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The 15 best books of 2017 (plus 34 others)

Best books of 2017: Shattered by Jonathan Allen and Amie ParnesHere are my choices for the 15 best books of 2017. All were published in English in the United States from November 2016 through November 2017. They’re arranged within each section below in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names. Every title is linked to my review.

At the bottom of this post, I’ve listed 34 books I feel merit honorable mention.


Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes

A searing account of the 2016 election that centers most of the blame for Hillary Clinton’s loss on the candidate herself and the people surrounding her.

The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies by Jason Fagone

The astonishing story of a woman whose seminal work in developing the science of cryptology and identifying Nazi spies in World War II has only recently been recognized.

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann

Then the richest people in America, the Osage of Oklahoma became the victims of a series of brutal murders in the 1920s by neighbors bent on stealing the oil wealth under their land.

The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present by John Pomfret

To an extent that is only dimly understood, the histories of the US and China have been deeply intertwined ever since the founding of the republic.

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper

A lexicographer with a wicked sense of humor gives an inside look at the making of the most popular dictionary in America.

Mysteries and thrillers

A Single Spy by William Christie

A Soviet agent sent undercover in Nazi Germany proves that “a single spy in the right place and at the right moment may change the course of history.”

The Late Show by Michael Connelly

The author of the long-running series of bestselling detective novels featuring Harry Bosch introduces a new leading lady, destined to have her own series.

A Divided Spy (Thomas Kell #3) by Charles Cumming

A retired MI6 officer plots to avenge the murder of his lover by the KGB colonel who had undermined his work over the years.

A Legacy of Spies by John le Carré

The iconic British spy, George Smiley, hovers in the background as a younger MI6 officer who had worked with him during the Cold War confronts a lawsuit about their work together.

The Good Daughter by Karin Slaughter

The Georgia-based novelist who writes the Grant County and Will Trent series of crime thrillers probes the depths of depravity that touch a family of lawyers in rural Georgia.

Trade fiction (including science fiction)

American War: A Novel by Omar El Akkad

This debut novel tells the haunting, dystopian tale of a second American civil war set late in the twenty-first century.

Defectors: A Novel by Joseph Kanon

An American book publisher visits Moscow to edit the memoirs of his brother, who had defected to the Soviet Union decades earlier and joined the KGB.

Autonomous: A Novel by Annalee Newitz

In a future dominated by artificial intelligence and biotechnology, a military robot seeks to gain autonomy while on the hunt for a “patent pirate” who illegally manufactures medicine.

After Atlas (Planetfall, A) by Emma Newman

A police officer in the 22nd century investigates the death of a religious cult figure under the tight control of the company who has enslaved him.

Testimony: A Novel by Scott Turow

The author of the bestselling Kindle County courtroom dramas shifts his attention to the Hague and the war-crimes trial of a notorious Bosnian military leader.

Okay, now let’s get real. Nobody, and I mean nobody, including the army of reviewers who contribute to the New York Times Book Review, can possibly identify the “best” books published in any year. Believe it or not, more than one million titles were published in the United States alone in the most recent year for which statistics are available (2013). Some 304,000 titles were issued by “traditional” publishers in the US, and another 184,000 in the UK. In other words, in a single year, publishing companies brought out nearly half a million titles in just two of the biggest English-language publishing markets. (The numbers for India were substantially smaller.) And that’s only the data for traditional publishers. Self-published titles (in the US alone) numbered more than 700,000. So, don’t believe anyone who claims they’ve identified the “best” books of the year.

One other thing: reviewers are selective. I’m especially so. I don’t read cookbooks, poetry, romance novels, collections of short stories, self-help guides, or books about sports, art, philosophy, vampires, zombies, ghosts, or a dozen other topics that don’t come readily to mind. I do read mysteries and thrillers, science fiction, popular “serious” fiction, humor, and nonfiction about history, world affairs, biography, politics, science, and business. Broadly speaking, my reading falls into three categories: mysteries and thrillers, trade fiction, and nonfiction. Those are the three categories I’ve used above.

In a given year, I read about 200 books. Now, I recognize that speedreaders may consume far more than that. But I’ve tried speedreading, and I don’t like it. It’s not really reading: it’s mining for information. That may work for lawyers, scholars, or others reading with specific ends in mind. But it’s not fun, at least not for me. And I only review books that I’ve read from beginning to end.

Now you know.

Here, then, are the 34 books I thought were also excellent but warrant only honorable mention. As above, they’re all linked to my reviews.

Honorable mention

I’ve reviewed 21 recently published nonfiction books in the last year, all of which are good but not quite good enough to make the list of five top reads above.

Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire by Kurt Andersen

Troublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age by Leslie Berlin

The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age by David Callahan

Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes by Richard A. Clarke and R. P. Eddy

Thinking Machines: The Quest for Artificial Intelligence and Where It’s Taking Us Next by Luke Dormehl

Megatech: Technology in 2050 edited by Daniel Franklin

Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency by Joshua Green

A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order by Richard A. Haass

Beyond the Messy Truth: How We Came Apart, How We Come Together by Van Jones

Caesar’s Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us by Sam Kean

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

Black Edge: Inside Information, Dirty Money, and the Quest to Bring Down the Most Wanted Man on Wall Street by Sheelah Kolhatkar

Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America by Nancy MacLean

One Nation Under Gods: A New American History by Peter Manseau

The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life by Lauren Markham

The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone by Brian Merchant

The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story by Douglas Preston

Survivor Café: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of Memory by Elizabeth Rosner

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

The Driver in the Driverless Car: How Our Technology Choices Will Create the Future by Vivek Wadwa and Alex Salkever

The Imagineers of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency That Changed the World by Sharon Weinberger

During the past year I’ve read and enjoyed the following nine mysteries and thrillers in addition to the five top reads listed above.

Wolf on a String: A Novel by Benjamin Black

Origin (Robert Langdon #5) by Dan Brown

Two Kinds of Truth (Harry Bosch #20) by Michael Connelly

Vienna Spies by Alex Gerlis

The Rooster Bar by John Grisham

The Dry: A Novel by Jane Harper

Righteous (IQ #2) by Joe Ide

The Dime by Kathleen Kent

The Crow Girl: A Novel by Erik Axl Sund

Here are four books I classify as trade fiction (including science fiction) that I found worthy of mention, in addition to the five top reads in this category above.

Landscape with Invisible Hand by M. T. Anderson

Tool of War (Drowned Cities #3) by Paolo Bacigalupi

A Column of Fire (Kingsbridge Saga #3) by Ken Follett

The Collapsing Empire (Interdependency #1) by John Scalzi

Recommended mysteries, science fiction, historical novels, nonfiction

recommended mysteries - All the Light We Cannot See - Anthony DoerrFrom time to time, I post lists of recommended mysteries and thrillers, science fiction, historical novels, biographies, or books about science or business. Here I’ll include the 15 best of these lists. Each of them contains a number of individual titles with links to the reviews I’ve posted on this blog.

Fiction lists

48 excellent mystery and thriller series

This list just scratches the surface of what’s available, but I’m confident that at least some of the very best mystery and thriller series can be found below. All these series have one or both of two things in common: the protagonist is the same from one book to the next, or (in just two cases) the series are rooted in a particular time and place, though the cast of characters varies. There are just two exceptions to this rule: the work of Ross Thomas and John Grisham. I’ve included both authors because many of their characters appear in each of several novels—and because they’re so good I can’t bring myself to ignore them.

My 27 favorite science fiction novels

In times past, science fiction was widely regarded as pulp literature suitable only for 14-year-old boys. Those days are long past. Now the field is often referred to as speculative fiction. Which is as it should be. In this list are the 27 science fiction novels that have lingered in my mind—in some cases, for fifty years or more. Some are dystopian novels, others alternate history, imagined futures, or time travel; some are set on Earth, others elsewhere around the galaxy.

75 readable and revealing historical novels

My favorite subjects are European history, including many historical spy novels; World War II; American history, especially political history; and Asian and African history. You’ll also find that several authors show up multiple times: Geraldine Brooks, Thomas Fallon, Olen Steinhauer, Alan Furst, and Joseph Kanon—in the last three cases, because of especially insightful series they’re writing.

24 compelling dystopian novels in series

Among the works included here are outstanding trilogies by Margaret Atwood, Octavia Butler, Blake Crouch, and Hugh Howey, and a connected series of three novels by Paolo Bacigalupi that has not been marketed as a trilogy. In my reviews, I’ve awarded almost all of these books ratings of 4 out of 5 or 5 out of 5 stars.

A brief look at 15 notable dystopian scenarios

In the companion post linked above, I listed two dozen dystopian novels that were published in series. Here I’ve listed 15 standalone works. These posts are a result of some of the research I’ve conducted in preparation for writing my newest book, Hell on Earth: What we can learn from dystopian fiction.

My 10 favorite espionage novels

Over the past seven years, I’ve read and reviewed more than 60 espionage novels. My ten favorites are listed below. Though my preliminary list included multiple titles by three authors (Alex Berenson, Charles Cumming, and Ross Thomas), I’ve limited myself to a single title from every writer. I gave every one of these ten titles a score of 5 out of 5 stars on its review.

15 great suspenseful detective novels (plus 23 others)

The 15 detective novels listed in this post may not be the 15 “best” detective novels, even by my uniquely idiosyncratic criteria. I’d read a lot of work in the genre even before I began writing these reviews in January 2010—and there are tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of detective novels I’ve never read. This list consists exclusively of those I’ve selected from among the 200 or so that I’ve read and reviewed in this blog. I gave every one of these books a rating of 5 out of 5 stars.

Nonfiction lists

34 great biographies I’ve reviewed

Roger Ailes. Catherine the Great. William Armstrong Custer. Steve Jobs. Malcolm X. These are among the men and women featured in the 34 biographies I’ve awarded four or five out of five stars in my reviews.

Science history and science explained in 33 excellent popular books

Astronomy. Epidemiology. Lexicography. Microbiology. These are among the thirty different scientific fields discussed and explained in the thirty-three excellent books about science that I’ve read and reviewed.

8 great books on Big History: New perspectives on world history

Three decades ago an American historian named David Christian who was teaching at an Australian university at the time launched a new approach to world history. His unique take on the subject took the discipline far beyond the limits of the written word. Calling it Big History, Christian started his new course at the beginning of time itself: the Big Bang. He enlisted guest lecturers from the fields of astrophysics, chemistry, geology, paleontology, biology, and other scientific fields, incorporating their specialized knowledge into his comprehensive survey of Big History. Many other scholars have since followed in Christian’s footsteps, bringing their own unique perspectives to bear on this fresh approach to understanding our lives and the world we live in. My list includes eight of the best books to emerge in this field.

17 nonfiction books that illuminate the World War II era

In addition to the many World War II novels I’ve read and reviewed in this blog, both mysteries and trade fiction, I’ve read a great many nonfiction books on the years leading up to and during the war. Here I’ve listed 17 of the best I’ve come across in recent years. They cover everything from economic policy in the Depression and the rise of Nazi Germany to the role of business and the conduct of the war itself.

17 good nonfiction books about espionage

For good or ill, a fair amount of what I’ve learned about espionage over the years has come from reading spy stories. A few authors are particularly diligent about research and accuracy, so most of what I’ve picked up is probably true. In fact, many of those authors are veterans of the intelligence game and should know what they write about. But, for assurance that what I read is less likely to be fictional, there’s nothing like an in-depth nonfiction treatment of the field by a credible author. Since January 2010, I’ve read seventeen such books. I recommend them highly.

35 biographies worth reading

The 35 books listed here cover a wide range of both historical and contemporary figures, every one of them prominent in a significant way, from Cleopatra and Catherine the Great to Clarence Darrow, Allen Dulles, and Steve Jobs. Most of the 35 fall into a few categories that describe some of the topics I’m most interested in: espionage, science, business, and American history.

35 excellent nonfiction books about politics

One way or another, I’ve been at least peripherally involved in electoral politics ever since I was in high school. Which is why I seek out books about politics. Fiction, nonfiction—it doesn’t matter. If it’s credible and at least reasonably well written, I’m game. So, ever since I launched this blog six years ago, I’ve read and reviewed a fair number of books about the topic. This list includes only the 35 nonfiction books that have appeared in this space.

14 of the best recent nonfiction books

Caveat emptor: I don’t pretend that the 14 books in this list are THE BEST nonfiction books ever published. They’re simply some of the best ones I read and reviewed during the first five years I posted to this blog, every one of them a source of enlightenment that deepened my understanding of the world we live in.

June 13, 2017

13 good recent books about American foreign policy

good recent booksIn recent years I’ve read and reviewed 13 nonfiction books published in the 21st Century about aspects of American foreign policy. I’m listing them here, in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names. Each title is linked to my longer review.

The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide, by Gary J. Bass

Though little known outside the realm of specialists, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger collaborated with the Pakistani government in murdering hundreds of thousands of people in 1971 in what today is Bangladesh. Their complicity in that genocidal event has finally come to light in Gary J. Bass’ outstanding work of modern history, The Blood Telegram. Bass, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, makes effective use of newly opened secret archives and other primary sources as well as interviews with many of the surviving players in the drama.

The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War, by James Bradley

Racist attitudes were so prevalent and unchallenged in the U.S. at the turn of the 20th Century that the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science—the founder of anthropology in the country—could observe, “The Aryan family represents the central stream of progress, because it produced the highest type of mankind, and because it has proved its intrinsic superiority by gradually assuming control of the earth.” In hindsight, then, it should be no surprise that such celebrated figures as President Theodore Roosevelt and his successor, William Howard Taft, would speak openly about America’s “destiny” to dominate Asia and the Pacific, imposing the benefits of Aryan civilization on the “Pacific niggers” (their term for Filipinos) and “Chinks.” This is the persistent theme of best-selling author James Bradley’s portrayal of Roosevelt and Taft in The Imperial Cruise.

The China Mirage: The Hidden History of American Disaster in Asia, by James Bradley

James Bradley argues in The China Mirage that cultural and historical ignorance, political miscalculation, bitter bureaucratic infighting, and media manipulation led not just to U.S. involvement in World War II but, by extension, in the wars in Korea and Vietnam as well. Bradley regards all three wars as having been unnecessary. While his argument may be overextended, the book is filled with fascinating accounts of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the China Lobby, the rise of the Soong family to power in China, the origins of the oil embargo that triggered Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, and the Chinese Revolution.

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

When it comes to Iran, the purveyors of news have done an especially poor job of keeping us informed. As David Crist makes clear in this illuminating report on the three decades of conflict, tension, miscalculation, and profound misunderstanding that have characterized our two countries’ relationship, we have indeed engaged in what can only be described as war for several extended periods. And when I say war, I mean soldiers, sailors, and air force pilots shooting at one another, laying mines, launching missiles at ships and ground facilities, and generally forcing one or both of the two governments to decide between escalation and retreat. The book is full of surprises.

Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939, by Adam Hochschild

Though the U.S., Great Britain, and France all withheld support for the Spanish Republic, three other leading powers of the day plunged into the conflict with enthusiasm: Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin. Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini regarded the war in Spain as a dress rehearsal for the larger conflict to follow. Their lavish support for Generalissimo Franco in the form of airplanes, tanks, rifles, artillery, and some 100,000 soldiers and airmen was decisive (80,000 from Italy, 19,000 from Germany, in addition to 20,000 from Portugal). Only the USSR faced off against the Nazis and Fascists, supplying weapons and ammunition, and its support was a mixed blessing: Stalin sold Spain ancient weapons at inflated prices. He also dispatched hardline political commissars to weed out anyone who didn’t rigidly follow the Party line, and their ruthless behavior was surely a factor in the defeat of the Republic. Some 2,500 American volunteers and a passel of American reporters (including many famous names) waded into the midst of this maelstrom. Adam Hochschild does a brilliant job bringing the era and the people of the time back to life.

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

Award-winning journalist Stephen Kinzer draws our attention to the principal figures in the two factions that lined up in opposition to each other before the Spanish-American War. What might be termed the imperialist faction was led by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, then-New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt, and publisher William Randolph Hearst. These three men were largely responsible for pushing the United States into war with Spain. Former U.S. Senator and Union Army general Carl Schurz, William Jennings Bryan, former President Grover Cleveland, and later Andrew Carnegie led the opposition. Mark Twain came to the debate belatedly, becoming the most recognizable voice of the anti-imperialist movement once Roosevelt was in the White House. Superficial histories of the years just before and after the turn of the 20th Century give the impression that America’s drive to war with Spain and the seizure of its overseas colonies was irresistible and inevitable. Kinzer makes abundantly clear that this was not the case.

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson

In the years 1933-41, a passion for isolationism and growing anti-Semitism gripped the American psyche, keeping President Roosevelt from speaking out against the growth of Nazism and the ever-tightening vise of oppression and violence directed at Germany’s tiny Jewish minority (about one percent of the population). In the Garden of Beasts, a finely-crafted and exhaustively researched little book, casts a considerable amount of light on the reasons underlying this shameful episode in American history. It’s the story of Professor William Dodd and his family, beginning in the year 1933 when Roosevelt appointed him Ambassador to Germany. In an admirably restrained manner, Erik Larson portrays their initial sympathy and support for the Nazi regime, turning gradually to revulsion and leading eventually to Dodd’s becoming one of the most prominent anti-Nazi lecturers in the United States.

A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent, by Robert W. Merry

It seems exceedingly unlikely that President James K. Polk would come to many minds as an example of the most important men who have served in the office. Yet a very strong case could be made that Polk’s single four-year term (1845-49) was, indeed, among the most consequential times in U.S. history—and that Polk himself was the prime mover. Robert W. Merry powerfully advances that argument in A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent. It was Polk who transformed the United States into a continental power. Earlier presidents—Thomas Jefferson (Louisiana Purchase), James Monroe (acquisition of Florida), Andrew Johnson (purchase of Alaska), and William McKinley (Gadsden Purchase)—indeed added considerable swaths of territory to the nation. But James K. Polk added all the rest, including nearly all the Southwest and all the Northwest of today’s United States. He led the country into a brutal, lopsided war with Mexico and negotiated with England over the northwest boundary of the U.S.

The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present, by John Pomfret

Some Americans seem to have the impression that the U.S. relationship with China began in 1972 when Richard Nixon flew to Beijing. In The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom, journalist and long-time Beijing resident John Pomfret puts this mistaken impression decisively to rest. In truth, the destinies of the two countries have been closely linked for more than a century—and began when the U.S. shed its identity as a British colony in 1776. As Pomfret writes, “America’s first fortunes were made in the China trade from 1783 until the early 1800s.” And American missionaries began arriving in the 1830s. Pomfret surveys the two-and-a-half centuries that have elapsed since English-turned-American traders first visited China. In fact, trade between the U.S. and China is one of the dominant themes of Pomfret’s analysis. Two other themes emerge clearly in The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: the disproportionately large role played by American Protestant missionaries, and the importance of U.S. influence both in building China’s educational system and in educating millions of Chinese in American universities. This is a fascinating book about a topic that few Americans understand clearly.

The Money Makers: How Roosevelt and Keynes Ended the Depression, Defeated Fascism, and Secured a Prosperous Peace, by Eric Rauchway

Call it selective memory: we tend to forget that the survival of our democratic system was by no means assured on March 4, 1933, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was sworn in as president. With the country paralyzed by twenty-five percent unemployment, shuttered factories, insolvent banks, and rapidly falling prices for farm commodities and consumer goods alike, both Communism on the Left and fascism on the Right were rapidly gaining adherents. It was far from clear that a catastrophic clash of the extremes could be prevented. Contemporary events in Europe suggested that even the best-educated and most sophisticated societies could all too easily turn dangerously radical: barely more than a month earlier, Hitler had been named Chancellor of Germany. In The Money Makers, historian Eric Rauchway reviews the economic policies that FDR deployed to rescue the nation from a similar fate, steering the country on a moderate course through the years of the Depression and the world war that followed.

Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Asainst Al Qaeda, by Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker

One of democracy’s most remarkable characteristics is the sheer volume of closely guarded information that can be reported and published without resulting in jail time or torture for the authors. Counterstrike, a remarkable bit of longitudinal reporting by two veterans of the New York Times, brings to light a host of insights and behind-the-scene details about America’s decade-long campaign against Al Qaeda and its affiliates and imitators. The principal theme of Counterstrike is how in the course of the past decade “the government’s force of professional counterterrorism analysts has grown from a group small enough to know each other’s phone numbers to a vast army linked by supercomputers processing thousands of bits of data in nanoseconds.” And, by no means incidentally, spending tens of billions of dollars in the process. However, the overarching theme of Counterstrike is the gradual maturation of American counterterrorist policy in the opening decade of the 21st Century, shifting gradually from one bent simply on using brute force to kill or capture terrorists to a much more sophisticated and broad-based policy of deterrence drawn from the playbook of the Cold War.

Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, by Nick Turse

The sheer scope of the Vietnam War was far greater than that of the U.S. military efforts in Iraq or Afghanistan. More than 10 times as many Americans died in Vietnam than in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Even more significantly, some 3.8 million Vietnamese died in that conflict, according to the best available estimate, while Iraqi and Afghan casualties are measured in hundreds of thousands. In Kill Anything That Moves, Nick Turse exposes the grim reality of the U.S. role in that war: the infamous My Lai Massacre was merely one of thousands of incidents in which American troops indiscriminately killed Vietnamese civilians.

1944: FDR and the Year That Changed History, by Jay Winik

Hitler and the SS became truly frenzied about exterminating the Jews of Europe only in the final stages of the war, when it was obvious to anyone (except perhaps Hitler himself) that Nazi Germany had lost. In 1944, Jay Winik brings to light how the U.S. State Department, many of whose officials were overtly anti-Semitic, took deliberate steps to sabotage any action by FDR’s White House to save at least some of the Jews. Winik recounts this story in excruciating detail: “the State Department was now using the machinery of government to prevent, rather than facilitate, the rescue of the Jews,” he writes. “The fear seemed to be, not that the Jews would be marched to their deaths, but that they would be sent to the Allied nations.” The Department has the blood of more than a million people staining its already sad record of amorality.

Historical background

From the earliest days of the republic, the United States has been deeply engaged with other countries, despite George Washington’s famous admonition in his Farewell Address not to “entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition.” (Contrary to accepted opinion, he didn’t use the term foreign entanglements.) France intervened in the American Revolution—in fact, our country might well not have gained its independence otherwise. During the presidencies of Washington and John Adams, New England merchantmen carried on a lively trade with China. When Jefferson was in office, he sent the U.S. Navy and a detachment of Marines to battle the Barbary Pirates. In 1812-14, during the administration of James Madison, the U.S. was at war with Great Britain—again. Later that decade, under the presidency of James Monroe, American troops under the command of General Andrew Jackson seized key settlements in Florida, forcing Spain to cede the territory to the U.S. Throughout the 19th Century, the U.S. Army and American settlers collaborated in a continuing campaign to annex the territory of more than 600 Indian nations. In mid-century, when James K. Polk lived in the White House, the U.S. grabbed more than 500,000 square miles of territory from Mexico. The trade in cotton with Great Britain made many Southerners rich and provided them with a “justification” to enslave African-Americans by the millions. During the latter half of the 19th Century, foreign investment in American railroads, the bonds of state governments, and manufacturing played a central role in financing the Industrial Revolution in the United States. The country was “the world’s largest recipient of foreign capital,” and thus the world’s greatest debtor nation. Then William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt ushered in the age of American imperialism—and the country has never since stopped entangling itself in foreign affairs, despite recurring bouts of isolationism.



My 1000th post: revisiting my 10 most-read book reviews

book reviewsSeven and a half years after I launched this blog, I’ve reached a milestone: this is my 1000th post. Nearly 900 of those posts are book reviews. I’m listing here the 10 most popular over the past three years. Four of the 10 books reviewed are mysteries and thrillers, two are trade novels, and four are works of nonfiction.

In addition to individual book reviews, I’ve posted more than 100 commentaries. A large proportion of those are listings of good books in individual categories, such as books about espionage. At the bottom of this post I’ve included the six most-read of these listings.


Michael Connelly’s best Harry Bosch novel?

The veteran LAPD detective and his young Latina partner take on the 10-year-old murder of a mariachi musician—and find it fraught with politics and other complications.

Donna Leon’s best detective novel?

Commissario Guido Brunetti of the Venice police connects three seemingly unconnected crimes despite interference from his feckless boss.

A brilliant Indian novel about the first Opium War

A young Indian man, risen from poverty in Mumbai to become dean of the Indian opium traders, plays a central role in dealings with the increasingly assertive Chinese government in the late 1830s.

Is John Sandford’s latest novel the start of a new bestselling series?

Leaving behind Lucas Davenport and Virgil Flowers, Sandford’s new protagonist is a Special Forces veteran and political troubleshooter in Washington, DC, who grapples with a paramilitary force set up by a rogue governor.

A terrific murder mystery set in Stalin’s Soviet Union

During Stalin’s terror in the 1930s, a Moscow detective tackles two murder cases and finds himself in conflict with the secret police and the notorious criminal gang, the Thieves.

She was the country’s first female deputy sheriff, and you wouldn’t want to mess with her

In a story based on fact, a young woman in New Jersey during World War I takes on a wealthy man and the thugs who surround him after he refuses to pay for damages to her car.

Hard-boiled crime fiction set in contemporary Chicago

A lone wolf P.I. is offered a fortune to find a corrupt former Illinois governor who disappeared from the courtroom after sentencing to prison two years earlier.


The science of decision-making

Bestselling author Michael Lewis relates the story of the two brilliant Israeli psychologists who turned economic theory on its head by revealing the extent to which humans are irrational.

Dispelling the myths of autism

During the 20th Century, painfully slow discoveries in psychology and neurology led to today’s modern understanding of the autism spectrum against the resistance of the psychiatric profession.

A brilliant analysis of racism

In a letter to his teenage son, an African-American public intellectual explores America’s original sin of racism, grounded in the lie that some of us are “white” and others “black.”

The kidnapping that shook America

The 1974 kidnapping of heiress Patricia Hearst triggered the firebombing of a radical safe house in Los Angeles, a years-long FBI investigation, and Hearst’s ultimate pardon for collusion two decades later.

Other books worth reading

14 great nonfiction books

15 excellent standalone mysteries and thrillers

10 great science fiction novels

17 good nonfiction books about espionage

10 great recent books by Berkeley writers

48 excellent mystery and thriller series

March 7, 2017

Uber, Airbnb, and the sharing economy

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

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Many Americans, not to mention millions of people in other countries around the world, may find it difficult to imagine a world without Uber or Airbnb. Yet Uber was founded only in 2009 and Airbnb a year earlier. (Neither company’s success—or, for that matter, the sharing economy as a whole—would have been possible without the iPhone, which Apple introduced in 2007.) As the cover graphic suggests on Brad Stone’s captivating new book, The Upstarts: How Uber, Airbnb, and the Killer Companies of the New Silicon Valley Are Changing the World, these two iconic companies have been riding the wave of new and ever-improving technology.

Is this the sharing economy?

“Airbnb and Uber didn’t spawn ‘the sharing economy,'” Stone writes, “. . . so much as usher in a new trust economy, helping regular folks to negotiate transportation and accommodations in the age of ubiquitous internet access.” Even before going public, the two companies together were valued at close to $100 billion. There is no evidence that their principals have shared any appreciable portion of that wealth. Nor does it seem consistent with a gentle label such as “the sharing economy” for Uber to resist every effort to classify its drivers as employees and provide them with benefits.

Stone contends that “Together, these companies have come to embody a new business code that has forced local governments to question their faithfulness to the regulatory regimes of the past.” In the course of doing so, both companies have engaged in bare-knuckle fights with local governments around the world. For the most part, they’ve won. But not always. Stone tells the fascinating story, blow by blow.

The five men behind the two companies’ rise

Stone’s book is tightly focused on Uber and Airbnb, with digressions about the many companies that have tried to compete with them, with only meager success for the most part. In fact, in a sense, the book is about the two companies’ cofounders, and especially the two young men who have emerged as CEOs. Travis Kalanick runs Uber. Brian Chesky is at the helm at Airbnb. However, the two companies’ success may well be due as much to the contributions of their cofounders: Garrett Camp in the case of Uber, and Joe Gebbia and Nathan Blecharczyk in the case of Airbnb. All are featured in Stone’s account. They’re all billionaires now, many times over.

The trouble with Uber and Airbnb

Stone makes clear that many of the problems that have surfaced in the news media about Uber have been caused by its CEO. “Chronically combative” (and sometimes abusive), Travis Kalanick continues to generate negative publicity, seemingly on almost a daily basis. Here’s one recent example that emerged in The Guardian—an article about Kalanick’s abusive treatment of one of his company’s drivers. And here’s an even more recent report about the company’s use of software to evade police in  at least five American cities and six other countries. These are not isolated instances of controversy surrounding the company: trouble seems to follow Uber with disturbing regularity.

Many of these reports reflect Kalanick’s combative personality, but there are other problems as well. For instance, Anna Weiner wrote in the Feb. 28, 2017 New Yorker about recent reports of sexual harassment at the company: “Uber is, in some ways, a model villain. The company has long inspired Schadenfreude. It has been accused of mishandling customer reports of sexual harassment by drivers.”

A shared reputation for aggression

As a result of the frequent, high-profile accounts of Uber’s misbehavior, Airbnb tends to be regarded more highly. But Stone argues that CEO Brian Chesky is frequently as aggressive as Kalanick. Neither has shied away from blatantly breaking local laws or confronting local officials. “Reflecting on the years 2011 through 2013,” Stone notes, “a person might find it difficult to conclude that one company was the more ethical operator . . . Both CEOs seized the tremendous opportunities before them with steely determination, pausing just long enough to turn around the repair some of the carnage they left in their wake.” Stone adds, “in the end, there emerged an unavoidable fact: Chesky was every bit the warrior Travis Kalanick was. He believed so much in the promise of his company that he was going to fight for every inch of territory.” Both companies racked up so many victories against local officials because their services had come to be regarded as essential by so many residents—and the high-priced lobbyists they both hired managed to mobilize so much support that local officials were forced to back down.

A final assessment

After cataloguing a litany of offenses by both companies, Stone relents in the end. “Both Travis Kalanick and Brian Chesky had made big promises: to eliminate traffic, improve the livability of our cities, and give people more time and more authentic experiences. If these promises are kept, the results might well be worth the mishaps and mistakes that occurred during their journeys; perhaps they’ll even be worth the enormous price paid by the disrupted.” Not to mention that $100 billion the two companies’ founders and investors have amassed.

About the author

Brad Stone is a senior executive at Bloomberg News in San Francisco. The Upstarts is his third nonfiction book. The second was the bestseller The Everything Store about founder Jeff Bezos and the rise of Amazon.com. I reviewed that book here under the title “Why I hate Amazon.com.”

65 good new books I’ve read in 2016

new booksI suppose sixty-five seems like a lot of books to most people, but it’s far from all the books I’ve read in 2016. Listed here are only those that I rated @@@@ or @@@@@ (4 or 5 out of 5). Keep in mind that I’m very selective in choosing books (emphasis on very), and I review only those that I read from start to finish.

I’ve grouped these 65 books (a little arbitrarily) into five sections: new entries in mystery and espionage series; politics and current affairs; trade fiction; history; and science. The titles below are listed in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names within each section.

You won’t find any poetry here, or books about sports, the arts, or cooking. As you can see, a disproportionate share of these books are nonfiction. The explanation is simple: in 2016, I began reading from the beginning of my favorite mystery and thriller series; that accounts for a large share of the books I’ve read this year, yet none of those early titles are included in this list. All those listed here were published in 2016 or during the last half of 2015 at the earliest. In any case, I hope you’ll find at least one or two that reflect your own interests.

New entries in mystery and espionage series

The nine titles listed here represent a broad range of style, subject matter, and locale. Tana French writes thrillers set in Ireland, Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis in Denmark, Stella Rimington and Edward Wilson in England. Michael Connolly’s novels are set in Los Angeles, John Sandford’s in Minnesota, Karin Slaughter’s in Georgia, and Joseph Finder’s in Boston or Washington, DC. Rimington and Wilson explore the realm of intelligence. The rest focus on crime. Of these nine books, my favorite is The Considerate Killer by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis.

The Wrong Side of Goodbye (Harry Bosch #19), by Michael Connelly

Guilty Minds (Nick Heller #3), by Joseph Finder

The Trespasser (Dublin Murder Squad #6), by Tana French

The Considerate Killer (Nina Borg #4), by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis

Breaking Cover (Liz Carlyle #9), by Stella Rimington

Extreme Prey (Lucas Davenport #26), by John Sandford

Escape Clause (Virgil Flowers #9), by John Sandford

The Whitehall Mandarin (William Catesby #4), by Edward Wilson

A Very British Ending (William Catesby #5), by Edward Wilson

Biography and autobiography

The only thing these twelve books have in common is that their subjects lived in the 19th or 20th century. Some of the subjects are familiar to nearly all Americans: Jonas Salk, Allen Dulles, George Armstrong Custer, Patricia Hearst, and Bobby Kennedy. The others are less well known. In the case of the three autobiographies—those by Antonio Garcia Martinez, William J. Perry, and J.D. Vance—all the subjects are still alive. (So, for that matter, are those of two of the others: Paul English (Tracy Kidder’s subject) and Patricia Hearst (Jeffrey Toobin’s). David Talbot’s biography of Allen Dulles is the best of this lot, in my opinion; it’s certainly the most important.

The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero, by Timothy Egan

Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley, by Antonio Garcia Martinez

Jonas Salk: A Life, by Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs

A Truck Full of Money: One Man’s Quest to Recover from Great Success, by Tracy Kidder

My Journey at the Nuclear Brink, by William J. Perry

Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America, by T. J. Stiles

The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government, by David Talbot

America’s Social Arsonist: Fred Ross and Grassroots Organizing in the Twentieth Century, by Gabriel Thompson

American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes, and Trial of Patty Hearst, by Jeffrey Toobin

David Brower: The Making of the Environmental Movement, by Tom Turner

Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon, by Larry Tye

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J. D. Vance

Trade fiction

The twenty-one novels listed represent a very wide range of styles and subject matter. Eleven are works of historical fiction: Matthew Carr, Helen Dunmore, Louise Erdrich, Alan Furst, Yaa Gyasi, Kristin Hannah, Robert Harris, Thomas Mallon, Simon Mawer, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Stewart O’Nan. However, the topics of these eleven books could hardly be more different from one another. The other books range from science fiction, religion, and humor to crime and politics. It’s extremely difficult for me to pick a favorite from among these twenty novels. If I’m forced to do so, however, I have to name The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen.

The Devils of Cardona, by Matthew Carr

Dark Matter: A Novel, by Blake Crouch

Exposure, by Helen Dunmore

The Plague of Doves, by Louise Erdrich

A Hero of France, by Alan Furst

The Death of Rex Nhongo: A Novel, by C. B. George

The Whistler: A Novel, by John Grisham

Homegoing: A Novel, by Yaa Gyasi

The Nightingale: A Novel, by Kristin Hannah

Dictator (Ancient Rome Trilogy #3), by Robert Harris

Conclave: A Novel, by Robert Harris

Before the Fall: A Novel, by Noah Hawley

Razor Girl: A Novel, by Carl Hiassen

IQ, by Joe Ide

Single & Single: A Novel, by John le Carre

High Dive: A Novel, by Jonathan Lee

Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years, by Thomas Mallon

The Glass Room: A Novel, by Simon Mawer

Midnight Sun: A Novel, by Jo Nesbo

The Sympathizer: A Novel, by Viet Thanh Nguyen

City of Secrets: A Novel, by Stewart O’Nan

Politics and current affairs

The ten titles in this section cover a lot of territory. They explore the Great Recession, urban poverty, liberal politics, Right-Wing politics, drug cartels, and federal whistleblowers, as well as developments in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Jane Mayer’s Dark Money struck me as the most powerful of these ten books.

Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street’s Great Foreclosure Fraud, by David Dayen

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond

Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? by Thomas Frank

Nemesis: One Man and the Battle for Rio, by Misha Glenny

Gangster Warlords: Drug Dollars, Killing Fields, and the New Politics of Latin America, by Ioan Grillo

Bravehearts: Whistle-Blowing in the Age of Snowden, by Mark Hertsgaard

The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics, by John Judis

Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, by Robert D. Kaplan

Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, by Jane Mayer

A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil, from Tahrir Square to ISIS, by Robert F. Worth


In the ten books listed below, you can learn how Earth’s geological history has shaped the course of human affairs . . . how an Egyptian spy saved Israel from destruction in the Yom Kippur War . . . how the world’s largest construction company has acted as a law unto itself . . . how espionage failed to achieve much of anything of note in World War II . . . how Americans fought and died in the Spanish Civil War . . . how the United States Postal Service became the crippled giant it is today . . . how Britain’s Special Air Service in World War II became the model for special forces the world over . . . how today’s Right-Wing politics grew out of resistance to labor organizing in California’s fruit and cotton fields in the 1930s . . . how American advertising evolved from Snake Oil promotions to pop-up ads . . . and how FDR’s decision to take the US off the gold standard played a far more significant role in ending the Depression than anything else in the New Deal. The Secret War by Max Hastings strikes me as the most significant of these ten books.

A Most Improbable Journey: A Big History of Our Planet and Ourselves, by Walter Alvarez

The Angel: The Egyptian Spy Who Saved Israel, by Uri Bar-Joseph

The Profiteers: Bechtel and the Men Who Built the World, by Sally Denton

The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, and Guerrillas, 1939-1945, by Max Hastings

Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939, by Adam Hochschild

Neither Snow Nor Rain: A History of the United States Postal Service, by Devin Leonard

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

Right Out of California: The 1930s and the Big Business Roots of Modern Conservatism, by Kathryn S. Olmsted

The Money Makers: How Roosevelt and Keynes Ended the Depression, Defeated Fascism, and Secured a Prosperous Peace, by Eric Rauchway

The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads, by Tim Wu


These three titles have nothing in common other than that they’re all grounded in science. Mary Roach is a humorist who finds a way to laugh about the absurdities that abound in military science. Sonia Shah examines the history of epidemic disease—and the existential threat it poses to the world’s people. Steve Silberman writes about the slow and painful development of psychiatrists’ understanding of the autism spectrum. Though it seems pointless to pick a favorite from among just three books, I’ll do it anyway. I choose Steve Silberman’s NeuroTribes.

Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, by Mary Roach

Pandemic: Tracking Contagions from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond, by Sonia Shah

NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, by Steve Silberman

17 nonfiction books that illuminate the World War II era

world war ii - The Secret War - Max HastingsIf you’ve been reading my reviews for very long, you’re aware that the World War II era holds special fascination for me. This might have something to do with the fact that I was born then — in fact, about six months before the USA entered the war. Or maybe it’s just because it all preceded the disillusionment that set in once the war had ended, when the boundaries between good and evil no longer seemed so clear.

In addition to the many World War II novels I’ve read and reviewed here, both mysteries and trade fiction, I’ve read a great many nonfiction books on the years leading up to and during the war. Here I’m listing 17 of the best I’ve come across in recent years. They cover everything from economic policy in the Depression and the rise of Nazi Germany to the role of business and the conduct of the war itself. All together, they provide a significant dose of insight about what later historians might well conclude was the most significant period in the history of the world.

As is blindingly obvious, this is by no means a comprehensive bibliography. No doubt hundreds of thousands of books have been written about the World War II era. These 19 nonfiction books simply represent where my taste and my instincts have taken me in recent years. I’ve arranged these books in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names. Each is linked to my review.

The two most memorable books of this lot, from my obviously biased perspective, are Max Hastings’ The Secret War and Freedom’s Forge by Arthur Herman. But all of those listed here are well worth reading.

The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-44, by Rick Atkinson

The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945, by Rick Atkinson

The Pulitzer Prize-winning military historian Rick Atkinson’s trilogy about the Allied conduct of World War II is sometimes referred to as the best reasonably brief historical treatment of the subject. I read the first of the three books, An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-43, before 2010, when I began writing reviews. I remember it with admiration. All three books are accessible and written with a fine appreciation for the contributions not just of the generals and admirals who led the war effort but of the enlisted men who carried out their orders and bore the brunt of the conflict.

Year Zero: A History of 1945, by Ian Buruma

Bard College professor Ian Buruma brings into high relief the seminal events of 1945, including the surrender of Germany and Japan, the opening of Germany’s concentration camps, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the founding of the United Nations, and the Yalta Conference that laid the foundations for the Cold War. Much of Buruma’s book is social history, with extensive coverage of such topics as “fraternization” between occupation troops and local women, the conditions faced by millions of survivors trapped (sometimes for years) in “displaced person” camps, the bitter and often violent struggles between the partisans who had waged guerrilla war against Germany and the conservatives who had often collaborated with the enemy, and the hunger that swept through the nations hardest hit in the war, especially Japan and Germany.

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

The course of globalization as we know it today was set in motion at the Bretton Woods Conference in 1944. There, John Maynard Keynes and Harry Dexter White led their respective delegations, British and American, in designing the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Ed Conway’s story of the conference is replete with drama and intrigue.

The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, and Guerrillas, 1939-1945, by Max Hastings

The eminent British historian Max Hastings undercuts the many popular treatments of espionage during World War II with a sober revisionist survey. In his well-informed view, practically nothing that either side did in the realm of intelligence had any meaningful impact on the war. The only exceptions, in his view, were the successful efforts by all the major combatants to crack their enemies’ secret codes. Unlike most of other books about the subject, Hastings examines not just the British and American intelligence efforts but those of Russia, Germany, and Japan as well. This is must reading for anyone who wants to understand how espionage really works (or, more often, doesn’t).

Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II, by Arthur Herman

The US became known as the “arsenal of democracy” because the American business community mobilized on a hitherto unattainable scale to produce hundreds of thousands of airplanes, ships, tanks, trucks, and other war materiel. Arthur Herman’s study of the topic focuses on the efforts of two remarkable industrialists who were among the most prominent figures in the effort: GM CEO William Knudsen and shipbuilder Henry J. Kaiser.

Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939, by Adam Hochschild

Historians recognize that the Spanish Civil War served as a rehearsal for the German and Italian armed forces, both of which weighed in on the side of the fascist uprising led by General Francisco Franco. The bestselling popular historian Adam Hochschild tells the story of the war through the eyes of its American (and, in some cases, British) participants. He dwells not just on the war’s most famous Western figures, Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell, but on some of the many unsung men and women who volunteered, and often lost their lives, to support the Republican cause.

Hell’s Cartel: IG Farben and the Making of Hitler’s War Machine, by Diarmuid Jeffreys

It’s well known that Hitler and his cronies were by no means wholly responsible for the rise of Nazi Gemany. IG Farben and other leading Germany industrial concerns have long been identified as having played key roles in bringing Hitler to power and in rearming the country. In Hell’s Cartel, British journalist Diarmuid Jeffreys drills down more deeply than other English-language writers have tended to do and uncovered the largely hidden crimes of Germany’s leading industrialists before and during World War II. These crimes went far beyond IG Farben’s production of the lethal gas used to exterminate millions of Jews.

Engineers of Victory: The Problem-Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second World War, by Paul Kennedy

The noted historian Paul Kennedy brings to light the often-ignored contributions of the scientists and enlisted soldiers who helped turn the tide in the Allies’ favor in World War II. Their inventions and innovations in the conduct of war may have played as large a role in the ultimate victory as those of the generals and admirals whose names are most closely associated with the war effort.

Avenue of Spies: A True Story of Terror, Espionage, and One American Family’s Heroic Resistance in Nazi-Occupied Europe, by Alex Kershaw

Alex Kershaw’s account of one extraordinary American family’s experience in occupied Europe during the war is at least as revealing as the best political or military histories. An American surgeon, his Swiss wife, and their adolescent son lived in Paris on Avenue Foch, within yards of the headquarters of the Gestapo. Yet their home served as the Paris hub of one of France’s principal Resistance networks. It’s a fascinating tale.

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson

Erik Larson, one of America’s premier nonfiction writers, has produced a stirring tale about a courageous American diplomat who spoke out loudly against the growing Nazi terror while posted as US Ambassador in Hitler’s Berlin. He and his family ran afoul not just of the German government but of the US State Department as well. The Department, under Secretary of State Cordell Hull, was notoriously anti-Semitic and resisted all efforts to take action against the Nazis until the advent of war forced them to relent.

Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies, by Ben MacIntyre

Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured Allied Victory, by Ben MacIntyre

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

Ben MacIntyre is one of the most prolific and popular of the many historians who have specialized in World War II. Double Cross tells the often astonishing tale of the wildly unconventional people who acted as spies for the Allies and helped mislead the Germans about the location of the Normandy invasion. Operation Mincemeat is the equally improbable story of the deception scheme that misled the Nazis about the Allied invasion of Sicily, directing their attention instead to southern France. British intelligence accomplished this by planting misinformation on the dead body of a supposed “courier” who washed up on the coast of Spain. In Rogue Heroes, MacIntyre’s authorized history of the Special Air Service, we learn the amazing story of the British unit that established the pattern for Special Forces in armies around the world. All three books bring history to life with intimate and telling detail.

Right Out of California: The 1930s and the Big Business Roots of Modern Conservatism, by Kathryn S. Olmsted

California historian Kathryn Olmsted argues that today’s ascendant Right-Wing movement in America is rooted in the cotton and fruit fields of the state’s Central and Imperial Valleys in the 1930s. There, labor organizers, some of them Communists, were experiencing growing success in organizing the migrant workers who had flooded in from the dusty Midwest and Mexico. (As a sidelight, the author emphasizes that John Steinbeck ignored the majority Mexican laborers and focused instead on the so-called Okies in his classic novel, The Grapes of Wrath.) Olmsted asserts that the growers constituted the heart of the so-called conservative activists of the 1950s and 1960s who built the John Birch Society and the later campaigns for Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.

The Money Makers: How Roosevelt and Keynes Ended the Depression, Defeated Fascism, and Secured a Prosperous Peace, by Eric Rauchway

University of California, Davis, history professor Eric Rauchway argues persuasively that none of FDR’s New Deal policies to stimulate the American economy played as significant a role in ending the Depression as the President’s decision to take the United States off the gold standard. Delinking the dollar from gold permitted prices to rise domestically—and world trade to increase as Roosevelt and British economist John Maynard Keynes maneuvered major European countries into parallel policies. This, Rauchway argues, is how capitalism was saved. The fiscal stimulus of the New Deal was far too modest to make much of a difference.

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

No one who lives in California today and has made even the most cursory effort to understand the state’s history can be unaware that the US government under Franklin Roosevelt herded Japanese-Americans into concentration camps during most of World War II. Included were not just recent immigrants but families whose roots lay two generations in the past. What is less well known about this shameful episode in our country’s history are the roles played by such revered figures as future US Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren and leading members of Roosevelt’s Administration.

November 29, 2016

The penny press, Amos ‘n Andy, and pop-up ads

pop-up adsThe Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads, by Tim Wu

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

If you’ve been paying attention, you can’t have missed the changes in the character of advertising over the course of your life. Certainly, I have. Chances are, you were born in the age of radio, at the earliest. If so, you’ve witnessed a string of new technologies enter the realm of news and entertainment, almost always paired with aggressive advertising sooner or later: network television, cable TV, the personal computer, the Internet, and the smartphone.

In his insightful history of the business of advertising, Columbia University law professor Tim Wu casts a wider net. Beginning with the advent of the penny press in the 1830s, he explores in telling detail the now centuries-long battle between the commercial interests who want to seize our attention for their own ends and the individuals who want to keep our lives private and access news, information, and entertainment without distraction. This is a colorful story, and Wu tells it well.

Though Wu opens with the introduction of the Sun in New York in 1833, his history more properly begins much later in the 19th century with the emergence of the advertising industry to sell Snake Oil and other patent medicines. (Yes, Snake Oil Liniment was actually a widely sold product Good for Man and Beast.) “From the 1890s thr0ugh the 1920s,” he writes, “there arose the first means for harvesting attention on a mass scale and directing it for commercial effect . . . [A]dvertising was the conversion engine that, with astonishing efficiency, turned the cash crop of attention into an industrial commodity.”

The penny press, Amos ‘n Andy, and pop-up ads

Beginning in the early years of the 20th century, Wu frames his story around the development of radio and the four “screens” that have dominated our attention over the decades that followed: the “silver” screen (film), television, the personal computer, and the smartphone. The author relates the history of each of these technologies as a human story, describing the often outrageous personalities who pioneered and dominated each of these media in turn. However, in focusing on radio and the four screens, Wu overlooks the billboards that mar every urban line of sight and barely mentions the direct mail that floods our mailboxes. Though less than comprehensive, his historical account is engrossing and enlightening.

Here you’ll learn about the development of propaganda by the British government in World War I and its perfection by Nazi Germany . . . the first radio serial that was a smash hit (the grossly racist “Amos ‘n Andy“) in the 1920s . . . the invention of the soap opera in the 1930s . . . the battle between the networks on radio and later on TV from the 1930s through the 1990s . . . the development of geodemographic targeting for ads in the 1970s . . . the emergence of celebrity culture in the 1980s and its perversion by reality television in the 2000s . . . the wild proliferation of blogging in the 2000s . . . the identity theft committed by Google and Facebook in the 2000s and beyond . . . and, finally, “unplugging” and the emergence of free online streaming services like Netflix in the 2010s. This is not a pretty story.

A harsh judgment

The author is not a fan of the “new media” that have come to hold our attention in recent years. “The idealists had hoped the web would be different,” he notes, “and it certainly was for a time, but over the long term it would become something of a 99-cent store, if not an outright cesspool.” Similarly, Wu’s judgment about the advertising industry is harsh. “[U]nder competition, the race will naturally run to the bottom; attention will almost invariably gravitate to the more garish, lurid, outrageous alternative . . .” It’s difficult to find fault with any of this.

About the author

He’s the man who coined the term “network neutrality.” A specialist in media and technology, Tim Wu has written several books and numerous articles, all nonfiction. His work has influenced the development of national media policy under the Obama Administration.



A thriller about Vatican politics

vatican politicsConclave: A Novel, by Robert Harris

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Over the course of my life six new Popes have been installed by the Catholic Church. Robert Harris’ new thriller, Conclave, is about the next election. Set a few years in the future, when a man closely resembling Pope Francis has either retired or died, the novel depicts in minute detail the process of electing his successor. It’s all written from the perspective of the Dean of the College of Cardinals, the man who presides over the election.

I am not now and never have been a Catholic. Somehow, though, I found Harris’ reverential accounting of the liturgical and atmospheric details to be bearable. Yes, there’s a lot of praying, and considerable repetition when that’s called for in the process. Still, Conclave hums with the same tension and anticipation that I’ve come to expect from Robert Harris’ work. No doubt about it: this is a work of suspense.

Harris highlights the powerful forces that divide today’s Catholic Church. He brings to life the ongoing battle between traditionalists and reformers. But he makes beautifully clear that the division is far more complex than is often represented in the news media. He also shows how other factors deepen the currents of jealousy that cleave the institution. These include the clannishness of the Roman Curia and of the many Italian Cardinals, the split between European and Third World loyalties, the venality of so many senior Cardinals, and the raw ambition that rises to the surface when 118 men enter a room and know that one of them will be elected the most powerful religious figure in the world.

About the author

A former journalist, Robert Harris has written a number of nonfiction books in addition to the eleven novels that have put his name on the map. Most are historical fiction. The best known of these are Fatherland, Enigma, Archangel, and The Ghost, all of which have been adapted for film or television. He has also written a superb trilogy set in ancient Rome.


November 8, 2016

The political scandal that roiled the British Establishment

political scandalA Very English Scandal: Sex, Lies, and a Murder Plot at the Heart of the Establishment, by John Preston

@@@ (3 out of 5)

Look around carefully. Find three despicable human beings. Start with a confused and weak-willed young man, a male model with no other marketable skills who is helpless in the face of authority. Then find a lay preacher whose oratorical skills have gotten him a seat in Parliament despite a continuing string of failed business ventures and a willingness to sleep with every attractive woman he meets. Finally, pick up a wealthy, self-indulgent aristocrat with the charisma and charm that have carried him into a prominent role in Parliament despite his reckless habit of picking up young men for sex. Be sure that all three men are incorrigible liars. Now mix all three together, and you’ve got A Very English Scandal.

A political scandal at the heart of the British Establishment

This book is nonfiction, improbable though the story may seem. It’s subtitled Sex, Lies, and a Murder Plot at the Heart of the Establishment. The plot in question was at the heart of what some London newspapers were calling “the Trial of the Century” in the late 1970s. One of the three men — the head of the Liberal Party — faced off in court accused of conspiracy to murder and related crimes by the other two.

If you have a long memory and an interest in English politics, you’re sure to know the name Jeremy Thorpe. For more than a decade, Thorpe was one of the most prominent and popular politicians in Britain. He rose to the head of the Liberal Party and, for a time, fantasized about reaching 10 Downing Street. A Very English Scandal is the story of his downfall, which his own reprehensible behavior had long foretold.

Gay sex, a litany of lies, and judicial misconduct

John Preston’s account of the Jeremy Thorpe scandal is minutely detailed. The book reveals far more about the lives and crimes of the three men at the center of the story than any casual reader outside the UK would ever want to read. Along the way, the author reveals the horrific price gay men paid in Britain before homosexuality was decriminalized. He also brings to light a jaw-dropping story of judicial misconduct at the heart of the English Establishment. If you admire British Parliamentary government, A Very English Scandal may make you wonder why.

About the author

John Preston is the arts editor and television critic of the Sunday Telegraph. A Londoner, he has written several novels. A Very English Scandal is his first nonfiction book.

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