February 15, 2018

19 good nonfiction books about World War II (plus 10 novels)

good nonfiction books: Engineers of Victory by Paul KennedyYou’ll find a list here of 19 good nonfiction books that offer insight about World War II. They’re arranged in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names. Each is linked to my review.

Good nonfiction books about World War II

The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-44 by Rick Atkinson—Friendly fire and bumbling generals in WWII

The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945 by Rick Atkinson—“The greatest catastrophe in human history”

Year Zero: A History of 1945 by Ian Buruma – 1945: the fateful year when the world stepped back from war

The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies by Jason Fagone – The woman codebreaker who caught gangsters and Nazi spies

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl – From the ashes of the Holocaust, a gift of lessons for living

The House by the Lake: One House, Five Families, and a Hundred Years of German History by Thomas Harding – An intimate take on German history

Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II by Arthur Herman – World War II: when America was united in common purpose

The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, and Guerrillas, 1939-1945 by Max Hastings—A revisionist history of intelligence in World War II

Hell’s Cartel: IG Farben and the Making of Hitler’s War Machine by Diarmuid Jeffreys – The German businessmen who bankrolled Hitler and made World War II possible

Engineers of Victory: The Problem-Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second World War by Paul Kennedy—The problem-solvers who won World War II

Avenue of Spies: A True Story of Terror, Espionage, and One American Family’s Heroic Resistance in Nazi-Occupied Europe by Alex Kershaw—A revealing account of life under the Nazis in occupied Europe

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson—Why the U.S. failed to speak out against the rise of Hitlers Germany

Rogue Heroes: The History of the SAS, Britain’s Secret Special Forces Unit that Sabotaged the Nazis and Changed the Nature of War by Ben MacIntyre—The story of the original special forces

Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies by Ben McIntyre—Operation Double Cross: a new spin on why the Normandy invasion succeeded

Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured Allied Victory by Ben McIntyre—How the Allies fooled the Nazis with a corpse and assured victory

Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese-American Internment in World War II by Richard Reeves – The shameful story of Japanese-American Internment in WWII

Survivor Café: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of Memory by Elizabeth Rosner – The Holocaust, mass trauma, inherited PTSD, and genetics

Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage by Douglas Waller – The remarkable spymaster who launched the US into espionage

1944: FDR and the Year That Changed History by Jay Winik – The sad story of FDR’s complicity with the Holocaust

10 novels that offer additional insight about World War II

The human cost of World War II (Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, by Chris Cleave)

A deeply affecting novel of the Holocaust (The German Girl, by Armando Lucas Correa)

In an alternate history, the Nazis occupy England (SS-GB, by Len Deighton)

This novel richly deserves the Pulitzer Prize it won (All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr)

A suspenseful tale of Holocaust survivors in post-war London (The List by Martin Fletcher)

An extraordinary World War II spy story grounded in historical fact (The Best of Our Spies, by Alex Gerlis)

A deeply affecting novel of the French Resistance (The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah)

A brilliant novel explores life in Nazi Europe (The Glass Room, by Simon Mawer)

A well-written novel about British espionage in World War II (Tightrope, by Simon Mawer)

A brilliant novel of the Warsaw Ghetto (The Book of Aron, by Jim Shepherd)

February 9, 2018

18 excellent recent sci-fi novels

great recent sci-fi: American War by Omar El AkkadHere are 18 excellent recent sci-fi novels published from 2015 to 2017 that I’ve reviewed here. They’re arranged in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names. You might also be interested in reading My 27 favorite science fiction novels. I might well add to that list several of the books cited below.

American War by Omar El Akkad – A chilling tale, lucidly told, of a Second American Civil War

The Second American Civil War erupts in 2074. Four states in the Deep South have seceded in response to federal legislation banning the use of fossil fuels—and a Southern “homicide bomber” has assassinated the President of the United States in Columbus, the country’s new capital. The Reds and Blues are now at war. Read the review.

Landscape with Invisible Hand by M. T. Anderson – A clever new take on an alien invasion in a humorous young adult novel

“We couldn’t believe our luck when the vuvv offered us their tech and invited us to be part of their Interspecies Co-Prosperity Alliance. They announced that they could end all work forever and cure all disease, so of course, the leaders of the world all rushed to sign up.” Big surprise! This was not a good idea. Read the review.

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi – Dystopian fiction that breaks the mold

Prolonged drought, the draining of the aquifers, and climate change have combined to make most of the Southwest into a desert. The Water Knife of the title is a hired gun for the powerful Southern Nevada Water District. His job is to disrupt water supplies to other regions and redirect them to the Las Vegas area. Read the review.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers — A delightful modern space opera that’s all about character development

A 23-year-old woman is fleeing her life on Mars under the assumed name Rosemary Harper. To get as far as possible away from the people there who blame her for something terrible she had nothing to do with, she secures a job as a clerk on a ship that cruises through the galaxy “punching” wormholes into space. The Wayfarer is a second-class ship with a typical multispecies crew. It’s “the ugliest ship she’d ever seen.” Read the review.

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch – A journey into the multiverse

Imagine that every decision you make throughout your life creates a new universe: the old one representing the path you actually take, the new universe conforming to the alternate path. Over the years, then, your life branches into innumerable possible universes. So does the life of everyone else on earth—an infinity of possibilities. Read the review.

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison – A powerful feminist story in a dystopian landscape

In the aftermath of a pandemic, a nurse-midwife has awakened only to find that everyone else in the hospital is dead. She staggers through the desolate world, writing a diary, incorporates stories from others she meets along the way. Several generations later, the midwife’s book represents the only full account of the collapse that followed the plague. The book is treated with reverence by the survivors, who are gradually building a new, matriarchal civilization. Read the review.

The Fear Index by Robert Harris – A taut thriller about the world of multibillion-dollar hedge funds

We have yet to grasp more than a hint of the forces unleashed by the creation of the Internet and, more recently, the World Wide Web. The Fear Index dramatizes one possible chain of events that could upend human society–when people too smart for their own good manipulate the global financial system. Read the review.

An Excess Male by Maggie Shen King – A great science fiction novel set in a future totalitarian China

In Shen King’s dystopian future, women typically have two husbands. The law allows them to “go the max” and marry a third, which they are encouraged to do. Matchmakers help excess males compete for the limited marriage opportunities, usually without success. Read the review.

Nexus by Ramez Naam – The post-human future explored in an outstanding SF novel

Is there a step far beyond into post-human abilities so far superior to those of human beings today that a new species will result? This is the premise of Ramez Naam‘s brilliant science fiction trilogy. In Nexus, the first of the three novels, Naam explores the circumstances in which the conflict between humans and post-humans emerges into the open. This is hard science fiction, not fantasy. Read the review.

Autonomous by Annalee Newitz – In 2144, Arctic resorts, autonomous robots, and killer drugs

Slavery has revived. Millions of humans and robots alike are trapped for life in unbreakable contracts. Bioengineering is supreme. The lives of most are dominated by a handful of huge pharma corporations, which produce patented drugs that lengthen lifespan, enhance productivity, and induce euphoria as well as prevent illness. But only the very wealthy can afford their drugs. Patent pirates supply most of the public’s needs. Read the review.

Sleeping Giants (Themis Files #1 of 2) by Sylvain Neuvel – An entertaining if puzzling sci-fi novel

A young girl living walks across a field in South Dakota, only to find the ground vanishing from under her. When she regains consciousness, she sees a photo of herself lying far down at the bottom of a perfectly square hole in the palm of an enormous metal hand. Scientists learn that the hand is made from an alloy unknown on Earth and is 6,000 years old. The four walls of the hole where it lies are covered with strange symbols that correspond to no language known to humankind. Read the review.

Waking Gods (Themis Files #2 of 2) by Sylvain Neuvel – Aliens, giant robots, and a motley collection of scientists

Waking Gods picks up the story of Themis, the giant alien robot reconstructed by American and Canadian scientists from body parts buried all over the Earth. Dr. Rose Franklin, who discovered the robot as a child, heads the team in control of Themis. Two of her teammates appear to be the only people on Earth who can manage the robot’s controls and cause it to move. Read the review.

After Atlas (Planetfall, A) by Emma Newman – A 22nd century police procedural in a fascinating future Earth

This is a world you or I wouldn’t want to live in. Only the wealthiest can afford to eat real food. Everyone else must eat what comes from printers. Every nation is governed by a “gov-corp” that operates under the influence of a tiny elite of billionaires. Virtually everyone is “chipped” with implants in their brains that connect them to the world around them—and make them vulnerable to their bosses or public authorities. Read the review.

Dead on Arrival by Matt Richtel – Neurology meets high-tech in this gripping science fiction novel

Just imagine. You’ve landed at a small regional airport somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. The world has gone silent. There’s nothing but static on every channel on the radio. The body of a man in a jumpsuit lies sprawled on the tarmac, and human figures inside the terminal are motionless. Is this beginning of a dystopian tale? Read the review.

Absence of Mind by H.C.H. Ritz – In an unusually original sci-fi technothriller, technology meets neuroscience

A psychiatric nurse named Phoebe Barnhart encounters a baffling neurological pandemic that is flooding the city’s hospitals with “aggressive and paranoid people.” Like nearly everyone else, she has had a Navi installed in her brain to access instant messaging and news non-stop, hold subvocalized conversations, and command smartcars and smart appliances with her thoughts. Is there a connection between the Navi and the pandemic? Phoebe sets out to investigate. Read the review.

Saturn Run by John Sandford and Ctein – First Contact: Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind

This book is full of surprises—so many that merely to summarize the plot would be to spoil the story. Suffice it to say that this tale, which begins in the year 2067, describes humanity’s first contact with civilization from beyond the Solar System. However, Saturn Run is “hard” science fiction, based on proven science and engineering, with as little speculation as possible. Read the review.

The Collapsing Empire (Interdependency #1) by John Scalzi – A promising start to a new John Scalzi series

In a distant future empire called the Interdependency, Cardenia Wu-Patrick is an illegitimate daughter of the reigning emperox. Now the emperox is on his deathbed. Cardenia is his designated heir—and she’s not especially happy about it. She must learn how to command a realm consisting of 47 planetary systems and billions of people. Read the review.

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky – Accelerated evolution is the theme in a superior science fiction novel

Tens of thousands of years after Earth has self-destructed in a horrific civil war, humanity has once again reached for the stars. The toxic wastes the war left behind have rendered Earth lifeless before humankind can rebuild. The remnants of the human race have set out to relocate elsewhere in ships housing a half-million people in stasis. One of those immense lifeboats is approaching the nearest terraformed planet after a journey of 2,000 years. What they will encounter there is a nightmare: the unintended consequences of a biological experiment carried out by a lone survivor of the Old Empire. Read the review.

You will have noticed that a number of these 17 novels are dystopian. My post, My 6 favorite dystopian novels, should interest you, too, as should A brief look at 15 notable dystopian scenarios and 24 compelling dystopian novels in series. You may also be interested in my newest book, Hell on Earth: What we can learn from dystopian fiction.

February 8, 2018

Reviewing the Dublin Murder Squad novels by Tana French

Dublin Murder Squad novels: Faithful Place by Tana FrenchBorn in Burlington, Vermont, in 1973, Tana French has been living in Ireland since 1990. She is theatrical actress but is best known for writing the Dublin Murder Squad novels. The series launched in 2007 with the publication of her award-winning debut, In the Woods.

The author’s first novel in the Dublin Murder Squad series after In the Woods was The Likeness (2008). I read both books shortly after their publication. That was before I launched this blog in January 2010, so I haven’t reviewed either one. However, I do remember being captivated by both books.

Here’s how Amazon describes In the Woods: “As dusk approaches a small Dublin suburb in the summer of 1984, mothers begin to call their children home. But on this warm evening, three children do not return from the dark and silent woods. When the police arrive, they find only one of the children gripping a tree trunk in terror, wearing blood-filled sneakers, and unable to recall a single detail of the previous hours. Twenty years later, the found boy, Rob Ryan, is a detective on the Dublin Murder Squad and keeps his past a secret. But when a twelve-year-old girl is found murdered in the same woods, he and Detective Cassie Maddox—his partner and closest friend—find themselves investigating a case chillingly similar to the previous unsolved mystery. Now, with only snippets of long-buried memories to guide him, Ryan has the chance to uncover both the mystery of the case before him and that of his own shadowy past.”

And here’s Amazon’s take on The Likeness: “In the follow up to Tana French’s runaway bestseller In the Woods, it’s six months later and Cassie Maddox has transferred out of the Dublin Murder squad. But an urgent telephone call beckons Cassie to a grisly crime scene. The victim looks exactly like Cassie and carries ID identifying herself as Alexandra Madison, an alias Cassie once used as an undercover cop. Suddenly, Cassie must discover not only who killed this girl, but, more importantly, who is this girl?”

Dublin Muder Squad novels: Tana French

Author Tana French pictured in Dublin’s Grafton St. Credit: Publishers Weekly.

Faithful Place (2010)—From Tana French, a brilliant and satisfying novel of suspense

Faithful Place tells the story of Frank Mackey, the middle son in a poor Dublin family of five children who is forced by circumstances to return to the home and family he hasn’t visited in more than two decades. Frank is a police detective. He quickly finds himself caught up in an investigation into the murder of Rosie Daly, the 19-year-old neighbor he was scheduled to elope with to England but who disappeared the night of their planned departure. The investigation, and Frank’s interaction with his parents and siblings, bring to light all over again the profound ugliness of the environment in which he grew up. Read the full review.

Broken Harbor (2012)—Mental disorders on parade in this murder mystery set in Ireland today

You probably wouldn’t like Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy, the Dublin homicide detective whose story dominates this psychological thriller. Mick is 42, a grizzled veteran of Dublin’s toughest cases, whose high “solve rate” has long been the talk of the Murder Squad. He’s a tough guy, a loner, largely friendless, who rarely talks about himself; many find him arrogant. At work, Mick is a methodical, by-the-book detective who would never stoop to the shady workarounds of many of his colleagues — and as a result is detested more than admired. Recently, though, Mick screwed up a big case and was sidelined by the bosses. Now he has a chance to redeem himself with another serious, high-profile case: the mass murder of a family in a coastal town once called Broken Harbor. Read the full review.

The Secret Place (2014)—Magical style and tedious plotting in Tana French’s latest

This novel is structured around a one-day murder investigation at an exclusive Catholic girls’ school in suburban Dublin. Scenes set in the present are viewed through the eyes of a young policeman named Stephen Moran who has joined murder investigator Antoinette Conway to interrogate the fourth-year (10th grade) girls who represent the chief suspects in the year-old murder of Christopher Harper, a popular student at a posh nearby boys’ school. Moran and Conway’s interrogation of the girls is skillfully and sensitively depicted, but it’s difficult not to think of the classic drawing-room scenes in bygone English whodunits, with the suspects accused one after another to reveal their roles in the crime. I half expected to come across Col. Mustard with the knife in the parlor. Read the full review.

The Trespasser (2016)—A difficult case for the Dublin Murder Squad

The narrator in this police procedural set in Dublin is Detective Antoinette Conway. She’s a two-year veteran of the elite Murder Squad. As the only woman on the squad, and one with a huge chip on her shoulder at that, Conway is shunned by most of the other detectives. She considers herself lucky to be partnered with Detective Steve Moran, whom she recently helped join the squad. They work together on the night shift and are used to catching domestic violence cases that pose little challenge. So they’re not surprised to be assigned early one morning to what seems like another straightforward case of one-spouse-beats-up-the-other. But the very last thing that might be said about this case is that it’s straightforward. The assignment — a murder case rather than a beating — will consume their every waking moment for many days and shake the Murder Squad to its core. Read the full review.

You might also enjoy my post 48 excellent mystery and thriller series. This series is included.

February 5, 2018

82 mysteries and thrillers reviewed in 2017

mysteries and thrillers reviewed: The Snowman by Jo NesboFor the record, I’m listing here all the 82 mysteries and thrillers reviewed in 2017 on this blog. They’re separated into three groups: detective novels, spy stories, and other mysteries and thrillers. Within each group, they’re listed in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names. You’ll find both familiar and unfamiliar authors in this listing–John Grisham, Michael Connelly, and Jo Nesbo as well as names you’re much less likely to be familiar with.

44 detective novels

Five books in the Department Q series by Jussi Adler-Olsen:

The Death of Kings (John Madden #5) by Rennie Airth – Solving a cold case in post-war England

Two books in the Dave Robicheaux series by James Lee Burke:

Where It Hurts (Gus Murphy #1) by Reed Farrel Coleman – Police corruption in suburbia

Three novels by Michael Connelly:

So Damn Lucky (Lucky O’Toole #3) by Deborah Coonts – A disappearing magician, Area 51, and a sex-starved problem-solver

Garden of Lamentations (Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James #17) by Deborah Crombie – Uncovering corruption at Scotland Yard

A Credible Threat (Jeri Howard #6) by Janet Dawson – Stalking and murder at UC Berkeley

Red Harvest (Continental Op #1) by Dashiell Hammett – The original hard-boiled detective?

The Dry by Jane Harper – Multiple murder in the Australian outback

Blind Goddess (Hanne Wilhelmsen #1) by Anne Holt – “The godmother of modern Norwegian crime fiction”

Righteous (IQ #2) by Joe Ide – A ghetto detective, a Las Vegas loan shark, and a Chinese triad

The Dime by Kathleen Kent – Tough female cop takes on a Mexican cartel

Three books in the Bernie Gunther series by Philip Kerr:

Three books in the Fjällbacka series by Camilla Läckberg:

Chameleon People (K2 and Patricia #4) by Hans Olav Lahlum – A right-wing politician is murdered on the streets of Oslo

Earthly Remains (Commissario Brunetti #26) by Donna Leon – Her latest is not one of her best

The Snowman (Harry Hole #7) by Jo Nesbo – Harry Hole investigates a two-decade-long string of serial murders

Fallout (V. I. Warshawski #19) by Sara Paretsky – Biowarfare, white supremacists, and a Hollywood star

An Echo of Murder (William Monk #23) by Anne Perry – Ritual murder and Hungarian émigrés in 1870 London

Five books in the Inspector Rebus series by Ian Rankin:

Dark of the Moon (Virgil Flowers #1) by John Sandford – In Virgil Flowers’ debut, arson, multiple murder, and a right-wing preacher

Beyond Reach (Grant County #6) by Karin Slaughter – Neo-Nazis and meth in rural Georgia

The Crow Girl by Erik Axl Sund – Pedophiles, serial murder, and the Holocaust in a Swedish psychological thriller

The Land of Dreams (Minnesota Trilogy #1) by Vidar Sundstøl – The “best Norwegian crime novel” is set in Minnesota

Four books in the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear:

23 espionage novels 

Two books in Alex Berenson’s John Wells series:

A Single Spy by William Christie – A Soviet spy in Nazi Germany

A Divided Spy (Thomas Kell #3) by Charles Cumming – The latest from a latter-day John le Carré

The Cuban Affair by Nelson DeMille – Nelson DeMille’s new bestselling thriller about Cuba

Lenin’s Roller Coaster (Jack McColl #3) by David Downing – A novelist revisits the Russian Revolution

The Switch by Joseph Finder – A missing laptop, top-secret files, the NSA, and a hitman

Blood of Victory (Night Soldiers #7) by Alan Furst – Spies at work in WWII Istanbul and Rumania

Vienna Spies by Alex Gerlis – A stirring tale of spies in wartime Vienna

Five books in Mick Herron’s Slough House series:

The Increment by David Ignatius – A gripping novel about Iran and the CIA

A Legacy of Spies by John le Carré – The Cold War reexamined in John le Carré’s terrific new novel

The Travelers by Chris Pavone – A clever spy story that will keep you guessing

Three books in Stella Rimington’s Liz Carlyle series:

Two books by Ross Thomas:

An Honorable Man by Paul Vidich – The Cold War, the early CIA, and the McCarthy Era

15 other mysteries and thrillers reviewed

Origin (Robert Langdon #5) by Dan Brown – Quantum computing and the antipope

Watch Me Disappear by Janelle Brown – She’s missing, presumed dead, and now the mystery starts

The Rat Catchers’ Olympics (Dr. Siri Paiboun #12), by Colin Cotterill – Dr. Siri Paiboun and the rat catchers at the 1980 Moscow Olympics

Paranoia by Joseph Finder – A devilishly clever tale

Two books by John Grisham:

Time Bomb (Alex Delaware #5), by Jonathan Kellerman – A school shooting, 60s radicals, and the Holocaust

The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye (Millennium #5) by David Lagercrantz – Stieg Larsson’s “girl” is back: the Millennium series continues

Three books in John Lescroart’s Dismas Hardy series:

The Good Daughter by Karin Slaughter – Karin Slaughter’s engrossing new thriller

The Fourth Durango by Ross Thomas – Another take on small-town skullduggery

Testimony by Scott Turow – Crimes against humanity in Scott Turow’s latest legal thriller

What’s the Worst That Could Happen? (Dortmunder #9) by Donald E. Westlake – Another uncommonly funny capernovel featuring John Dortmunder

February 4, 2018

36 nonfiction books reviewed here in 2017

Nonfiction books reviewed: Fantasyland by Kurt Andersen

As a convenience to my readers, I’m listing all 36 nonfiction books reviewed in this blog in 2017. They’re arranged alphabetically by the authors’ last names. Each title is followed by a link to its review.

Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes – Why Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election

Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire by Kurt Andersen – Conspiracy theories, fake news, and other delusions in American history

Troublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age by Leslie Berlin – The people who put Silicon Valley on the map

Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice by Bill Browder – A true story of high finance and murder in Putin’s Russia

The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age by David Callahan – Is philanthropy good for America?

Requiem for the American Dream: The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power by Noam Chomsky – Noam Chomsky on the concentration of wealth and its consequences

Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes by Richard A. Clarke and R. P. Eddy – Richard A. Clarke asks, can we avoid a dystopian future?

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond – Why is economic development so uneven around the world?

Thinking Machines: The Quest for Artificial Intelligence and Where It’s Taking Us Next by Luke Dormehl – Will robots run amok?

The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner by Daniel Ellsberg – Daniel Ellsberg’s dramatic second act

The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies by Jason Fagone – The woman codebreaker who caught gangsters and Nazi spies

Megatech: Technology in 2050 edited by Daniel Franklin – Surveying the future of technology in the mid-21st century

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann – The case that helped put the FBI on the map

Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency by Joshua Green – How Steve Bannon sold the alt-right to Donald Trump and made history

Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win  by Luke Harding and The Steele Dossier: Trump Intelligence Allegations by Christopher Steele – Collusion exposed, but is there more? Is Donald Trump a Russian agent?

A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order by Richard A. Haass – American foreign policy in a “nonpolar” world

Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild – What Trump voters believe: a Berkeley sociologist goes to the source

Beyond the Messy Truth: How We Came Apart, How We Come Together by Van Jones – Van Jones’ messy truth about the Democratic and Republican Parties

Caesar’s Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us by Sam Kean – An eye-opening book about air

The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of the American Empire by Stephen Kinzer – The origins of the American empire

Black Edge: Inside Information, Dirty Money, and the Quest to Bring Down the Most Wanted Man on Wall Street by Sheelah Kolhatkar – Hedge funds, insider trading, and the most wanted man on Wall Street

Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America by Nancy MacLean – Historical perspective on “the vast Right-Wing conspiracy”

One Nation Under Gods: A New American History by Peter Manseau – America’s surprising religious history in a highly readable book

The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life by Lauren Markham – “Illegal immigrants” come to life in this sensitive personal account

The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone by Brian Merchant – The iPhone: the world’s most profitable product?

The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present by John Pomfret – A revealing history of U.S.-China relations

The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story by Douglas Preston – The true story of a lost city in Central America

Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, by Richard Rhodes – The astonishing story of Hedy Lamarr, Hollywood star and inventor

Survivor Café: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of Memory by Elizabeth Rosner – The Holocaust, mass trauma, inherited PTSD, and genetics

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes by Adam Rutherford – Debunking the popular myths about genetics

Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States by James C. Scott – This book will challenge everything you know about ancient history 

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper – A very funny book about words, grammar, and dictionaries

The Upstarts: How Uber, Airbnb, and the Killer Companies of the New Silicon Valley Are Changing the World by Brad Stone – Uber, Airbnb, and the sharing economy

The Driver in the Driverless Car: How Our Technology Choices Will Create the Future by Vivek Wadwa and Alex Salkever – An authoritative look at technology’s potential

The Imagineers of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency That Changed the World by Sharon Weinberger – DARPA: inventors of Agent Orange, the M16, GPS, and the Internet

I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong – The microbes within us, good and bad

February 1, 2018

10 enlightening books about poverty in America

books about poverty: Deer Hunting with Jesus by Joe BageantHere are 10 enlightening books about poverty in America, arranged in alphabetical order by the author’s last names. Each is linked to my review.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander – The New Jim Crow: reexamining mass incarceration in America

Prof. Alexander explains how the country’s criminal justice system has been warped to the point of non-recognition by a series of Presidential actions, Congressional legislation, and Supreme Court decisions–as well as the catastrophic consequences of this sequence of events for our cities, our African-American and Latino communities, and ultimately all of ourselves. Read the review.

Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War by Joe Bageant – On the front lines of America’s class war

Bageant writes about “the business class, that legion of little Rotary Club spark plugs . . . vital to the American corporate and political machine. They are where the institutionalized rip-off of working-class people by the rich corporations finds its footing at the grassroots level . . . They are so far right they will not even eat the left wing of a chicken.” Read the review.

99 to 1: How Wealth Inequality Is Wrecking the World and What We Can Do About It by Chuck Collins – Wealth inequality: how the 99% can fight back

The former executive director of United for a Fair Economy lucidly spotlights the terrible price we all pay for the massive imbalance in wealth between today’s haves and have-nots. He draws a parallel between the Gilded Age of the 1890s through the 1920s and the current era, beginning in the late 1970s—both of them periods when the disparity of wealth grew to unprecedented proportions. Read the review.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond – Does the profit motive cause homelessness?

Over 18 months in the field, the author followed the lives of several Milwaukee families, both black and white, before, during, and after their experience with eviction. Simultaneously, he tracked the work of two landlords, one with thirty-six badly maintained units in ghetto properties and another who owns a rundown mobile home park containing 131 deteriorating trailers. Read the review.

Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class, by Robert H. Frank – Robert Frank examines income inequality and the tragedy of the commons

Frank goes far beyond the superficial coverage of income inequality in much of the media, which is largely limited to dramatizing just how far and fast the gap has grown between the haves and have-nots. He explains how income inequality forces people of lower or middle income to spend more than they can afford on housing, clothing, and sometimes even food—and how the policies that foster inequality saddle society with inadequate public transportation, polluted air and water, crumbling infrastructure, and other frequently neglected problems. Read the review.

Janesville: An American Story by Amy Goldstein – Janesville book review: The human cost of the Great Recession

Goldstein frames her insightful new book as An American Story. By following the fortunes of a half-dozen families in Janesville, Wisconsin, Goldstein dramatizes the impact of the Great Recession of 2008 in the years following the closure of a large Chevrolet factory. She eloquently shows that the pain it inflicted on the people of Janesville has lasted to this day. This is, indeed, an American story. Read the review.

Taxing the Poor: Doing Damage to the Truly Disadvantaged by Katherine S. Newman and Rourke L. O’Brien – Poverty in America: why the poor get poorer

Students of poverty in America have searched for its roots in many areas, including racism, culture, genetics, personal responsibility, and social policy. Taxes, by contrast, have received little attention. Newman and O’Brien respond to this oversight with an illuminating survey of how tax policy in the South has contributed in major ways to the poverty endemic in the region on both sides of the color line. Read the review.

Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few by Robert B. Reich – Robert Reich explains how to make capitalism work for the middle class

The former U.S. Secretary of Labor takes on the economic issues of the day from a perspective that rarely comes to light in public discourse: he rejects the widespread assumption that a “free market” exists independent of government. “A market—any market—requires that government make and enforce the rules of the game,” Reich writes. Read the review.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson – A searing look at America’s broken criminal justice system

Stevenson’s perspective on law enforcement is clear: “we have to reform a system of criminal justice that continues to treat people better if they are rich and guilty than if they are poor and innocent.” His book focuses on an African-American businessman in Alabama who was wrongly imprisoned on death row for six years. Read the review.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance – Hillbilly? Redneck? White trash?

This spellbinding book is the haunting story of one man who escaped the bounds of his class and now sometimes finds himself adrift. The book also paints a vivid picture of America’s hardening class divisions. It’s a riveting illustration of widening economic inequality. Read the review.

Since wealth and income inequality in America can be directly linked to political decisions, you may be interested in 35 excellent nonfiction books about politics.

January 25, 2018

The 15 most memorable novels of the decade

most memorable novels: Half of a Yellow SunI’ve selected five of the most memorable novels I’ve read in the last ten years in each of three categories: historical fiction, mysteries & thrillers, and science fiction. The books are listed alphabetically by the authors’ last names within each category.

Over the course of the past decade, I’ve read, or at least tried to read, at least 1,000 novels. Nearly all of them were published in the last 10 years. I’ve reviewed more than 650 of them after having read them cover to cover. This selection, then, required making a lot of difficult, even arbitrary decisions. I’m confident, though, that if you’re a fan in any one of these categories, you’ll find all five books to be rewarding.

Top 5 historical novels

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimanada Ngozi Adichie – Love, loss, and war in post-independence Africa

Through the gripping story of twin sisters, Half of a Yellow Sun recounts the events of the 1960s that culminated in the lopsided Biafran war of independence (1967-70) that pitted the ill-equipped people of southeastern Nigeria against the massive forces of their national government, actively backed by the British. Read the review.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr – This novel richly deserves the Pulitzer Prize it won

In a wildly original boy-meets-girl story, two teenagers are caught up in the frenzy and the mortal dangers of World War II: a German boy who is extraordinarily clever with all things electronic, and a blind French girl who reads Jules Verne. Read the review.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi – African Roots through African eyes

This extraordinary debut novel traces the story of a Ghanaian family over more than two centuries through the lives of two branches of its descendants, one in Ghana, the other in the United States. The tale parallels the story told in Alex Haley’s Roots over roughly the same period. Read the review.

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson – An unsparing tale of life in the living hell of North Korea

Johnson’s themes are the loss of identity in a setting where every aspect of life is controlled from above; the disparity between truth and propaganda; and the struggle between love and loyalty. This novel won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Read the review.

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen – The Vietnam War through Vietnamese eyes

The narrator is a South Vietnamese army officer who introduces himself as “a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” He is a secret agent of the NLF actually living in the home of the General who commands the South Vietnamese security police. This remarkable debut novel won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Read the review.

For a much longer list of historical novels I’ve read and enjoyed, see 75 readable and revealing historical novels.

Top 5 mysteries & thrillers

The Trinity Six by Charles Cumming – A stellar new spy story by Charles Cumming

The notorious Cambridge Five were seduced by the lure of Communism as undergraduates during the 1930s and spied for the Soviet Union. Their defection following World War II caused the greatest espionage scandal in modern history. This is an ingenious story about a sixth man and his longer and even more consequential career. Read the review.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn – A bestselling New York Times thriller that’s worth all the fuss

This is the story of the perfect couple in the ideal marriage. It’s a storybook tale . . . or maybe it isn’t. One day she goes missing, and it slowly begins to dawn on you that one (or both) of the two is a sociopath. Read the review.

The Leopard by Jo Nesbo – Is Jo Nesbo the world’s best crime novelist?

The novel, the eighth in the celebrated series of Harry Hole thrillers, functions well on three levels: a suspenseful story of how Harry and his colleagues pursue a brilliant serial killer; an insightful character study of a man wrestling with more than his share of demons; and a highly perceptive tale of internal politics within the Norwegian police. Read the review.

Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon – From Joseph Kanon, one of the best of today’s spy novels

Joseph Kanon’s spy novels reek of authenticity. Set in the years immediately following World War II, they conjure up the fear and desperation that hung over Europe in the early days of the Cold War, when it seemed as though open war might well break out between the two emerging superpowers. Read the review.

Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter – Three sisters, a marriage, a gruesome crime

The fulcrum of this tale is the long-ago disappearance of nineteen-year-old Julia Carroll, the oldest of three beautiful blonde sisters. The sheriff and police believe she ran away, but no one in the family believes that. Read the review.

For a much longer list of mysteries and thrillers I’ve read and enjoyed, see 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

Top 5 science fiction novels

American War by Omar El Akkad – A chilling tale, lucidly told, of a Second American Civil War

Four states in the Deep South have seceded in response to federal legislation banning the use of fossil fuels—and a Southern “homicide bomber” has assassinated the President of the United States in Columbus, the country’s new capital. The Reds and Blues are now at war. Read the review.

Feed by M. T. Anderson – A terrifying vision of the future in an award-winning young adult novel

Corporations are the dominant force on the planet. Climate change, pollution, and overfishing have killed the oceans. Past wars have left a blanket of radioactive dust all across the surface. People on Earth live underground to avoid the intolerable heat and unbreathable atmosphere. Massive numbers have migrated off-planet to Mars, the moons of Jupiter, and nearby star systems. This is truly a dystopian society. Read the review.

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi – Paolo Bacigalupi: One of the best science fiction novels I’ve ever read

Powerful food-exporting corporations have killed off virtually all traditional sources of food—and hundreds of millions of people—with genetically engineered plagues to increase their leverage in the market. Now they hungrily eye Thailand and its own independent success in creating new fruits and nightshades capable of resisting the ubiquitous plant-killers. Read the review.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel – Life on Earth after the apocalypse

In the post-apocalyptic world of this wonderful novel, a National Book Award Finalist, there are no functioning cities. Survivors have scattered over the countryside, some of them coming together in communities of at most a couple of hundred people. In the Skymiles Lounge at a small-town airport, someone has set up a Museum of Civilization, displaying mobile phones, electronic games, credit cards, and other artifacts of lives long gone. Read the review.

Autonomous by Annalee Newitz – In 2144, Arctic resorts, autonomous robots, and killer drugs

The lives of most of the world’s citizens are dominated by a handful of huge pharma corporations which produce expensive patented drugs that lengthen lifespan, enhance productivity, and induce euphoria as well as prevent illness. A flourishing pirate economy reverse-engineers the most popular drugs. To enforce patent law, teams of agents go around the world to capture or kill the practitioners of “black pharma.” Read the review.

You’ll find an older list of my favorite sci-fi novels at My 27 favorite science fiction novels.

January 17, 2018

Third World poverty and economic development: a reading list

Third World poverty: The White Man's Burden by William EasterlyThe emergence of new nations out of a colonial past was one of the most significant developments of the 20th Century—if not the most important of all. Their uneven struggle to attain the comforts and possibilities of life to be found in Europe, North America, and Japan continues to loom large in the 21st Century. As a consequence, a fair proportion of my reading the past two decades has been about these issues.

Much of what is written about development in what is variously called the Third World, the Global South, under-developed countries, or developing nations is self-serving and less than useful as a guide to understanding the true issues involved. The underlying reality is that since World War II the countries of the “West”—more recently, and more accurately called, the Global North—have invested a total of more than $2.5 trillion in “foreign aid” (as it’s popularly known in the USA) or “official development assistance” (or ODA, as it’s termed elsewhere). You might think that investments of that magnitude would have produced dramatic improvements in the quality of life for the billions of people who live in poverty. However, the truth is appalling: there is precious little to show for this outpouring of aid other than the most obvious advances in education and public health. These are, indeed, substantial. But there is no evidence that anything approaching comparable advances have been engineered in ending poverty.

Here are some of the best books I’ve read in recent years that cast light on this reality. Some of them directly address the issues surrounding foreign aid. Others illuminate the backdrop to those issues. But I don’t pretend this list is comprehensive in any way. It’s simply a starting-point. I’ve listed these books in alphabetical order by the authors’ surnames. Where I read a book recently enough to have reviewed it online, the title links to that review.

Banerjee, Abhijit, and Esther Duflo, Poor Economics A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty. PublicAffairs, 2011

Two development economists assess the impact of a wide range of development programs in alleviating poverty through randomized trials. They conclude that most aid programs have not been designed with a rigorous understanding of the behaviors and needs of the poor or how aid affects them.

Bing, Eric C., and Marc J. Epstein, Pharmacy on a Bicycle: Innovative Solutions for Global Health and Poverty. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2013. 

The authors assert that most poor outcomes in healthcare “are caused not by lack of effective medicines or medical know-how. The ability to prevent and treat many of these diseases inexpensively has been available for a very long time. But getting the right remedies to the right people in the locations where they are needed, in a way they will use them, and at a cost they can afford is continually a challenge. This is not a scientific problem. It’s a business challenge.”

Bornstein, David, How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas. Oxford University Press, 2007.

Much of the social change taking place today in the world’s poorest countries is a result of the work of the venturesome folks called “social entrepreneurs”—and Ashoka, the USA-based organization that supports them by the thousands. This book profiles nine of the better-known Ashoka Fellows, demonstrating the role of local leadership in making the world a better place.

——, The Price of a Dream: The Story of the Grameen Bank. Oxford University Press, 2005.

Muhammad Yunus gained global fame when he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, but the story of his decades of dogged efforts in Bangladesh—and of the immense organization he built—is much less well known. This book demonstrates how home-grown solutions to development programs are often superior to anything imposed on developing countries by the international community.

——, and Susan Davis, Social Entrepreneurship: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford University Press, 2010.

The three short chapters that constitute Social Entrepreneurship ask and answer the most fundamental questions that any reader unfamiliar with the pursuit of social change might ask, first clarifying the definition of social entrepreneurship, then examining the practical challenges practitioners face, and finally “Envisioning an Innovating Society.”

Clark, Gregory, A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World. Princeton University Press, 2007.

Clark puts the question of economic development in historical perspective, dispelling long-popular myths about the supremacy of the West.

Collier, Paul, The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It. Oxford University Press, 2007.

An economist analyzes why the 50 nations that are home to the poorest one billion people are failing. The fault lies in civil war, dependence on extractive industries, and bad governance.

Collins, Daryl, Jonathan Morduch, Stuart Rutherford, and Orlanda Ruthven, Portfolios of the Poor: How the World’s Poor Live on $2 a Day. Princeton University Press, 2009.

The findings of a series of detailed, year-long studies of the day-to-day financial practices of some 250 families in India, Bangladesh, and South Africa, including both city-dwellers and villagers.

Diamond, Jared, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Viking, 2005.

A fascinating exploration of the historical influence of environmental factors in the failure of “developing countries”—and a sobering perspective on the prospects for development breakthroughs in much of today’s overpopulated world.

Easterly, William, The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good. Penguin Press, 2006.

This the best book that tackles the issue head-on and makes the clearest case for an explanation of the question posed in its title. Easterly argues that existing aid strategies have not and will not reduce poverty, because they don’t seriously take into account feedback from those who need the aid and because they perpetuate western colonial tendencies.

———, The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor. Basic Books, 2015.

“The conventional approach to economic development, to making poor countries rich is based on a technocratic illusion: the belief that poverty is a purely technical problem amenable to such technical solutions as fertilizers, antibiotics, or nutritional supplements . . . The technocratic approach ignores what this book will establish as the real cause of poverty — the unchecked power of the state against poor people without rights.”

Elkington, John, and Pamela Hartigan, The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets That Change the World. Harvard Business Review Press, 2008.

Two of the world’s leading experts on social entrepreneurship describe examples from virtually every area of interest in development, from healthcare to education to poverty eradication. The book is most rewarding in its presentation of vignettes of individual social enterprises, including interviews with many of their principals.

Govindarajan, Vijay, and Chris Trimble, Reverse Innovation: Create Far From Home, Win Everywhere. Harvard Business Review Press, 2012.

This is the book that the author of The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid—now, unfortunately, deceased—should have written. Two business professors have formulated a concept they call “reverse innovation” that is the key to doing business in those emerging markets that excited Prahalad’s lust.

Guha, Ramachandra, India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy. HarperCollins Publishers, 2007.

In global perspective, the greatest challenges to narrowing the inequities among nations lie in sub-Saharan Africa and India. This history of the subcontinent after independence helps to convey the complexity of the issues faced by change agents in the world’s second most populous nation.

Hochschild, Adam, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

The most dramatic portrayal of the legacy of colonialism I’ve ever read. The author is one of today’s premier popular historians.

Kamkwamba, William, and Bryan Mealer, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope. HarperCollins Publishers, 2009.

The astonishing story of a brilliant, self-taught young man in Malawi who demonstrated the vast potential that underdevelopment leaves behind.

Kidder, Tracy, Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World. Random House, 2003.

Farmer is often publicly described as a secular saint for his selfless work bringing world-class healthcare to the interior of Haiti, the slums of Lima and Boston, the prisons and towns of Siberia, and many other challenging environments around the world.

Kristof, Nicholas D., and Sheryl WuDunn, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. Knopf, 2009.

It is impossible to tackle the issue of economic and social development without considering the central role of women: it’s become a truism in the field that the education and empowerment of women is the surest first step toward meaningful social change. Nick Kristof, a long-time New York Times columnist, is one of the world’s most incisive observers of the daily reality lived by people in the Third World. Previously, Kristof and WuDunn reported jointly from China for the Times.

Mehta, Pavithra, and Suchitra Shenoy, Infinite Vision: How Aravind Became the World’s Greatest Business Case for Compassion. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2011 

The Aravind Eye Care System, based in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, has had an outsized influence on the treatment of eye disease throughout the world. Pavithra Mehta, a grand-niece of Aravind’s founder, tells the astonishing story of this extraordinary institution, illustrating the potential for indigenous development that shuns outside support.

Moyo, Dambisa, Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009.

A Zambia-born economist asserts that aid is not only ineffective—it’s harmful. She believes aid money promotes the corruption of Third World governments and the dependence of their citizens. She advocates that an investment approach will do more to help reduce poverty than aid ever could.

The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty by Nina Munk, Anchor, 2013.

Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs, the man behind the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, has gained a reputation as one of the world’s leading experts on ending global poverty. This excellent biography unmasks the reality behind Sachs’ unwarranted fame.

Polak, Paul, Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2006.

Polak argues that neither donations, national economic growth, nor big business can end poverty. Instead, he advocates helping the poor earn money through their own efforts of developing low-cost tools that are effective and profitable.

——- and Mal Warwick, The Business Solution to Poverty: Designing Products and Services for Three Billion New Customers. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2013.

In my humble opinion, this book, which I coauthored with Paul Polak, takes up the challenge laid out by C. K. Prahalad in his much better-known book—and delivers, where his book didn’t.

Prahalad, C. K., The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty Through Profits. Pearson Prentice Hall, 2004.

In this paean to the multinational corporations of the world, the late C. K. Prahalad, one of the most celebrated management consultants of recent times, presents a host of case studies about the potential of business to foster development while increasing profits. Although the general proposition is roughly on track, most of the case studies fail to illustrate the strategy laid out by Prahalad.

Sachs, Jeffrey D., The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time. Penguin Press, 2005.

Here is the cheerleader’s polyannish case for large-scale development assistance. Useful as a counterpoint to Bill Easterly’s White Man’s Burden, which far better reflects my own experience in developing countries.

Schwartz, Beverly, Rippling: How Social Entrepreneurs Spread Innovation Throughout the World. Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2012.

Hiding behind the abstract title of this book is an engrossing account that might better have been subtitled “How Ashoka Fellows Spread Innovation Throughout the World.” The author was Ashoka’s marketing director for eight years.

Sinclair, Hugh, Confessions of a Microfinance Heretic: How Microlending Lost Its Way and Betrayed the Poor. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2012.

“Some microfinance is extremely beneficial to the poor, but it is not the miracle cure that its publicists would have you believe. Microfinance has been hijacked by profiteers, and we need to reclaim it for the poor. The problem is not with a few rogue operators, alas, but with systemic flaws that permeate the sector.”

Sullivan, Nicholas P., You Can Hear Me Now: How Microloans and Cell Phones Are Connecting the World’s Poor to the Global Economy. Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2007.

Grameen Telecom is much less well known than the grassroots bank that spawned it. This intriguing story is a great case study of the long-familiar “leapfrog effect” that allows underdeveloped countries to advance rapidly by skipping over the use of technologies long dominant in the West.

Wrong, Michaela, It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower. HarperCollins Publishers, 2006.

No consideration of Third World development is complete without taking official corruption into account. This story, which focuses on one courageous Kenyan man who tried to expose corruption, brings to light some of the complications it poses.

Creating a World Without Poverty: Social Business and the Future of Capitalism (2009), by Muhammad Yunus.

Yunus argues that modern-day capitalism is too narrowly defined, particularly in its emphasis on profit maximization. By including social benefits in the equation, he believes that markets and the poor themselves can alleviate poverty. His argument implies that any social business must be subsidized by philanthropic contributions.

January 11, 2018

The 10 most memorable nonfiction books of the decade

most memorable nonfiction: The Revenge of Geography by Robert D. KaplanI’ve found the first 10 of the books listed here to be the most memorable nonfiction of the last 10 years, but the 15 others are hard to forget.

To put this list in perspective, these 25 books represent less than 2% of the approximately 1,500 books I’ve read (or at least tried to read) over the past decade. (I’ve finished reading and reviewing about 1,000 here.) However, these are all nonfiction. I’ve read fewer than 400 nonfiction books over the same period. So, my choices may look a little less selective.

The 25 books included here are grouped in two categories and listed in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names within each category.

The 10 most memorable nonfiction books

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander – The New Jim Crow: reexamining mass incarceration in America

How the country’s criminal justice system has been warped to the point of non-recognition by a series of Presidential actions, Congressional legislation, and Supreme Court decisions; and the catastrophic consequences of this sequence of events for our cities, our African-American and Latino communities, and ultimately all of ourselves. Read the review.

The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor by William Easterly – By William Easterly: why economic development happens (or doesn’t)

“The technocratic approach [to economic development] ignores what this book will establish as the real cause of poverty—the unchecked power of the state against poor people without rights.” Read the review.

The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner by Daniel Ellsberg – The Doomsday Machine: Daniel Ellsberg’s dramatic second act

Before Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers, he had planned to reveal an even larger store of top secret documents exposing the hidden truths about our nuclear plans. Now, based on his own extensive notes, research on the issue over six decades, and declassified files from the 1950s and 60s, Ellsberg is belatedly fulfilling his promise to bring the enduring nuclear threat to the forefront. Read the review.

The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, and Guerrillas, 1939-1945 by Max Hastings – A revisionist history of intelligence in World War II

Hastings contends that breakthroughs in deciphering codes by the British, Russians, and Americans contributed far more decisively to the successful outcome of the war than any missions undertaken by spies. And, except in Russia from 1943 onward, the efforts of Resistance movements in Europe were even less significant. Read the review.

Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II by Arthur Herman – World War II: when America was united in common purpose

Two extraordinary men—William S. Knudsen and Henry Kaiser—are the stars of this story, business impresarios who marshaled the stupendous numbers of men and women and the unprecedented mountains of raw materials that supplied the U.S. and its Allies with the weapons of war. Read the review.

The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate by Robert D. Kaplan – From Robert D. Kaplan, a thought-provoking view of world politics

The Revenge of Geography is crammed with thought-provoking analysis—about the influence of geography on European history, about the role of megacities in our future, about changing demographic patterns, and about the impact of latitude on the fate of nations. Read the review.

Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin – The shocking reality behind the secret US war on “terror”

“A jaw-dropping [total of] 1,074 federal government organizations and nearly two thousand private companies [are] involved with programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence in at least 17,000 locations across the United States—all of them working at the top secret classification level.” Read the review.

Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power by Seth Rosenfeld – J. Edgar Hoover, Ronald Reagan, and the violence in 1960s Berkeley

J. Edgar Hoover and Ronald Reagan were personally and directly engaged not just in monitoring but in managing the secret government campaigns that helped raise the temperature to the boiling point again and again in Berkeley. Read the review.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot – The dark history of mid-century medical research

“Doctors took her cells without asking. Those cells never died. They launched a medical revolution and a multimillion-dollar industry. More than twenty years later, her children found out. Their lives would never be the same.” Read the review.

The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government by David Talbot – When America’s secret government ran amok

“In the name of defending the free world from Communist tyranny, [CIA Director] Allen Dulles and his big brother [Secretary of State John] Foster Dulles would impose an American reign on the world enforced by nuclear terror and cloak-and-dagger brutality.” Read the review.

The 15 runners-up

The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide by Gary J. Bass – Nixon, Kissinger, and the genocide history has ignored

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo – A searing look at poverty in India that reads like a novel

The Summit: Bretton Woods, 1944: J. M. Keynes and the Reshaping of the Global Economy by Ed Conway – Bretton Woods: clashing personalities determined our economic history

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick – The stories told in “Nothing to Envy” make clear why politics matters

Engineers of Victory: The Problem-Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second World War by Paul Kennedy – The problem-solvers who won World War II

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson – Why the U.S. failed to speak out against the rise of Hitlers Germany

Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local—and Helped Save an American Town by Beth Macy – Understanding globalization, from the ground up

Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer – How the Koch brothers are revolutionizing American politics

Infinite Vision: How Aravind Became the World’s Greatest Business Case for Compassion by Pavithra Mehta and Suchitra Shenoy – Aravind: a social enterprise with impact to match Grameen Bank

The Emperor of All Maladies: A History of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee – A cancer researcher looks at the disease most of us fear above all

The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News—and Divided a Country by Gabriel Sherman – Roger Ailes: the man who built Fox News and divided America

NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity by Steve Silberman – The story of autism, brilliantly told

The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt by T. J. Stiles – The first robber baron and the emergence of the corporation

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright – Scientology revealed in a definitive investigative report

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf – Biography of a genius: the man who invented ecology

January 4, 2018

Jussi-Adler Olsen’s captivating Department Q thrillers

Department Q thrillers: The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-OlsenSince 2007, Danish thriller writer Jussi Adler-Olsen has written seven bestselling novels in his ongoing series about Department Q at police headquarters in Copenhagen. All the principal characters in their own ways are misfits. Detective Carl Mørck has antagonized almost everyone else in the department and been exiled to the basement to head the new cold case unit. His assistant, Asaad, allegedly a Syrian immigrant, has a mysterious but doubtless violent past. The unit’s secretary, Rose, appears to suffer from dissociative identity disorder (“multiple personalities”). However, as a team they’re almost unbeatable.

The Keeper of Lost Causes (2007) — Superb Scandinavian noir from Denmark

Department Q is formed at the insistence of a member of Parliament. But Carl learns that his boss is skimming off most of his budget to subsidize the homicide bureau. He extorts an assistant to clean the basement and make coffee for him. Thinking he will get even with Carl for blackmailing him, the head of homicide assigns a seemingly clueless Syrian refugee named Assad as the assistant. But it doesn’t take long before it’s clear that Assad is capable of much more than cleaning floors and making coffee. Read the full review.

The Absent One (2008) — A twisted tale of murder in Denmark

The file of a case from 1987 has mysteriously landed on Carl’s desk: a double homicide that the police consider solved because the confessed murderer has long been in prison. No one can explain to Carl how or why the file showed up on his desk. Since Carl is afflicted with an overwhelming desire to do the exact opposite of what he’s told to do, he insists on pursuing the case even when his boss, and his bosses’ boss, the chief of police, demand that he set it aside because it has already been solved. Read the full review.

A Conspiracy of Faith (2009) — A captivating tale of religious fanaticism, blackmail, and serial murder

Carl is attempting to find an interesting case to explore when a mysterious message in a bottle literally turns up. That message, we know, was written by a teenage Danish boy with Asperger’s Syndrome who was being held captive along with his older brother in a boathouse on the shore of a fjord north of the capital. It was a desperate, last-minute plea for help—and it was written 13 years ago. Read the full review.

The Purity of Vengeance (2010) — Forced sterilization, fascists, and serial murder—in Denmark

While investigating the unexplained disappearance of four people in 1987, Department Q takes on a politically fraught case involving a powerful fertility doctor who is widely rumored to have performed a great many abortions over the years, most of them not just illegal but unknown to the women. The doctor is a clever and articulate spokesperson for the new Fascist party and is steadily gaining adherents through frequent television and radio interviews. Read the full review.

The Marco Effect (2014) — Child soldiers, bank fraud, and eccentric police in a Danish thriller

In a region of Cameroon populated by people outsiders call pygmies, a Danish development project has gone off the rails. Then, shortly after a visitor from the Danish foreign ministry is glimpsed on a visit, the local liaison between the project and the Danes is brutally murdered. Back home in Denmark, one of the foreign ministry officials involved in the project goes missing. We’ve learned that a senior official in the ministry and top executives at a Copenhagen bank are involved in a massive fraud. Meanwhile, troubles mount for a 15-year-old boy who is enslaved as a thief and a beggar by a band who style themselves Gypsies. We know there are connections among all these circumstances. But Carl Mørck doesn’t. Yet. Read the full review.

The Hanging Girl (2015) — From a bestselling Danish author, an intriguing detective novel

In 1997, a beautiful 19-year-old schoolgirl is killed by a hit-and-run driver on a road near the school she’s attending. Somehow, her body is throw up fourteen feet into a tree, where it remains hanging until a local police officer discovers her days later. The officer plunges into an obsessive investigation into her murder that spans nearly two decades. In the process, he drives his wife and son away and alienates everyone else around him. Now, in 2014, he calls detective Carl Mørck of the famous Department Q in Copenhagen in hopes Carl will take up the case. Carl, predictably, rude as ever, hangs up on him. Of course, we readers know well that Department Q will, in fact, take on the case. Read the full review.

The Scarred Woman (2016) — The latest addition to Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Department Q series

Like the six books that preceded it, it tells the story of how the small team in Department Q takes on several homicide cases simultaneously and discovers—lo and behold!—that they’re all connected. In the process, all three of Detective Carl Mørck’s “assistants,” Asaad, Rose, and newly assigned Gordon, manage to infuriate and astound him in new and sometimes highly creative ways. It’s just possible, we might guess, that all three of them are at least as smart as he is, if not more so. Read the full review.

You might also enjoy my post 48 excellent mystery and thriller series. This series is included.

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