidency (2020, University of Pennsylvania Press).
SV Dáte: The Useful Idiot: How Donald Trump Killed the Republican Party With Racism and the Rest of Us With Coronavirus (paperback, 2020, independent).
*Bill Eddy: Why We Elect Narcissists and Sociopaths: And How We Can Stop! (2019, Berrett-Koehler).
*Randolph M Feezell: The ABCs of Trump: Asshole, Bullshitter, Chauvinist, Essays on Life in Trumpworld (2020, Randolph M Feezell).
Sally Frazer: Fire & Blood, Fire & Fury: Daenerys Targaryen, Donald Trump, and the American Public's Enduring Susceptibility to Authoritarian Figures (paperback, 2020, independent).
*John Gartner: All I Ever Wanted to Know About Donald Trump I Learned From His Tweets: A Psychological Exploration of the President Via Twitter (paperback, 2017, Skyhorse).
Mark Green/Ralph Nader: Wrecking America: How Trump's Lawbreaking and Lies Betray All (paperback, 2020, Skyhorse).
*Lawrence Grossberg: Under the Cover of Chaos: Trump and the Battle for the American Right (paperback, 2018, Pluto Press).
Michael B Harrington: The Forty Year Con Game: Everything You Need to Know About Donald Trump's Threat to Democracy (paperback, 2019, Author Solutions).
Kelly Hyman: Top Ten Reasons to Dump Trump in 2020 (paperback, 2019, Strauss Consultants).
*Charlie Laderman/Brendan Simms: Donald Trump: The Making of a World View (paperback, 2017, Bloomsbury Academic).
*Yuval Levin: A Time to build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream (2020, Basic Books): AEI.
*Matt K Lewis: Too Dumb to Fail: How the GOP Went From the Party of Reagan to the Party of Trump (paperback, 2016, Hachette).
Janet McIntosh/Norma Mendoza-Denton, eds: Language in the Trump Era: Scandals and Emergencies (paperback, 2020, Cambridge University Press).
Shannon Bow O'Brien: Donald Trump and the Kayfabe Presidency: Professional Wrestling Rhetoric in the White House
PJ O'Rourke: A Cry From the Far Middle: Dispatches From a Divided Land (2020, Atlantic Monthly Press).
Brian L Ott/Greg Dickinson: The Twitter Presidency: Donald J Trump and the Politics of White Rage (2020, Routledge).
Rodney S Patterson: Trumping the Race Card: A National Agenda, Moving Beyond Race and Racism (paperback, 2019, Learner's Group).
*Douglas E Schoen/Jessica Tarlov: America in the Age of Trump: A Bipartisan Guide (paperback, 2018, Encounter Books).
*Jennifer M Silva: We're Still Here: Pain and Politics in the Heart of America (2019, Oxford University Press).
Theda Skocpol/Caroline Tervo, eds: Upending American Politics: Polarizing Parties, Ideological Elites, and Citizen Activists From the Tea Party to the Anti-Trump Resistance (paperback, 2020, Oxford University Press).
Terry Silverman: 1000 Dumbest Things Donald Trump Has Said and Done (paperback, 2020, independent).
*Scott Stedman: Real News: An Investigative Reporter Uncovers the Foundations of the Trump-Russia Conspiracy (2019, Skyhorse).
Strobe Talbott: Our Founders' Warning: The Age of Reason Meets the Age of Trump (2020, Brookings Institution Press).
Tom Telcholz: The Worst President Ever: Prominent Republican and Former Trump Administration Officials Speak Out Against Trump (paperback, 2020, independent).
Barney Warf, ed: Political Landscapes of Donald Trump (paperback, 2020, Routledge). [October 29]
Tahmina Watson: Legal Heroes in the Trump Era (2020, Tahmina Watson).
*Darrell M West: Divided Politics, Divided Nation: Hyperconflict in the Trump Era (2020, Brookings Institution Press).
*Alexander Zaitchik: The Gilded Rage: A Wild Ride Through Donald Trump's America (2016, Hot Books).
I might as well mention my own not-yet-book, tentatively titled The Last Days of American Empire IV: Extracts From a Notebook (.odt format, and large), which covers 2017 up to last week (more forthcoming). The title seemed more obvious as I was compiling Volume I, which covers the GW Bush years, 2001-08. It was clear from his initial overreach after 9/11/2001 that Bush was going to push the American Empire past its breaking point. Indeed, that was the one point Osama Bin Laden got right in provoking America into its Global War on Terror. Nothing since then has changed my mind, so I kept the title through Obama's presidency, covered in Volume II and Volume III, although by then the rot seemed more reflected at home, in ever increasing inequality and an increasing sense of injustice. But where Obama at least seemed to recognize problems and was intent on patching them up with as little inconvenience to the rich as possible, Trump has repeatedly blown things up, stripping away any semblance of normalcy or even rational planning. Indeed, the driving motivation in chronicling the last four years as been dumbfounded wonder at how destructive a politician could be.
Friday, May 22, 2020
Aside from last week's Trump Books, this is my first Book Roundup since October 31, 2019, so lots of ground to cover. As usual, 40 books in the main section (well, 45), some with lists of extras tacked on. Then a bunch of "briefly noted" -- most just noted. Not inconceivable I could return and write more about some of them later. I've even been known to read the occasional book that first appeared there. But at least this includes them in the big file for future reference.
This time I have a third section, which includes leftovers from the Trump Books roundup. I didn't sort them out as I did before. Again, this section includes some forthcoming books -- some surprisingly close to the election, like they're deliberately planning on being irrelevant. [PS: On further reflection, I think I should move these new books back into the old post, but will hold off on doing that until later, so those reading in real time won't have to go back.]
My usual methodology here is to start with Amazon's tracking of my tastes and interests, and see where their recommendations lead me -- especially given that their book pages contain blurbs and user reviews, often even a partial "look inside," usually sufficient information to base my notes on. However, Amazon has become much more frustrating and much less useful lately. Their "my recommendations" page is now about 80% non-book clutter, and their book subject lists have generally been slashed from 50 to 15 books (I've seen them with as few as 4), so not much to explore from there. Their book pages used to have long lists of related books (usually books that others have bought or looked at), but the only thing they offer regularly now is "books you may like" -- pretty much the same list on every page. Their subject browsing has never been useful (it's even hard to find it). Even searches are pot shots. For the Trump books, I scoured through 50-60 screens of titles before posting last week. Most of the books below showed up in the next 20-30 screens.
I wound up going to Barnes and Noble for Trump books. Their subject browsing has been slightly better in the past, although it, too, seems worse than before. (Filters now seem to cancel each other out rather than further refine, and order by date is flat out broken.) Plus they don't have nearly as much aggregate information, so when I do find a book there, I wind up having to search it out on Amazon. I also looked at Indie Bound, but found no help at all. Looks like you can order there, but can't really shop. [PS: Finally, looked at Good Reads, which turns out to be more useful.]
In the future, it looks like I'm going to have to return to doing things like thumbing through the New York Review of Books looking for advertisements. (In the past, I went to libraries and bookstores to jot down lists of titles. From age 16 on I prowled around bookstores several times a week, regarding it as essential to my mental health, but that practice declined and ended when Borders went bankrupt.) I even tried doing a Google search for "new political books," which referred me to BookAuthority's 63 Best New Politics Books to Read in 2020. Some real crap, but at least 25% of the books there didn't show up in my Amazon searches. (Thanks to that list, I added Lawrence Lessig's book to the list, and after looking up Lessig I wrote the two Ganesh Sitaraman entries, increasing the main list to 42 books.)
Two of the longer sublists deserve special mention. I often list previous works by authors, but that went a little long with Joseph J Ellis. I look at the aforementioned "big file" often to see what other books someone has written, so it's always tempting to broaden that list -- currently, it's just everything mentioned in previous Book Roundups, but I can imagine stuffing it into a database. On the other hand, I didn't do that for the next author down, Eric Foner. That's partly because I've followed Foner more closely in the past, and indeed have read several of his books that predate the file (actually starting with Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War (1970; paperback, 1995, Oxford University Press).
Also did a long list under Nathan J Robinson, but the other list I wanted to mention was the one under Laurie Garrett. You hear people arguing that no one could have anticipated the pandemic, but as the list shows, there's actually a pretty substantial literature on the subject, with Garrett's big 1994 book as a cornerstone. Admittedly, I padded the list with historical books on the 1918 influenza. That is the most similar historical event to the present one, so seems of special interest today. I wasn't finding much on older plagues, but given how much else I had I decided not to look harder. But I did think of a Robert Desowitz book I had read 20+ years ago, and thought it worth mentioning. Also stumbled across a new article by Garrett, which would have been good in a Weekend Roundup.
Hard to predict when the next Book Roundup will appear, given what a mess my scratch file is currently in, plus the recent search troubles. I currently have 49 books left over, but most of them are mere stubs (some of those I might as well add as such below). On the other hand, at least a dozen are ready to go, and even as I write this I'm finding more books I want to comment on.
Books (from the main section) I've read so far: Erwin Chemerinsky: We the People; Ani DiFranco: No Walls and the Recurring Dream; Matt Farwell/Michael Ames: American Cipher; Eric Foner: The Second Founding; Ezra Klein: Why We're Polarized; John McPhee: Draft No. 4; Suketu Mehta: This Land Is Our Land; Cailin O'Connor/James Owen Weatherall: The Misinformation Age; Charles Postel: Equality; Emmanuel Saez/Gabriel Zucman: The Triumph of Injustice; Joan C Williams: White Working Class. Most of these I picked up rather haphazardly from the library. I've also read all (or nearly) of Robert Christgau: Book Reports and Paul Krugman: Arguing With Zombies as pre-book essays. Wrote two of those up at the end, only after seeing them in my book feed.
Posting this without yet doing the indexing. The "big file," see above for link, currently has 4,505 books (paragraphs, approximately the same thing), so it is already pretty unwieldy (although I can still load its 1.8 MB into an emacs buffer and search it almost instantly, so it still works for me).
David A Ansell: The Death Gap: How Inequality Kills (paperback, 2019, University of Chicago Press): Doctor, has spent 40 years working in some of the poorest hospitals in Chicago, wrote a book about his experiences: County: Life, Death and Politics at Chicago's Public Hospital (2011, Academy Chicago Publishers). Problem here is not just that America's health care system fails poor Americans, inequality has stacked the deck against them even before illness or injury strikes. Related:
Andrew Bacevich: The Age of Illusions (2020, Metropolitan Books): Ex-soldier, professed conservative, Bacevich has written a long series of books about the revival of militarism in America after Vietnam and how that renascent military was wasted and ruined in a series of wars in the Middle East. He looks to be retracing his steps here, focusing especially on the decision to maintain "sole superpower" status after the Cold War's sudden end, a decision that encouraged new enemies to replace the old. While that has been profitable for an arms industry and a bureaucracy always in need of enemies, the forever wars have only left America poorer and shabbier than before.
Christopher Caldwell: The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties (2020, Simon & Schuster): This is regarded as a rare conservative attempt at serious cultural history, but as always the word "entitlement" gives the mythmaking impulse away. Caldwell takes "readers on a roller-coaster ride through Playboy magazine, affirmative action, CB radio, leveraged buyouts, iPhones, Oxycontin, Black Lives Matter, and internet cookies" to illustrate his case that "the reforms of the 1960s, reforms intended to make the nation more just and humane, instead left many Americans feeling alienated, despised, misled."
Erwin Chemerinsky: We the People: A Progressive Reading of the Constitution for the Twenty-First Century (paperback, 2018, Picador): Dean of UC Berkeley School of Law, previously wrote The Conservative Assault on the Constitution (2011), and The Case Against the Supreme Court (2014). His "progressive reading" emphasizes the preamble, which among other things permits the government to "promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity" -- about as progressive a directive as one can imagine. Also see:
Robert Christgau: Book Reports: A Music Critic on His First Love, Which Was Reading (paperback, 2019, Duke University Press): Second collection of essays, following up Is It Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism 1967-2017 (paperback, 2018, Duke University Press) with a selection of book reviews -- some on music history and criticism, some on fiction, some loosely grouped as "Bohemia Meets Hegemony" and "Culture Meets Capital."
Adam Cohen: Supreme Inequality: The Supreme Court's Fifty-Year Battle for a More Unjust America (2020, Penguin Press): From 1936 to 1969 we were fortunate to have a Supreme Court that leaned left, for the only real period in American history when the Court worked to broaden and deepen the rights of all citizens, often in opposition to repressive and reactionary state and even federal laws. In 1969, Nixon started a campaign to pack the court with right-wingers (although his first two nominees were rejected by the Senate, his choice of William Rehnquist started to change the tide). Also see (plus the Robin Pogrebin/Kate Kelly book below, and the Erwin Chemerinsky book/list above):
John Corbett: Pick Up the Pieces: Excursions in Seventies Music (2019, University of Chicago Press): Music writer and impressario (owns his own reissue label), reminiscences about 4-11 records from each year of the 1970s -- a pretty hip selection, many (even obscurities) I would have picked, probably more jazz than I knew at the time. Starts with the Kinks' "Lola," ends 1979 with the Raincoats' cover of same (plus one 1980 album, Grace Jones' Warm Leatherette).
William Dalrymple: The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire (2019, Bloomsbury): Major historian of British India, focuses here on the early period when English power was entrusted to private enterprise, the notorious East India Company -- a case example of what's likely to happen when the powers of state are directed exclusively for the profit of foreign shareholders. The progression is spelled out in chapter titles: "1599," "Sweeping With the Broom of Plunder," "Bloodshed and Confusion," "Racked by Famine," and "The Corpse of India." After the revolt of 1859, the British government had to step in and take over. They, too, did a lousy job.
Ani DiFranco: No Walls and the Recurring Dream: A Memoir (2019, Viking; paperback, 2020, Penguin Press): DIY folksinger from Buffalo, released her own records and made a business out of that, which she still regards as a pretty weird thing to do. I have a cousin who moved to Buffalo and knows her -- my cousin's family shows up here and there in the book, and I figure I probably caught a glance of Ani as a girl, long before I started hearing about how amazing she was, which was long before you did, so I've always felt a bit of a personal connection. Also I figure it's good for me to read the occasional memoir, especially of people growing up political, as I may write one myself some day. I found the early family/city parts fascinating, the music/industry less so. I suspect she does too.
EJ Dionne Jr: Code Red: How Progressives and Moderates Can Unite to Save Our Country (2020, St Martin's Press): The Washington Post columnist's second Trump book, perhaps a little more desperate than the first (One Nation Under Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet-Deported), but doubling down on his centrist pitch, that progressives have to give in and accept nothing for their votes, so the centrists can cut their own deals furthering oligopoly.
Barbara Ehrenreich: Had I Known: Collected Essays (2020, Twelve): Starts with the Harper's piece that grew into her bestseller, Nickel-and-Dimed, with more on inequality, health, men, women, science, joy, God, and "bourgeois blunders" -- a rather vast category. A good selection, but after two dozen books, not remotely close to collected.
Joseph J Ellis: American Dialogue: The Founders and Us (2018, Knopf): Historian, has written a number of books on the founding of the United States (partial list below). Notes the persistence of "what would the Founding Fathers think?" questions on current topics, tries to juxtapose several contemporary questions with thinking from those founders: Thomas Jefferson (racism), John Adams (inequality), George Washington (imperialism), and James Madison (the doctrine of original intent). I wouldn't put much stock in the answers (at least from the first two), but shows us again how the study of history is always (for better or worse) an interaction with the present. More Ellis books, and other recent period titles:
Matt Farwell/Michael Ames: American Cipher: Bowe Bergdahl and the US Tragedy in Afghanistan (2019, Penguin Press): Bergdahl was a troubled teenager in Idaho, signed up and got thrown out of the US Coast Guard, joined the US Army as a private and got sent to Afghanistan. There, he wandered off his base, was captured by the Taliban and held for five years before being repatriated in a prisoner exchange. He was then reviled by the right-wing press, and as a result was court-martialed for desertion, convicted, and dishonorably discharged, without further incarceration. His story parallels America's futile and foolish war effort.
Eric Foner: The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution (2019, WW Norton): America's foremost historian of the period, his main book Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (1988; updated edition, paperback, 2014, Harper). This focuses most specifically on the three constitutional amendments of the period, including the one about "birthright citizenship" that Trump has most explicitly attacked. This details how and why they were passed, and how they've been reinterpreted by the courts ever since (e.g., how the 14th Amendment has been taken as carte blanche for corporate power).
Laurie Garrett: The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance (1994; paperback, 1995, Farrar Straus & Giroux): This is an old book, massive (768 pp), nothing remotely specific on this year's pandemic, but a solid rejoinder to anyone's insinuation that "no one could have anticipated this." Garrett, by the way, is still around, most recently writing Trump Has Sabotaged America's Coronavirus Response. Here are some more books on pandemics and plagues, broadening the net both going back and forward.
Kim Ghattas: Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unravaled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East (2020, Henry Holt). There's a natural dynamic to revolution to try to expand -- one thinks of the French wars against European monarchies, and Russia's appeal to proletarian revolution elsewhere. When Iran threw off the Shah, one of the first things the new Islamic Republic did was to mount a challenge for leadership of the Muslim World -- something Saudi Arabia had assumed since occupying the "holy cities" of Mecca and Medina. Hence the "forty-year rivalry" documented here. While revolutionary fervor in Iran has ebbed, isolation orchestrated by the Saudis, Israel, and the United States (as always, the sorest of sore losers) has kept a desperate edge on the conflict.
Dan Kaufman: The Fall of Wisconsin: The Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion and the Future of American Politics (2018, WW Norton): The Kochs put a lot of money and organization into flipping Wisconsin, and had their most remarkable success these, with Scott Walker winning two terms as governor, Ron Johnson twice defeating Russell Feingold for the Senate, and a state legislature so gerrymandered Republicans still have a massive edge despite losing the popular vote -- Democrats did manage to rebound some in 2018. Moreover, Republicans won not by sugar-coating their ideology, but by taking advantage of their wins to implement some of the most radically right-wing policies in the nation.
Marc Hetherington/Jonathan Weiler: Prius or Pickup? How the Answers to Four Simple Questions Explain America's Great Divide (2018, Houghton Mifflin): Sure, badly. On the other hand, if you tell someone what your politics are, then ask them to answer the questions for you, the answers will probably correlate, at least in that people with different politics will probably put you into the authors pigeonholes. All that proves is that you can lie with statistics, as opposed to the usual process of just spouting nonsense. Authors also wrote:
AG Hopkins: American Empire: A Global History (2018, Princeton University Press). I thought I'd slip this in under Daniel Underwahr's How to Hide an Empire, but at 960 pp this is by far the more sweeping book, basically a recasting of the whole history of America as viewed through its imperialistic proclivities. Author is British, which no doubt helped set up the global imperial framework.
Ezra Klein: Why We're Polarized (2020, Simon & Schuster): Polarization per se doesn't bother me. Indeed, given that Republicans have moved significantly to the right, it's good that Democrats have moved somewhat left, and would I'd be happier if they moved even further. Sure, this does cause problems, like when one party (almost always the Republican) tries to obstruct the other from doing it would do itself if under different circumstances (like pass stimulus bills). Klein cites a lot of political science research on how people identify themselves in groups, but he refuses to credit any kind of "identity politics" strawman (unlike, say, Mark Lilla, in The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics). He sees identity as inevitable but also flexible and multi-layered, which strikes me as right.
Paul Krugman: Arguing With Zombies: Economics, Politics, and the Fight for a Better Future (2020, WW Norton): New York Times columnist and sometime economist recycles his columns, organized into thematic sections, like how Obamacare was supposed to work, why the Euro didn't, why tax cuts aren't always good, why deficits aren't always bad, and how politics affects (and infects) everything.
Michael Lind: The New Class War: Saving Democracy From the Managerial Elite (2020, Portfolio): Started out as a thinker with conservative impulses, gradually turned on the right without abandoning those instincts. Seems to be intent on defending working class Trump voters here from the charge of bigotry, arguing that they're caught in the grip of a class war against them, and for a "class compromise that provides the working class with real power."
Andrew Marantz: Anti-Social: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation (2019, Viking). You know, there's a lot of incoherent shit on the internet. If you look for it, you'll find it, and if you take it seriously, you'll start to worry about, oh say, the future of civilization. As near as I can tell, that's what Marantz is doing here, plus a little legwork to meet up with some of the people who play assholes in virtual space. I'm not sure any of it matters, but he does spend enough time chatting up the alt-right to draw out their general maleficence, so that's something. Just not sure it's worth the trouble.
Branko Marcetic: Yesterday's Man: The Case Against Joe Biden (paperback, 2020, Verso): Intended as "a deep dive into Joe Biden's history and the origins of his political values," argues that "far from being a liberal stalwart, Biden often outdid even Reagan, Gingrich, and Bush, assisting the right-wing war against the working class, and ultimately paving the way for Trump." Even though Biden's been the Democratic frontrunner, we haven't seen many books reviewing his life and record. But I'm reminded here that the publisher has a history of dredging up dirt on Democratic candidates -- back in 2000, I read one of their more brutal hatchet jobs, Al Gore: A User's Manual (by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St Clair). Biden is a much easier target -- Gore at least seemed to have the gravitas and smarts to make his frequent maneuvers to the right seem merely opportunistic, whereas Biden simply does whatever seems easiest. On the other hand, Biden's running less on his own record than on someone else's, and few have seen fit to call him on that. More on Biden:
Michael J Mazarr: Leap of Faith: Hubris, Negligence, and America's Greatest Foreign Policy Tragedy (2019, PublicAffairs): A RAND Corporation senior analyst, the sort of person who would have rubber-stamped the Bush administration's plot to invade Iraq, claims to have figured out how it all went so horribly wrong. He blames the decision on "a strain of missionary zeal that lives on" -- clearly, John Bolton is a particularly odious example. But while it's pretty easy these days to find politicians who admit that Iraq was a mistake, it's much harder to find ones who question the assumptions that went into that miscalculation. As such, even with books like this on the shelf, we have little reason to expect future war planners to have learned from past disasters.
John McPhee: Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process (2017; paperback, 2018, Farrar Straus and Giroux): My favorite nonfiction writer constructs a memoir of his writing, stories of who and when and why, mixed with occasional grammar tips. I was hooked at the latter, although his thoughts on structure will challenge me more. Still, I'm reluctantly coming to suspect that at 89 his major works are behind him: The Founding Fish was 2002, Uncommon Carriers 2006, and since then just collections, most recently The Patch (2018), which I passed up at the library: essays on fishing, football, golf, lacrosse, bears, and something called "An Album Quilt."
Suketu Mehta: This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant's Manifesto (2019, Farrar Straus and Giroux): Born in India, grew up in New York, wrote journalism all around the world, giving him the feel and perspective to write his major book, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found (2004). "Mehta juxtaposes the phony narratives of populist ideologues with the ordinary heroism of laborers, nannies, and others . . . also stresses the destructive legacies of colonialism and global inequality on large swaths of the world: When today's immigrants are asked, 'Why are you here?' they can justly respond, "We are here because you were there.'"
Cailin O'Connor/James Owen Weatherall: The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread (2018; paperback, 2020, Yale University Press): Useful anecdotal history of many cases where blatant falsehoods were propagated far and wide, both recent and fairly deep into the past (e.g., the "health benefits" of bleeding). Also a series of approximate mathematical models of how such ideas are transmitted, ranging from gossip to propaganda.
Kevin C O'Leary: Madison's Sorrow: Today's War on the Founders and America's Liberal Ideal (2020, Pegasus Books): A research fellow at the Center of the Study of Democracy at UC Irvine, previously wrote Saving Democracy: A Plan for Real Representation in America (paperback, 2006, Stanford University Press). Argues that Madisonian democracy was essentially liberal, and that the Republican Party has "unleashed an illiberal crusade against the ideals of the Founding Fathers." Both liberals and conservatives have tried to claim the Founders and their Constitution as their own. I've long thought that Scalia's "originalism" is a crock. On the other hand, the liberal case has mostly been aspirational, as they recall best sentiments and overlook how often those ideals have been failed. Still, I recall that my own politics started with a naive embrace of our noble past, leading me to turn against modern politicians of both parties for their many failures to live up to those ideals. But since then, one party has stood out in its desire to wreck the very foundations of democracy and equality: the Republicans, as O'Leary makes clear here.
Thomas Philippon: The Great Reversal: How America Gave Up on Free Markets (2019, Belknap Press): By which he means: stopped worrying about monopoly power and shied away from antitrust enforcement. Economist, teaches finance at Stern School of Business. That's a reasonable position: capitalists wax eloquent about the efficiencies of the free market, but the first thing they learn to do in business school is to undermine and thwart competition. But I've seen this book picked apart by none other than James K Galbraith -- to some extent in defending his father (who was tolerant of well-regulated monopoly), but also for lionizing Wright Patman (D-TX), who had a reputation as a populist in the 1930s but didn't impress me much when he was chairing the House Banking Committee in the 1960s.
Thomas Piketty: Capital and Ideology (2020, Belknap Press): Massive successor to the French economist's Capital in the Twenty-First Century, runs 1104 pages. Krugman panned this for wandering too far afield, but one suspects that a good part of the complaint has to do with Piketty's more radical political leanings. Goes deep in time, and all around the world, seeking to understand the roots of inequality and its extension today.
Robin Pogrebin/Kate Kelly: The Education of Brett Kavanaugh: An Investigation (2019, Portfolio): The authors dug up some of the background exposés that crowded out discussion of judicial philosophy -- reason enough to keep him far away from the Supreme Court. Book includes several revelations that resurfaced questions as to whether Kavanaugh lied to Congress during his confirmation hearings, and whether he should be impeached for it. Clearly, as a Supreme Court Justice, he's well positioned to do immense damage to our rights under the Constitution.
Charles Postel: Equality: An American Dilemma 1866-1896 (2019, Farrar Straus and Giroux): A history of several political movements following the Civil War that took the notion of equality, given renewed emphasis following the end of slavery and the constitutional promise of equal rights, and tried to expand it to various groups -- farmers, women, labor. It's worth noting that several of those movements made alliances with the restoration of white power in the South, and as such compromised the equality they sought on the fractured ground of racism. Postel wrote a previous book, The Populist Vision.
Jedediah Purdy: This Land Is Our Land: The Struggle for a New Commonwealth (2019, Princeton University Press): Philosopher, I guess, although he makes his living teaching law. Hailing from West Virginia, he's haunted by the relationship between environmental destruction and poverty. A blurb touts this as a "Thoreauvian call to wake up," but surely he realizes that lifting a title from Woody Guthrie suggests a more straightforward revolution.
Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen: The Ideas That Made America: A Brief History (2019, Oxford University Press): Intellectual history, "from the Puritans to Postmodernism, and everything in between." That's a tall, probably impossible order, especially given how much actual thinking in American history simply cancels one another out. To come up with something more usually requires an agenda. This one isn't clear, not least because what we might have recognized as a liberal/progressive consensus a generation or two ago has been widely trashed of late, mostly (but not only) by the right. Author previously wrote American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas (2011; paperback, 2012, University of Chicago Press).
Nathan J Robinson: Why You Should Be a Socialist (2019, All Points Press): Editor of Current Affairs, has a pile of books since 2013, including ones focused on Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, but more intent on explaining how much better life could be with democratic socialism. Other books by Robinson and other books on democratic socialism:
David Rohde: In Deep: The FBI, the CIA, and the Truth About America's "Deep State" (2020, WW Norton). All bureaucracies have their own special interests, and those that act in secrecy are especially likely to hide their own agendas. The FBI, especially but not exclusively under J Edgar Hoover, often put its own agenda first, which led to numerous abuses, especially directed at what they dubbed "subversive" groups, like civil rights activists and labor unions. The CIA has been even more secretive, and their remit to run clandestine operations has been even more widespread. Moreover, they've enjoyed direct private access to the president -- at least since 9/11 on a daily basis, so their ability to shape US foreign policy, whatever their motives may be, is nonpareil but also obscure. Indeed, it's not uncommon for presidents-elect to reverse course following their first briefing, which only adds to the aura of mysterious power. So much as been obvious to everyone on the left since Harry Truman, but the last few years it's been Trump et al. who've been up in arms over the "deep state" -- an epithet they tend to apply indiscriminately to the whole civil service. This book provides some background, but mostly to help sort out the charges that the FBI and CIA, with their Obama-era leadership, were out to get Trump. I don't doubt there's something to those charges, but Trump's demands are such an overreach not just of decent policy but of law that it's hard to side with him, even against adversaries this bad.
Heather Cox Richardson: How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America (2020, Oxford University Press): Historian, argues not just that the defeated Confederacy was able to restore its old system of white supremacy for a century after the Civil War, but that a the American West provided a key vector for Southern political influence, notably through the "movement conservatives" like Barry Goldwater. Thus we see that their efforts to maintain supremacy did not end with the civil rights movement, but continue to influence the Republican Party today. Richardson previously wrote:
Emmanuel Saez/Gabriel Zucman: The Triumph of Injustice: How the Rich Dodge Taxes and How to Make Them Pay (2019, WW Norton): Saez is the world's foremost statistician of inequality, so expect a fair amount of number crunching here. Zucman, who I associate with French economist Thomas Piketty, has a previous book more specific to this concern: The Hidden Wealth of Nations: The Scourge of Tax Havens (2015; paperback, 2016, University of Chicago Press). Makes a strong case for cracking down on tax havens, showing that the failure of the US and other countries to do so is a deliberate choice in favor of oligarchy. Also makes a case for a wealth tax.
Gabriel Sherman: The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News -- and Divided a Country (2014; paperback, 2017, Random House). This is the basis for Showtime's TV series, with Russell Crowe playing Ailes. I had missed the book, which sounds like it's meant to blow smoke up Ailes' ass, and couldn't stand watching the show -- mostly because I didn't find Ailes' bloviating speeches credible (not so much that I couldn't believe he gave them but I couldn't stomach the notion that anyone bought them). Still, probably the single most important political story of the last quarter-century, so someone had to tell it.
Ganesh Sitaraman/Anne L Alstott: The Public Option: How to Expand Freedom, Increase Opportunity, and Promote Equality (2019, Harvard University Press): The most often hear "public option" these days as Joe Biden's preferred way of patching up Obamacare's failure to assure competitive private health insurance. As such, it's seen as an alternative to Medicare for All, but the latter is a much better example of what the authors mean by "public option": a case where the government provides a public service, not bound by the private sector's need to maximize profit. The section on history offers examples like public libraries and Social Security, and admits "mixed results in education and housing." Part Three plots out where this could go, and probably shortchanges "And More" with just 12 pages.
Ganesh Sitaraman: The Great Democracy: How to Fix Our Politics, Unrig the Economy, and Unite America (2019, Basic Books): Author of The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution: Why Economic Inequality Threatens Our Republic (2017, Knopf), which offered a pretty convincing account of the founding of the nation as an egalitarian ideal struggling to become real. Here he focuses on more recent history: the rise of the right from Reagan on (which he roots in and doesn't distinguish from neoliberalism, a term he uses a lot but I'd prefer to limit). Prescriptions follow. [PS: In his "Acknowledgments" I was surprised to find generous mention of Pete Buttigieg.]
Gene Sperling: Economic Dignity (2020, Penguin Press): Cover adds: "Chief White House Economic Adviser to President Obama and President Clinton." Sperling advertised himself as The Pro-Growth Progressive in 2005, with his "economic strategy for shared prosperity." At that time, he was cooling his heels, working at the Brookings Institution, waiting to become Hillary Clinton's chief economic adviser for her ill-fated 2008 campaign (2008 was, however, very good to Sperling, as he received $2.2 million "from a variety of consulting jobs, board seats, speaking fees and fellowships" (that's prosperity, but not what I'd call shared). He easily made the transition from Clinton to Obama, and was a prominent player in Ron Suskind's 2011 book Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President. The new book leads off with a blurb from Hillary Clinton, who says "it should be our North Star for the recovery and beyond." There are people with worse resumes in Washington (e.g., those currently working for Trump), but few "progressives" have aimed so low and still failed to deliver. Even now, he's trying to buy us off with "dignity" (which, by the way, he defines as "you know it when you see it"). Good luck with that.
Matt Stoller: Goliath: The 100-Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy (2019, Simon & Schuster): Big book on the dangers of concentration of economic power as companies connive to prevent or limit competition: something antitrust law was meant to prevent, but has been hobbled by loose definitions and lax enforcement, not unrelated to the ever-greater role that lobbying and campaign "contributions" play in American politics.
Joan C Williams: White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America (paperback, 2019, Harvard Business Review Press): Sympathetic enough to her subjects, emphasizing how the desire for stability and belief in self-sufficiency offer the white working class a conservative ethos, a point which could be extended to the non-white working class if they only had a party option that wasn't as offensive as the Republicans. Contrasts this to the urban professionals who may be more liberal socially but also lack the grounding in community and its identities, and may wind up more alienated as a result. In passing, she mentions "class migrants," who typically come from the working class but are able to function in the professional world, appreciating bits of both.
Other recent books noted with little or no comment:
Alberto Alesina/Carlo O Favero/Francesco Glavazzi: Austerity: When It Works and When It Doesn't (2019, Princeton University Press).
Charlotte Alter: The Ones We've Been Waiting For: How a New Generation of Leaders Will Transform America (2020, Viking). Profiles of young politicians, the eldest Pete Buttigieg (b. 1982), the only other one I recognize Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (b. 1989).
Andrew J Bacevich, ed: American Conservatism: Reclaiming an Intellectual Tradition: A Century of Writings From Henry Adams to the Present (2020, Library of America).
Molly Ball: Pelosi (2020, Henry Holt).
Frida Berrigan: It Runs in the Family: On Being Raised by Radicals and Growing Into Rebellious Motherhood (paperback, 2015, OR Books).
Rutget Bregman: Humankind: A Hopeful History (2020, Little Brown): "A more politically radical Malcolm Gladwell."
Vincent Brown: Tacky's Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War (2020, Belknap Press).
Oren Cass: The Once and Future Worker: A Vision for the Renewal of Work in America (2018, Encounter Books): Former "domestic policy director for Mitt Romney's presidential campaign."
Panashe Chigumadzi: These Bones Will Rise Again (2020, The Indigo Press): On Zimbabwe and overthrowing Robert Mugabe.
Michael D'Antonio: The Hunting of Hillary: The Forty-Year Campaign to Destroy Hillary Clinton (2020, Thomas Dunne Books).
Alan Dershowitz: Guilt by Accusation: The Challenge of Proving Innocence in the Age of #MeToo (2019, Hot Books).
Joan Marans Dim/Antonio Masi: Lady Liberty: An Illustrated History of America's Most Storied Woman (2019, Fordham University Press).
Mike Duncan: The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic (2017; paperback, 2018, PublicAffairs).
Anna Fifield: The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jung Un (2019, PublicAffairs).
Marc Fleurbaey, et al: A Manifesto for Social Progress: Ideas for a Better Society (paperback, 2018, Cambridge University Press).
Kristen Ghodsee: The Left Side of History: World War II and the Unfulfilled Promise of Communism in Eastern Europe (paperback, 2015, Duke University Press).
Ted Gioia: Music: A Subversive History (2019, Basic Books).
Malcolm Gladwell: Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don't Know (2019, Little Brown).
Thom Hartmann: The Hidden History of Guns and the Second Amendment (paperback, 2019, Berrett-Koehler).
Thom Hartmann: The Hidden History of the Supreme Court and the Betrayal of America (paperback, 2019, Berrett-Koehler).
Thom Hartmann: The Hidden History of the War on Voting: Who Stole Your Vote -- and How to Get It Back (paperback, 2020, Berrett-Koehler).
Nolan Higdon/Mickey Huff: United States of Distraction: Media Manipulation in Post-Truth America (And What We Can Do About it) (paperback, 2019, City Lights).
Jonathan Horn: Washington's End: The Final Years and Forgotten Struggle (2020, Scribner).
Susan Jacoby: The Age of American Unreason in a Culture of Lies (paperback, 2018, Vintage Books): Revised edition of her 2008 The Age of American Unreason, itself a return to Richard Hofstadter's famous Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.
Sean Kay: Rockin' the Free World! How the Rock & Roll Revolution Changed America and the World (2016, Rowman & Littlefield; paperback, 2018, RL).
Stephen Kinzer: Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control (2019, Henry Holt).
Michael T Klare: All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon's Perspective on Climate Change (2019, Metropolitan Books).
Michael J Klarman: The Framers' Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution (2016, Oxford University Press).
Mikael Klintman: Knowledge Resistance: How We Avoid Insight From Others (2019, Manchester University Press).
Nicholas D Kristof/Sheryl WuDunn: Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope (2020, Knopf).
Peter La Chapelle: I'd Fight the World: A Political History of Old-Time, Hillbilly, and Country Music (paperback, 2019, University of Chicago Press).
Rob Larson: Capitalism vs. Freedom: The Toll Road to Serfdom (paperback, 2018, Zero Books).
Erika Lee: America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States (2019, Basic Books).
Lawrence Lessig: They Don't Represent Us: Reclaiming Our Democracy (2019, Dey Street Books).
Steven Levingston: Barack and Joe: The Making of an Extraordinary Partnership (2019, Hachette Books).
Matthew Lockwood: To Begin the World Over Again: How the American Revolution Devastated the Globe (2019, Harvard University Press).
Agusto Lopez-Claros/Bahiyyih Nakhjavani: Equality for Women = Prosperity for All: The Disastrous Global Crisis of Gender Inequality (2019, St Martin's Press).
Allen Lowe: God Didn't Like It: Electric Hillbillies, Singing Preachers, and the Beginning of Rock and Roll, 1950-1970 (paperback, 2013, Constant Sorrow Press).
Annie Lowrey: Give People Money: How a Universal Basic Income Would End Poverty, Revolutionize Work, and Remake the World (2018, Crown).
George Monbiot: Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis (2017; paperback, 2018, Verso).
Jenny Odell: How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (2019, Melville House).
Michael O'Sullivan: The Levelling: What's Next After Globalization (2019, PublicAffairs).
Robert B Reich: The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It (2020, Knopf).
Ruth Reichl: Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir (2019; paperback, 2020, Random House).
Thomas E Sheridan/Randall H McGuire, eds: The Border and Its Bodies (2019, University of Arizona Press).
Frank Smyth: The NRA: The Unauthorized History (2020, Flatiron Books).
Rebecca Solnit: Recollections of My Nonexistence: A Memoir (2020, Viking).
Joseph E Stiglitz: Globalization and Its Discontents Revisited: Anti-Globalization in the Era of Trump (paperback, 2017, WW Norton).
Cal Thomas: America's Expiration Date: The Fall of Empires and Superpowers . . . and the Futrure of the United States (2020, Zondervan).
Jia Tolentino: Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion (2019, Random House).
Rick Van Noy: Sudden Spring: Stories of Adaptation in a Climate-Changed South (2019, University of Georgia Press).
Michael Walzer: A Foreign Policy for the Left (2018, Yale University Press).
Jesse Wegman: Let the People Pick the President: The Case for Abolishing the Electoral College (2020, St Martin's Press).
Tara Westover: Educated: A Memoir (2018, Random House).
Kevin D Williamson: The Smallest Minority: Independent Thinking in the Age of Mob Politics (2019, Gateway).
Even after trying hard to round up all but the flimsiest and most ridiculous books on Trump, his administration, and the 2020 election, I find I still missed a few:
Seth Abramson: Proof of Conspiracy: How Trump's International Collusion Is Threatening American Democracy (2019, St Martin's Press): Previously wrote Proof of Collusion: How Trump Betrayed America (2018, Simon & Schuster), and has a third volume in the works, each over 400 pp range (this one 592).
Seth Abramson: Proof of Corruption: Bribery, Impeachment, and Pandemic in the Age of Trump (2020, St Martin's Press): A third volume, after Proof of Collusion (2018) and Proof of Conspiracy (2019). This seems to me like far and away the fattest subject, even before the author tacked on something about the pandemic, probably making it one of the first books to broach the subject. Still, seems too early to tell much. [September 8]
Jeffrey F Addicott: Trump Judges: Protecting America's Establishment Pillars to "Make America Great Again" (paperback, 2020, Imprimatur Press).
Dan Alexander: White House, Inc: How Donald Trump Turned the Presidency Into a Business (2020, Portfolio). Senior Editor at Forbes, so it's unclear whether this is muckraking or just their usual run of business puff pieces. But possibly useful to the extent he shows how it's done. [August 11].
Martin Amis: The Rub of Time: Bellow, Nabakov, Hitchens, Travolta, Trump: Essays and Reportage, 1986-2016 (2017, Joathan Cape).
Sara Azari: Unprecedented: A Simple Guide to the Crimes of the Trump Campaign and Presidency (2020, Potomac Books): Author is "a practicing lawyer who specializes in white-collar crime," and at least starts with cases that led to prosecutions -- first chapter is on George Papadopoulos). Doesn't read "simple," but at 176 pp is short.
Kobby Barda: The Key to Understanding Donald J Trump (2019, Simple Story).
Edwin L Battistella: Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels: Insulting the President, From Washington to Trump (2020, Oxford University Press).
Joy Behar: The Great Gasbag: An A-Z Study Guide to Surviving Trump World (2017; paperback, 2018, Harper).
Pablo J Boczkowski/Zizi Paracharissi, eds: Trump and the Media (paperback, 2018, MIT Press).
Dan Bongino: Spygate: The Attempted Sabotage of Donald J Trump (2018, Post Hill Press).
Ben Bradlee Jr: The Forgotten: How the People of One Pennsylvania County Elected Donald Trump and Changed America (2018, Little Brown).
Donna Brazile: Hacks: The Inside Story of the Break-ins and Breakdowns That Put Donald Trump in the White House (2017, Hachette Books).
Laura Briggs: How All Politics Became Reproductive Politics: From Welfare Reform to Foreclosure to Trump (2017, University of California Press).
Martha Brockenbrough: Unpresidented: A Biography of Donald Trump (2018, Feiwel Friends).
FH Buckley: The Republican Workers Party: How the Trump Victory Drove Everyone Crazy, and Why It Was Just What We Needed (2018, Encounter Books).
Leonard Cruz/Steven Buser, eds: A Clear and Present Danger: Narcissism in the Era of Donald Trump (paperback, 2016, Chiron Publications).
Brian Francis Culkin: The Meaning of Trump (paperback, 2018, Zero Books).
The Daily Show With Trevor Noah: The Donald J Trump Presidential Twitter Library (2018, Spiegel & Grau).
Kim Darroch: Collateral Damage: Britain, America, and Europe in the Age of Trump (2020, PublicAffairs): Former British Ambassador to the US, resigned under fire "after a series of cables containing unflattering descriptions of President Trump." [September 15]
Alan Dershowitz: Defending the Constitution: Alan Dershowitz's Senate Argument Against Impeachment (paperback, 2020, Hot Books).
Ian Doescher/Jacopo della Quercia: MacTrump: A Shakespearean Tragicomedy of the Trump Administration, Part I (paperback, 2019, Quirk Books): An adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth, or possibly Barbara Garson's Macbird (1967)?
Lou Dobbs: The Trump Century (2020, Broadside Books): The Thousand Year Reich in an age of diminished expectations. [September 1]
Jesse Duquette: The Daily Don: All the News That Fits Into Tiny, Tiny Hands (paperback, 2019, Arcade).
David A Farenthold: Uncovering Trump: The Truth Behind Donald Trump's Charitable Giving (paperback, 2017, Diversion Books).
John Bellamy Foster: Trump in the White House: Tragedy and Farce (paperback, 2017, Monthly Review Press): Marxist sociologist, editor of Monthly Review, has a number of books on ecological and financial crises. This is a short (144 pp), early take on Trump's election, by a guy who knows a "neo-fascist" when he sees (or smells) one.
John Gartner/Steven Buser, eds: Rocket Man: Nuclear Madness and the Mind of Donald Trump (paperback, 2018, Chiron Publications): Some chapters: "If Trump Were a Policeman I Would Have to Take Away His Gun"; "Trump's Sick Psyche and Nuclear Weapons: A Deadly Mixture"; "Facing the Truth: The Power of a Predatory Narcissist"; "Trump's No Madman, He's Following the Strongman Playbook"; "Visions of Apocalypse and Salvation."
John Glaser/Christopher A Preble/A Trevor Thrall: Fuel to the Fire: How Trump Made America's Broken Foreign Policy Even Worse (and How We Can Recover) (2019, Cato Institute).
Mardy Grothe: Deconstructing Trump: The Trump Phenomenon Through the Lens of Quotation History (2019, Quoterie Press).
Pete Hegseth: American Crusade: Our Fight to Stay Free (2020, Center Street): Flag-waving "old school patriot" with military background and tattoos, sees Trump as a "sign of a national rebirth," while decrying "Leftists who demand socialism, globalism, secularism, and politically-correct elitism." Parlayed his conceits into a job as co-host of Fox & Friends Weekend.
Donald Heinz: After Trump: Achieving a New Social Gospel (paperback, 2020, Cascade Books).
Rosanna Hildyard: Ubu Trump (paperback, 2017, Eyewear Publishing): Alfred Jarry's 1888 play Ubu Roi, "translated and entirely updated" by Hildyard. When I first saw MacTrump, I flashed on this as the more apt production . . . and here it is!
Gene Ho: Trumpography: How Biblical Principles Paved the Way to the American Presidency (paperback, 2018, iUniverse).
Adam Hodges: When Words Trump Politics: Resisting a Hostile Regime of Language (paperback, 2019, Stanford University Press): Analysis of Trump's words (you know, "the best words"), especially via Twitter.
Carl Hoffman: Liar's Circus: A Strange and Terrifying Journey Into the Upside-Down World of Trump's MAGA Rallies (2020, Custom House). Katy Tur's Unbelievable (2017) provides a sense of what Trump's rallies are like, or at least were during the 2016 campaign, but this promises to be both more in-depth and more up-to-date. While the fans and the appeal are likely to be the same, I can't help but wonder if Trump being president doesn't intensify the sense of power. [September 22]
Charles Hurt: Trump Saves America: Our Last Hope to Be Great Again (2019, Center Street).
Aaron James: Assholes: A Theory of Donald Trump (2016, Doubleday).
Brittany Kaiser: Targeted: The Cambridge Analytica Whistleblower's Inside Story of How Big Data, Trump, and Facebook Broke Democracy and How It Can Happen Again (2019, Harper).
David King: Why Trump Deserves Trust, Respect, and Admiration (paperback, 2016, CreateSpace): Blank pages -- not the first such Trump book I've seen.
Edward Klein: All Out War: The Plot to Destroy Trump (2017, Regnery).
Howard Kurtz: Donald Trump, the Press, and the War Over the Truth (2018, Regnery).
Gary Lachman: Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump (paperback, 2018, TarcherPerigee).
Martin E Latz: The Real Trump Deal: An Eye-Opening Look at How He Really Negotiates (2018, Brisance Books).
David Limbaugh: Guilty by Reason of Insanity: Why the Democrats Must Not Win (2019, Regnery).
Trevor Loudon: White House Reds: Communists, Socialists & Security Risks Running for US President, 2020 (paperback, 2020, independent): Quotes Trump saying the 2020 election would be about "Communism versus Freedom," then proceeds to red-bait "ten high profile contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination." Previously wrote Barack Obama and the Enemies Within (2011, 688 pp), and The Enemies Within: Communists, Socialists and Progressives in the US Congress (2013, 702 pp).
Michael Maccoby, ed: Psychoanalytic and Historical Perspectives on the Leadership of Donald Trump (paperback, 2020, Routledge).
Derek Mailhiot: Trump: America's First Zionist President (paperback, 2019, independent): Author means this as a compliment, but where exactly does that leave America First? Even if you see Trump's "deep relationship" is really with Christian Zionism, what does that mean but a yearning for Armageddon? And that's a longing Israeli Zionists want to encourage?
Stephen Mansfield: Choosing Donald Trump: God, Anger, Hope, and Why Christian Conservatives Supported Him (2017, Baker Books).
Gerardo Marti: American Blindspot: Race, Class, Religion, and the Trump Presidency (paperback, 2020, Rowman & Littlefield).
Mike McCormick: Fifteen Years a Deplorable: A White House Memoir (paperback, 2019, 15 Years a Deplorable).
Rachel Montgomery: All I Ever Wanted to Know About Donald Trump I Learned From His Tweets: A Psychological Exploration of the President Via Twitter (paperback, 2017, Skyhorse).
Samhita Mukhopadhyay/Kate Harding, eds: Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump's America (paperback, 2017, Picador).
Stephanie Muravchik/Jon A Shields: Trump's Democrats (2020, Brookings Institution Press). [August 25]
Jack Murphy: Democrat to Deplorable: Why Nine Million Obama Voters Ditched the Democrats and Embraced Donald Trump (paperback, 2018, independent).
Caitríona Perry: In America: Tales From Trump Country (2018, Gill Books).
Carol Pogash, ed: Quotations From Chairman Trump (2015, RosettaBooks). I'm surprise this hasn't been revised and reissued, given how much additional verbiage Trump has spewed in the meantime. Maybe the editor thinks it was already perfect? By the way, this wasn't the first attempt to parody Chairman Mao's "Little Red Book": I had a copy of Quotations From Chairman LBJ back in the day; and it was followed by a little blue book of Richard Nixon quotes, Poor Richard's Almanack.
Joel Pollak/Larry Schweikart: How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution (paperback, 2017, Regnery).
Kevin Powell: My Mother. Barack Obama. Donald Trump. And the Last Stand of the Angry White Man (2018, Atria Books).
Jack Rasmus: The Sourge of Neoliberalism: US Economic Policy From Reagan to Trump (paperback, 2020, Clarity Press).
Ted Rall: Trump: A Graphic Biography (paperback, 2016, Seven Stories Press).
Ian Reifowitz: The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh's Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (paperback, 2019, Ig Publishing).
Sheldon Roth: Psychologically Sound: The Mind of Donald J Trump (Bombardier Books). Against every other psychologist and psychiatrist who's weighed in on the subject, argues that Trump is "remarkably complicated, often brilliant, comfortingly human, and most importantly, of completely sound mind."
David Rubin: Trump and the Jews (2018, Shiloh Israel Press): Note that Amazon's "frequently bought together" adds David Rubin: God, Israel, and Shiloh: Returning to the Land (paperback, 2011, Shiloh Israel Press), and Mark Blitz: Decoding the Antichrist and the End Times: What the Bible Says and What the Future Holds (paperback, 2019, Charisma House).
John Bernard Ruane: The Real News! The Never-Before-Told Stories of Donald Trump & Fake News (paperback, 2018, Post Hill Press).
Michael Savage: Stop Mass Hysteria: America's Insanity From the Salem Witch Trials to the Trump Witch Hunt (2018, Center Street).
Steven E Schier/Todd E Eberly: The Trump Presidency: Outsider in the Oval Office (paperback, 2017, Rowman & Littlefield).
Ben Shapiro: The Establishment Is Dead: The Rise and Election of Donald Trump (2017, Creators Publishing).
Marsha Shearer: America in Crisis: Essays on the Failed Presidency of Donald Trump (paperback, 2019, GoMyStory).
James B Stewart: Deep State: Trump, the FBI, and the Rule of Law (2019, Penguin Books).
David A Stockman: Trumped! A Nation on the Brink of Ruin . . . And How to Bring It Back (2016, Laissez Faire Books): Ronald Reagan's Budget Director, turned libertarian iconoclast, fantasizes a bit about Trump making "ten great deals" -- which, of course, he never came close to considering, and not just because he doesn't really consider anything.
Gene Stone: The Trump Survival Guide: Everything You Need to Know About Living Through What You Hoped Would Never Happen (2017, Dey Street Books).
Roger Stone: The Making of the President 2016: How Donald Trump Orchestrated a Revolution (2017, Skyhorse). I missed this, but did list Stone's later book, The Myth of Russian Collusion: The Inside Story of How Donald Trump Really Won (paperback, 2019, Skyhorse).
Stephen E Strang: God, Trump, and Covid-19: How the Pandemic Is Affecting Christians, the World, and America's 2020 Election (paperback, 2020, Frontline): Short (128 pp) follow up to the author's God, Trump, and the 2020 Election: Why He Must Win and What's at Stake for Christians if He Loses (2020, Frontline), and for that matter his 2017 book, God and Donald Trump.
Joe Walsh: F*ck Silence: Calling Trump Out for the Cultish, Moronic Authoritarian Con Man He Is (2020, Broadside Books): Author is a "rock-ribbed conservative," a former Republican congressman from Illinois who briefly challenged Trump in the 2020 Republican presidential primary.
Jonathan Weisman: (((Semitism))) Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump (2018, St Martin's Press).
Shannon Wheeler: Sh*t My President Says: The Illustrated Tweets of Donald J Trump (2017, Top Shelf Productions).
John K Wilson: President Trump Unveiled: Exposing the Bigoted Billionaire (paperback, 2017, OR Books).
Byron York: Obsession: Inside the Democrats' War on Trump (2020, Regnery). Chief political correspondent for the Washington Examiner, and Fox News hack. Previously wrote: The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy: The Untold Story of How Democratic Operatives, Eccentric Billionaires, Liberal Activists, and Assorted Celebrities Tried to Bring Down a President -- and Why They'll Try Even Harder Next Time (2005, Crown Forum). [September 8]
Also: books that I've written about (or noted) before, that I missed when looking for old Trump books:
Tucker Carlson: Ship of Fools: How a Selfish Ruling Class Is Bringing America to the Brink of Revolution (2018, Free Press).
Andrew C McCarthy: Ball of Collusion: The Plot to Rig an Election and Destroy a Presidency (2019, Encounter Books).