You recently received an email that included a short, abortive first try on writing a post about Jeremy Rifkin’s The Third Industrial Revolution. I screwed up. You’ll find the real post by clicking here.
Please accept my apologies.
You recently received an email that included a short, abortive first try on writing a post about Jeremy Rifkin’s The Third Industrial Revolution. I screwed up. You’ll find the real post by clicking here.
Please accept my apologies.
A review of A Delicate Truth, by John LeCarre
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
On the cover of A Delicate Truth, Gibraltar looms like the vast bulk of reality weighing down on the idealism and sense of duty that preoccupy the novel’s protagonist, as they do in so many of the works of John Le Carre. Gibraltar itself does play a key role here as the site of an incident that brings together a motley cast of hapless souls: the upstanding senior officer and the bent but bumbling junior Minister he answers to; the Minister’s fast-track Private Secretary and his jaded mentor; the upper-crust opportunist, his right-wing American bedfellows, and the British Special Forces soldiers made pawns in their machinations. This unlikely assortment of 21st century humanity is thrown together in what can most fairly be described as one glorious clusterf***.
The incident in question is a joint UK-US anti-terrorism operation in Gibraltar engineered under the tightest secrecy by the Minister and his shady partner-in-crime, financed by Texas-based evangelical Christian activists, and executed under cover of darkness by a combined force of handpicked British Special Forces and mercenaries in the employ of a mysterious American defense contractor. Our hero, Toby Bell, Private Secretary to the Minister but kept in the dark by him, learns that the whole thing went south. As the story slowly emerges when Toby is compelled to follow the breadcrumbs to the truth, he is thrown together with the now-retired diplomat who was attached to the mission and the diplomat’s daughter, a comely physician ministering to the poor in London’s East End. Toby’s rush to the truth through the minefields of institutionalized compromise is fraught with mystery, terror, pain, suspense, and the inklings of romance. Yes, A Delicate Truth is, in fact, one glorious tale, proof that John Le Carre at 81 still writes with the extraordinary skill he treated us to in the 1960s.
A review of Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
Note: This review first appeared here on September 11, 2011 (yes, 9/11/11). In view of the recent news about the NSA’s Prism program and other widespread and long-standing efforts to amass personal information about the American public, I’m posting it again. This superb book deserves a far wider audience than it received in 2011.
If you treasure your freedom as an American . . . if you’re concerned about how the U.S. Government spends your tax money . . . or if you simply want to understand how our country is managed . . . you owe it to yourself to read this brilliant book. Alternately mind-boggling and blood-curdling, Top Secret America is the most impressive piece of investigative journalism I’ve read in years. Dana Priest and Bill Arkin have written a book that, in a rational world, would usher in an orgy of housecleaning through the far reaches of the Pentagon, the CIA, the NSA, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and every other department, agency, or office that pretends to be involved in strengthening our national security.
Even then — even if we somehow reined in the known alphabet agencies — we would only be scratching the surface. Here’s Priest writing about the work of her co-author: “After two years of investigating, Arkin had come up with a jaw-dropping 1,074 federal government organizations and nearly two thousand private companies involved with programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence in at least 17,000 locations across the United States — all of them working at the top secret classification level.” There is an additional three thousand “state and local organizations, each with its own counterterrorism responsibilities and jurisdictions.”
Perhaps there’s one saving grace in this brouhaha of activity. Priest again: “Post 9/11, government agencies annually published some 50,000 separate serialized intelligence reports under 1,500 titles, the classified equivalent of newspapers, magazines, and journals. Some were distributed daily; others came out once a week, monthly, or annually.” There is so much “information” generated by the counterterrorism establishment that senior managers frequently ignore it all and instead ask their aides to talk to people to find out what’s really meaningful.
Don’t be mollified by the belief that all this activity is carried out by designated intelligence agencies. The nation’s warriors have their own alphabet-soup of agencies, departments, and units devoted to the same ends. The Pentagon created a major new entity called the Northern Command headed by a four-star general (the military’s highest rank) to protect the “homeland.” However, the Northern Command has no troops of its own and, to take any action, must ask permission from the leaders of each state’s National Guard and other agencies on whom it depends for personnel.
Priest and Arkin clearly take a dim view of all this:
The depth and quality of Priest and Arkin’s research is unexcelled, and their writing is brisk and easy to read. The book benefits from the straightforward, first-person approach Priest adopted. It’s written largely from her point of view, with Arkin’s contributions as a researcher noted in the third person.
Dana Priest has reported for the Washington Post for more than 20 years. She won the George Polk Award in 2005 for reporting on secret CIA detention facilities and the Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for uncovering black sites prisons. Her exposure of the deplorable conditions at Walter Reed Army Hospital helped the Washington Post win another Pulitzer in 2007. She deserves another Pulitzer for this illuminating book.
Bill Arkin served in U.S. Army intelligence in 1974 to 1978 and had worked as a consultant, political commentator, blogger, activist, and researcher for a number of progressive organizations before teaming up with Priest to write the widely-acclaimed series of Washington Post articles on which this book was based.
A review of The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, by Christopher Clark
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
Six little boys tussle in a sandbox, pushing and shoving, sometimes openly, sometimes when none of the others are looking. One of them, a runt, is getting the worst of it, but he’s a vicious little guy and manages to hold his own within his own tiny corner of the sandbox. The biggest boys exert the least effort but command the most space. They all look confident, but secretly they’re terrified of one another, leading them to combine forces in a constantly shifting pattern of partnerships to fend off the others.
This is the image that comes to mind of Europe in the summer of 1914 from reading Christopher Clark’s new inquiry into how the First World War came to be. Naturally, Professor Clark had something much more grown-up in mind when he wrote the book. After all, he is a Fellow at St. Catherine’s College at the University of Cambridge, where he received his Ph.D. in History, and we all know that a Cambridge Don would never indulge in such belittling imagery.
In all fairness, to put the event in proper perspective, “The conflict that began that summer mobilized 65 million troops, claimed three empires [Russian, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian], 20 million military and civilian deaths, and 21 million wounded. The horrors of Europe’s twentieth century were born of this catastrophe.”
With The Sleepwalkers, Clark muscles into the seemingly endless debate about why and how all this came to pass. Not that anybody on the street is talking about this stuff, of course. But among modern European historians these questions pass for excitement, and no wonder: the Great War is generally taken as the climax of the well-ordered Victorian Era that launched the human race with a lurch into the 20th Century. The origins of the cataclysm that upended tens of millions of lives are variously found in Prussian militarism, the colliding interests of European empires, the arms race, the profit motive among arms merchants, and other cross-border phenomena, but Professor Clark apparently will have none of this. He’s a practitioner of that brand of history that finds truth in the quotidian details of human interaction — in short, in the day-to-day decisions of living, breathing human beings tossed together in a crisis that nobody foresaw.
In the first of its three parts, The Sleepwalkers thus explores the political environment, highlighting the major players in each of the contending nations — Serbia, Austro-Hungary, Russia, Germany, France, and England — in the years running up to 1914. Part II takes a broader look at the Continent, discussing the interplay of the leading states in the closing years of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th. In outline, the stable alliances of the late 1880s had given way to a bipolar system by 1907, with the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and (loosely) Italy facing off against the interlocking fortunes of Russia, France, and Great Britain. Clark asserts that “[t]he polarization of Europe’s geopolitical system was a crucial precondition for the war that broke out in 1914.” Then, in Part III, Clark delves deeply into the day-by-day, sometimes hour-by-hour, decisions of the leading players from June 28, when Gavrilo Princip shot to death the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne and his wife, until the early days of August, when all the chips had fallen into place and war was declared on all fronts.
In Clark’s view, “1914 is less remote from us — less illegible — now than it was in the 1980s. Since the end of the Cold War, a system of bipolar stability has made way for a more complex and unpredictable array of forces, including declining empires and rising powers — a state of affairs that invites comparison with the Europe of 1914.” Although Clark makes it easy to see history repeating itself in small ways — for example, the genocidal course pursued by Serbia in the 1990s was little different from its behavior in the decades leading up to 1914 — it’s difficult to see the parallels to most of today’s international crises. Surely, Professor Clark wouldn’t pretend that the U.S. invasion of Iraq — one of the seminal events of our times and perhaps the greatest strategic blunder in American history — was anything but the result of hubris and colossal miscalculation on the part of an ideology-driven clique within the U.S. government.
Disagreements aside, however, The Sleepwalkers is an outstanding piece of work. Professor Clark’s knowledge of the period he writes about is both broad and deep, and he writes with grace and verve that’s highly unusual in academic circles.
A review of Silken Prey, by John Sandford
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
Here’s Lucas Davenport again, that brilliant, multimillionaire, Porsche-driving cop, a friend of the governor, who takes on the most difficult criminal cases in the state as the top agent in the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. This time around, Lucas is caught up in a murder case that’s somehow tied to the U.S. Senate campaign between the loony right-wing incumbent and the beautiful young billionaire psychopath who markets herself as a liberal Democrat. In other words, this is not the Minnesota we met in Fargo. It is, in fact, perilously close to the real state of the state. It’s no accident that Sandford’s suspenseful novel brims over with so much unrealized potential for satire. That’s just Minnesota. (Or, for that matter, just about any state in the Union.)
Here’s the skinny: A disgusting collection of child porn has shown up on the Senator’s personal computer, and the media is now merrily lynching him. Soon afterwards, an unscrupulous Democratic campaign trickster named Tubbs has gone missing, and foul play is suspected. Among the possibilities that occur to Davenport are (1) Tubbs planted the porn to torpedo the Senator’s campaign and was killed by whoever had hired him to do it, quite possibly the psychopathic Democratic challenger; (2) Tubbs was murdered by someone he was blackmailing, or simply on general principles for being such an odious character; or (3) Tubbs has gone on an extended bender, which he’s done before. Since the possible political repercussions of Tubbs’ disappearance are obvious, and evidence indicates that a bender is highly unlikely, the governor has asked Lucas to investigate. As Lucas ponders the possibilities, he learns that the source of the porn was, astonishingly, the Minneapolis Police Department. Soon, other complications ensue — and Lucas finds his life on the line as he pursues this case to the very top of the political heap.
Silken Prey is the 23rd novel in Sandford’s eminently satisfying Prey series, which revolves around the life and work of Lucas Davenport. Other characters in the series have spawned novels of their own — a total of 13 more books. Previously, I’ve reviewed several of Sandford’s works: Stolen Prey, Storm Prey, and Phantom Prey, plus Shock Wave and Mad River, featuring investigator Virgil Flowers. Sandford writes with a sure hand, imbuing his characters with the sort of contradictory values and behavior that label them as fully human. Their foibles and foolishness give rise to humor, more often than not, softening the violence that characterizes all his books.
Sandford, now 69, was a Pulitzer-winning journalist before 1989, when he turned to full-time fiction writing. Sandford is a pseudonym for John Roswell Camp.
A review of Trailblazer: A Biography of Jerry Brown, by Chuck McFadden
@@@ (3 out of 5)
If you wrote a novel about a guy like this, who was the son of a popular and successful governor; dated a rock star; married for the first time at age 67; twice served as governor of the country’s largest state, four decades apart; talked the voters of a notoriously anti-tax state into raising taxes substantially; ran for president three times; spent three years in a Catholic seminary, studied with Zen masters in Japan, and worked with Mother Teresa; and . . . well, you get the point. Would anyone believe this? No doubt they’d think you’d gone, as my British friends say, barking mad.
If, instead, you wrote a biography of this curious phenomenon, you’d need it to be a lot longer than a couple of hundred pages, right? And, of course, you’d need to spend days in face-to-face interviews with the guy, if only to get a solid sense of whether he’s for real. How could anyone possibly do justice to him otherwise? Well, Trailblazer is 248 pages long, one-third of them taken up with notes and other backmatter, and the author never managed to interview his subject. That, in a nutshell, is the problem with Trailblazer, Chuck McFadden’s new biography from Berkeley’s University of California Press of the impossibly self-contradictory Governor Moonbeam.
Don’t get me wrong: Trailblazer is a well-informed portrait of our Governor, written by a man who reported on his ups and downs for many years as a Sacramento political reporter for the Associated Press. As an introduction to Jerry Brown for anyone who doesn’t remember his early days in politics or is too young to do so, Trailblazer works. McFadden, now retired, retains numerous contacts among the working press in California, whom he quotes extensively in the pages of this book, adding considerable insight. His writing is clear, his understanding of the extraordinarily complex politics of this nation-state is impressive, and he brings the story of Jerry Brown up to the present moment. It’s just that a reader would have wished for something more — something new and fresh that a truly in-depth study of the man’s life and work might have brought to light.
If you know little or nothing about our second Governor Brown, you’ll learn that he has long been accustomed to being “the smartest guy in the room”; that, as a politician, the fundamental contradiction in his life is the give-and-take between idealism and pragmatism; that the women in his adult life, Linda Ronstadt in the 70s and his wife Anne Gust for the past two decades, have smoothed over the rough edges in his personality and brought a considerable measure of balance and stick-to-it-iveness to his conduct; and that he may well be one of the most skillful politicians this state has ever seen. Is this enough? You be the judge.
A review of The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth, by Mark Mazzetti
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
When Chou En-Lai, then #2 to Mao Tse-Tung, was asked for his perspective on the historical meaning of the French Revolution, he is said to have replied, “It’s too early to tell.”
As we’re beginning to understand now, George W. Bush engineered a revolution of a different sort in the misguided steps he took to “end terrorism” in the years following 9/11. The country’s military establishment gained trillions of dollars in new spending within a decade, and our intelligence agencies (16 of them at last count) mushroomed in size. Even more important, the White House profoundly changed the rules under which both the Pentagon and the CIA operated, layering onto an already bloated military-industrial complex additional hundreds of billions of dollars in contracts to private companies, enabling the Pentagon to operate virtually at will, even in countries where the U.S. was not at war, and shifting the CIA’s strategy from gathering intelligence to “enhanced interrogation” to killing suspected terrorists — all without making changes in the Pentagon’s procurement policies to reflect the passing of the Cold War more than two decades ago.
In The Way of the Knife, Mark Mazzetti sums up the situation as follows: “Prior to the attacks of September 11, the Pentagon did very little human spying, and the CIA was not officially permitted to kill. In the years since, each has done a great deal of both, and a military-intelligence complex has emerged to carry out the new American way of war.”
As Chou En-Lai would clearly agree, the long-term impact of these dramatic policy changes is impossible to see. Unmistakably, though, the values embodied in our Federal government changed under George W. Bush — and Barack Obama has continued on the same course into his second term, even stepping up the use of drones for targeted murder. This doesn’t bode well for a U.S. foreign and military policy supposedly grounded in humanistic assumptions.
Mark Mazzetti makes an important contribution to exploring the near-term consequences of one of these phenomena in The Way of the Knife, which dissects the massive shift in CIA priorities from the Clinton era to the Obama Administration. The “secret army” of the book’s subtitle is the CIA’s paramilitary capability that sends Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, or, increasingly, mercenaries on secret missions around the world and uses drones to murder terrorist suspects. Mazzetti focuses much of his attention on the dysfunctional American relationship with Pakistan and to a lesser degree on the secret wars in Yemen and Somalia. However, he makes it clear that the U.S. is now conducting undeclared wars in a great many more countries — and hiding that information from the American public. “The residents of the Oval Office have turned to covert action hundreds of times, and often have come to regret it,” Mazzetti writes. “But memories are short, new presidents arrive at the White House every four or eight years, and a familiar pattern played out over the second half of the twentieth century: presidential approval of aggressive CIA operations . . . “
In touching on the highlights of the CIA’s history from its founding after World War II to the present, Mazzetti reveals the agency’s schizophrenic attitude toward the use of calculated murder in its operations.
For many years, especially under the directorship of Allen Dulles in the 1950s, the CIA was little more than a reincarnation of its predecessor (where Dulles got his start), the OSS of “Wild Bill” Donovan. As we now know, the CIA was involved in overthrowing governments (Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, Chile in 1973, probably among others) and in frequent attempts to assassinate heads of state, including Patrice Lumumba (Congo), Fidel Castro (Cuba), Nho Dinh Diem (South Vietnam), and Salvador Allende (Chile). When all this nefarious activity came to light in the 1970s in the landmark Senate hearings headed by Senator Frank Church, then-President Gerald Ford outlawed assassination and the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, which included most of the agency’s bad boys, was shackled by unsympathetic new directors named to clean up the mess.
By 2001, the OSS-inspired use of paramilitary operations and targeted killing that had dominated the CIA in its early years was ancient history to the new generation who had already advanced into positions of leadership. The radical course-shift demanded by the Bush White House turned the agency upside down again. And the dramatic expansion of the drone war by CIA director Leon Panetta (“the most influential CIA director since William Casey during the Reagan administration”) completed the transition of the agency into a paramilitary force.
The Way of the Knife is thoroughly researched and skillfully written by a Pulitzer-winning reporter for the New York Times. The book’s highlights include the protracted tales of several colorful figures caught up in the unfolding of the secret wars, including former top CIA official Dewey Clarridge, a Virginia horsewoman named Michele Ballarin, and several senior Pakistani intelligence operatives. If you’re interested in the ups and downs of the U.S. intelligence establishment, you’ll find this book just not essential reading but entertaining as well.
I’ve read and reviewed a fair number of other books on closely related topics in recent years. Among these are Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage by Douglas Waller here, Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin here, Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Asainst Al Qaeda, by Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker here, and The Longest War: Inside the Enduring Conflict Between America and Al-Qaeda, by Peter L. Bergen here. Top Secret America is the most dramatic and most important of this lot.
A review of Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party, by Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin III
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
When I moved to Berkeley in 1969, the Black Panther Party was in its heyday. Only three years earlier, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale had begun building the party around an image and a name they’d appropriated from other Black organizations then active in those turbulent years of the Vietnam War and exploding ghettoes. Yet before the decade of the 1970s was out, the Black Panther Party had all but disappeared. Black Against Empire, Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin’s excellent study of the Panthers and their politics, makes clear why and how they grew into such a force — and why the party collapsed so few years later.
The pivotal event in the history of the Black Panther Party was the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968. Before that day, the Party was just one of hundreds of activist African-American organizations, most of them vanishingly small, in Black ghettoes and on university campuses all across the country. The Panthers were set apart from others by their distinctive black outfits, by carrying guns in public to defend themselves against police brutality, by their outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War, and, perhaps most of all, by their willingness to encompass people of other ethnicities. As a result, they had grabbed headlines locally and were growing at a fast pace, attracting African-Americans in their late teens and twenties who were disillusioned by the timidity of their elders in the Civil Rights Movement — but the party’s activities were largely limited to Oakland, Berkeley, and nearby cities. However, when Rev. King was murdered, the Black Panther Party quickly emerged as the leading organization nationwide with the credibility and the activist ideology that could channel the fury and the hope of young African-Americans and attract alliances with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and other largely non-Black radical organizations. The Party quickly began opening offices around the country — a total of 68 cities by 1970 — and for three years remained a powerful and ever-present force in the activist politics of the day.
Soon, however, the party’s rapid decline began in earnest. Bloom and Martin emphasize two key factors — the Panthers’ establishment enemies and the shrinking U.S. engagement in Vietnam under Richard Nixon — to which I would add a third: the explosive personality dynamics of the Panthers’ leaders themselves.
The Black Panther Party’s sworn enemies included the FBI, the Oakland police, and, later, police in Chicago and many other cities. J. Edgar Hoover personally led the FBI’s campaign against the Panthers, introducing informers and agents provocateur to trigger violence and sow dissent within their ranks. The Bureau’s efforts went so far as to hand out explosives, spread destructive rumors to undermine the marriages of Panther leaders, and arrange the assassination of key Panther activists. The Oakland police used violent and often illegal tactics, invading Panther homes and offices without search warrants and arresting individual Panthers on transparently trumped-up charges. The most egregious incident took place in Richard J. Daley’s Chicago, when police, acting on information from an informer, illegally burst into an apartment in the middle of the night and murdered Fred Hampton, the local chapter leader, sleeping in his bed. All told, police murdered dozens of Panther activists around the country.
Richard Nixon played a pivotal role, too. “Nixon was the one who rolled back the draft, wound down the war, and advanced affirmative action.” The cumulative effect of these strategic moves was to erode the foundation of the Panthers’ support both in the Black community and among white radicals (whose popularity among young people, it became clear, was largely grounded in fear of the draft). Once regarded not just by themselves but by other self-appointed revolutionary organizations as the vanguard of the revolution, the Panthers increasingly found themselves alone as liberals attacked them and the revolution on the nation’s campuses went the way of the draft. The party was officially dissolved in 1982.
So far as it goes, this analysis of the principal forces that undermined the Black Panther Party is right on target. However, I would argue that the personality dynamics of the party’s leadership played a significant role as well. Judging from my own observations as well as the evidence advanced in Black Against Empire, the three leading figures in the party were all brilliant men. It’s idle to speculate what roles they might have played in society had they been born white in middle-class families — but it’s clear that their life experiences as African-Americans growing up in America in the 1950s and 60s, not to mention the cruel frauds worked on them by FBI agents and informers during the late 1960s and early 70s, wreaked havoc on their mental health. Of the three, only Bobby Seale survived the Panther years whole and sane. Both Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver were, by all accounts, unhinged in the final years of their lives. So far as I’m concerned, no further proof is needed than the bitter feud that erupted between the two of them, which led to dangerous and sometimes violent splits within the Panther organization.
For anyone who lived through those unsettling times on the margins of the day’s events, Black Against Empire is illuminating. Though I crossed paths with a number of the individuals named in the book, and we had a great many mutual friends, I was quite unaware of the Panthers’ early history and of the party’s years of decline. If you have any interest in East Bay history, Berkeley politics, or African-American history and politics, you’ll find Black Against Empire essential reading.
Joshua Bloom, the principal author, is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at UCLA. His collaborator, Waldo Martin, is a Professor of History at UC Berkeley specializing in African-American history.
If you’ve been reading this blog for more than week or two, you’ve seen the pattern — that I typically post twice a week, including one nonfiction book and one novel. All told, in the three years I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve produced a total of more than 250 book reviews out of 308 posts. Below, I’m listing the 10 most popular reviews in descending order of the number of visits. Six are nonfiction books and four are novels (including, uncharacteristically, one collection of short stories, which I tend to shun).
1. A review of 99 to 1: How Wealth Inequality Is Wrecking the World and What We Can Do About It, by Chuck Collins. A lucid analysis of how the 1% got to be that way, and how the 99% can fight back. Written by the founder and former executive Director of United for a Fair Economy, who made a study of this topic for many years before the Occupy Wall Street movement came to the fore.
2. A review of In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson. In telling the story of the U.S. ambassador to Nazi Germany in the 1930s and of the anti-semitic officials who headed the State Department, makes clear why the U.S. failed to speak out against the rise of Hitler.
3. A review of The Pyramid and Four Other Kurt Wallender Mysteries, by Henning Mankell. A collection of five stories that span the time from Swedish detective Kurt Wallender’s rookie year on the police force to his retirement decades later. The Pyramid lays bare the roots of his many, complex psychological problems. For any Kurt Wallender fan, it’s well worth reading.
4. A review of The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War, by James Bradley. Explores the racism rampant in America, and in Teddy Roosevelt’s administration, that dominated U.S. imperial policy in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Focuses on the cruise of a U.S. battleship in 1905 carrying Secretary of War and Roosevelt’s “assistant president” William Howard Taft and a passel of Congressmen and Senators to extend the U.S. empire beyond the Philippines and onto the Asian mainland.
5. A review of The Litigators, by John Grisham. If you’re a John Griisham fan, as I am, you’ll probably be surprised at how many chuckles and guffaws his latest novel forces out of you. The Litigators, on one level a legal procedural like so many other Grisham works, is also a comedy. Even the title is a joke, as you’ll learn once you’ve made your way into the meat of this book.
6. A review of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander. One of the most important books in English published so far in the 21st Century. Lays bare the ugly reality of the “War on Drugs” and the mass incarceration it brought about, exploring both how they came about and how deeply they wound communities of color in the United States.
7. A review of The Self-Made Myth, and the Truth About How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed, by Brian Miller and Mike Lapham. A timely and brilliant contribution to the public debate about politics and the economy. Dissects the mythology that lies at the heart of Right-Wing economic ideology in America today, making it unmistakably clear that the so-called “job creators” lionized by Republicans achieved their success not through rugged individualism but within a society in which government lent them support in dozens of crucial ways.
8. A review of Agent 6, by Tom Rob Smith. A superb suspense novel set in the USSR, the U.S., and Afghanistan. The compelling conclusion of a trilogy that tells the story of Leo Demidov, a member of Stalin’s secret police as a young man. Involves a central character who closely resembles the legendary African-American Communist singer and activist Paul Robeson.
9. A review of Creative Community Organizing: A Guide for Rabble-Rousers, Activists, & Quiet Lovers of Justice, by Si Kahn. In this delightful and illuminating memoir, the celebrated singer-organizer provides the reader with a front-row seat on history from the vantage-point of SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, one of the most militant elements in the civil rights struggle) to the UMWA (the Mineworkers Union) to the recent nationwide campaign to end immigrant family detention.
10. A review of Believing the Lie, by Elizabeth George. The latest installment in the running saga of hereditary earl and Scotland Yard Inspector Thomas Lynley, picking up the tale after a long hiatus following the murder of his wife.
A review of Victory Square, by Olen Steinhauer
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
Some years ago I chanced upon one of Olen Steinhauer’s excellent contemporary spy stories, sped through it and read another, and finally, in searching for more of his work, found his five-novel cycle set in a fictional Central European country nestled among Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Austria. (Geographically, the country has to be Slovakia, which only recently gained its independence, but some readers think it more closely resembles Hungary.) Steinhauer’s cycle spanned the years from 1948, when the Soviet Empire consolidated its hold on the nations directly to its West, until 1990, when the USSR and the Warsaw Pact collapsed.
Victory Square is the fifth and final novel in Steinhauer’s Eastern European cycle, and in some ways it’s the best. Steinhauer, an American who has lived for extended periods in several countries in the region, spent months, perhaps years, meticulously researching the fall of Ceausescu’s regime in Romania. That history forms the basis of the events that unfold in the novel in 1989-90. Against this background, Steinhauer introduces us to an aging homicide cop, Emil Brod, now Chief of the Militia, whom we met as a young rookie when he joined the Militia’s Homicide Squad in the country’s capital in 1948. Brod was the protagonist of the first novel in the cycle, The Bridge of Sighs, and has popped up throughout. Now just days from retirement, Brod is forced to contend with an unraveling government, a series of shocking murders, a best friend engaged at the very center of the revolutionary movement, and an adoring wife even older than he who wants him to leave the capital early, before the inevitable explosion.
The full cycle includes the following (with titles linked to my reviews):
Together, these five novels constitute a superb introduction to life in Central Europe during the half-century of Soviet domination. Nonfiction couldn’t possibly match the depth of feeling that emerges from these works.