Tom Rob Smith's Child 44 is both engrossing and frustrating. The setting is the late Stalinist era in the Soviet Union (the fact that he dies during the novel is an important part of the plot) and the main character is Leo, an MGB (State Security) officer. He discovers there is a serial killer but the state is unable to acknowledge such a thing can even happen in the USSR unless it can be easily attritibuted to a deviant.
There is a lot of complex plot building in the first half of the novel, especially as Leo and his wife Raisa try to sort out their complicated relationship, a development that intersects with his self-propelled (and therefore illegal) investigation. Roughly 2/3 of the way through the book you discover what's going on (and I had been guessing before that) but it doesn't ruin the story.
The frustrating part is that you must be willing to accept coincidences, a huge one in particular. For me, at least they were worth the price of admission.(less)
I read Sam Eastland's Eye of the Red Tsar, a historical mystery set in the USSR in 1929. I picked it up by chance at a used bookstore (Last Word near campus--they deserve a plug!) just for the topic, which is the whereabouts of the Tsar Nicholas II and his wealth.
The story revolves around Pekkala, a highly trained detective who was a close aide to the Tsar. After the Tsar was overthrown, Pekkala fled and eventually became a prisoner. Then in 1929, Stalin releases him because he's the only person who can solve the mystery of the location of the Tsar's treasure. I found the novel to be a fun (and pretty short) read, though I tend to like these sorts of historical novels. I thought he did a nice job of evoking the era. A lot of people complained about a plot twist toward the end that they found unsatisfying--it didn't bother me much.
If you like mysteries and are generally interested in that era of Russian history, my hunch is that you'll like it. (less)
I read Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century. The reviews by economists intrigue me (Tyler Cowen, who wrote his own critical review in Foreign Affairs) links to a lot of them, which is useful). The book seems to have generated a lot of heat within the discipline itself. Most seem really annoyed by him:
"Piketty’s further policy views come in two chapters to which the reader is bound to arrive, after almost five hundred pages, a bit worn out. These reveal him to be neither radical nor neoliberal, nor even distinctively European. Despite having made some disparaging remarks early on about the savagery of the United States, it turns out that Thomas Piketty is a garden-variety social welfare democrat in the mold, largely, of the American New Deal."
He does return throughout the book to criticisms of economics as a field, arguing it is so centered on empirical models that content is ignored (the same argument, it must be said, goes on within political science). So the reciprocal antipathy isn't any big surprise.
Others are haughtily dismissive. One example is here:
"The book is aimed at thoughtful non-specialists who don't know about all the cognitive illusions in the public finance literature."
Ah, that is me. I am smart but not as smart as him. Sorry for being reasonably smart but ignorant. Let me offer some ignorant thoughts.
1. This is a powerful argument that touched a big nerve. Critics are too tempted to attach ideology to it as a way to dismiss the argument. But I would say the massively defensive reaction demonstrates why we need such a conversation in this country. It's worthwhile for that alone, really. What he argues that if inherited wealth becomes dominant, then democracy will suffer and violent responses become more likely. When the rate of return on capital is high and growth is low, unrest becomes more likely. At the same time, I agree with reviewers who say he doesn't pursue that correlation enough--he mentions it multiple times but does not go into detail.
2. The debate over data doesn't refute Piketty. It just makes the conversation more interesting. In particular, it's a good thing to argue whether it's a problem to focus so much on labor income when so many people rely on more than that. People may not inherit wealth but they are vested in different types of retirement plans, for example, along with social security. Yet if people's wages are relatively low, they have little to contribute to those plans.
3. All the controversy about his policy prescriptions miss an important point--a core part of his argument is that we have the power to change things, which means we should talk about it. With regard to inequality, "There have been many twists and turns and certainly no irrepressible, regular tendency toward a 'natural' equilibrium'" (p. 274). And, incidentally, there are plenty of responses that are not Marxist! On the other hand, global catastrophe also changes inequality--the rich people who started World War I weren't aware of that at the time.
4. His policy prescriptions, such as the global tax, should be seen as the beginning of a conversation rather than the end. He makes it very clear he considers it utopian, as a reference point. Further, he also argues that making government a lot bigger isn't the answer because that creates organizational problems--not exactly a Marxist viewpoint. (less)
I read Heidi Tinsman's Buying into the Regime: Grapes and Consumption in Cold War Chile and the United States (2014) to review for Journal of Interdisciplinary History. I don't know when that will come out, but here is a small taste. It analyzes what became a strong connection between the two countries based on grape exports and what I like in particular is that Tinsman consciously avoids easy answers and simplifications, which makes it a worthy contribution to the already large literature on Cold War Chile. There are a lot of contradictions and contrasts:
Academics from the United States are part of the contrasts. The Chilean grape industry grew substantially under the market-driven economy of the military government, but existed in the first place because of the state-driven policies of the Eduardo Frei and Salvador Allende administrations. Universities in the United States played important roles in both, as researchers from the University of California at Davis gave extensive agricultural assistance in the 1960s and Chilean economists from the University of Chicago created the policy architecture for the grapes to be exported in the 1970s and beyond.
As Tinsman points out, consumption was central to the historical development of the grape export industry and the long-term responses to it. Depending on your vantage point, eating (or choosing not to eat) grapes could denote support for a government, opposition to a government, general nationalism, protest over a repressive global economic system, support for labor and/or recognition of the human costs of feeding the United States. Those perspectives shift if you are a Chilean or if you are a U.S. citizen, and if you are eating fruit from Chile or from the United States.(less)
I read David Fromkin's Europe's Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914? which was an impulse buy in a Washington DC used bookstore some months ago.
World War I is mindblowing. You can draw causal lines to such disparate things as women's suffrage, Adolf Hitler, the Cold War, class consciousness, the Soviet Union, and more. Yet it started in such a small way, a minor aristocrat--not even widely known--murdered by a young radical. It was a seemingly isolated incident that did not immediately alarm diplomats.
This book is a nice general history that looks at every country and major players, often coming back to General Helmuth von Moltke, chief of the General Staff. Like a number of other German elites, he wanted war because he thought Germany would fade in influence without a pre-emptive strike against Russia in particular. He fought as hard as he could against dialogue.
Fromkin says the key to understanding war's outbreak is to see it as two wars. Everyone wonders how a little dispute between Austria and Serbia could suck in the world, but it was only the pretext. Germany wanted to declare war on Russia but needed to make it seem that Russia was attacking first. The archduke's assassination served that purpose. Austria wanted to wipe Serbia off the map, and Germany (especiallu Moltke) wagered that Russia would step in to protect Serbia.
Basically, the Germans wanted a European war and they got it. Be careful what you wish for.(less)
Jay Sexton's The Monroe Doctrine: Empire and Nation in Nineteenth Century America (2011) is a good synthesis of the history of the most famous doctrine in U.S.-Latin American relations. It's not exactly new, though I can't think how you would manage to say something genuinely new about it (I wonder, have any hitherto unknown archives yielded any new insights in years?). It's more about what angle to take.
One thing he does that I found interesting was to discuss how policy makers in the U.S. changed their views of the doctrine over time. The nineteenth century version was different from the twentieth because of shifting circumstances. At the time of its formulation, there was fear not only of geopolitical threat but also of the country breaking apart. By Roosevelt's time imperialism was in full force and the United States was well past the civil war.
He emphasizes the contradictory nature of the doctrine, since it was both anti-colonial and fundamentally imperialist. This didn't bother anyone in the United States, because based on our exceptionalism our tutelage was a positive force while the Old World offered outdated and unwanted models.
Reading the book might help understand why it's hard to believe John Kerry when in November 2013 he said the Monroe Doctrine was over.
I'll be including it as a recommended reading for the historical chapter of my U.S.-Latin America textbook. (less)
Stephen Kinzer is no fan of Allen Dulles and John Foster Dulles. We already knew that from his previous books, which examine overthrow of one kind or another. His new book The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and the Their Secret Cold War looks at the men more specifically to show how they were architects of a style of foreign policy that, though in many ways unsuccessful, became a model for the Cold War and even the post Cold War.
It's a very good read, though I must say I enjoyed the first half much more than the second. The first explores the Duller brothers in depth, whereas the second goes into more detail in specific operations, such as Iran, Cuba, Guatemala, Indonesia, and the Congo. In those the brothers fade a bit from the narrative, though of course they are hovering around. Kinzer relies on secondary sources but the stories themselves are already very well known. The second half also touches quickly on psychological assessment, JFK assassination conspiracies, and other sorts of speculation that detract from the book.
The sad thing is that, though Kinzer explain clearly how so many of the Dulles brothers' interventions were in long run detrimental to the United States, there is little recognition of that now. I wish very much that there was public discussion of how overthrowing Mossadegh, for example, led us to where we are today, and how they thought only in the very short term. But there isn't. Instead, we talk about intervening in Iran again!
The point, then, is that consciously or not, U.S. policy makers have drunk deeply of the Dulles Kool Aid. The U.S. is exceptional (and Christian) and therefore needs to act as policeman; there is no need to understand the country you're attacking/undermining; short-term victory over your "enemy" (however defined) is all that matters. The Dulles brothers have never really gone away.(less)
Bill Bryson's One Summer: America, 1927 is a good read only because it was written by Bill Bryson. By this I mean it really has no stated point but that's OK because it's funny and sarcastic. Strangely missing from the lengthy prologue is any explanation about why he wrote it.
Beyond his writing, what made me connect to the book was its unrelenting insistence that the grand, glorious and glamorous 1920s, the heyday of which was 1927, was in so many ways either no better than now or much, much worse. That appealed to me since one of my pet peeves is hearing the pining for the good old days of fake nostalgia. You will not come away feeling nostalgic after reading this book. I have no idea whether this was his intent.
It is roughly chronological, though there is inevitable jumping, chock full of vignettes. That made it perfect for tweeting, which I did in the several days it took for me to read it.
The upshot is that America in 1927 was a place where people followed sensationalistic murder stories with excited interest while ignoring real news about other countries; where athletes were revered despite the fact that many of them were terrible human beings; where racism, anti-Semitism, and gender discrimination were rampant and often celebrated; where mindless desire for profit soon led to disaster; and where corruption was widespread.
There were good things, of course. Charles Lindbergh showed how much aviation could achieve, though he himself was odd, anti-Semitic, and pro-eugenics. Movie and television technology led to all kinds of innovation. So it wasn't all bad.
So don't read it if you want a recreation of F. Scott Fitzgeraldish Jazz Age images (incidentally, in 1927 he was on the decline and practically begging for jobs) but if you want to think about how far we have or haven't come as a country, then it's well worth it.(less)
Drew Magary's The Postmortal: what a cool, thought provoking, creepy novel. It sounds so great on the surface, yet is a dystopia--imagine that in the near future, someone finds a cure for aging. The novel follows the diary/blog of John Farrell, who got the cure at age 29. You cannot get younger or avoid disease, but you will never get older. Once that happens, the effects are entirely negative. A sampling:
--overcrowding --water scarcity --genocide --war --organ harvesting mafia --young girls given the cure to become eternal underaged prostitutes --violent "pro-death" insurgents --decrease in marriage (because 'til death do us part is too long)
One thing scarier than death is the notion of living forever. I may be in the minority, as ironically while reading the novel I opened my newspaper to read a story (which annoyingly I cannot find now) about how people really want science to keep fighting death, no matter the consequences, then had someone point out this op-ed about our obsession with aging. That's what makes the book feel so real. Be careful what you wish for, because you might get it.
What Magary makes you ponder is how much satisfaction in your life is due to aging, to everything having an end. You are always building toward an end, and having no end unmoors you. There is a real problem of moral hazard as well, especially as doctors worked to improve the quality of your unaging life. There is much less holding you back. People began losing their humanity, something out of The Road Warrior.
I strongly recommend the book--it's not what you would call pleasant but you won't soon forget it.
I read Josef Joffe's The Myth of America's Decline, in large part because it intersected with my view of U.S. policy toward Latin America. What Joffe argues, pretty convincingly in my opinion, is that there are waves of declinism--the USSR was going to overtake us, then Japan, then Europe, and now China--but they all concentrate on very short-term, unsustainable signs. People gleefully argued the USSR and Japan would overtake the U.S. precisely as they were falling apart. Overall, it is true that the U.S. does not simply dominate the world, but it is still overwhelmingly the strongest power.
What I find fascinating, and Joffe does not get into it much, is that declinism transcends ideology. Those on the left (such as it is in the United States) applaud it as a sign of international equality while the right deplore it as a sign of weakness. But they agree it is happening--exactly why is never clear, though politicians routinely pick up on it and exploit fear.
With regard to U.S. policy, it relates to my post about the Monroe Doctrine not being dead. Not being dominant is not the same as being in decline. The election of leftists and the creation of a few Venezuelan-funded international organizations is not the same as a new international order. At the very least it is premature to declare it. Which is more likely in ten years: a strong and effective UNASUR or an economically and militarily influential United States?
The book reads very smoothly, chock full of literary and cultural references (even a footnote dedicated to "Parker Lewis Can't Lose"!) though it could've been a lot shorter as there is plenty of repetition. It is also very boosterish about international capitalism (and wary of Barack Obama) without asking any questions about the long-term effects of growing inequality. But he does a nice job of poking at conventional wisdom.
I happened to pick up John Dinges' Our Man in Panama, a 1990 book about Manuel Noriega's rise to power. The invasion itself is mentioned only briefly at the end, which was fine with me. What's more interesting is how the situation developed.
It is a reminder of how weird that invasion was. The U.S. government was split any number of ways about Noriega and only toward the very end did anyone consider him an "enemy." Even then, many still didn't. For the most part, he was the friendly leader who helped the DEA (including, ironically, the arrest and extradition of someone who later testified against him) and helped the Contras. He was a team player. That he was corrupt was no big deal--everyone was corrupt. Omar Torrijos had established the system that Noriega inherited. Noriega's own addition was drug trafficking, which the U.S. had first officially noticed in the early 1970s.
Dinges goes through all the evidence with care, showing how deeply involved Noriega was in the drug trade and how brutal he could be. As he notes, and it's still true now, no one feels sorry for him as he had almost no redeeming qualities. But going straight to invasion essentially for personal reasons is still amazingly disproportionate. Using similar criteria elsewhere, we'd be involved in even more wars than we are now.(less)
"Thank you for your service" is a common phrase, a well-intentioned but superficial greeting, which skates over the surface of complexity. Kevin Powers' novel The Yellow Birds shows how sometimes it is unwelcome precisely because of the superficiality. Private Bartle is the narrator, and he is fighting in Iraq with Private Murphy. It is the powerful story of their efforts to figure out what their proper place should be--what "service" even means--just to stay alive long enough to get home.
It is a tragedy because no one figures it out, not even the hard-nosed sergeant who helps keep everyone alive with his uncompromising focus on safety. Not Bartle, not Murphy, not their parents, and certainly not Iraqis, who hunker down in the middle of devastation. The soldiers fight for the same bit of territory over and over, and nothing much changes. The war itself served no purpose. As the sergeant said toward the end of the novel, more or less to himself, "Fuck 'em, man. Fuck everyone on earth."
Powers writes beautifully. From the reviews I've skimmed the main criticism seems to be his style, which is self-conscious with its poetic metaphors and descriptions. Some find it overdone and derivative (though I bet every war novel is criticized somewhere for being derivative of Ernest Hemingway) but I thought it effectively dug under the surface. He doesn't want to just lay out facts about how the war was fought--you can find that anywhere. He wants to get you into the head of the so-young soldiers while they're there.
I've read a number of books on North Korea, and they are all harrowing but essentially similar. The population internalizes the cult of personality and suffers. Blaine Harden's Escape From Camp 14 provides a different and even more terrifying angle to the horror that is North Korea.
Shin In Geun was born in a prison camp. That meant no one even bothered to tell him about Kim il Sung or his offspring because he was too low on the caste chain to bother. His role in life was to work and die young. His parents did not know each other but were prisoners who came together for marriage (meaning sex, since there was no love, companionship, or much else attached to marriage) as reward for good work. He grew to hate them and by snitching was even responsible for his mother's death, an action that haunted him later, but all he knew was the regime's demand that you inform on others, especially your family. Shin did not even know the existence of such feelings as love, hope, gratitude, or trust. They are still very difficult for him to internalize.
You cannot even conceive of escape until you know there is anything to escape to. Chance encounters with two other prisoners at different times opened his eyes, and he embarked on a plan that had only an infinitesimal chance of succeeding. Amazingly it did. Ultimately he saw "freedom" mostly in terms of being able to eat regularly.
What made this book unique for me was to consider how difficult it is for this young man--since he is still young--to figure out how to live outside North Korea. For all defectors, paranoia is an instinct, but Shin has to learn emotions that 99.99% of the human population experiences at a very young age. It is frustrating to read of a government consciously inflicting such pain, but even more frustrating when you start trying to think about what could realistically be done in response.(less)
I read Kristina Mani's Democratization and Military Transformation in Argentina and Chile (2011) to review for Perspectives on Politics. That review will be much longer than this one. The journal requests (orders?) that submitting my review confirms that it "has not appeared nor will appear elsewhere in published form." I hit "publish" when I blog but I don't tend to think of this as really publishing. I also don't think that readers of the journal will glaze over when it comes to them because they've already read this review on my blog. That is especially the case because I am about to send it to the editor but it will not appear in print for some time.
But I digress.
It's a worthwhile book that succeeds quite well in creating a framework to understand the rivalry between Argentina and Chile by connecting domestic and foreign policies. And although I have some quibbles about how it can apply more broadly in the region, it is thought provoking in that regard, which I appreciate (and I tried to make sure they were quibbles rather than complaints that she hadn't written the book I would want, which is painfully common in reviews). Two key paragraphs from my review:
Mani’s tracing of the intricate process of confidence building is excellent. Given how harmonious relations are now, it is perhaps too easy to forget that 35 years ago Argentina and Chile came very close to war, after decades of distrust and disagreement over South Atlantic boundaries. Armed conflict was averted only after international mediation, most notably from the Vatican. After the end of military rule, civilian leaders saw international military cooperation as an integral component of an overall strategy of democratizing civil-military relations. Democratically elected presidents therefore pushed hard to make internationalism a reality. Mani carefully traces the decision-making process in each country as newly elected leaders dealt simultaneously with potential international conflict and domestic resistance.
And on broader applicability:
Mani very briefly contrasts the Chile-Argentina success with the continued controversies Chile has with Bolivia and Peru. In Bolivia and Peru, we might reasonably argue there are empowered veto players (a high level of nationalism) and low regime costs (the authoritarian era is far in the past) yet both governments are increasingly resorting to the International Court of Justice for disputes with Chile, which implies “impulsive internationalism” rather than a “impulsive statist-nationalist” strategy. What this might suggest is that the “regime cost” variable may not be as relevant as time goes on. The Bolivian military left power in 1982 and although the era of dictatorship was traumatic, by now there is no real fear of regression. However, Mani’s model argues that low regime costs should correlate with a statist-nationalist response.
If you study civil-military relations or international security in Latin America, you should check it out. I hope First Forum Press (part of Lynne Rienner) publishes a paperback version to make it more accessible. Otherwise you will have to go to a university library or shell out $55. Such is academic publishing at times. (less)
I am always on the lookout for good Latin American mysteries/crime novels in translation. Rolo Diez's Tequila Blue is one of the few I have disliked. The main character, a cop in Mexico City, is amoral and unlikeable, and I ended up not caring what happened to anyone, whether the crime was solved, or anything else. It was short, so I sped through rather than just set it down.
I suppose the intent was to immerse you in the corruption, the mordidas, the utter hopelessness of the police bureaucracy in Mexico. At least in this case, that could've been achieved just as well in a short story. Stick with Paco Ignacio Taibo II instead. (less)
Roberto Ampuero's The Neruda Case was billed as a mystery, and in fact is about the main character's first foray into private detection, but is enjoyable for reasons other than genre.
Cayetano Brulé--himself a Cuban--lives in Valparaíso, in September 1973 was contacted by Pablo Neruda to find information of a woman from his past with whom he had an affair and determine whether the child she had was his. From there the poet gives him money to make quick trips to Mexico, Bolivia, East Germany, and Cuba to find the woman's trail.
In general, I was much less interested in what he found out than the questions that arise as he investigates. One that comes up frequently is the balance between personal issues and political crises. How much should we care about ourselves when the world seems to be falling apart around us? People keep wondering that about Neruda as Brulé asks them questions.
He also meditates on detective fiction from reality. Neruda gives him Maigret novels to read as inspiration, but Brulé keeps thinking that the ordered world of France does not apply to the messiness of Latin America.
Another centers on the Chilean coup and its context in the Cold War. In many different ways Ampuero comments on the difference between the highly polarized Allende years and how so many ideologically driven people at the time lost all that by the 21st century. The descriptions of Valparaíso and Santiago in the days following up to the coup and then immediately afterward are engrossing.(less)
Joseph B. Frazier's El Salvador Could Be Like That is a memoir by a former Associated Press reporter who covered the country during the civil war. Its value lay in Frazier's descriptions of the people and how both everyday life and politics functioned "on the ground," with what I think is a balanced voice, pointing out inconsistencies or outright lies on both sides (though of course the lion's share of the violence was perpetrated by the right). Some of it gruesome, and all of it is sad. It was no easy job for reporters, who were attacked and, of course, lied to.
We gnawed through mountains of spin and did the best we could. There remained for a short time a 1950s-style naivete that told us if the U.S. government was telling us something, it must be true. The facts on the ground quickly educated us otherwise (p. 14).
It is mostly chronological but tends to bounce around a bit (with funny additions like Surfer Bob, a guy from Florida who came to El Salvador for the surfing and then stayed). I noticed that Tim, who writes at Tim's El Salvador Blog, had recently reviewed it and thought the structure made it more important to have some background. I think that's true, but if you're interested in El Salvador and/or the era it's worth a look.(less)
I went to a book sale of the Friends of the Mecklenburg County Library and came across a children's book on the Panama Canal, by Bob Considine. I bought it without hesitation because I find it fascinating to read about how Latin America was portrayed in the past in the U.S. Normally it is a lot of superior tone and chest thumping.
So I was surprised when the book actually rejected chest thumping. Could America just go in there and do the job easily? Well, no.
The Americans who believed that the hacking out of a canal across Panama would be a simple task, easily solved by American cleverness and drive, had many disappointments in store for them (p. 95).
It talks about labor conditions:
Deaths were greatest among the Chinese (about 400). Many of the Chinese either bought or were supplied with opium, to make them forget the hardships of jungle and mountain grade. The Chinese produced the greatest number of suicides (pp. 35-36).
It talks about race, with even a baseball reference:
Because of Jim Crow laws, Panamanians were unable to get proper schooling, housing, wages and equal opportunities. These unjust laws also applied to people who were grouped into the "Panamanian" class by Zone officials--notably the large number of Jamaicans who did so much of the manual labor attending the digging of the canal.
The color line was extended even to the American Negro who found work in the Canal Zone or visited there. When the Brooklyn National League baseball team appeared in the Canal Zone in the late 1940s during a Spring training tour, their Negro star "Jackie" Robinson was not permitted to eat with his teammates." (pp.157-158).
Finally, it even has extended quotes from primary documents. I had not heard of Bob Considine before, but my hat is off to him. We need a kid's book like this for the Middle East.(less)
George Saunders' The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil is a really strange and very funny political satire. There are two countries, Outer Horner, and Inner Horner, inhabited by creatures so strange you can barely picture them but with very ordinary names like Phil, Larry, Cal and the like. Inner Horner is so small that only of its citizens can be in there at one time, which then prompts a power hungry Outer Hornerite named Phil to create a crisis for his own violent political benefit.
Nationalist abuses abound, with natural resources becoming the source of conflict. For example, Outer Hornerites have a national drinking song, "Large, Large, Large, Beloved Land (If Not the Best, Why So Very Dominant?)" Phil creates border problems and then blames the Inner Hornerites for being lazy, dirty, and aggressive.
Meanwhile, the media hovers around him, shouting out headlines intended to reflect well on whoever is in power, then dump on those out of power. The political messages are blunt but still entertaining.
I read Francisco Toro and Juan Cristobal Nagel's Blogging the Revolution, a book comprised of posts from their very well-known opposition Caracas Chronicles blog*. They started the blog in 2002 so there was plenty of material to choose from.
It's an odd exercise to review a book that is a collection of posts (jumping around chronologically), though certain patterns do show themselves in place of the kind of central argument you'd find in a conventional book. It's a good read, rich with detail (their interpretation of the coup events is an especially interesting read) and sometimes also with snark. Here are some themes I found in this not-exactly-book-blog-book:
First, Hugo Chávez's political use of oil revenue represents strong continuity with the past, even if the recipients are different. One of the nice things about the blog is the keen sense of history. Toro and Nagel really dislike Chávez, but they don't sugarcoat the past. You read about historians, novels, and all sorts of people the authors interview, both formally and informally. Even if you disagree with the posts, they are generally very thoughtful. The authors also don't tend to offer much hope that the opposition would do any better if it took power. They periodically come back to the question of how Venezuela can break out of it.
Second, past leaders were corrupt, but Chávez takes it to a new level. The corruption is supported by many anecdotes, though with less of the historical comparison (how much did the dominant parties shake people down for political support or money in the past?). From the neighborhood level to the top echelons of government, corruption abounds. Demonstrating that it is worse, however, doesn't always come out. Could it be that corruption also represents continuity?
Third, the country is moving toward authoritarianism. This tends to veer around, and the lack of chronological order of the posts exacerbates it. There are discussions about how totalitarianism is a totally inappropriate term, then later "we really do have all the characteristics of leftist totalitarian communications here" (electronic page 142). But there is a lot of interesting discussion about the disjuncture between the precise wording of the Venezuelan constitution and the way politics actually works.
I like the idea of taking a blog and trying to contextualize it. If a few people write for years, they do develop certain ideas and themes that persist, and they help orient unfamiliar readers. If the blog is, and this one is, then it's worth the read.
* FWIW, I was given an ebook version for free.(less)
It is very hard to say something new or original about U.S.-Mexican relations (as is the case with U.S.-Cuban relations). Books and articles are churned out at a rapid pace, all with variations on a "we're partners and need each other whether we like it or not" theme, with a laundry list of things to do. What Shannon O'Neil does in Two Nations Indivisible: Mexico, the United States, and the Road Ahead (2013) is to carve a niche she had been showing on her blog and elsewhere. Her take looks primarily at the way in which Mexico is perceived in the United States.
Basically, she argues that Mexico is ascending, but that too few in the United States recognize this. Instead, they are stuck on the idea of a backwards country on the road to nowhere. Instead, there is a strong economy and growing middle class, a persistent expansion of democracy, and a highly cosmopolitan population. She makes this argument through a narrative that takes care not to exaggerate claims (and places drug-related violence in perspective). It takes the reader through economic reforms, the fall of the PRI, and the cracking of soft authoritarianism, all of which make Mexico a very different place than it was just a short time ago.
The policy prescriptions that flow from the narrative aren't really new, but those aren't really the point of the book. Instead, the idea is that the relationship can't move forward productively until false images are dispelled. Ultimately, the vast majority of Americans don't know Mexico much at all. And I would wager that many think they understand Mexico when in fact they don't.
Toward the end she mentions a trip she took with House and Senate staffers to Mexico City, and how they expressed surprise at how nice the city was, even more impressive than the places they came from. Getting over that hurdle, she argues, will help policy a lot. This makes sense, as the pervasive popular image is a Mexico of dirt streets and ragged children. They do exist, but more and more Mexicans are equally educated and prosperous as their northern counterparts.
I've cautioned before about overly optimistic views of the middle class in Latin America. Aside from measurement questions, aggregate figures can obscure the number of people who are on the brink of falling back. But O'Neil provides plenty of evidence for her glass-half-full perspective perspective. In the end, the book plus a trip to Mexico would be a good thing for most members of Congress and their staffers. (less)
I read Ken Follett's brick of a book, Fall of Giants. It's the first part of a huge trilogy about the 20th century, and focuses on World War I. I enjoyed it. It's a soap opera with really intelligent commentary on the class divides that were rigid but changed as a result of the war.
You've got the Welsh miners and the Welsh earl (married to Russian nobility), members of the German elite, the lower strata of Russian society, American political elites, British radicals, and others in a sprawling story. They intersect in ways that strain credulity--too many people see each other coincidentally, even on a French battlefield--but it works.
It's a beach book with a backbone. Someone with no historical knowledge would at least get a sense of the ridiculous and sad chain of events that led to the war, the reasons it went on so long, and then get a taste of the consequences.(less)
What you immediately feel in David Halberstam's The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War is anger. He is really ticked off at Douglas MacArthur, whose megalomania and hiring of lackeys led to the needless deaths of thousands of U.S. soldiers. He then blamed disasters on absolutely everything and everyone else rather than on himself. By the time you get to his firing (around page 600) you practically drip with disdain.
One of the great problems with Douglas MacArthur, something that had bedeviled those who had dealt with him for years, was that he did not always tell the truth...The truth posed a great dilemma for a man who always had to be right (p. 613).
I have read very little on the Korean War, but I suspect this argument is not terribly original. After all, MacArthur was fired and he is on record as saying such things as the Chinese would never enter the war, generally based on racism. But Halberstam does a great job introducing you to many, many people, some famous, some just privates following the orders coming from Tokyo (as MacArthur disliked going to Korea). The book is chronological and organized as very well-written vignettes. That includes Harry Truman, who had an aide go to the Library of Congress and get him information on how Abraham Lincoln had fired George McClellan.
It is a book squarely on the side of the soldiers, not focusing on the details of battles (though it does do that to a degree) but rather what they were experiencing, how they felt, how cold they were, how confused. I kept thinking of The Best and the Brightest because so many people were dying because of the decisions of political elites who thought they were much, much smarter than they really were. That, it sadly seems, just never seems to end.(less)
Tim Wendel's Castro's Curveball is a light, pleasant novel that brings together pre-revolutionary--late 1940s--Havana, Fidel Castro, and baseball. You need to suspend disbelief, but it plays on Castro's love of baseball and the rumor that he'd been signed by the Washington Senators. In this book, Havana Lions catcher Billy Bryan is the one who is trying to sign him. After many years, Billy returns to Cuba during the Special Period with his daughter to come to peace with his past.
Castro and his early political activism is woven into the book, along with a fictional female photographer he falls in love with, and who is part of Castro's political circle. Wendel does a nice job of bringing that era to life.
Also noteworthy, for me at least, is that this book was an impulse buy at my local used bookstore, The Last Word. Leisurely browsing still a really fun way of finding books.(less)
I read Doc Hendley's Wine to Water. What a really cool book. It is the first person narrative of a guy from North Carolina who felt pretty aimless until he decided to try and do something simple yet critical for people in the most poverty and conflict-stricken parts of the world: get them clean water.
The bulk of the book focuses on his work in Sudan, where he helped fill large water bladders, restore wells, distribute chlorine tablets, and otherwise help get clean water to people suffering from all kinds of water-borne ailments (not to mention go to parts of the country no westerner--and not even most Sudanese--ever sees). Then he built an organization to support it. What he did (and continues to do) is pretty remarkable, but this is not a braggart's account. He's frank about his shortcomings and failings along with his successes. The writing is engaging and conversational.
For Hendley, one key to his work was helping other people become self-sufficient. You help install wells, but you teach the local population how to do it in the future and then maintain them. As he noted, it is both cost-effective and empowering. His work continues, as you can see here. (less)
I read Joel Hirst's The Lieutenant of San Porfirio. It depicts a dystopic Venezuela in the near future, and reflects all the fears of the right. It is interesting primarily for that reason.
This is a Venezuela where "all contact with America is forbidden," (how that works is left unexplained) classical music is mocked, Chavistas see Augusto Pinochet as their model, there are buses full of bearded Iranians, Chavez says he is God and should replace Catholicism, tollbooth attendants are in their underwear, Chavez is copying Nazi Germany, the Chinese are trying to take over the west through drug trafficking, the Venezuelan government sponsors African coups with drug money (while smoking Cuban cigars, natch!), there is a minute of hard core porno on state TV every night, state employees mess with women's bras and thongs, poor people sleeping packed together are portrayed a good model for the US, Chavistas say the opposition eats human beings, a box of breakfast cereal costs $25, Russians fly military helicopters around, bearded people are flying around in helicopters, old ladies in wheelchairs are toppled over, and everyone who supports Chávez is drunk all the time.
The novel is pitched as magical realism, and so I guess these politicized exaggerations are supposed to qualify. But the novel is too angrily realist to be considered anything close to magical, and I don't tend to think the exaggerations are supposed to be viewed as anything but very concrete visions of a potential Venezuela. There's not really a plot per se, but rather just people's reactions to the revolution, and for a vision of the indignant right, it's a good example.(less)