Monday, August 14. 2017
Music: Current count 28538  rated (+30), 378  unrated (+3).
Average week, although more old music than usual as I followed a recent Burnt Sugar album into their back catalog (still missing 2011's All Ya Needs That Negrocity), then also picked up old records from avant-jazz guitarist Joe Morris -- I found some new Ken Vandermark albums on his Catalytic Sound Bandcamp, although better still was a 2008 album Morris album with Vandermark. Unfortunately, a lot of the new Catalytic Sound albums don't come with any music, but I found several on Napster.
Another of the new Vandermark albums is under Eric Revis' name -- like his last several, a good one. It's the first album on Portugal's Clean Feed label I've reviewed since they stopped sending me CDs -- I hope they don't take the grade as positive reinforcement. I probably have download codes for more, but haven't chased them down yet. I did pick up new albums on ECM by Vijay Iyer, Tim Berne, and Gary Peacock. I spent quite a bit of time with the Iyer, and basically timed out in trying to determine whether it's an A-, so I guess it isn't. Still, the Fieldwork-times-two band dazzles here and there, and the mix is more interesting than his last couple ECM albums. Will get to the others sooner or later.
The Hamell Live album seems to be some sort of download-only bonus to the new studio album, but I figured I'd treat it as a separate release as that's how it appears on Napster. Figured it would slack off a bit, but I like it as much (if not more).
I'm a little confused about how the numbers add up, since I graded 5 CDs while only unwrapping 3 new ones, yet wound up with +3 unrated instead of -2. I've double-checked and haven't found the discrepancy.
No progress on the Jazz Guides this past week. I have started on collecting Robert Christgau's Expert Witness pieces at Noisey for a website update, probably by the end of the month. I've probably lost some of the corrections readers sent in. If you sent one in and haven't heard back from me, assume that I did and resubmit it.
I should also note that I've added @BirdIsTheWorm to my twitter feed. He probably tweets too much (13.1K tweets vs. 1815 for me, but he has 3588 followers to my 271), but I figured maybe he'd point me toward some things that I was missing, as in his latest The Round-up: What went unseen. Actually, I've seen 2 (of 5) of those new records -- both B+(*) -- but hadn't heard of the others (just added to my Music Tracking file). I also recommend following @TimothyNiland. At this moment, the front page of his Music and More blog has seven substantial album reviews on it: three of records I've heard [A-, B+(***), B+(*)], the others I will want to check out soon. (Playing Shipp as I write.)
New records rated this week:
Old music rated this week:
Unpacking: Found in the mail last week:
Sunday, August 13. 2017
Laura came downstairs yesterday playing Chris Hedges Best Speech in 2017 so I wound up listening to a fair chunk of it. We all know that Hedges in 2007 was a Premature Antifascist -- a term US "intelligence agencies" used to describe Americans who turned against Hitler before Pearl Harbor -- when he published his book American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, but is he still "premature" in 2017? The world he decries sounds an awful like the one we have come to live in. If there is a common theme to the stories below, it's that Trump and his crew have moved decisively into a fascist orbit: one that worships naked power while practicing shameless greed. Of course, Trump didn't invent this world. He's just risen to the top, like scum in a stockpot.
Brief scattered links this week:
I had to look up the authors (although I guessed 3/5, maybe 4). We were recently talking about how much I enjoyed the 1998 BBC/PBS series of Our Mutual Friend, and we had recently watched the 1987 TV rendition of A Perfect Spy (which I didn't much care for). I doubt I've read enough novels (probably about 50, which wouldn't last my wife a year) to construct such a list -- only obvious one is Thomas Pynchon, V., though the unfinished Gravity's Rainbow might have wound up even better.
I probably could offer a list of non-fiction:
My "recent books" roll currently runs 552 books, so that at least is a sample (roughly from 2003 to the present), although only one of the books listed above comes from it (Mak's magnificent history-qua-travelogue).
Thursday, August 10. 2017
This is only the second Book Roundup I've done this year -- the last one was back on April 26, with the second most recent, on August 21, 2016, dating from almost a year ago. Limiting myself to 40 blurbs per post, I should be able to do one of these every other month (six times a year), but it's hard to get into the right research mode. Still, when I do, I tend to overshoot, coming up with two or more posts in rapid succession (five is my current record). Right now I only have 18 leftover blurbs in the scratch file, but I expect it won't be hard to round them up to a second post.
I suppose one thing that helps thin them out is that I recently started adding a section listing books without blurbs -- gives me a way I can note the existence of something without having to take the time to write much. I don't count those books under my 40 limit. On occasion I've also noted paperback reprints of previously noted books, and there are some of those below. The Thomas Frank and Jane Mayer books were written before the 2016 election, but they turned out to be the year's most prophetic books (note that both paperbacks have post-election I-told-you-so afterwords).
Most recently I've been reading Hacker and Pierson, a book that's been sitting on my shelves a fair while. Its paean to "the mixed economy" could be sharper, but its review of the political forces that stripped us of past keys to prosperity is reasonably thorough. I would add that the more you forget about how things work, and the more you adopt ideas that are just plain wrong, the deeper you enter into what the late Jane Jacobs recognized as "the coming dark age."
Going through this list, some books that I either already have or am particularly likely to pick up are Andrew Bacevich: America's War for the Greater Middle East, Michael Chabon/Ayelet Waldman: Kingdom of Olives and Ash, Michael J Hudson: J Is for Junk Economics, Ibram X Kendi: Stamped From the Beginning, Nancy McLean: Democracy in Chains, Nathan Thrall: The Only Language They Understand. I'll also note that my wife is currently listening to China Miéville: October. One thing I've learned from this book so far is that the Bolsheviks came out on top because they were the only party willing to walk away from the disastrous World War.
Tariq Ali: The Dilemmas of Lenin: Terrorism War Empire Love Revolution (2017, Verso Books): One expects that the centenary of the Russian Revolution will produce the usual spate of new books, so this is nominally one of them. But for a good while now we've known that in his last couple years Lenin was unhappy about the drift of his revolution, so it's never been quite fair to blame him for the whole dead weight of the Stalinist system. Not sure whether Ali can freshen him up in any useful way, but it's worth noting that the hopes that many people held for the workers' paradise weren't wrong, even if they were somewhat misplaced. Forthcoming [Sept. 19]: Slavoj Zizek: Lenin 2017: Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through (2017, Verso Books).
Jon Bakija/Lane Kenworthy/Peter Lindert/Jeff Madrick: How Big Should Our Government Be? (paperback, 2016, University of California Press): Looks like each author gets separate chapters around the question. The only one I'm familiar with is Madrick, who wrote The Case for Big Government (2008), so you know where he's going. Right-wingers have argued for shrinking federal government back to an arbitrarily small percent of GDP, a level not seen since Calvin Coolidge, although few of them are on record in favor of shrinking the federal government's most cancerous tumor, the Department of Defense, proportionately. Even so, they've shown no allowance for the ways the world has changed since the 1920s, such as the much greater complexity of the marketplace, the need for a much more skilled and knowledgeable workforce, the need for modern transportation and communication networks, the impacts of larger population and production on the environment, and many other things -- even if (like me) you think the growth of the "defense" and "security" sectors (i.e., war and repression) is largely bogus. I would go further and argue that public takeover of dysfunctional markets like health care would be a good idea, as well as some way to subsidize creative development of products that can be freely mass-produced (like software and many forms of art). I don't see how you can map any of these needs to a fixed size, so size itself isn't a very good measure.
John Berger: Portraits: John Berger on Artists (2015, Verso Books): Art critic and novelist, died earlier this year at 90, his early books Art and Revolution (1969), The Moment of Cubism (1969), Ways of Seeing (1972), and About Looking (1980) had a huge effect of me personally. This is a collection of 74 pieces on more/less famous artists, starting with the Chauvet Cave Painters but quickly jumping to Bosch (6) and Michelangelo (11), and ending with ten names born post-1950 (most, sad to say, unknown to me). The sort of book you're bound to learn a lot from. Tom Overton edited this, and also: Landscapes: John Berger on Art (2016, Verso Books). Also recent: John Berger: Confabulations (paperback, 2016, Penguin Books); Lapwing & Fox: Conversations Between John Berger and John Christine (2016, Objectif).
Heather Boushey/J Bradford DeLong/Marshall Steinbaum, eds: After Piketty: The Agenda for Economics and Inequality (2017, Harvard University Press): Large (688 pp) collection of essays on Thomas Piketty's pathbreaking book Capital in the Twenty-First Century and the myriad problems associated with increasing inequality.
Michael Chabon/Ayelet Waldman, eds: Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation (paperback, 2017, Harper Perennial): Connecting with Breaking the Silence, a number of well known writers (mostly novelists) took a tour of Israel and its Occupied Territories, and chronicled what they found as they bear "witness to the human cost of the occupation."
Frans de Waal: Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (2016, WW Norton): Interesting question, most likely one the biologist/primatologist has much fun poking holes in. More or less related: Jennifer Ackerman: The Genius of Birds (2016, Penguin); Jonathan Balcombe: What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins (2016, Farrar Straus and Giroux); Charles Foster: Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide (2016, Metropolitan Books); Sy Montgomery: The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness (paperback, 2016, Avila); Virginia Morell: Animal Wise: How We Know Animals Think and Feel (paperback, 2014, Broadway Books); Carl Salina: Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel (paperback, 2015, Picador).
Bill Emmott: The Fate of the West: The Battle to Save the World's Most Successful Political Idea (2017, Economist Books): British, editor of The Economist, same basic shtick as Edward Luce: The Retreat of Western Liberalism. Blames Moscow, Beijing, but also Washington, and locates "the west" as much in Tokyo and Seoul as in Europe, the idea being the promise of neoliberalism (if not necessarily the reality): "It relies on the operation and staunch defense of several principles, first among them relative equality of income and opportunity as well as openness . . . An open society is thus one of porous borders rather than of walls, friendly to free trade agreements as opposed to protectionist tariffs, outward-looking rather than nationalist." Perhaps the idea wouldn't be fairing so poorly if the practice did a better job of delivering the promised broad-based wealth. The recent Brexit vote provides a detailed map of who wins and loses from open borders.
Niall Ferguson: Kissinger: 1923-1968: The Idealist (2015, Penguin Press): Hagiography, based on access to private papers, the first installment of a "magisterial two-volume biography," written by a pseudo-scholar with politics and morals flexible enough for the task. Anyone else would subtitle the second volume War Criminal, even if the time frame had to extend beyond 1976. But my guess is that Ferguson is thinking of The Realist, a suitable philosophical refuge for idealists once their hands get bloody. Myself, I'm more inclined to call this period The Bullshit Artist, then look for something even more scatological to follow.
Peter Fleming: The Mythology of Work: How Capitalism Persists Despite Itself (paperback, 2015, Pluto Press): Argues that "neoliberal society uses the ritual of work (and the threat of its denial) to maintain the late capitalist class order," despite all sorts of technological and cultural changes that could reduce the class-definitional role of work toward the sidelines. In the US you might want to substitute "jobs" for "work," and I-don't-know for "neoliberal society" -- the corporate-political system? Also wrote Resisting Work: The Corporatization of Life and Its Discontents (paperback, 2015, Temple University Press).
James Forman Jr: Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America (2017, Farrar Straus and Giroux): How many black politicians got wrapped up in the post-1970 "war on crime" and its attendant mass incarceration. Forman worked six years as a public defender, a stark contrast to other jobs on his resume, like Supreme Court clerk and Yale Law School professor.
Thomas L Friedman: Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist's Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations (2016, Farrar Straus and Giroux): Anyone who can get away with as many clichés and as much cant as Friedman must truly feel blessed. However, the very facts and trends that makes him so optimistic signify little more than mental rot to me. For more, see Matt Taibbi's review.
Kelly Fritsch/Clare O'Connor/AK Thompson, eds: Keywords for Radicals: The Contested Vocabulary of Late-Capitalist Struggle (paperback, 2015, AK Press): Recalling Raymond Williams' Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (1976), the activist-editors and forty-some contributors attempt to map contemporary movements by their jargon, terminology, language. Probably a worthy undertaking, interesting to me because I opened a file recently under the same rubric, but not to explore language so much as to offer a framework for hanging short topical essays on. Williams' book goes deeper into history and etymology -- he was, after all, primarily a literary critic. Best case this one does too. Worst case it tries to codify some form of "political correctness" -- to pick a term that postdates Williams' work.
Bruce Cannon Gibney: A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America (2017, Hachette): Author is a venture capitalist, a guy who made a fortune mostly betting on high-tech start ups, so it's rather ripe for him to blame a whole generation for the short-sighted squandering of the unprecedented wealth many Americans enjoyed after the Great Depression and WWII. He berates "a generation whose reckless self-indulgence degraded the foundations of American prosperity . . . [who] ruthlessly enriched themselves as the expense of future generations . . . turned American dynamism into stagnation, inequality, and bipartisan fiasco." That all happened, and I think it is fair to say that the Boomer generation, which grew up with postwar prosperity and its focus on individual freedom was further removed from the previous generation than is generally the case, but those effects the author describes as sociopathic were just one political strain in a broad spectrum, that of the resurgent right-wing and its promotion of often predatory greed. Perhaps the author has some other political agenda, but offhand this looks like he's representative of the rarefied class that captured the nation's wealth then blamed the less fortunate for their "entitlements." Just who are the real sociopaths here?
Joshua Green: Devil's Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency (2017, Penguin): Campaign reporting, focusing on Bannon -- presumably the Devil in the title, although it's since become clear that he picked a very leaky and unstable vessel for his machinations. I have no idea what Bannon's been able to accomplish since moving into the White House. During the campaign he provided Trump with a gloss of fascist aesthetics and a whiff of ideological coherence distinct from the usual run of conservative nostrums -- that probably contributed to Trump's win, but was far less significant than Hillary's failures, the lock-step support of the Koch/Republican machines, and the amazing gullibility of so much media and so many people. On the other hand, one might cast Trump as the Devil, and explore why Bannon would invest all his hare-brained ideological fantasies in such a shoddy salesman. I suppose because doing so made him famous, and in America fame is merchantable (and money is everything).
Chris Hedges: Unspeakable: Talks With David Talbot About the Most Forbidden Topics in America (2016, Hot Books): Conversations, evidently the publisher has a series of these. Hedges was a divinity student who left the church and became a prize-winning war journalist, then the more he saw the more he moved to the left. Among his books: American Fascists, written back in 2007.
Michael Hudson: J Is for Junk Economics: A Guide to Reality in an Age of Deception (paperback, 2017, Islet): Presented as a "companion" to his 2015 book, Killing the Host: How Financial Parasites and Debt Destroy the Global Economy. Starts with an "A-to-Z" of key economic terms, nothing that "economic vocabulary is defined by today's victors -- the rentier financial class," and working to unmask their spin. Follows up with several scattered essays, like "The 22 Most Pervasive Economic Myths of Our Time," "Economics as Fraud," and "Methodology Is Ideology, and Dictates Policy." He was one of the first to recognize the real estate bubble of the 2000's and predict its bust -- a now obvious point that all but a few conventional economists missed.
Frederic Jameson: An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army (paperback, 2016, Verso): Marxist literary critic and political theorist -- I must have a copy of his 1971 Marxism and Form: Twentieth Century Dialectical Theories in Literature somewhere upstairs -- takes a shot at sketching out his utopia in the lead essay here, followed by nine responses edited by Slavoj Zizek (only other author I recognize is novelist Kim Stanley Robinson). I haven't read any of his later books, most recently (all Verso): Raymond Chandler: The Detections of Totality (2016); The Ancients and the Postmoderns: On the Historicity of Forms (2015); The Antinomies of Realism (2013, Verso); Representing 'Capital': A Reading of Volume One (2011); The Hegel Variations: On the Phenomenology of Spirit (2010); Valences of the Dialectic (2009).
Matthew Karp: This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (2016, Harvard University Press): When I think of southerners running US foreign policy, I think of James Byrne's decisive role in launching the Cold War, and later Lyndon Johnson plotting a coup in Brazil as well as "Americanizing" the civil war in Vietnam. But this goes back to the first half of the nineteenth century, before the South tried to secede from the union, a period when prominent southerners agitated to expand American power south and west, and thereby to buttress and advance their system of slavery. I suppose you can start with the Louisiana Purchase and the Monroe Doctrine, as well as the Mexican War and the annexation of Texas, but there were other schemes that didn't come to fruition, notably the desire to annex Cuba as a "slave state."
Ibram X Kendi: Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (2016; paperback, 2017, Nation Books): I've long thought that the "definitive" history was Winthrop Jordan's monumental White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812, which won the National Book Award for 1968, but that book was focused more on the early development of Anglo-American racism. Those ideas have since been recapitulated (sometimes with mutations) in many ways up to the present day -- the key to Kendi's own National Book Award winning tome. Many reviewers describe this book as "painful" -- often citing the skewering of otherwise admirable abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison for adopting racial stereotypes (the book consists of five parts built around individuals: Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, Garrison, WEB DuBois, and Angela Davis). I don't know whether the author adopts a fatalist position on the racist ideas, but I believe that their persistence has everything to do with increasing inequality, much as the origins of those ideas had everything to do with exploiting negro labor. As Kendi argues: "Hate and ignorance have not driven the history of racist ideas in America. Racist policies have driven the history of racist ideas in America."
Naomi Klein: No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump's Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need (paperback, 2017, Haymarket Books): Describes Trump as "a logical extension of the worst and most dangerous trends of the past half-century" -- trends Klein has made a career of writing about; e.g., No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies (2000), The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007), This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (2014).
James Kwak: Economism: Bad Economics and the Rise of Inequality (2017, Pantheon): A primer on how "Economics 101" is wrapped up in political biases which promote inequality, passing it off as the genius of markets. Another book along the same lines: Joe Earle/Cahal Moran/Zach Ward-Perkins: The Econocracy: The Perils of Leaving Economics to the Experts (paperback, 2016, Machester University Press); also Michael Hudson: J Is for Junk Economics: A Guide to Reality in an Age of Deception (paperback, 2017, Islet).
Guy Laron: The Six-Day War: The Breaking of the Middle East (2017, Yale University Press): Fifty years later, has the advantage of recently declassified documents. "The Six-Day War effectively sowed the seeds for the downfall of Arab nationalism, the growth of Islamic extremism, and the animosity between Jews and Palestinians." The latter started much earlier, but the war led to a massive increase in the number of Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation, and started the great land grab known as the Settler Movement -- so, yes, it did much to poison relations. I don't know if Laron discloses anything new about the run up to the war -- 90% of the book is on the events before the war itself -- but it seems pretty clear to me that Ben-Gurion regarded the 1950 armistices as temporary stays while Israel gathered strength to launch new offensives to grab the various territories they've long coveted. Their military success changed the nation's psychology, as they stopped paying heed to world law and opinion, and set out on their own arrogant path, trusting only in their own brute force and cunning.
Chris Lehmann: The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream (2016, Melville House): A book on how often throughout America's history Christianity has upheld and celebrated economic iniquity -- "the pursuit of profit, as well as the inescapability of economic inequality."
Edward Luce: The Retreat of Western Liberalism (2017, Atlantic Monthly Press): British political writer, has covered both Washington and New Delhi for Financial Times. No relation to Henry Luce, but you get the feeling he'd like to occupy a similar perch, but where Henry proclaimed "the American century," Edward bemoans its eclipse, lamenting both the decline of western power in the world and the erosion of Democratic norms in the west. At first blush, this all has a whiff of "white man's burden" to it. Not sure if that's fair, but one should note that the assault on liberal democracy in America and elsewhere comes almost exclusively from entrenched elites whose "populist" pitch is purely cynical.
Nancy McLean: Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America (2017, Viking): This traces the Koch political machine back to the ideas of an Nobel prize-winning economist, James McGill Buchanan (1919-2013), a president of the Mont Pelerin Society, distinguished senior fellow at the Cato Institute, and professor at George Mason U. -- although the reality has more to do with the Kochs' money than with Buchanan's ideas (which included the book Why I, Too, Am Not a Conservative: The Normative Vision of Classical Liberalism). Should be an interesting book (in my queue, anyway).
Viet Tranh Nguyen: Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (2016, Harvard University Press): Vietnamese novelist, moved to US at age 4, won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Sympathizer, writes about how most or all sides remember the war and aftermath he grew up in.
Thomas M Nichols: The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters (2017, Oxford University Press): My own impression is that we don't lack for expertise, but as inequality increases so does the temptation for experts to hire themselves out to private interests, which in turn makes people more suspicious of experts. The author seems more inclined to blame the internet for 'foster[ing] a cult of ignorance" -- but that strikes me as a secondary effect.
PJ O'Rourke: How the Hell Did This Happen? The Election of 2016 (2017, Atlantic Monthly Press): Famed right-wing humorist, not that he was ever very funny -- if you ever bother to scan through conservative editorial cartoons you'll get a sense of how low the bar is -- but do you really want to bother with lines like this: "America is experiencing the most severe outbreak of mass psychosis since the Salem witch trials of 1692. So why not put Hillary on the dunking stool?"
Ilan Pappé: Ten Myths About Israel (paperback, 2017, Verso Books): Only ten? Some are big ones, long since debunked, like that Palestine was "a land without people" (therefore perfect for "a people without land"), that Palestinians who fled their homes in 1947-49 did so voluntarily, and that Israel had no choice but to start the 1967 war. I don't have the full list, but they evidently extend to Israel's rationalizations for its periodic assaults on Gaza and the question of why people who have repeatedly sabotaged the "two state solution" still insist it's the only one possible. Pappé has written many important books on Israel and the Palestinians, especially The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (2007), and more recently The Idea of Israel: A History of Power and Knowledge (2014).
Keith Payne: The Broken Ladder: How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live, and Die (2017, Viking): Textbooks on inequality invariably start with lists or charts of numbers -- after all, the most straightforward thing you can do with money is count it. However, the problem with inequality has never just been who gets (deservedly or not) what. Every bit as important is how it makes us think and behave toward each other. Several books have explored these ways -- e.g., how inequality worsens health care outcomes, even beyond the correlation between inequal societies and crappy health care systems -- although this promises to delve deeper into experimental psychology.
Charles Peters: We Do Our Part: Toward a Fairer and More Equal America (2017, Random House): Founder and long-time editor of The Washington Monthly, a journal I've long admired both for its heart-felt liberal bearings and its shrewd analysis of what government can and cannot do. And while he would like to point us toward "fairer and more equal," the trajectory he's recognized since 1970 has been pointed the other way. (Although I've lately discovered that he coined the term "neo-liberal" and seems to have a dark side -- especially an antipathy to unions, which for many years were the most effective and practical advocates for "a fairer and more equal America.")
Kate Raworth: Doughnut Economics: 7 Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist (2017, Chelsea Green): The doughnut image depicts "a sweet spot of human prosperity" -- where economics should aim for widespread human satisfaction, as opposed to the 20th-century (and earlier) obsession with scarcity and growth. The seven ways are better captured by their subtitles: from GDP to the Doughnut; from self-contained market to embedded economy; from rational economic man to social adaptable humans; from mechanical equilibrium to dynamic complexity; from 'growth will even it up again' to distributive by design; from 'growth will clean it up again' to regenerative by design; from growth addicted to growth agnostic. The last few years have seen a rash of books complaining about how economic theory is shot through with false and damaging assumptions, so it was only a matter of time before someone tried to build a new understanding around more contemporary goals.
TR Reid: A Fine Mess: A Global Quest for a Simpler, Fairer, and More Efficient Tax System (2017, Penguin Press): Author of a very good international survey of health care systems, The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care (2009), tries to work the same magic by comparing tax codes around the world. While he's probably correct that the US tax code (plus the huge state-by-state variations and wrinkles for other taxing authorities) is "a fine mess," and that other nations have come up with "tax regimes that are equitable, effective, and easy on the taxpayer," the whole issue seems much less important. It is, however, something that Republicans obsess on, as with most things usually with an eye toward making it much worse.
Walter Scheidel: The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality From the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century (2017, Princeton University Press): A rather depressing argument: he argues that inequality has been the default state of civilization ever since agriculture started producing surpluses that predatory elites could seize. The exceptional periods of leveling only seem to occur due to wars and other disasters. One might still hope that reason might come to our rescue, but empiricists are unconvinced.
Gershon Shafir: A Half Century of Occupation: Israel, Palestine, and the World's Most Intractable Conflict (2017, University of California Press): Fiftieth anniversary of 1967, when Israel dismantled its internal military occupation and seized new territory from Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, allowing them to bring back military occupation on an even larger scale. Author has written a number of books on the conflict, going back as far as Land, Labor, and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflit 1882-1914.
Thomas M Shapiro: Toxic Inequality: How America's Wealth Gap Destroys Mobility, Deepens the Racial Divide, and Threatens Our Future (2017, Basic Books): We certainly need more books that come up with vivid examples of how inequality poisons social and political and economic relationships, which is what this title promises. Focuses on race, which follows up from the author's previous The Hidden Cost of Being African American: How Wealth Perpetuates Inequality. One thing that should be obvious is that you can't achieve racial equality in an era of increasing wealth/income inequality.
Steven Slowan/Philip Fernbach: The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone (2017, Riverhead): "Humans have built hugely complex societies and technologies, but most of us don't even know how a pen or a toilet works." (For the record, I can answer both of those, although never having read about pens -- unless Henry Petroski's book on pencils ventured there -- I'd have to offer a guess there, based on other principles I understand.) But the basic idea is sound. I'm not sure what the authors draw from this, but I'd say that one important thing is that as we become ever more dependent on advanced technology, it becomes ever more important that we develop social relations that increase trust. This in turn implies several changes: we need to cultivate more widespread expertise; we need to make that information more open; and we need to shift incentives for experts toward openness and generosity and away from selfishness and exploitation. I should also add that this has generally been the direction over the last couple centuries, hand in hand with technological advancement. But all this is increasingly at risk because various business and political interests find it more profitable to appropriate and monetize "knowledge" -- for a sketch of the possible outcomes here, see Peter Frase's Four Futures.
Wolfgang Streeck: How Will Capitalism End? (2016, Verso): Depicts a world of "declining growth, oligarchic rule, a shrinking public sphere, institutional corruption, and international anarchy," adding up to instability, probably collapse, certainly a need for profound change. Contradictions of capitalism has been a staple of Marxist thought for 150 years now, so even if the author doesn't come up with an answer to his question, he has plenty of theory to build on. Streeck also wrote Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism (2nd edition, paperback, 2017, Verso).
Nathan Thrall: The Only Language They Understand: Forcing Compromise in Israel and Palestine (2017, Metropolitan Books): Hard to think about the conflict without considering how to end it, especially if you're an American, since we've long assumed that our mission on Earth is to oversee some sort of agreement. Thrall has been following the conflict closely for some time now, and writes up what he's figured out: that the only way it ends is if some greater power wills it. The title has a certain irony in that the Israelis, following the British before them, have often said that violence is the only language the Palestinians understand. But as students of the conflict should know by now, the only times Israel has compromised or backed down have been when they been confronted with substantial force: as when Eisenhower prodded them to leave Sinai in 1956, when Carter brokered their 1979 peace with Egypt, when Rabin ended the Intifada by recognizing the PLO, or when Barak withdrew Israeli forces from Lebanon in 2000. Since then no progress towards resolution has been made because no one with the power to influence Israel has had the will to do so -- although Israel's frantic reactions against BDS campaigns shows their fear of such pressure. On the other hand, one should note that force itself has its limits: Palestinians have compromised on many things, but some Israeli demands -- ones that violate norms for equal human rights -- are always bound to generate resistance. What makes the conflict so intractable now is that Israel has so much relative power that they're making impossible demands. So while Thrall would like to be even-handed and apply external force to both sides, it's Israel that needs to move its stance to something mutually tolerable. The other big questions are who would or could apply this force, and why. Up to 2000, the US occasionally acted, realizing that its regional and world interests transcended its affection for Israel, but those days have passed, replaced by token, toothless gestures, if any at all. It's hard to see that changing -- not just because Israel has so much practice manipulating US politics but because America has largely adopted Israeli norms of inequality and faith in brute power.
Bassem Youssef: Revolution for Dummies: Laughing Through the Arab Spring (2017, Dey Street Books): Egyptian, dubbed "the Jon Stewart of the Arabic World," had a popular television show during the brief period when that was possible -- the brief, unpopular period of democracy sandwiched between the even less popular (but who's counting?) Mubarak and Sisi dictatorships.
Other recent books also noted:
Gilad Atzmon: Being in Time: A Post-Political Manifesto (paperback, 2017, Interlink)
Nir Baram: A Land Without Borders: My Journey Around East Jerusalem and the West Bank (paperback, 2017, Text)
Mark Bowden: Hue 1968: A Turning Point in the American War in Vietnam (2017, Atlantic Monthly Press)
Noam Chomsky: Optimism Over Despair: On Capitalism, Empire, and Social Change (paperback, 2017, Haymarket Books): interviews by CJ Polychroniou.
Joan Didion: South and West: From a Notebook (2017, Knopf)
Richard Falk: Palestine's Horizon: Toward a Just Peace (paperback, 2017, Pluto Press)
Al Franken: Giant of the Senate (2017, Twelve)
Henry A Giroux: America at War With Itself (paperback, 2016, City Lights Press)
Al Gore: An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power (paperback, 2017, Rodale Books)
Jeremy R Hammond: Obstacle to Peace: The US Role in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (paperback, 2016, Worldview)
Yaakov Katz/Amir Bohbot: The Weapon Wizards: How Israel Became a High-Tech Military Superpower (2017, St Martin's Press)
China Miéville: October: The Story of the Russian Revolution (2017, Verso)
Vijay Prashad: The Death of the Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution (paperback, 2016, University of California Press)
David Roediger: Class, Race, and Marxism (2017, Verso Books)
Alice Rothchild: Condition Critical: Life and Death in Israel/Palestine (paperback, 2017, Just World Books)
Raja Shehadeh: Where the Line Is Drawn: A Tale of Crossings, Friendships, and Fifty Years of Occupation in Israel-Palestine (2017, New Press)
Peter Temin: The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy (2017, MIT Press)
Also, some previously mentioned books new in paperback:
Andrew J Bacevich: America's War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History (2016; paperback, 2017, Random House): A self-styled conservative, but a useful critic of militarism in post-Vietnam America (see 2005's The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War). As the Cold War wound down, the military pivoted to focus on the Middle East, most dramatically with the 1990-91 Gulf War, which turned into a 12-year containment project aimed at Iraq, and boosted by 9/11 backlash into a massive war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and more clandestine operations from Libya to Yemen and Somalia to Pakistan.
David Daley: Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America's Democracy (2016; paperback, 2017, Liveright): More nuts-and-bolts on how the right-wing -- the financiers of the Koch Bros. dark money networks -- has plotted its takeover of American democracy, especially by targeting and capturing state legislatures.
Thomas Frank: Listen, Liberal: Or What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? (2016; paperback, 2017, Picador): Shows how the Democratic Party, especially since the arrival of Bill Clinton in 1992, has triangulated its way into the good graces of bicoastal urban elites more often than not at the expense of the party's old base -- people they could continue to take advantage of because the Republicans have left them nowhere else to go. This was damning and embarrassing when it came out last summer, and after white working class voters flocked to elect Trump over Hillary people started pointing to this book as prescient. Paperback includes an afterword where the author gets to "I told you so." Real question is whether the Democratic Party moving forward can learn from its mistakes. A good place to start is here.
Jacob S Hacker/Paul Pierson: American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper (2016; paperback, 2017, Simon & Schuster): Argues that ever since Madison and Hamilton crafted a strong federalist constitution, America has benefited from a strong activist government, one that regulated commerce to limit market failures, that made major investments in infrastructure, and eventually built a modern safety net -- lessons that too many Americans have forgotten as narrow-minded business interests have sought to capture government for their own greedy ends.
Jane Mayer: Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionairse Behind the Rise of the Radical Right (2016; paperback, 2017, Anchor): To assess the disaster of the 2016 elections, it is not only important to look at the shortcomings of the Democrats -- start with Thomas Frank: Listen, Liberal before you move on to Jonathan Allen/Arnie Parnes: Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton's Doomed Campaign -- but also at what made the Republicans so effective, mostly a huge clandestine political machine only marginally connected to the RNC and/or the Trump Campaign, largely funded by the Koch Bros. and their fellow travelers. This is the best book on the latter, and the paperback as an "I told you so" afterword. Still, Mayer's excavation of these misanthropes has only barely begun.
Monday, August 7. 2017
Music: Current count 28508  rated (+18), 375  unrated (+10).
Basically took a break for the latter half of the week (Wednesday to Saturday). Main reason: Korean dinner. For this stretch, I mostly played CDs from one of my travel cases: Lilly Allen, Beautiful South, Bobby Bland, Manu Chao, Dance Floor Divas, Duke Ellington/Coleman Hawkins, English Beat, Franco, Girl Group Greats, Mighty Sparrow, Roger Miller, Van Morrison, Nigeria 70, Pet Shop Boys, Public Enemy, Wilson Pickett, Shirelles, Phil Spector, Velvet Underground, Mary Wells, Hank Williams. That, plus the work, kept me in a pretty good mood.
Before that, I was probably off to a typical week. The Tyshawn Sorey album took a bit of time, and I think I probably played the Elan Pauer (the only other CD in the list below) 3-4 times. Evidently Pauer is an alias for Oliver Schwerdt -- he also sent me a 2-CD under that name, one of a fair number of things in a suddenly resurgent queue (seems to be split evenly between September-October releases and things already out). For a long stretch the queue had been so depleted I stopped paying much attention to it, but I got more records in the mail last week than in any week for many months.
I spent Sunday playing Randy Newman. Robert Christgau proclaimed his new Dark Matter an "album of the year contender" on Friday. I still don't hear anything like that, but gave it five plays before parking it in the bottom half of my 2017 A-List -- didn't want to underrate it as badly as I had Harps and Angels, but I still doubt I'll wind up liking it as much. I had heard "Putin" on a late night show, and it seemed pretty awful at the time. It's funnier here with orchestra and "the Putin girls" chorus. But the opener (whence the title, but not its title) is an awkward, incoherent mess, and "Brothers" is just a bummer until it breaks into a celebration of Celia Cruz. Good song about the original Sonny Boy Williamson, and "She Chose Me" works for him.
I also went back through the Songbooks -- I had given Vol. 2 a B+(**), but missed Vol. 1 and Vol. 3, and wound up replaying the whole 3-CD "box" to pick up the songs Bob mentioned that were left off Vol. 3: "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country" as timely as it was in 2008 (the death of one of those Supreme Court Italians proving inconsequential), but I'm not hip enough to his irony to stomach his 2012 "I'm Dreaming [of a white president]" ("he won't be the brightest/ but he'll be the whitest/ and I'll vote for that"). The box does offer a really terrific "A Wedding in Cherokee County."
I bumped up the grade of Lana Del Rey's Lust for Life from where I had it last Monday. Among other things, it offers a sharper political commentary than Newman does. We need more people demanding "the fucking truth." And while she's right that "critics can be mean sometimes" I'm not feeling that now.
New records rated this week:
Old music rated this week:
Unpacking: Found in the mail last week:
Sunday, August 6. 2017
I took a break from the politics and music this past week to cook a dinner served Saturday. I started my "birthday dinner" tradition back in the mid-1990s, where I would take a national cuisine and try to make as many varied dishes as I could muster. I suppose the original idea was just to show off: the first two dinners were Chinese, which I largely figured out in the early 1980s while living in New Jersey. Then I moved on to Indian -- another old interest although I didn't get to be really good at it until the birthday dinners started up -- and then Turkish. Later on I started using the dinners as research projects as I attempted to figure out other cuisines: Spanish, Thai, Moroccan, Lebanese, Japanese, Iranian, Italian, Greek, Brazilian, Cuban, Russian.
I've long felt like Korean would be worth trying. I've dabbled a bit, mostly from working from Charmaine Solomon's The Complete Asian Cookbook. My first Korean food came from a restaurant in Cambridge (MA): small nuggets of intensely flavored beef. A decade later, I had a friend in Boston who several times fixed huge feasts of homemade Korean food. One of the first times I tried cooking at a relative's home, we bought beef short ribs and I marinated and grilled them. But I never got out of the rut of habitually ordering bulgogi when I got the chance. A couple years back I bought a copy of Young Jin Song's The Food and Cooking of Korea, but until recently it languished on the shelf.
A few months ago I decided to give it a go. I planned out a menu, and knowing I'd need some lead time I went ahead and made a batch of classic kimchi. I did some shopping to figure out what could be found, but we couldn't schedule the dinner I had hoped for, and I wound up making a "practice run" with what I had bought -- a pretty substantial dinner in its own right. I finally got a chance to go all out this week. I started shopping on Wednesday, and made the first batch of kimchi that night. More shopping Thursday, plus an emergency run on Friday. Cooked some things on Friday, and finished up on Saturday, producing the spread (not very artfully laid out) photographed below:
In addition to the Song cookbook mentioned above, I bought two more Korean cookbooks: Deuki Hong/Matt Rodbard, Koreatown: A Cookbook, and Maangchi's Real Korean Cooking. I ordered the latter after finding several promising recipes on the author's website. I built up a long shopping list with a tentative menu (16 dishes), noting what I already had and what I would need. Then I added various things as I looked through the books, trying to expand my options or just to get a sense of what's available. For example, I never found perilla leaves, bellflower root, or dried file fish (although I did something labeled "filetfish"); I found but didn't buy fresh burdock and dried fernbrake.
I started my shopping at Thai Binh, the largest Vietnamese grocery in town. They cover Chinese and Thai pretty well, with a smallish specifically Korean section where I had previously bought chili paste (gochujang), bean paste (doenjang), coarse chili powder (gochugaru), and coarse sea salt. They have a substantial produce section (although no water chestnuts this time) and a tremendous variety of frozen fish so I figured they'd be my best shot. Then I stopped at Dillons to get the beef, pork ribs, and some more conventional vegetables. Still, I came up short in several respects, so I googled for Korean groceries and found two more: Grace Korean-Japanese Market and Kimson Asian Food Market. I went to them on Thursday, and that evening went to Sprouts and Dillons. I didn't actually have much on the list by that time, other than English mustard, which I finally found at Dillons (Rock/Central).
Grace was small but had a couple things I hadn't picked up before. They also have a small cafe area which seemed pretty inactive. I picked up a couple "homemade" batches of seaweed and shrimp salads, but didn't particularly like either. Kimson only had about a third as much space as Thai Binh but was packed so they had almost as much stuff, including some things I had never seen locally (like frozen sea urchin for sushi). I wound up having to go out again on Friday -- Thai Binh and Dillons -- as I couldn't find the short-grain (sushi) rice I was sure I had plenty of.
Notes on the menu: Most Korean food is very hot (spicy, but aside from chilis, garlic, and ginger there are virtually no spices). The heat comes from chili powder, chili paste, or (much less often) chili oil or fresh peppers. I can barely tolerate hot peppers, so in all of the following recipes I either cut them way back or completely out (though I usually kept the garlic and sugar which are probably included just to draw out the heat). I thought about serving a hot sauce on the side, but doubted any of my guests especially wanted it. (The kimchis were still pretty hot in my book.) Also, virtually every Korean dish is topped with sesame seeds, which I also omitted (although I offered black sesame seeds on the side).
I'm reconstructing this from memory, so I may not even have the right cookbook for several recipes that appeared on multiple books. I did what seems like more than the usual mount of fiddling, not just to adjust the heat and avoid sesame seeds. I did quite a bit of fiddling with various sauces to get an appealing mix of tastes. And aside from the dessert it pretty much all worked. Interesting that the dishes with the highest-percentage leftovers were the kimchi (although the rice, which is usually the least popular choice, was most nearly wiped out).
I scratched a half-dozen possible dishes at various points in the afternoon. I had bought groceries to make: zucchini namul, buckwheat noodles, braised bean curd. I could have done a chives namul. I had more bok choy which I could have fixed with the bean paste. I had cucumbers which could have been used several different ways (but I didn't have time to do proper pickles). I could have made the extra jellyfish into its own dish (similar to the squid). I also had dried anchovies that could be given the squid treatment. I bought red and green bell peppers and can't remember what they were for. I have a piece of barbecued eel in the freezer. I could have taken some of the rice, dressed it with sugar and vinegar, and made sushi, topped with wasabi, broiled eel, and sweetened soy. (Would have been better than the dessert I served.)
There's a lot more Korean food I could have made -- something to try out later. I wanted to have lots of little things (Koreans call them banchan) rather than a big main course. That's why I didn't consider doing a soup or a combo rice dish like bibimbap. In fact, I didn't want to serve plain rice, even though that's the foundation virtually all Korean meals are built upon. I also figured I should stay away from obvious Japanese imports like sushi, teriyaki, and tempura (all common in Korea). I figured the bulgogi was essential, and what sold me on the pork ribs was the possibility of sticking it in the oven and forgetting about it. Similarly, the seafood salad could be made early and out of the way, and having those three dishes really didn't leave much room for chicken or fish. One thing I was tempted by but figured was too tricky and/or marginally weird was the raw blue crabs -- Thai Binh stocks them, and they basically get kimchi'ed for a couple days before serving, so they wouldn't have presented a logistical problem.
Figuring out the logistics is a big part of these large-scale dinners. In fact, this one was relatively easy, the first critical task figuring out what I could (and could not) obtain, and where to shop for it. The kimchis had relatively long lead times (pickles were already out of the question), so that determined when I had to start. I've done meals so complicated that I've mapped them out using charts, but this one wasn't that mind-boggling. After I made the kimchis, on Friday I cooked the seafood, roasted the sweet potatoes, steamed the spinach and eggplant, cooked the plain rice, made the squid, and marinated the meat. Hardest thing there (by far) was picking out the crab meat. I got up a little after noon on Saturday and started working through the little dishes -- the braises sometimes took an hour or more, but I could plate them when they were done. While the braises were going on I julienned the vegetables and dressed the salad, then put it back in the refrigerator. I usually get desserts out of the way early, but this one could be cooked anytime, and there was very little prep to it. The final push could hardly have been simpler: put the ribs in the oven, fix the fried rice, then finish the steak. And I could wait until the guests arrived to do the latter.
So, a pretty memorable dinner. Learned a lot while doing it. The guests seemed pretty pleased. The dog tried crawling into the dishwasher to help with the prewash. I won't try to get into the dinner discussion and all that, which for me was probably the highlight of the evening. Had some leftover ribs and sweet potatoes for dinner this evening. Have some people coming over Monday to help clean out the leftovers -- and maybe I'll cook some of the scratched dishes then. Hopefully Trump won't start bombing Korea by then. I was born during the Korean War. I'd hate to suffer through a second one.
Thursday, August 3. 2017
Took a break today and glanced at the Internet and came up with the usual load. Noted a tweet from Kathleen Geier: "No one will look back at this era in American politics and remember it fondly. Absolutely no one."
Let me also note this trip down memory lane: Carl Boggs: The Other Side of War: Fury and Repression in St. Louis. I moved to St. Louis and Washington University after the events described here, and didn't know Howard Mechanic or anyone else mentioned in the article, but did know Boggs -- a political science professor at Washington U.