Books

George Packer's U.S.A.

AP Images/David Samson

In the quest to understand what happened to the U.S. economy since the 2008 meltdown and the recession that followed, the challenge has been figuring out how far back to pull the lens. Early books on the crisis zoomed in on airless rooms occupied by panicked CEOs and government officials during the pathetic last few months of the Bush administration and the beginning of this one. More expansively reported accounts looked at lower-level traders and fly-by-night firms, expanding the scope to recognize a decade of mortgage fraud and exploitation of would-be homeowners and investors, along with the Washington corruption that allowed the profiteers to thrive unpunished.

Rediscovering Albert Hirschman

Resistance fighter. Development economist. Philosopher. A new biography of the thinker who redeemed political economy for liberals. 

Flickr/ecce.lomo

To consider the life story of development economist turned moral philosopher Albert Hirschman is to appreciate that no other generation is likely to accumulate the experience of the European émigrés to America who came of age just before World War II, survived it, and went on to contribute to the political and scholarly foundations of postwar civilization. Of that generation, nobody did so with more range and grace than Hirschman.

Da Gr8 Gatsbee

Nobody's going to mistake Baz Luhrman's adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic for a great movie. But, there's no doubt it's a fun ride.

AP Photo, File

The book will still be around in the morning. That's the best advice I can give anyone appalled by the mere existence of director Baz Luhrman's 3-D, darn near transcendently tasteless screen adaptation of The Great Gatsby—or Da Gr8 Gatsbee, as I've grown fond of calling Luhrman's version.

For once, I find myself almost envying people who've never read Fitzgerald's novel. Free of literacy's inner censure, untroubled by invidious comparisons, they can just let the whole whooshing, clamorous debauch run them over like a fire truck tearing after a burning Christmas tree, emerging dazed but sated. Then again, ex-English major or no, that was pretty much my own reaction.

Sex, Economics, and Austerity

AP Photo

John Maynard Keynes was the sexiest economist who ever lived. This might seem like half-hearted praise since in our mind’s eye the typical economist appears as a dowdy and almost always balding man, full of prudential advice about thrift and the miracle of compound interest. Keynes, with his caterpillar moustache and mesmerizing bedroom eyes, cut a more dashing figure.

He had many lovers of both genders, and was married to one of the great beauties of the age, the ballerina Lydia Lopokova. His genius at playing the stock market allowed him to enjoy the life of bon vivant, socializing with the writers and artists of the Bloomsbury group such as Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster rather than dull number crunchers he knew at Cambridge and in the British Treasury. While other economists focused on maximizing economic growth, Keynes wanted to go further and maximize the pleasures of life.

When Rock Criticism Found Its Voice

A new book charts the intellectual history of the Village Voice's towering rock critics, as well as the community that sprung up around them.

flickr/Doctor Noe

Newly out from University of Massachusetts Press, Devon Powers's Writing The Record: The Village Voice and The Birth of Rock Criticism—which'll cost you a whopping $80 for its 160 pages in hardcover, making the paperback's $22.95 price tag seem almost reasonable—is the first work of intellectual history I know of whose heroes are a couple of guys I used to see around the office during my own tenderfoot days at the paper in question. Don't blame me for both being uncommonly interested and feeling time's icy fingers do the Charleston on the nape of my neck. Reading Rick Perlstein's Nixonland was weird enough; that Perlstein was too young to have any first-hand memories of the Nixon era demanded a certain, how you say, adjustment. Still, it's not as if I used to run into Tricky Dick at the soda machine.

So let's get my personal acquaintance with Powers's two protagonists out of the way. Richard Goldstein, author of the Voice's seminal "Pop Eye" column from 1966 to 1969, is someone I never exchanged more than a few pleasantries with during my later stints at the paper. On the other hand, Robert Christgau, the Voice's rock-crit colossus for almost 40 years until he got the boot in 2006, not only gave me my start as a reviewer but remains a valued friend, albeit one I'm lucky to see once a year. Fortunately, Powers's time frame—mid-'60s to early '70s, with considerable and shrewd preliminary sussing of the Village's history as a bohemian lodestar and the Voice's Ike-era origins—cuts off well before the punk-crazed batch of Voice contributors I belonged to came into the picture.

Country Noir

Flickr/Matt Carman

One spring morning two years ago, a woman left her house—a small white one, its porch overrun by toys and exercise equipment—and dropped off her kids at the Sunman Elementary School. Sunman is a tiny town that spreads across the flat farmland of Southern Indiana. State Road 101 is the main drag, and the woman drove down it, past the IGA with its twin gas pumps, past the Family Dollar, past a bar named Louie’s, until she reached home.

The New Deal That Could Have Been

Courtesy W. W. Norton and Company

Invoking “dysfunction” is now the basic black of punditry about American politics. As the British political theorist David Runciman recently observed in the London Review of Books, “Commentators find it almost impossible to write about American democracy these days without reaching for the word ‘dysfunctional.’” Consider the lowlights of our political culture in just the past 15 years: a puerile impeachment; the subsequent president elected via a Supreme Court filled with political allies; a radicalized Republican Party, convinced that taxation and domestic government spending are a form of socialism; a failure by bipartisan elites even to prioritize, let alone tackle, continued high unemployment and the looming catastrophe of climate change. As Runciman’s editors titled his own essay on America’s lumbering democracy, “How can it work?”

Data Comes to the Culture Wars

A sociologist runs the numbers on charges of liberal campus bias.

flickr / World Bank Photo Collection

Remember the good old days of the early culture wars? Oh, how I wistfully long for the late 1980s and early 1990s, when higher education was under sharp attack. It was then that Allan Bloom called out his colleagues for closing the American mind, and E.D. Hirsch surveyed the scene and wondered where all the cultural literacy had gone. Faculty, graduate students, and liberal defenders of American higher education bristled against these charges, to be sure. Yet this was elevated discourse compared to the knuckle-dragging anti-intellectualism of today’s assaults on the academy.

Sheryl Sandberg’s Can-Do Feminism

AP Photo/Gregory Bull

In 1956, when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg entered Harvard Law School, her class of more than 500 students included nine women and one black man. Erwin Griswold, the school’s dean, summoned the nine women and asked each to answer a question: How could she justify taking a place that would otherwise have gone to a man?

Fear and the New Deal

FDR ascended to the White House 80 years ago. How has his legacy—and the legacy of his landmark legislation—shifted in the years since?

Flickr/squidpickles

In 1942, Congress passed legislation attempting to facilitate voting by soldiers stationed overseas. Passed too close to the date of the general election (and after the primary election season) and creating a cumbersome process, the bill was ineffective. As the number of American soliders overseas continued to increase, the lack of practical access to the ballot was intolerable to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He sent a bill to Congress in 1944 that would have created a simple federal ballot made it much easier for soldiers to make their voices heard. Despite having the authority of a wartime president, however, the bill failed.

Stalked, Virtually

James Lasdun’s memoir on the terrifying frailty of reputation in the Internet era.

Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Our lives rarely turn out the way we plan. Perhaps it’s to counter this pervasive sense of uncertainty that so many people feel compelled to write memoirs of perseverance, reframing the shifts their lives have taken into a sure-footed narrative arc. But confusion is the reigning feeling in James Lasdun’s new memoir Give Me Everything You Have (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). A highly regarded, New York-based British novelist, essayist, and poet, Lasdun writes about being stalked for more than six years, unable to do a thing about it. “I’m not so sure of anything anymore,” Lasdun tells us early on in the book.

Riding Downton's Coattails

HBO's adaptation of Parade's End premieres tonight—too bad the show stole its soapy predecessor's formula but none of the fun.

AP Photo/HBO, Nick Briggs

AP Photo/HBO, Nick Briggs

Social Climate Change

Emily Bazelon's look at how bullying—once known as "kids will be kids"—came to be seen as a crisis.

Flickr/Twentyfour Students

Like all mammals, human beings can be cruel. As we create hierarchies, we use social or physical power to hurt, manipulate, and get what we want. But unlike other mammals, we periodically reconceptualize our cruelties, declaring behaviors that were once acceptable to be crimes against God and humankind. Campaigners transformed slavery, once seen as biblically endorsed, into the sin of sins. Wife-beating and marital rape, once judicious uses of husbandly authority, are now illegal domestic violence. These behaviors continue, of course—we’re still mammals—but they’ve switched categories, from acceptable to punishable.

Goodbye, Petraeus

The general’s gone, but a new book on his big idea is essential for the coming defense debates.

AP Photo/Christopher Berkey

Fred Kaplan’s book is newsworthy, but not in the way you might assume. Kaplan’s years of research and writing for The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War had evidently come to their end shortly before November 9 of last year. On that date, Kaplan’s title character, the retired four-star general and national hero who had been renowned for his advocacy and management of the 2007 troop surge in Iraq and dreamed of by many Republicans as an eventual presidential candidate, resigned as CIA director after the revelation of his affair with a much younger former Army officer, Paula Broadwell.

The Past, Reclaimed from Right-Wing Myth

Now can we get to work saving the future?

Flickr/freshwater2006

The Tea Party’s name was one of its organizers’ most brilliant choices. Furor at George W. Bush’s bank bailouts and Barack Obama’s electoral victory might have taken any number of forms less charged with history. It could have grown into a movement to Stop Paying Your Neighbor’s Mortgage, as CNBC’s Rick Santelli urged in the on-air rant that galvanized rank-and-file conservatives in early 2009. It could have harked back to the property-tax revolts of the late Carter years or to any of the loosely organized right-wing splinter groups from which so many Tea Party organizers were drawn. Some early organizers proposed to call this the Porkulus movement, with pigs’ heads and free government “pork” as its icons rather than the 1775 “Don’t Tread on Me” flags that soon dotted the protest rallies.

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