Monday, March 6, 2017

Books Briefly: Ten Journeys through Time

Even if we pay attention to history's lessons, we may have to repeat some of its mistakes. Still, it does feel more like moving in a spiral than a circle, an evolving cycle as our planet becomes both more interdependent and more unpredictable. 
     The last elections in the US -- featuring the rise of two popular insurgencies, led by Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, two avatars of disruption and change -- appear to have settled little, instead hardening divisions, fueling resentments and spreading widespread anxiety. It feels as if we're living through a unique time. And yet, many of the most gnawing questions do remain the same. 
     Here are ten books that offer some answers.

Dictator, by Robert Harris (2015, Knopf, 385 pages)

How does a republic fall? As retold by Cicero's scribe in the final installment of this remarkable trilogy, it starts with ambition, hubris and endemic corruption. Robert Harris does not downplay Cicero's fatal weaknesses, but also dramatizes some of his greatest triumphs as he struggles to protect Rome, first from Julius Ceasar, and later from Marc Antony and his rival, Ceasar's adopted son Octavian.      
     The writing is vivid and the dialogue surprisingly contemporary. But it's the story itself, of Rome's slow descent into violence and repression, that makes this novel so compelling.

The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire, by Stephen Kinzer (2017, Henry Holt, 320 pages)

Whether praised as "the large policy" or condemned as imperialism, America's expansionist military and economic moves beginning in 1898 transformed the country into an emerging empire. Driving the process was a combination of arrogance, opportunism and conflicting ambitions. 
     In The True Flag, Kinzer sheds fresh light on the Spanish-American War, US occupation of Cuba and annexation of the Philippines, and especially the crucial roles played by war-lover Teddy Roosevelt, anti-imperialist Mark Twain and the equivocating presidential hopeful, William Jennings Bryan.

Unruly Equality: U.S. Anarchism in the Twentieth Century, by Andrew Cornell (2016, University of California, 416 pages) 

This accessible history is long overdue, showcasing the broad and profound influence of anarchist thinking and institutions from the Progressive era to the 1970s. An epilogue updates the story, tracing links to recent developments like Occupy. Even knowledgable readers will discover fresh connections. 
     Cornell illustrates the movement's diversity, from the Modern School to the Diggers, along with the contributions of leading figures like Emma Goldman, Murray Bookchin and David Dellinger.

Mussolini's Italy: Life Under the Fascist Dictatorship, 1915-1945, by Richard J.B. Bosworth (2007, Penquin Books, 736 pages) 

Reading this rich and revealing history of Italy under fascist rule, it was hard not to be reminded of Donald Trump. As Bosworth shows, Mussolini's brand of fascism was powered more by charisma than policies, and also drew from a widespread sense of victimhood that fueled aggression, authoritarian quick fixes, and a desperate yearning to recapture a glorious, yet mythical past. 
     World War II ended the Duce's tyranny, but did not excise fascism's totalitarian approach and mindset. Unfortunately, traces and echoes can be found today in most democracies

Henry Alsberg: The Driving Force of the New Deal Federal Writers' Project, by Susan Rubenstein DeMasi (2016, McFarland, 296 pages) 

This revelatory biography eloquently celebrates the life and legacy of a citizen diplomat and arts pioneer, a real life Don Quixote who championed cultural pluralism, prisoner rights and artistic freedom in tumultuous times. Susan Rubenstein DeMasi combines infectious enthusiasm with thorough research and great storytelling, along the way illuminating Henry Alsberg's road from WWI era journalist, human rights advocate and "intellectual anarchist" to founder/ director of the Federal Writers Project, a New Deal program that transformed America's literary landscape. 
     DeMasi's book is a vital, long-overdue addition to American literary history. 

Hell and Good Company: The Spanish Civil War and the World It Made, by Richard Rhodes (2015, Simon & Shuster, 320 pages) 

An intriguing cultural history. Richard Rhodes brings the Spanish Civil War into fresh focus, with revealing details about the volunteers, doctors, nurses, writers and painters drawn into the confict, poignant stories about life on the front line, and insights on the broader impacts, from medical innovations to memorable art. 

The Sphinx: Franklin Roosevelt, the Isolationists, and the Road to World War II, by Nicholas Wapshott (2014, W.W Norton, 464 pages) 

This fresh and timely exploration of the run up to World War II reveals the roots and pitfalls of American isolationism, debunking myths on both sides of the debate. Especially chilling are revelations about the roles played by Joseph Kennedy, as British ambassador, 1940 presidential aspirant and advocate of German appeasement until 1941, and Charles Lindberg, the famous flyer who turned defeatist, ignored Nazi atrocities, and briefly led the anti-war campaign known as America First.

The Lost City of the Monkey God, by Douglas Preston (2017, Grand Central, 304 pages) 

An extraordinary true adventure packed with insights and thrills. Douglas Preston takes readers on a remarkable archaeological journey across Honduras in search of a long-lost civilization. It's a captivating tale, enriched by Preston's research and vivid story-telling. 
     And even when the explorers -- with the aid of new technology -- finally locate this "lost world," Preston and the others confront new dangers and mysteries. Thrilling and timely.

A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order, by Richard Haass (2017, Penguin, 352 pages)

If you want to know why so many foreign policy experts are worried about a Trump presidency, Richard Haass offers a comprehensive, "insider's" answer. Basically, his message is that global rules and institutions that have kept the world relatively stable since World War II are at risk of being abandoned. Written during the recent presidential race, Haass, who heads the Council on Foreign Relations, makes a convincing case, but avoids a direct critique of Trump, calling instead for continued active engagement (calling it a "sovereign obligation") over narrow nationalism, and mainly reflecting the concerns of the internationalists who have been in control through most of this time.

Insane Clown President: Dispatches from the 2016 Circus, by Matt Taibbi (2017, Spiegel & Grau, 352 pages)

Matt Taibbi's snappy reportage on the race that may end democracy "as we know it" is reminder that it is possible to be both smart and wrong -- sometimes in the same sentence. Like many journalists, he was both fascinated and repulsed by the rise of Trump, yet repeatedly predicted that his victory simply couldn't happen. This campaign "diary" could have been depressing and redundant. But a sense of the absurd, combined with earnest passion that might have embarrassed Hunter Thompson, keep the pages turning right up to the "unbelievable" climax. 

No comments:

Post a Comment