I received a copy of this book through Goodreads' First Reads Giveaway.
The subtitle of this book is "Reflections on the Upper Crust," and in that regI received a copy of this book through Goodreads' First Reads Giveaway.
The subtitle of this book is "Reflections on the Upper Crust," and in that regard Darrell West is being honest. This book is a series of essay-length reflections on various issues surrounding the phenomenon of the modern, politically active billionaire. Chapters are loosely grouped into sections focused on billionaire activism, the origin of billionaire wealth, and possible policy responses, but this appears to be an effort at post hoc organization rather than any sort of organic plan.
It's clear West has read much of the recent literature on billionaires and their wealth. But the problem is that for virtually every topic the author explores, you'd be better served reading his sources directly. So if you want to understand the impact of billionaires on the 2012 presidential election, read Kenneth Vogel's "Big Money." If you want to learn more about the influence of billionaires on national governments and policy, David Rothkopf's "Superclass" is a better source than this book. If you want to seek empirical evidence of the way American policy outcomes reflect the preferences of the rich, read Larry Bartels and Marten Gilens. West acknowledges all of these writers, but doesn't really add anything to them, even in summation (it's not like Rothkopf and Vogel have a particularly inaccessible style). Some of his references, like those to Thomas Piketty, are so brief as to serve as a mere reminder that West is aware of the author's work in the field. The unfortunate impression left by this short book is of a well-researched but unambitious Master's thesis in political economy.
I would only recommend this book to someone who either hasn't read the major writers above and wants to short intro to the topic or is particularly interested in the political exploits of foreign billionaires. West's analysis of the latter could hardly be described as in-depth or comprehensive (a criticism which could be be applied to the book as a whole), but I think his thumbnail sketches of men like Frank Stronach and Andre Babis offer something to an American audience. Beyond that, I suppose there is a niche for this book given its brevity and anecdotal style, but I can't escape the feeling that it's largely a derivative knockoff of better works in the field. ...more
Over a decade after the initial explosion of interest in terrorism and jihadi studies, the interested but uninitiated American still has difficulty fiOver a decade after the initial explosion of interest in terrorism and jihadi studies, the interested but uninitiated American still has difficulty finding sources that can adequately convey the complex relationship between radical Islam, Muslim communities, and the Arab world. There is certainly no shortage of jingoist fear-mongering diatribes from self-described patriots seeking to make a quick buck off American fears of sleeper cells and sharia law. Needless to say, these sources offer little in the way of nuance or thoughtful presentation of the Muslim world.
Then there are the extended works of journalism that focus on Al-Qaeda and its long war against the United States. This genre, represented by Lawrence Wrights "The Looming Tower" and Peter Bergen's numerous works, offer a more professional and thorough evaluation of their subjects, but are limited by the narrow focus on the prominent terrorist groups and attacks that have already made headlines around the world. They're solid resources for someone looking for a bit of background and historical perspective on the main players in radical Islam, but they do little to put those figures in the context of the societies and the politics from which they emerged.
The third category consists of the sophisticated academic analyses of terrorist philosophy, tactics, and culture. While this category provides far more context and insight than the first two, its appeal is limited by the lack of blockbuster bestsellers (indeed, many of the best works are scholarly articles rather than books), the density of the analysis, and the foreign backgrounds of several of the best authors. Even an American scholar like Bruce Hoffman isn't as widely read as he should be, so it shouldn't be a surprise that brilliant European scholars like Thomas Hegghammer and Brynjar Lia lack name-recognition outside of certain circles. But these sources don't really satisfy the public's need for a non-technical primer on the conflicts and contradictions that exist within the Muslim world.
The first book I read that managed to convey those conflicts and contradictions to the broader public was Steve Coll's "The Bin Ladens," a terrific history of that family and the way its members were intertwined with the schizophrenic Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the economic and cultural power of the Western world. But while I thoroughly enjoyed "The Bin Ladens," Coll's book is a third-person history that doesn't grab you like a first-person narrative. It's also a fairly long history that covers many decades, so it heavily relies on the "hook" of reading about Osama's family and trying to understand the line of ancestry that produced one of the modern world's most infamous criminals.
"Terrorists in Love," despite its mediocre title, is arguably a better introduction to the phenomenon of Islamic radicalism than anything I have read before. Paradoxically, that introduction is accomplished through a story of personal narratives that feature radicalism and violent jihad as a supporting character, rather than the main protagonist. The appeal of jihad and violence is mediated through each narrator's own life and circumstances, which prevents the reader from being trapped in a simplistic vision of one-size-fits-all religious hatred and ignorance. This mediation allows a reader to understand that how universally human events like lost love and youthful indiscretions can leave a person vulnerable to jihadist rhetoric, or how specific political circumstances like the decades of warfare along the Afghan-Pakistan border can influence entire generations of Islamic youth.
Some of these stories leave the reader with a window of hope for the future, while others are deeply disturbing and indicative of a core group of true believers in violent jihad. But all of the stories bring out the humanity and unique backgrounds of their narrators, which is perhaps the greatest strength of the book. Although the author often becomes an important character in these stories, the interactions between the narrators and the author (an American Jew and former federal prosecutor) reinforces the importance of personal interactions and a recognition of a shared humanity. There is a lyricism and otherworldly element to these stories that is almost Biblical in nature - many of their settings and events will strike the Western reader as utterly foreign, even though the narrators reveal themselves to be very human in their reactions to the people and circumstances they encounter.
Some of the other Goodreads reviews of this book have complained about the lack of a more scholarly, systematic study of jihadist ideology and motivations. But as I have already noted, there is a small but growing field of academic literature that addresses that concern. This book, although driven exclusively by personal narratives and anecdotes, provides a far more accessible set of vignettes about radical Islam as it actually motivates (or fails to motivate) individuals. As a vehicle for educating the American public at large, "Terrorists in Love" is far more useful than something like Brynjar Lia's "Architect of Global Jihad," even if the latter represents a more scholarly approach to radical Islamist ideology. This book is a must-read for the 99.9% of Americans who are not already fully immersed in counterterrorism studies and can be recommended solely on the strength of the intimate stories which the author has faithfully collected and transcribed for a broader audience....more
This book is the best political thriller (of book length) I've ever read, a true story that puts the novelists to shame. Although the prose sometimesThis book is the best political thriller (of book length) I've ever read, a true story that puts the novelists to shame. Although the prose sometimes drags a little and the cascade of names and conflicting stories can be bewildering, the author leads the reader down the rabbit hole into a Guatemalan world of murder, sex, power, and conspiracy. The cast of characters is unforgettable, from the menacing Limas to the erratic Father Mario to the crusading Helen Mack, but the real star of the story is Rueben Chanax, an initially unremarkable figure who could inspire a dozen John le Carre novels. While the writing is not quite up to the level of the best non-fiction writers, Goldman has such incredible material to work with that the minor flaws in presentation are easily overlooked. A must-read....more
After reading this book, I was genuinely shocked that I had never come across a widely published history of this period before. In a time when historiAfter reading this book, I was genuinely shocked that I had never come across a widely published history of this period before. In a time when histories are becoming increasingly narrow and specialized, it is refreshing to find a sweeping account of an era and arena that has not already been memorialized to death.
If not for the first eighty or so pages of this book, I would have given it five stars. The buildup to Malta and Lepanto are quite necessary, but Crowley seems to fall into a no-man's-land of narration: too concise to provide flavor and details about critical moments (the disastrous expedition against Algiers in 1541 gets only two pages, but evidently left quite a mark on Spain) but too long to easily hold the reader's interest between a deluge of foreign names and places. There were times where I really wished the author had provided some more detailed maps of North Africa and the Western Mediterranean.
But when the timeline reaches 1565 and the Ottomans start in on Saint Elmo, Crowley hits his stride. The narration is by turns tragic and absurd, delivered in such detail and color that it captures the violence and chaos of a political world caught between the Middle Ages and the Age of Discovery. The march of time slows enough that the reader can focus on individual leaders and soldiers, and the story develops a striking contrast between the desperate struggle of the men in the field and the anxious state of paralysis in Rome, Madrid, and Istanbul. By the end of the book, the reader has gained a real appreciation for the violence and the subtlety of a massive geopolitical chess match that today has been all but forgotten....more
I picked this book because it was the most lauded of the recent crop of English-language books about the Mexican Cartels. I was not disappointed. I haI picked this book because it was the most lauded of the recent crop of English-language books about the Mexican Cartels. I was not disappointed. I have been following this issue for some time now through both newspaper investigations and more systematic assessments like those at InsightCrime and Small Wars Journal. But while the gruesomeness and the severity of the Mexican DTO problem is nothing new to me, Ioan Grillo highlighted several misconceptions that I had gathered from other (usually reliable sources), the most notable being the fact that the current escalation of cartel violence actually predates Calderon's presidency.
Grillo's extensive amount of time in-country is on display as he deftly shifts his focus from one aspect of this multi-faceted problem to another, moving from the macro to the micro and back again. Never so in the weeds as to become tiresome or redundant, but never so cursory as to leave out important facts and trends, Grillo does an excellent job of putting a modern menace within a political, social, and economic context that stretches back for decades. Better yet, Grillo demonstrates a familiarity with sophisticated analyses (in both English and Spanish) that augment his first-hand observations and provide the reader with a opportunity to learn more from other authors. The result is a book that can offer something for virtually everyone, from the completely uninitiated to the longtime analyst.It addresses one of the most difficult and dangerous problems of our time, and is a must-read due to its accessibility and intelligence....more
A solid primer on a often misunderstood group of power brokers. The author's perspective is that of someone who has spent considerable time on the perA solid primer on a often misunderstood group of power brokers. The author's perspective is that of someone who has spent considerable time on the periphery of the Superclass and has gained access to many of its members over the years. This is a sober and balanced overview that will disappoint readers looking for an anti-elite polemic or a slavish defense of privilege and power.
Reasons why I could have rated this book higher: Terrific access to the subjects, thoughtful attempts to place the current elite within a historical framework, demonstrated willingness to consider costs and benefits of current social arrangments
Reasons why I could have rated this book lower: Analysis and conclusions are not particularly original, author does not offer specific solutions to mitigate the weaknesses of the Superclass...more