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27 great recent nonfiction books I’ve read in 2015

recent nonfictionBiography. Science. History. Current affairs. Business. Medicine. Espionage. Innovation. The 27 books listed below represent a wide range of topics — because I’m a really curious guy. They have three things in common: they were all published within the last year or two, I read and reviewed them all in 2015, and every one of them is a fine piece of work that helped me understand better the world we live in. The 27 are arranged below in alphabetical order by authors’ last names.

It’s daunting even to think about naming one among these books as my favorite, or “the best.” I won’t even try. However, if I have to pick the one that shocked me the most, it would be Annie Jacobsen’s The Pentagon’s Brain.

One of the virtues of nonfiction is that a book’s title is almost always a good guide to its contents. That’s true of all 27 of the books listed below. Pick one, or two, or ten: you’ll learn a lot.

Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes, by Tamim Ansary

Empire of Cotton: A Global History, by Sven Beckert

The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa’s Wealth, by Tom Burgis

The Summit: Bretton Woods, 1944: J. M. Keynes and the Reshaping of the Global Economy, by Ed Conway

Citizen Coke: The Making of Coca-Cola Capitalism, by Bartow J. Elmore

Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned, by John A. Farrell

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande

Future CrimesEverything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It, by Marc Goodman

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari

The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot: The True Story of the Tyrant Who Created North Korea and the Young Lieutenant Who Stole His Way to Freedom, by Blaine Harden

Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex, by Michael Hiltzik

The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal, by David E. Hoffman

The Pentagon’s Brain: An Uncensored History of DARPA, America’s Top-Secret Military Research Agency, by Annie Jacobsen

How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World, by Steven Johnson

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, by Erik Larson

Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, by Jill Leovy

The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough

The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being in Charge Isn’t What It Used to Be, by Moises Naim

The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy, by David Nasaw

Patriotic Betrayal: The Inside Story of the CIA’s Secret Campaign to Enroll American Students in the Crusade Against Communism, by Karen M. Paget

Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese-American Internment in World War II, by Richard Reeves

Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart Into a Visionary Leader, by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson

Agent Storm: My Life Inside Al Qaeda and the CIA, by Morten Storm, Paul Cruickshank, and Tim Lister

Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS, by Joby Warrick

One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon, by Tim Weiner 

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, by Andrea Wulf

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you might be wondering why I’ve listed so many of the nonfiction books I’ve reviewed this year. Truth to tell, this is most of them. However, I need to emphasize that (a) I’m very selective in picking books to read, and (b) if I am disappointed once I start a book, I put it down. I review only those books I’ve read from start to finish. Now you know.

What makes social change happen?

social changeA review of The Social Labs Revolution: A New Approach to Solving Our Most Complex Challenges, by Zaid Hassan

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

“Planning based-approaches — so common across government, civil society, and even business — represent a neo-Soviet paradigm” and have long been shown to be at best minimally effective in fostering meaningful social change.

If that assertion is a revelation to you, you’re sure to find The Social Labs Revolution illuminating. No matter how familiar you may be with economic development, urban planning, or other fields in which disciplined planning is a fixture, you’re likely to discover something new in this challenging book.

The author, Zaid Hassan, has built a consulting business on the basis of his belief that, instead of “strategic planning” by “experts,” the world’s most urgent and compelling problems can be solved only by bringing together large, diverse teams representing every aspect of the population that is most directly affected. Working together over months or years as a “social lab,” a team consisting of as many as 36 people struggles together but, eventually, and after considerable conflict and unhappiness, will arrive at a set of practical approaches to prototype as the first stage in solving the problem they share. At its core, a social lab is characterized in three ways: it’s social, it’s experimental, and it’s systemic (in that the ideas that emerge “aspire to be systemic in nature.”). Work within the lab is based on the “U Process” championed by Otto Scharmer.

The problems Hassan and his colleagues choose to address are invariably deep-seated and often life-threatening. The Social Labs Revolution focuses on three long-running experiments, one on sustainable food, a second on malnutrition in urban children (specifically, those living in Maharashtra state in India), and the third on stabilizing the (notoriously unstable) nation of Yemen. For example, the first of these three, a Sustainable Food Lab, was global in scope and participation, bringing together participants from government (Brazil, The Netherlands), civil society (World Wildlife Fund, The Nature Conservancy), and corporate food companies (Unilever, General Mills) who worked together for two years. The author credits the team with putting “sustainability” on the radar screens of global food companies.

As Hassan concedes, his consultancy, Reos Partners, is not alone in advancing the social lab technology. He also mentions a Chilean innovation, SociaLab, which addresses new enterprises to alleviate poverty, and the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab at MIT, and points to a number of similar though less structured examples such as Greenpeace’s Mobilisation Lab, set in motion “‘to break through and win on threats to people and the planet.'”

The Social Labs Revolution is blissfully short and easy to digest, with the exception of an annoying digression into an academic discussion of the philosophy underlying the social labs concept. I don’t know about you, but whenever I come across repeated references (13 of them) to the philosopher Martin Heidegger and his disciples, or any other recognizable name from the ranks of dead white philosophers, I head for the exits. Instead of that digression, I would have enjoyed a more detailed discussion of the results that emerged from the three social labs mentioned most prominently in the book. What Hassan offers is spotty and inadequate.

Nitpicking: Someone — the author, the editor, or the proofreader, I know not who, or what potential combination of them — seems to believe that Jack Welch was “the legendary CEO of General Motors.” Fact-checker, please!



June 6, 2014

One soldier’s front-row seat on the war in Iraq: a memoir

memoirCombat and Other Shenanigans: Tales of the Absurd From a Deployment to Iraq by Piers Platt

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Here’s a memoir of one soldier’s year of service in Iraq that masquerades as a light-weight tale, crammed with humor. Though the book is funny at times, hilarious even, and the author’s voice reflects little of the tragic reality of that misbegotten conflict, it’s revealing nonetheless. Read between the lines, and put the anecdotes in this book together with what you’ve learned from the news, and you’ll gain at least a little more understanding of what modern war in general, and the US occupation of Iraq in particular, are really like.

Not that Combat and Other Shenanigans is the best available book about the Iraq war. Two other books I’ve read and reviewed supply more insight about the effect of the conflict on those who suffered on its front lines. A novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk, by Ben Fountain, is a terrific satire of the experience from the point of view of enlisted soldiers. And a portrait of a remarkable Iraqi family, Nabeel’s Song: A Family Story of Survival in Iraq, by Jo Tatchell, offers perspective of the impact on the civilian population.

What stands out in Platt’s book is the lopsidedness of the conflict between US forces and Iraqi fighters. The astonishing firepower, the high-tech capabilities, the pinpoint accuracy of American rifles and artillery — it’s enough to take your breath away. If you set out to read the book, get ready for scenes in which insurgents are virtually vaporized by US weaponry. This book — well, any book about the reality of war — is not for anyone with a weak stomach.

In fact, it’s hard to come away from reading any of these books, much less all three of them, feeling good about the tragedy that was — and still is — Iraq. Nobody has yet written the Slaughterhouse-5 or Catch 22 of either Iraq or Afghanistan. But do we really need a masterpiece to drive home the lesson that war is almost always the worst of all possible options?

During 2013-14 — less than a year and a half, since it’s just May 2014 as I write — Piers Platt has had five novels and a book of short stories published. I can find no explanation for how he’s managed to pull this off, since he claims not to write full-time. (Platt has a job as a marketing consultant.)

Here’s the sum total of his biography on Goodreads: “I grew up in Boston, but spent most of my childhood in various boarding schools, including getting trained as a classical singer at a choir school for boys. I joined the Army in 2002, and spent four years on active duty, including a year-long deployment to Iraq in 2004 as a tank and scout platoon leader. I now work as a marketing strategy consultant in New York City, when I’m not spending time with my lovely wife and daughter.”

8 great books about Africa

great booksThe big English newspaper The Telegraph publishes lists of the “best” books in many categories. One is the “10 Best Novels About Africa.” (It’s a great list, featuring both celebrated authors such as V.S. Naipaul, Nadine Gordimer, Doris Lessing, Naguib Mahfouz, and J. M. Coetzee; familiar contemporary names such as Alexander McCall Smith and Barbara Kingsolver; and African writers less well known to Americans.) I’ll leave it to them to feed your desire for great fiction about the continent and confine myself here to the nonfiction, with which I’m more familiar.

Following are my eight top picks for reading about Africa, arranged in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names.

The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality, by Angus Deaton

A veteran professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton explores inequality — between classes and between countries — with a detailed statistical analysis of trends in infant mortality, life expectancy, and income levels over the past 250 years. He concludes that the large-scale inequality that plagues policymakers and reformers alike in the present day is the result of the progress humanity has made since The Great Divergence (between “the West and the rest”) since the advent of the Industrial Revolution. “Economic growth,” Deaton asserts, “has been the engine of international income inequality.” (Deaton’s research backstops the work of today’s economics superstar, Thomas Piketty, who finds the data point to increasing inequality.)

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

This is the best book that explores the ways and means of promoting economic development in poor countries. Easterly finds most traditional methods to be sorely lacking. The author, a former World Bank economist who is now an economics professor, emphasizes grassroots development. He writes about the necessity of involving people who will be affected by change in the process of planning and executing it — beginning with the selection of what is to be changed. A large proportion of Easterly’s experience and of the examples he cites come from sub-Saharan Africa.

The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor, by William Easterly

A decade after The White Man’s Burden, the author explores the history of economic development and finds that professionals in the field have gotten it all wrong. They present themselves as experts with technocratic solutions that suppress the rights of those they pretend to help — and almost invariably go awry. In fact, he asserts, democracy, rooted in local history and local customs, is the key to successful development. It’s a fascinating and surprising analysis and displays great insight.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope, by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer

This is the astonishing story of a brilliant, self-taught young Malian man who demonstrated the vast human potential that underdevelopment leaves behind. Barely in his teens, Kamkwamba built a working windmill to generate electricity on his parents’ farm based on reading decades-old Western textbooks on physics that turned up in a tiny nearby library.

Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa, by Dambisa Moyo  

In a list of top books on economic development, Amy Lockwood writes that Moyo, a Zambia-born economist, asserts that aid is not only ineffective — it’s harmful. Her argument packs a strong punch because she was born and raised in Africa. Moyo believes aid money promotes the corruption of governments and the dependence of citizens, and 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

Though commercial trade is far and away the dominant feature of the economic relationship between Africa and the so-called West, most of the attention in the new media tends to focus on aid — the decades-long project of the world’s richest nations to end poverty on the continent. Economist Jeffrey Sachs’ ill-advised and egregiously expensive Millennium Villages Project stands out as a symbol of just how badly wrong those efforts have gone.

The Bright Continent: Breaking the Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa, by Dayo Olopade

Few who follow news from abroad can fail to have noticed that economic development has accelerated in sub-Saharan Africa in recent years. This book catalogs an impressive number of innovative businesses, social sector ventures, and even an occasional government initiative that contribute to the fast growth of this long-underestimated region — and explains the cultural norms that make innovation so natural for Africans.

It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower, by Michael Wrong

No view of contemporary sub-Saharan Africa is complete without taking official corruption into account. This story, which focuses on one courageous Kenyan man who tried to expose some of the most blatant examples of embezzlement by senior government officials, brings to light the complexity of the issue and its impact on African society.




An optimistic view of economic change in Africa

economic change

The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa, by Dayo Olopade

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

It starts with the title itself—Dayo Olopade’s challenge to the prevailing sentiment that sub-Saharan Africa today is little different in its essence from the “dark continent” perceived by nineteenth century colonialists. In The Bright Continent, Olopade catalogs an impressive number of innovative businesses, social sector ventures, and even an occasional government initiative that contribute to the fast growth of this long-underestimated region.

To put Olopade’s story in context, the World Bank recently announced that economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa is expected to rise from 4.7 percent in 2013 to 5.2 percent in 2014, compared to 3.5 percent globally. And the CIA World Factbook lists eight African countries among the twenty fast-growing nations in the world in 2013. However, these numbers must be interpreted with caution, since the measurement of economic indicators in most countries in the region is notoriously unreliable (as economist William Easterly reminded us in The Tyranny of Experts), and growth in GDP or even GDP per capita doesn’t necessarily mean that life is getting better for the seventy percent of sub-Saharan Africans (600 million) who live on $2 a day or less. Still, there is clearly a lot going on in Africa these days, and it’s time for the world to pay much closer attention.

Olopade, a first-generation Nigerian-American whose parents, both physicians, have roots in rural Nigeria, brings a fresh and well-grounded perspective to the project. She refuses to accede to conventional word usage, rejecting terms such as “developing country,” “emerging nation,” “poor country,” and “rich country” in favor of her own constructions. One is the term “fail state,” connoting a country whose government fails to deliver essential services but is not a “failed state,” which she applies only to Somalia. Another is the distinction between “lean economies” and “fat economies.” (You can guess which is which. Not a bad way to look at things, is it?) She also organizes her material around a clever device she calls mapping, relating new developments in terms of five “maps” that dominate the reality of Africa today: Family, Technology, Commerce, Nature, and Youth. These five maps “showcase the unique institutions that bind black Africa together and are building its bright future,” Olopade writes.

Permeating the book is the concept of kanju, a term in the Nigerian language Yoruba that the author loosely translates as “hustle,” “strive,” “know how,” or “make do.” In practice, kanju means bending the rules and devising workarounds — a concept similar to the Hindi and Urdu term jugaad, which also is often used to characterize the unconventional solutions that people come up with out of necessity.

Here are just a few of the many recent ventures featured in The Bright Continent, every one of them an example of kanju in action:

  • EGG-energy (Tanzania) wires homes and businesses and furnishes them with reliable electricity using rechargeable batteries, charged at central locations where customers exchange them for new ones—at half the cost of energy from the local (highly unreliable) grid.
  • MPedigree and Sproxil (piloted in Ghana) use scratch-off codes with a phone number a customer may text to learn whether a medicine is authentic—in a region where thirty percent of drugs are counterfeit.
  • M-PESA (Kenya) provides two-thirds of Kenya’s population with a banking and person-to-person funds transfer service using text messaging on mobile phones.
  • Bridge International Academies (Kenya) operates hundreds of bare-bones private schools that offer consistent, quality education for $5 per child per month, supplanting ineffective and unreliable public schools.

Olopade emphasizes that virtually everywhere in the region, national governments are “a constant impediment to development progress,” typically ignored if possible and almost universally disdained. (She reports that ninety-two percent of the businesses in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city with a population now estimated at 21 million, operate outside the law.) Rwanda is an outlier. There, the autocratic government of Paul Kagame enforces rapid and orderly development free of corruption in a pattern similar to that of Lee Kwan Yew in Singapore in decades past. Visitors to Rwanda, including friends of mine, note the surprise they registered when they learned that “everything works there.” The country is on a fast track toward middle income despite (some might say because of) a lack of high-priced natural resources.

The author does have blind spots. I detected a couple of errors in her reporting, and, more consequentially, she seems to have been bamboozled by Columbia economist Jeffrey Sachs, the driving force behind the ill-fated Millennium Villages Project. Olopade refers to the project respectfully, although the available evidence points to the effort as a dismal failure. (The full story is told beautifully and authoritatively by Nina Munk in The Idealist, a biography of Dr. Sachs that focuses on the village project.)

In researching this book, Olopade, a journalist, spent many months traveling across the continent to observe the promising changes underway and interview the bright, resourceful, and usually young innovators who are creating change in one of the world’s most tradition-bound areas.

In Ishmael Beah’s novel, hope lives on in the depths of hell

Ishmael BeahRadiance of Tomorrow: A Novel, by Ishmael Beah

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

If you think you’ve experienced the worst that a human being can bear, Ishmael Beah will show you how very wrong you are. Then, remarkably, he’ll share his hope for better and leave you feeling restored.

In Radiance of Tomorrow — just in case you didn’t get it, radiance = hope — Beah tells the story of several inhabitants of a small town called Imperi in the African nation of Lion Mountain (Sierra Leone) after they return home following a long, horrific civil war that has taken so many of the members of their family, their neighbors, and friends. After a brief, almost idyllic time home in Imperi, the real trouble starts. And therein lies the tale.

Let Ishmael Beah tell you the story. Suffice it to say here that this novel encompasses a wide range of African experiences during the period following decolonization, conveying the terror, the injustice, and the disappointment as well as the optimism that swept throughout the region below the Sahara over the past half-century. Read this book, and you’ll gain a foothold on understanding life in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Beah etches his characters on the reader’s mind. His prose sings, infused with the rhythms of the seven languages he speaks. Children and elders alike leap from the page fully formed, with vivid personalities and wholly understandable motives.

In a sense, Radiance of Tomorrow is a story about story-telling. Beah brings to life the oral tradition of West Africa and spotlights its central role in village society.

Radiance of Tomorrow is Beah’s first novel. It arrives seven years after his widely acclaimed memoir of his days as a child soldier, A Long Way Gone.

For a journalist’s perspective on Africa’s development, see How Africa came to be what it is today. And, for a review of another novel about civil war in Africa, go to A brilliant novel of love, hope, and the Rwanda genocide.

February 10, 2014

A prominent Israeli columnist’s sober assessment: Will Israel survive?

Will Israel survive

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, by Ari Shavit

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Will Israel survive? Surely, this is one of the most urgent questions in world affairs today.

If you care about Israel and its people, or if you’re simply concerned about the prospects for peace in the Middle East, you owe it to yourself to read Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land. Fair warning, though: you won’t come away from reading this book feeling optimistic about Israel’s future. Though the author ends on a high note, celebrating the emergence of new, middle-class political forces in the 2013 Israeli elections, he dwells at such length on the strategic cul-de-sac that the country has dug for itself that, on balance, you’ll worry.

If there is a single message in My Promised Land, it’s this: “As the second decade of the twenty-first century has begun to unfold, five different apprehensions cast a shadow on Israel’s voracious appetite for life: the notion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might not end in the foreseeable future; the concern that Israel’s regional strategic hegemony is being challenged; the fear that the very legitimacy of the Jewish state in eroding; the concern that a deeply transformed Israeli society is now divided and polarized, its liberal-democratic foundation crumbling; and the realization that the dysfunctional governments of Israel cannot deal seriously with such crucial challenges as occupation and social disintegration.” Not a pretty picture, is it?

It would be difficult to find anyone better informed or better positioned to write this wide-ranging assessment of Zionist history, Israel’s internal politics, and the country’s strategic position in the region than Ari Shavit. A long-time columnist for Haaretz, Israel’s oldest daily newspaper, and a contributor to The New Yorker, Shavit is a fourth-generation Israeli, a great-grandson of one of the founders of the Zionist project. And you can’t read My Promised Land without reaching the conclusion that Shavit personally knows just about everyone who is anyone in Israel and has interviewed the rest of them for his column.

The book interweaves memoir with commentary and interviews with travelogue, yielding both a sketchy but useful history of emergence of the Jewish state and an assessment of its present-day reality and prospects for the future. Shavit writes with verve and conviction—conviction, for sure, as he argues passionately with many of his interview subjects. His deep feelings about his subject are unmistakable: he writes about his emotional attachment to the land, his grief over the expulsion of the Palestinian people and their unequal treatment in Israel today, his disgust with the settlers and the ultra-Orthodox, and his despair over the occupation of the West Bank. Shavit is, in short, a quintessential Israeli who wears his emotions on his sleeve.

So, will Israel survive? Shavit offers no categorical answer. But his book provides a great deal of food for thought.

My Promised Land is the second important book I’ve read about Israel in recent years. The other was a novel, The Debba, by Avner Mandelman. Though framed as a murder mystery, the novel is, more properly, an inquiry into the nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The two books are well worth reading together. You might also be interested in Nine great books about Jewish topics.

February 7, 2014

The dark history of mid-century medical research

medical research

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is extraordinary on several levels: as a beautifully researched work of medical and scientific history, as a portrait of the profound impact of racism in America, and as a brutally honest first-person account of a writer’s challenging, decade-long struggle to write a serious book.

The text on the cover telegraphs the essence of the story: “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.”

Henrietta Lacks, we discover, was an ill-educated African-American woman who died of cervical cancer at the age of 31 nearly sixty years ago. She was a patient at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, home of one of the nation’s most prestigious medical schools and of some of the world’s leading researchers in fields such as cell culture and oncology. One of those researchers asked Henrietta’s physician for a sample of her diseased cervix in faint hopes that, unlike every other tissue sample anyone to that date had ever tested, the cells he extracted would divide indefinitely, thus become “immortal,” and open up new vistas for medical research.

To his and everyone else’s astonishment, they did. And not only did those cells continuously divide from 1951 to the present, they proved to be so aggressive and so persistent that they contaminated every other cell culture they came in contact with — invalidating years of medical research that was conducted before the contamination was discovered. To this day, HeLa cells, named as a contraction of Henrietta’s name, constitute one of medicine’s most pervasive experimental tools.

The medical history in this book is engrossing. As Skloot amply demonstrates, it’s also scientifically significant. But for me what was most powerful about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was the unfolding story of Henrietta’s life and of the lives of her many children and grandchildren. Skloot devoted a decade to befriending and later interviewing Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, Deborah’s brothers, and other influential members of the Lacks family in Virginia and Maryland. Theirs is one of the most dramatic and moving tales I’ve ever encountered of the profound impact of racism in our society. At Deborah Lacks’ insistence, Skloot reported every incident and every conversation precisely as it occurred, with no sugar-coating. The power of her reporting is irresistible.

Rebecca Skloot is an accomplished science journalist, but amazingly this is her first book. If she never writes another one, her contribution to the history of medicine and science will be assured.


Five illuminating books every American should read

illuminating booksStop. I’m not going to make you feel guilty by suggesting you read the Federalist Papers, the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Travels in America, and other works on every historian’s list of seminal books in our past. (After all, how many of us have actually read those books — I mean, actually opened them up and read them from cover to cover?)

No, instead you’ll find below a short list of much more recently written books that cast a penetrating light on the reality of American life in the 21st Century. You won’t find any archaic language in any of these five books. I’ve chosen them from among the nearly 300 I’ve read and reviewed here during the past four years.

Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin

If you treasure your freedom as an American . . . if you’re concerned about how the U.S. Government spends your tax money . . . or if you simply want to understand how our country is managed . . . you owe it to yourself to read this brilliant book. Alternately mind-boggling and blood-curdling, Top Secret America is the most impressive piece of investigative journalism I’ve read in years. Dana Priest and Bill Arkin have written a book that, in a rational world, would usher in an orgy of housecleaning through the far reaches of the Pentagon, the CIA, the NSA, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and every other department, agency, or office that pretends to be involved in strengthening our national security.

Read more . . .

1The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander

Are you aware that the highest incidence of the use and sale of illegal drugs is found in communities characterized as White? That the percentage of federal prisoners convicted of violent crimes is 7.9%? That the greatest increase in funding for the War on Drugs took place during the Administration of Bill Clinton?

Read more . . .


1The Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran, by David Crist

If you were among those who sighed with relief when Barack Obama was reelected because you’d been concerned that a Republican administration would invade Iran, David Crist has news for you. In fact, The Twilight War is full of surprises, even for one who stays relatively well informed about world affairs. The underlying message — the meta-message, if you’ll permit that conceit — is that what we normally consume on a daily basis as “news” is an awkward mixture of critical opinion, wishful thinking, rumor, partisan posturing, self-serving news leaks, and a smattering of hard information.

Read more . . . 

10The Self-Made Myth, and the Truth About How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed, by Brian Miller and Mike Lapham

[Editor’s note: This review was written in 2010, but it could easily apply to 2014 as well.] Last week the Republican majority in the House of Representatives passed a budget that slashes taxes for corporations and high-income taxpayers while drastically cutting federal assistance for food and other safety-net programs. It’s hard to imagine a more dramatic expression of contemporary “conservative” ideology. It’s straight out of Atlas Shrugged,based on the tragically misguided notion that brilliant, driven individuals produce the country’s wealth and are solely responsible for creating jobs for the rest of us.

Read more . . .

1All the Devils Are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis, by Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera

Once upon a time, not so long ago, really — it was 1999 — there was a group of three exceedingly smart men whom Time Magazine called The Committee to Save the World. In fact, these three men — Alan Greenspan, Larry Summers, and Robert Rubin — seemed to think they were the smartest people in the whole wide world. Together, they had put in place the economic policies of the Clinton Administration, and, boy, did things look rosy then, back in 1999, with a big budget surplus and the Dow Jones averages heading for Neptune!

Read more . . . 

Now, if you’re tempted to complain that all these five books take a negative view of the issues within their scope, all I can say is, if we can’t identify the problems we face, we’ll never fix them. And I doubt you’ll feel that there are no problems that cry out for fixing.


Robert Frank examines income inequality and the tragedy of the commons

income inequalityFalling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class, by Robert H. Frank

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

The subject of income inequality took center stage in the public mind only in 2010 with the advent of Occupy Wall Street, but the widening gap between the top 1% and the rest of us had been the subject of fierce debate in economic circles for many years previously. The Cornell economics professor Robert H. Frank made a notable — and eminently readable — contribution to the public discussion with his widely read 1995 book, co-authored with Philip J. Cook, The Winner-Take-All Society. A decade later, Frank delivered the Aaron Wildavsky Lecture at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy on the same broad topic. Frank expanded the lecture into a book under the title Falling Behind in 2007, published by UC Berkeley Press. Last year the Press reissued the book with a new preface by the author.

In Falling Behind, 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. That’s old hat now (though it wasn’t in 2007).

Making use of homey thought experiments and references to behavioral psychology, Frank 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 worsen the “tragedy of the commons,” saddling society with inadequate public transportation, polluted air and water, crumbling infrastructure, and other frequently neglected problems.

Frank challenges conventional economic thought by introducing such concepts as “the rising cost of adequate,” “expenditure cascades” (tantamount to an arms race between the economic classes), “relative deprivation,” and “positional” versus “nonpositional” goods (broadly speaking, personal consumption as opposed to socially desirable goods). The discussion is eye-opening and well worth the few hours needed to read this short but powerful book.

Frank closes Falling Behind with a discussion of progressive consumption taxation as the way to lessen income inequality and generate additional revenue to pay for such long-neglected public goods as maintenance of bridges and roads. A policy of this sort, Frank asserts, “could be achieved by a simple one-line amendment to the federal tax code — namely, by making savings exempt from tax.” Since the difference between income and savings (or investments) is the amount spent on consumption, a sharply rising tax on this amount — climbing to as much as 200% above $4 million — would provide disincentives for the superrich to spend ever rising sums on mansions, yachts, and jewels. At the same time, a progressive consumption tax could insulate the working poor from federal tax with a standard deduction of $7,500 or more per person. Meanwhile, tax revenues would jump sharply.

Given the current political environment, any policy of this sort is a non-starter, as Frank freely concedes. But political conditions change; the pendulum swings. Perhaps next year, or the next decade, will allow an intelligent public discourse on the remedies for our society’s mounting ills.

For a perspective on similar concerns from a prominent economist, see Robert Reich explains how to make capitalism work for the middle class. And for other books on politics in America, see Politics: A reading list.

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