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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).