Books

Fumblerooski

Is it too soon to pronounce Obama an economic failure? A different take on The Escape Artists.

The sophisticated political observer doesn’t need public opinion polls to weigh the odds of President Obama’s re-election. Economic indicators drive voters, and if the president and his party come up short in November, the recriminations won’t be aimed at campaign headquarters in Chicago but at the staffers and wonks tasked with turning around the American economy. The Escape Artists: How Obama’s Team Fumbled the Recovery , provides just that opportunity. Noam Scheiber, an editor at The New Republic , susses out the Obama administration’s most important internal debates to find exactly where the supposed dream team of economic wonks failed. As a fair account of opportunities missed, the book is exceptional. As an explanation of our current economic woes, it suffers from a perhaps unavoidable bias: A book so focused on the actions inside the Treasury building and White House can’t help but elide the factors that pop up outside the policymaking bubble. Those factors, including key...

Obama's Squandered Recovery

In The Escape Artists, Noam Scheiber depicts a White House out of its depth on the financial crisis.

The Escape Artists: How Obama's Team Fumbled the Recovery . By Noam Scheiber, Simon & Schuster, 351 pages, $28.00. A guy I know told me a story. He had a friend who was working on the 55th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center on that terrible day. When the plane hit the North Tower, everybody in the office understandably got very worried. When the plane hit the South Tower, people were going crazy. But the authorities on the floor—calm, experienced—told them not to panic. The guy’s friend thought to himself, “Fuck this, we’re all going to die," and raced downstairs, exiting the building right before it collapsed. I thought of that story when reading Noam Scheiber’s The Escape Artists, about the economic crisis at the start of Obama’s presidency and the administration’s response. In the book, based upon hundreds of on- and off-the-record interviews with principals and other witnesses to the events described, Obama and his top economic and political staff emerge as, to...

Burying Camelot

Mimi Alford's memoir marks the end of America's Kennedy fetish.

(Bettmann/Corbis/AP Images)
The publication last month of onetime JFK mistress Mimi Alford's Once Upon a Secret: My Affair With President John F. Kennedy and Its Aftermath provoked a variety of reactions. I wonder how many people shared mine, which was, "Bon voyage." Why? Because I figure Alford's book almost has to be The End. The torch has been passed and then some to a new generation of Americans. Few of its members give much of a damn about presidential peccadilloes half a century old. Barring the discovery of Marilyn Monroe's lost diaries, it's not inconceivable that America is finally done with its Kennedy fetish. As the elderly Tolstoy —or was it Sophocles?—once celebrated the loss of his sex drive, "At last I am freed from a cruel and insane master." There will, needless to say, be other books—most likely, a whole slew of them next year, the 50th anniversary of that day in Dallas. But that's a dimming industry's last hurrah, no longer reflecting any real public craving. Maybe the counsel for the defense...

Watergate Finally Gets Its Novel

Thomas Mallon's new fiction humanizes the ultimate D.C. scandal.

Watergate: A Novel . By Thomas Mallon, Pantheon Books, 448 pages, $26.95. Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life . By Ann Beattie, Scribner, 282 pages, $26.00. T his year will mark the 40th anniversary of the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters by yeggs with White House connections that provoked the Watergate scandal and led to Richard M. Nixon’s resignation as 37th president of the United States. It’s the kind of benchmark that leaves people who lived through those days facing two realizations, fused by the unwelcome recognition that we’re pretty old. Something we experienced is now as dusty as Ginger Rogers in Gold Diggers of 1933 . An event we were convinced would always resonate turned out to be our random turn on the merry-go-round. All sorts of nefariousness later—from Ronald Reagan’s Iran-contra end run around Congress, arguably a worse assault on constitutional niceties, to Bush v. Gore , definitely a grimmer satire of the election process—Watergate’s Queen...

Charles Portis's Guide to the GOP

An obscure book that just might explain the GOP race better than any pundit could

(Flickr/Austin Kleon)
Does today's Republican Party baffle you? Then I can help. A too-little-known book called Masters of Atlantis explains absolutely everything: They're Gnomons. Gnomons, every last one. While this is an inflammatory charge, I don't think I'm being reckless. If Masters of Atlantis can be trusted—and for reasons that will soon be apparent, I see no reason why it shouldn't be—Gnomonism, or Gnomonry, was introduced to the United States soon after World War I by Lamar Jimmerson, an ex-doughboy reared under Indiana's placid blue sky. While serving in France, he came into possession of a rare copy of the Codex Pappus: the only surviving repository of Atlantean wisdom, "committed to the waves on that terrible day when the rumbling began." Swiftly converted from his dabblings in Freemasonry, Jimmerson—whose utter sincerity is in no doubt, by the way—founded the American branch of the Gnomon Society. His proselytizing for Atlantis's teachings won few adherents at first, but Gnomonry's vogue among...

Three Big Tax Lies

And two must-read new books that finally debunk them.

I f the last ten years of debt and jobs destruction have taught us anything, it’s that we must change our tax system and soon, or face economic disaster. Instead of maintaining our infrastructure, we are consuming it. Instead of investing in education and research with an eye to later wealth, we’re cutting our way to a poorer future. Yet concerning taxes, which finance our civilization and distribute the cost, three great lies permeate society, all of which delay our doing what needs to be done. The first lie, with a nod to comedic candidate Jimmy McMillan, is that the tax is just too damn high. The second lie is that if you cut the rates, revenues will increase. The third lie is that taxes have become too complex for even an Einstein to understand. Bruce Bartlett in The Benefit and the Burden and Martin A. Sullivan in Corporate Tax Reform demolish these lies with valuable primers, as complementary in their purpose as an easy chair and a reading lamp. Where ideological groups feed...

Under the Covers, Between the Sheets

With the new translation of the Kama Sutra, it's not all about sex.

(Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition/Malika Favre)
(Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition/Malika Favre) Cover image of A.N.D. Haksar's new translation of the Kama Sutra, illustrated by Malika Favre. S ex sells. If you want to push a product, add a dash of sex appeal. Even Sir Richard Francis Burton and his band of co-translators realized this back in 1883: When they first introduced Vatsyayana’s Kama Sutra to the Western world, they sold it as a sex manual. More than a hundred years later, the publishers at Penguin Books know that not much has changed. Orientalist scholar and Sanskrit translator A.N.D. Haksar’s new interpretation of the 2,000-year-old Indian text allows a fresh opportunity for Penguin to play upon our eroticized beliefs about the Kama Sutra . For this latest incarnation, the publishers hired French graphic designer Malika Favre to create a series of alluring alphabet images for the book’s cover. Each image, composed of a sexually positioned man and woman, forms a letter in the title, such that when you unfold the flaps and...

What It Feels Like to Be Poor

Katherine Boo chronicles the intimate realities of poverty in an Indian slum.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. By Katherine Boo, Random House, 256 pages, $27.00 I n 2004, shortly after winning a MacArthur genius grant for her reporting on poverty as a New Yorker staff writer, an audibly nervous Katherine Boo told an NPR interviewer, “If I have any gifts at all, one of them is invisibility.” She was talking about a quality of her work: the way she strives to witness her subjects’ lives so intimately it can seem as if the subjects don’t know she’s observing them. Boo’s byline itself hasn’t appeared in the magazine since 2009. From November 2007 until last March, she was in Annawadi, a slum near the Mumbai airport. Her tightly woven first book about a core of that neighborhood’s struggling residents, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity , offers a rebuke to official reports and dry statistics on the global poor. “Annawadi sat two hundred yards off the Sahar Airport Road,” Boo writes...

And Then There Was Light, Man

Mimicking a familiar format, Alan Lightman's Mr. g fails to create a unique world.

As an undergraduate student, in order to acquire financial aid, I agreed to take a special first-year seminar called The Creative Process. In the class, we discussed such questions as “What is art?” and, in more concrete form, “Why do we refer to the urinal in the bathroom as simply a place for waste when we call the urinal on the gallery wall a masterpiece?” Halfway through the semester, the professor, a 50-year-old woman with dyed-black, bobbed hair and a necklace that featured a grapefruit-size bust of Jack Skellington, instructed us to consume—to consume —the book Einstein’s Dreams , which, despite its name, was fiction. I did not have high expectations. I could already imagine that the experience was going to be something of a “groovy” ticket to the mother ship. In many ways, I was right. What I hadn’t expected, though, was author Alan Lightman’s uncanny ability to turn psychedelic scientific concepts and abstract philosophy into concrete images and scenes. Which is precisely...

Scarcity Came to Town

Two leading minds on our lean times

Jeff Madrick , the author most recently of Age of Greed: The Triumph of Finance and the Decline of America, 1970 to the Present (Knopf), exchanges questions and ideas with Thomas Byrne Edsall , whose book The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics (Doubleday) is out this week. Madrick : Your book places the current extreme partisanship in its critical economic context. There are cultural and religious conflicts in America, but it is economic scarcity that underlies much of our political paralysis. Is that so—scarcity lately more than culture? And scarcity has tended to favor conservatives? Edsall : Scarcity trumps culture, but it would be a mistake to view culture and the economy as inhabiting discrete spheres. Diminishing resources tend to push people in a conservative direction by increasing pressure to protect one’s own interests while simultaneously lessening generosity of spirit. Scarcity sharpens survival instincts, leading to a dog-eat-dog worldview that...

Yes, It's "Rape" Rape

Last week I heard two pieces of good news about rape—one local, one national. The local news: While Boston's serious crime reports dropped by 8 percent overall, rape reports spiked by 12 percent, according to police; the rise was especially dramatic in some lower-income sections of the city. So why is that good news? Well, no one believes more rapes occurred—primarily because there was no increase in reported rapes by strangers, which are most likely to be reported but only make up an estimated 20 percent of all rapes. Nope, the good news was that Boston women decided to report it when acquaintances, boyfriends, dates, friends, and family members forced them to have sex. Public-health and criminal-justice statistics folks know that's happening; according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's recently released sexual violence survey , nearly one in five women is raped in her lifetime, and more than one million women are raped each year. Far fewer are reported to police...

International Adoption or Child Trafficking?

Maria Fernanda Alvarado lies at the center of Erin Siegal's true-crime investigation into the Guatemalan adoption system. Photo by Erin Siegal.
Between 1998 and 2008, nearly 30,000 Guatemalan-born children (mostly infants and toddlers) were adopted by U.S. parents. In some years, that meant that an astonishing 1 out of 100 children born in Guatemala was adopted by an American family. For most of that time, everyone but the prospective adoptive parents knew—or in some cases actively chose to “ unknow ”—that the country's international adoption system was a cesspool of corruption and crime, and motivated by money. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and news organizations reported in detail, repeatedly, that the country's babies were systematically being bought, coerced, or even kidnapped away from families that wanted to raise them. But because healthy babies and toddlers kept on coming at a regular pace that kept up with demand in America, and because powerful Guatemalans were getting enormously rich off the baby trade, the system did not shut down until January 1, 2008. Finding Fernanda is a true-crime page-turner about...

Christopher Hitchens, Contradiction

Where did the literary luminary go wrong?

C hristopher Hitchens was never one to refrain from pissing on a fresh grave if the occupant seemed to have earned it. So now, monitoring Google from the afterlife he didn’t believe in, he can’t be surprised at the steady downpour. And surely it’s a watered-down tribute to treat his final decade of polemics as incidental—to insist that, no matter what you thought of them, Hitchens was, after all, a bon vivant and wonderful stylist the likes of which we will not see again. Of course we will. The ability to be witty on TV and meet deadlines while pickled may be rare, but there are always candidates out there practicing. Give it time. No, the most fitting way to mark his passing is to pose about Hitchens the old question inspiring many a debate among radicals about the Russian revolution: At just what point did things go irrevocably bad? Hitchens and I were not friends, really, but we shared certain mutations of the Trotskyist genome—with a particular affinity for the Trinidadian Marxist...

From London, With Angst

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy chronicles the last days of Britain as a superpower.

AP Photo/Matt Sayles
Spying is popularly conceived of as a glamorous line of work. The James Bond, Jason Bourne, and Mission Impossible films are all cocktails, trysts, gunplay in the tropical sun, and evil brought to heel. The audience gleefully absorbs the antics of the hero-spy, a romantic figure who easily escapes the institutional harnesses of his superiors. Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy takes place in a different world. There is no super spy here, just a vision of the claustrophobic, embittered world of the intelligence community and its human cost. Based on the novel by John le Carré, Tinker, Tailor is concerned with the hunt for a Soviet mole who has infiltrated the highest levels of the British intelligence establishment, an agency known at “The Circus”. (Le Carré’s work popularized “mole” as a term for a double agent.) Gary Oldman plays George Smiley, Tinker Tailor ’s rumpled, aging hero. Smiley, enmeshed in a corrupt institution, represents an elite obsessed with perceived...

Life, Monetized

In Deadly Monopolies, Harriet A. Washington asserts that corporations now own life itself.

I n 2010, Rebecca Skloot published The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks , a New York Times bestseller about a poor black woman in the late stages of cancer in 1950s Baltimore whose doctor removed cervical tissue from her without her knowledge. By remaining viable outside of Lacks’s body, the cells became “immortal” and thus quite valuable; scientists using them have been able to pursue research that would have been unimaginable beforehand, leading to achievements such as the polio vaccine and advances against cancer and Parkinson’s disease. Skloot’s book captivated readers by revealing the story of exploitation behind the development of what have become known as “HeLa cells.” Similar episodes of scientific advancement on the backs of vulnerable subjects have been exposed before, from J. Marion Sims’s gruesome mid-19th-century experiments on black slaves that laid the groundwork for the modern field of gynecology to recently uncovered evidence that in the 1940s, U.S. researchers...

Pages