Dec 25 2006

Books from the year, or thereabouts

Published by at 6:30 pm under review

Abit off-topic for this Northwest site, but not by too much: Herewith, a quick review of 10 books we read over the last year (all of these published in 2006, or shortly before) which gave us useful insight in a number of areas . . . including the great Northwest.

Even though only one of these books was explicitly about the region.

To be clear, we’re not suggesting this as any kind of “10 best” list (and we’ll list them in alpabetical order by author). Some are national sellers, but most are lesser known, and one a relatively obscure regional academic books. Just two are specifically “Northwest” books. But all of them have, in their various ways, fresh and useful ideas and information useful to anyone trying to better understand politics and society. They are all highly useful. And between them, they suggest some of the many ways books can help us understand our neighbors as well as people who live somewhat further away.

The only descriptive word we can think of that all have in common is, “provocative” – they will make you think. At least, they made us think.

Links go to Powell’s Books (which is where we bought most of them).

Crashing the Gate Crashing the Gate, by Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas Zuniga (Chelsea Green). This is the book by the main guys at the two most popular liberal political blogs in the country (Daily Kos and MyDD), guys who spend much of their time hashing on George W. Bush, Republicans and anyone allied with them. But that’s not what this book’s about. Oh, they get in a few shots, but seemingly just as a gesture to make their loyalties clear. Their main concern is the internal problems of the Democratic Party, the structural and substantive problems – from money to consultants to ego to bad analysis – that brdevil the party long before it actually goes to war with Republicans. This is a shrewd book about how politics (of anyone’s stripe) works, and Republicans could read it just as profitably as Democrats could. (But please don’t tell the authors we said so . . .)

TuliaTulia, by Nate Blakeslee (PublicAffairs). Annals of the drug wars: In 1999 a seriously corrupt cop, known in the police community as a serial liar with serious money problems, led the arrest of 47 people in the small town (population about 5,000) of Tulia, Texas, on drug charges – with no evidence, not even drug samples, other than his own unsupported testimony. All but a few of the 47 were swiftly convicted, and most given sentences of many decades duration. The book shows shades of gray (not all of these convicts were upstanding citizens, and not all the people who got the cases overturned were saints), but you can’t read this without reconsidering the state of justice in America, in this new century.

Public Power Private DamsPublic Power, Private Dams, by Karl Boyd Brooks (University of Washington Press). The only book here with a specifically Northwest topic, yet it’s broader than that. Brooks, an attorney and a former Idaho state senator, is now a professor of history at the University of Kansas, but he never lost interest in the back story of how what was once a plan to build a big federal dam at Hells Canyon came to be exchanged for three smaller dams built by Idaho Power Company. The long story of how it happened, especially pertinent with the current relicensure of the dams, throws insight into how public and private interests do battle, and how a significant piece of the Northwest got to be the way it is.

NextNext, by Michael Crichton (HarperCollins). The only novel on the listed, and not here particulary as a “thriller”; Chricton has done better on that front elsewhere. But the information and ideas he lays out about the upcoming round of genetics and biochemical research are fascinating; almost every twist of the story will give your sense of ethics a jolt. At the end you mostly conclude, as Crichton does (in his afterword), that while research should not be impeded, we’re not ready yet for some of the results we may soon get.

Team of RivalsTeam of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin (Simon & Schuster). Was there anything left to write about Lincoln, the most written-about of Americans? With the book about how Lincoln was shaped by his melancholy (as he styled it, “depression” according to one new biographer), the well seemed to have run dry. But then came this, about Lincoln’s relationship with his cabinet members, especially with Seward, Chase and Bates, and Lincoln stands revealed anew. Drawing on biographical materials from all these people, and comparing them to each other – setting them in context – we get a whole different sense of who these people were. And a fresh appreciation for Lincoln himself, through the eyes of men who originally held Lincoln in deep contempt and were forced by what they experienced to revise their judgement. (Steven Spielberg apparently has movie rights; a good movie could be pulled from the scenes in this book.)

Chain of CommandChain of Command, by Seymour Hersh (Harper Perennial). The big, definitive book about the catastrophe that is Iraq probably will not be written for a few years yet; perspective and greater depth than is even possible now will be needed for that. In the meantime, several good books on the subject have emerged already, of course. Of the seven or eight we’ve read this is our top recommendation. Hersch’s reworking of his New Yorker dispatches keep their sense of immediacy, and his depth of experience in national security reporting makes him unsurpassed at this stage at least. Chain of Command focuses on Iraq and Aghanistan, but – while not sacrificing in-depth reportage – it covers a broad scope across the Middle East and central Asia, and back to D.C. A good overview for someone who’s read the headlines and wants to go beyond; a good read too for those who already have gone beyond.

Big Box SwindleBig Box Swindle, by Stacy Mitchell (Beacon). If you think the argument against the astoundingly fast spread of big box stores across America is simple or easily dismissed, try reading this. The effects of these stores – Wal-Mart being just the biggest of them – are so many and varied that a book really is needed to cover them all; in some places here, you get the sense that whole new arguments against the behemoths can be found in every paragraph. Not only a critique of these businesses, it is also a social survey; and not only that, it includes a comprehensive call for action. It is a polemic – one of the most powerful and useful of the year.

American TheocracyAmerican Theocracy, by Kevin Phillips (Viking). In which the man who first came to national notice in the 60s as the prescient author of The Emerging Republican Majority now stands appalled at that majority – and yet the core of this book isn’t about politics (in the direct sense) or politicians. In some of the best researched and sharpest social and economic analysis of recent years (and maybe the strongest in a long series of closely-reasoned analytical pieces), Phillips paints a harrowing picture of an America overextended overseas, swamped in debt, facing severe resource problems and delusionally unable to come to grips with reality. The core of his analysis in this densely packed book is hard to refute (though we’d be fascinated to hear his post-November 7 analysis of the current state of play in politics).

Breaking RankBreaking Rank, by Norm Stamper (Nation Books). Stamper, the former chief of police at Seattle, would be the first to say – does say, in this book – that many of his views about law enforcement are minority views within the law enforcement community. (We don’t necessarily concur with everything he has to say, either.) But he backs up his idiosyncrasy with specifics drawn from three decades on the street and in managing police, and you finish with a strong impression that the difference between Stamper and many in his former profession is a greater willingness to learn, think analytically, and adapt. Traits we could use more of, and not only in law enforcement.

Rise of American DemocracyThe Rise of American Democracy, by Sean Wilentz (Norton). Long, intense, lots of small print – not the lightest read on the list, so be warned. But you cannot do better if you’re interested in what democracy meant and how it was developed in the early decades of the United States – and Wilentz makes superbly clear that what we have more commonly considered as basic freedoms were developed over time, as part of a long-running civic dicussion. It is the perfect background for any discussion of freedoms and rights as we understand them – and watch the debates over them – today.

And so: What books would you suggest adding to the list?

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