Tag Archives for " Nonfiction "
In 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Seven 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.
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.
Commissario Guido Brunetti of the Venice police connects three seemingly unconnected crimes despite interference from his feckless boss.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
@@@@@ (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.
“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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
In 2015, an expedition led by an American filmmaker ventured deep into the Honduran rain forest in search of a fabled ancient city known variously as The White City and The Lost City of the Monkey God. The novelist and nonfiction writer Douglas Preston accompanied the expedition on assignment from the National Geographic. He adopted the lengthier name of the long-lost town as the title of his fascinating first-person account of the journey. The book reads like a thriller, but it is, as the subtitle insists, a true story.
Conventional wisdom has it that the only places unexplored by the human race are at the bottom of the oceans and in outer space. However, that’s simply not true. Deep in the jungles of Central America, the Amazon, and sub-Saharan Africa lie extensive stretches of territory that have never been entered by our contemporaries—and, in some cases, perhaps by any human being at all. Gradually in recent years, a combination of 21st-century technology, obsessive explorers, and the public’s insatiable hunger for adventure stories has uncovered “lost civilizations” in some of these places. Less than a decade ago, a nonfiction book by David Grann told the story of one such successful search in The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon. Now Douglas Preston relates the 20-year search of another obsessive man who explored the Central American rainforest.
Most of us think of the Maya in connection with that region. This pre-Columbian civilization is one of the most studied societies on the planet. Preston’s book introduces us to another early society in the region contemporaneous with the Maya. Hitherto only the subject of rumor and legend, the people of this society have yet to be assigned a name by archaeologists. Their cities were buried so deeply in the rainforest that no one had set foot in them for five centuries. However, the evidence uncovered by the expedition Preston chronicles in his book establish without doubt that these people existed—and that they were both numerous and accomplished. This is an exciting tale, well-researched and well written.
Roughly speaking, Preston’s book consists of three parts. In the first part, he relates the legend of The Lost City of the Monkey God. Archaeologists had long discounted the tale because most of those who claimed to have been to the city were charlatans. Very few legitimate scientists had ever attempted to find the place, and they all failed.
In the book’s second part, Preston tells the story of the 2015 expedition and its follow-up. What made the new expedition possible was a top-secret technology developed by the US Department of Defense—an advanced form of lidar, a ground-penetrating method similar to radar that permitted the explorers to see evidence of human habitation even under a seemingly impenetrable rainforest. Preston’s description of the technology and its application is engrossing.
Part three explores the probable cause of the sudden disappearance of the lost civilization around 1500: epidemic disease brought by Columbus and those who followed him. An earlier book, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, by Charles C. Mann, explains how European diseases devastated the people of the New World. Preston refers to later evidence cited by scientists that the advent of the Europeans reduced the population of both continents by some 90 percent.
Preston also explores the broader topic of tropical diseases and their inexorable march northward as a result of climate change. He pays special attention to a potentially fatal parasitic illness called leishmaniasis, which is endemic in the Third World. Every member of the 2015 expedition was exposed to leishmaniasis, and half of them contracted the disease, including Preston himself. Now leishmaniasis has made its way into the United States and is steadily moving to the north as the planet continues to warm.
Douglas Preston has written 30 novels, four of them in partnership with Lincoln Child, as well as nine nonfiction books other than The Lost City of the Monkey God. He has been writing full-time for 30 years. Preston is perhaps best known as the coauthor of The Monster of Florence, a nonfiction portrayal of the unsolved murders committed by an Italian serial killer. He is the brother of bestselling nonfiction author Richard Preston, author of The Hot Zone and other books.
I 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
UC Berkeley professor Walter Alvarez tackles the emerging field of Big History from his perspective as a geologist, viewing himself as “a historian of the Earth.” In A Most Improbable Journey, he writes about the universal context in which human life has emerged.
Beginning with the Big Bang and rushing through the intervening 13.8 billion years at top speed, he focuses on the geological processes through which the Earth was formed and progressively re-formed in ways that have determined the course of human events to this day.
“The topography and climate of continents,” he writes, have controlled the pattern of settlement and the lines of communication throughout history; resources are distributed in an irregular way across the continents; and land warfare is carried out on a geographical chessboard. The geography of the oceans has determined routes of exploration, trade, and migration and has set the stage for naval warfare.”
And all this, he emphasizes, is the result of the particular configuration of the continents at this moment in geological history. Because of continental drift, the shape and distribution of both land and sea have radically changed numerous times since the Earth was created 4.5 billion years ago. For example, to cite just two minor examples of the Earth’s changeability, he notes that “California is further away from Utah than it used to be.” And the coast of Northern California once extended to what we know today as the Farallones Islands. If your taste runs to nonfiction, you may well find this book as enjoyable as the best thriller.
The discipline of Big History is less than three decades old. Founded by David Christian, an American historian then teaching in Australia, its mission is to transcend the boundaries of written history and help us see ourselves in the context of an inconceivably vast and complex universe. Instead of focusing on the mere 5,000 years of recorded history, Big Historians typically direct our attention far backwards to the beginning of time itself. However, in most treatments, Big History explores the astronomical, physical, chemical, and geological realities of our past only as prologue to an abbreviated world history. Walter Alvarez takes a different approach in A Most Improbable Journey. Though he frequently dips into other scientific disciplines, his focus throughout is on the ways in which geological science can help us understand the shape our lives and the character of the planet we share.
In his short and highly readable book, Alvarez frames the story of the ascension of the human species as an accident. “At innumerable moments . . .,” he writes, “history could have taken different paths than the one our world actually did take, resulting in a human situation different from the one we have today—or possibly no human situation at all!” He emphasizes that “the human situation is balanced on a knife edge of improbability.” This is the principal theme of his book. Again and again, Alvarez returns to this point. Writing about the improbable evolution of our bodies, he asks, “What if bilateral symmetry had never appeared? What if the movable jaw had not evolved? What if the dinosaurs had not been killed off? What if other biological inventions we can barely imagine had shaped the path of evolution? As with so much else in Big History, it was a very particular and unlikely sequence of events that gave us the characteristics of our human bodies.”
Alvarez bookends his account with references to the theory that has put him on the map, so to speak: the hypothesis that the crash-landing of a meteor or comet in the Yucatan Peninsula caused the extinction of the dinosaurs and the rise of mammals to supremacy on the Earth. The improbability of this event—unlike anything in the previous half-billion years—reinforces his thesis that the emergence of our species is due to a long sequence of highly unlikely occurrences. Although Alvarez dips into geological jargon from time to time and offers more about the history of geological science than any lay reader might wish to know, A Most Improbable Journey is nonetheless entertaining. No doubt the book closely parallels the popular course in Big History he teaches at UC Berkeley. My only complaint is Alvarez’ unaccountable love for unnecessary emphasis. Surely, it’s not necessary to punctuate nearly every interesting observation with an exclamation mark! The frequency of this aberrant punctuation is annoying.
Walter Alvarez is a professor in the Earth and Planetary Sciences Department at the University of California, Berkeley. A geologist, he is best known for the hypothesis that a meteor impact on the coast of Yucatan 66 million years ago led to the extinction of the dinosaurs, which he developed with his father. The father, Luis Walter Alvarez, was an experimental physicist who paved the way for the discovery of whole new families of subatomic particles, work for which he won the Nobel Prize in Physics.
If 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 17 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 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.
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 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 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
@@@@@ (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.”
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.
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.
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.
@@@@ (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.
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.
@@@ (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.
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.
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.
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.