James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

James Fallows: Book List

  • Next for Your Reading List: 'Mother Daughter Me'

    A difficult saga, told in elegant and upbeat style.

    HafnerBook.jpgThe reading public knows Katie Hafner for the technology-and-society stories she has written through the years in the New York Times and elsewhere -- or for her books, the previous one of which was A Romance on Three Legs, an elegant examination of Glenn Gould through the tale of his search for the perfect piano. I have been fortunate also to know her as a friend. A dozen years ago, when my wife and I were living in Berkeley, Katie and I co-taught a course on article-writing at the UC Berkeley Journalism School, which was having a great run under the deanship of Orville Schell. Our families have stayed in touch since then. (And, you're right, it was just a week ago that I was recommending a book by Orville Schell and John Delury.)

    I say all this to acknowledge that I started reading Mother Daughter Me out of comradely solidarity but sped through to the end with an increasing sense of fascination, admiration, and engrossed wonder at tale she has laid out. If reduced to a plain list of facts, Katie Hafner's experiences might seem unendurably traumatic and harsh. As a child she was bounced from home to home and school to school, mainly because of her mother's alcoholism. As an adult daughter, wife, sister, and mother she withstood a long series of shocks any one of which on its own would tempt most people to self-pity. Yet her tone as memoirist is not quite chipper, which would imply self-delusion, but resolutely upbeat and hopeful, plus beautifully observed. Through all the tragedies and challenges she remained fully functional in her journalistic life and as sole parent for her now-college-aged daughter. 

    For more on the details of the book and Katie Hafner's adventures, I refer you to this NY Times  article about the book, under the headline "The Best Memoir I've Read This Year." Below, in a video from her site, she answers some questions about the book. I think you will find it a memorable read. 

  • For Your China Reading List: 'Wealth and Power'

    What does China want? What is all this growth for? An approximation of the answer.


    You could have a long debate on whether we're in anything like a Golden Age for China itself. But beyond debate it is a golden age of writing about China, and therefore of things to read. There are overviews; universe-in-the-particular microcosmic accounts; memoirs; novels; long-suppressed histories; Chinese literature in translation; foreign-language accounts, more in English than in any other language.

    You hardly need make an actual visit to the country! Although of course you should. Here's the latest entry in the golden-age chronicles: Wealth and Power: China's Long March to the Twenty-First Century, by Orville Schell and John Delury. 

    I'm biased, in that one of the authors, Orville Schell, is a long-time colleague and close friend. But until this evening -- when the two of them, with another friend, Evan Osnos of the New Yorker, did an event at Politics & Prose in Washington -- I had not met his co-author, John Delury. And even if I'd never heard of anyone involved with the book, I'd suggest you read it if you're at all interested in China. It's both historical and current, and it does a better job than most other books of answering a basic question the rest of the world naturally asks about China's recent rise: What does China want? (Granting the preposterousness of this question, as applied to a diverse group of a billion-plus people.) What is all the building and bustle and sacrifice and preening for

    You may not be certain of the answer to that question by the time you finish the book, but you'll be in very good position to discuss it. Also, you can hear the authors tomorrow morning (as I write), 11am EDT July 18, talking about the book on the Diane Rehm show

    Update: My friend Christina Larson has a nice examination on the trend of translated books back and forth between China and the Western world.

  • Book Tip: 'The Insurgents'

    Forget "the sequester"; this is a book that will help you understand our defense mess.

    Insurgents.jpgIn the new issue of the American Prospect, available online now (but subscribe!), I have a long review of Fred Kaplan's book The Insurgents

    Short version: this is a good and important book that you should read.

    Medium version: see the review itself.

    Full version: check out the book.

    Here is a sample of the argument:
    Kaplan describes how the COIN [counter-insurgency] approach eventually "succeeded" in Iraq, by which he means that it bought enough stability to allow American forces to withdraw in something other than outright retreat. In Afghanistan it has failed even that modest test; indeed, Kaplan argues, the comparative successes in Iraq lured the U.S military, especially [Gen. Stanley] McChrystal, into attempting the impossible in Afghanistan. The government in Kabul was even more corrupt and less legitimate than the one in Baghdad; Afghanistan had a far weaker tradition of centralized control of any sort than what Saddam Hussein, for better and worse, had brought to Iraq. Kaplan summarizes Australian strategist David Kilcullen on the paradox that doomed U.S. efforts in Afghanistan:
    Reduced to a syllogism, his argument went like this: we shouldn't engage in counterinsurgency unless the government we're helping is effective and legitimate; a government that needs foreign help to fight an insurgency generally isn't effective or legitimate; therefore, we generally shouldn't engage in counterinsurgency.
    It was a return, 40 years later, to one of the main lessons of Vietnam. By the end of America's war there, our military had gotten much better at a kind of war that it realized it was better off choosing not to fight.
    Explaining ideas through biography is so attractive an approach as often to seem this era's cliché in magazine and book writing. Of course, authors from the time of Herodotus onward have understood the explanatory power of biography, but I date its modern popularity and occasional overuse to the influence of David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest and Robert Caro's The Power Broker, both in the early 1970s, followed by Neil Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie in the 1980s.

    The Insurgents stands out as a particularly effective and legitimate use of this approach, and one whose clarity and drama should extend its audience far beyond the normal defense-policy crowd.
  • Reading Tip: 'The Twenty-Year Death'

    Looking for an absorbing noir read? Here are three books in one.

    I really should have mentioned this in time for the long, book-reading-friendly "festive" period stretching from Thanksgiving to the New Year holidays, but, hey, I was reading the book myself then. And Inauguration Day, MLK Day, Chinese New Year, etc are still ahead, and it's still summer reading period in Australia. So:

    20Year.pngIf you're looking for a good, lengthy, high-end-diversion read, let me suggest The Twenty-Year Death, by Ariel S. Winter. Cover shown at right, when I was reading the book at Thanksgiving time. This is part of the "Hard Case Crime" series that I've discussed over the years, for instance here back in 2008  and here about a year ago. The series is a combination of resurrected noir classics, with 1950s-and-earlier cover art, and original works.

    Twenty-year is in the brand-new category, and is quite a tour de force. It is long because it is actually three novels, with an overlapping set of characters. The first is in the style of Georges Simenon; the second, Raymond Chandler; and the third, the immortal (and amoral*) Jim Thompson. The Simenon story is set in France in 1931, and the Chandler and Thompson episodes in greater L.A., in 1941 and 1951 respectively. For my taste, Winter's evocation of each writer's stye and sensibility becomes steadily more effective as the book goes on, so that by the end the Thompson section could fit right along such bleak classics as The Killer Inside Me. If you're in the mood for this kind of thing, this is the thing to read.

    This is Winter's first novel. Keep writing!
    * For later discussion: Why I am drawn to the noir writers who portray amoral-and-worse characters from the inside, ranging from Thompson to Patricia Highsmith to Gillian Flynn of Gone Girl. Hmm, maybe this is a question I should not ask.

  • 3 Good Though Dissimilar Books

    What to read on China, California, and the Americas

    What these have in common is only that I've read them recently and think they're good.


    From the left:

    China in Ten Words, by Yu Hua. The author is celebrated/controversial in China for his novels of the Cultural Revolution era and beyond, notably To Live and Brothers. This new book is an outstanding set of essays on the general topic of why modern China is the way it is, each essay centered on a Chinese word or phrase. Jeffrey Wasserstrom of UC Irvine has an extended appreciation in the LA Review of Books. Very much worth reading.

    Palms to Peaks, the Art of Janet Edwards. The author/artist is a designer and painter of California scenes, based in my hometown of Redlands, California. Wherever my family has lived over the years, we have had prints of her mountain, desert, and orange-grove scenes around the house, as evocations of the southland. ESRI, the main tech business of that area, has now put out a gift-book-style album of her works. I did a back-cover blurb for the book, but that is a sign of the sincerity of my admiration.

    The North American Idea, by Robert Pastor. The author has been a friend since we were underlings together in the Carter Administration. At the time, he was a specialist in inter-American affairs on the National Security Council. In the years since, as an academic, he has worked on, among other causes, political, commercial, and strategic efforts to make America's position in The Americas a strength, rather than a mere circumstance or an active nuisance. This book knits together his arguments on that theme and is a worthwhile counter the next time you hear about building an electrified fence, plus alligator-moat, to separate ourselves from our neighbors. We're all used to the "Asian model" and the "European Idea"; this offers a counterpart for our hemisphere. 

    Gift season is at hand!
  • Looking for U.S.-Pak Background Reading? Try 'Bloodmoney'

    A roman a clef, about the news of the day

    Bloodmoney.jpgYes, yes, you should read all the first-rate newspaper and journal and online entries you can find about the tangled relationships among the United States, Pakistan, the CIA, Pakistan's ISI, the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Tehrik-i Taliban in Pakistan, et cetera.

    But if you would like to see those same themes explored in a very accomplished spy thriller, look for Bloodmoney, by David Ignatius, whose official publication date is a few weeks away but which, if the publisher has its wits about it, should be hustling toward the bookstores at this instant. Ignatius (disclosure: a longtime friend of mine, who doesn't know I am writing this, or even that I've read this book) has in his day-job incarnation been a reporter, editor, and in recent years a columnist for the Washington Post. He has also over the past quarter-century written what is now quite a long series of elegant spy fiction. To mention only a few of the best known: Agents of Innocence, his first; Body of Lies, made into a Leonardo DiCaprio-Russell Crowe-Ridley Scott movie; and the recent The Increment, which assumed great roman a clef significance when news of the Stuxnet virus and its effect on Iran's nuclear program was revealed.

    This new book is not about the hunt for bin Laden. But a lot of it is set in Pakistan, and all of it concerns the ways in which the Pakistani and American intelligence services trust and mistrust each other -- and the things they conceal, reveal, and misleadingly disclose. When writing the book Ignatius could not have guessed the way the news of this week would heighten interest in exactly that relationship. But it has, and you won't regret spending time with Bloodmoney.
  • 'It Happened on the Way to War': An Inspiring Story

    Discouraged about the Greg Mortenson revelations? Here's a more inspiring story.

    If you're depressed by the devastating takedowns of Greg "Three Cups" Mortenson's versions of his exploits and philanthropy in Afghanistan, two days ago by the Los Angeles Times and tonight on 60 Minutes, here's something to boost your outlook. Rye Barcott's It Happened on the Way to War: A Marine's Path to Peace, a verified story unlike Mortenson's, is in its own way at least as inspiring as what we had understood Mortenson's to be.

    The video below gives you the basic flavor, with much more info at the site of his charity, Carolina for Kibera. Gist of the story: ten years ago Barcott, then an undergraduate at UNC - Chapel Hill, went to Nairobi on a project as part of his study of Africa and Swahili. He was in the city's huge slum, Kibera, and formed a close connection with people there -- especially a nurse and a community-organizer. They conceived a plan of creating a community-development organization to promote schooling, sports, medical care, and general uplift for children and families in Kibera. On return to North Carolina Barcott began raising money for this Carolina for Kibera project.

    But Barcott, whose father had been a combat Marine in Vietnam, had wanted to "serve his country" and had gone to UNC on a Naval ROTC scholarship. His last year in college was a mix of Kenya-related and ROTC activities, and after graduation in 2001 his active service as a Marine began. He was in the Basic School at Quantico during the 9/11 attacks, and over the next five years he served in Bosnia, the Horn of Africa, and finally Iraq. He left as a captain in 2006, having been an ABC News "Person of the Week" that year. He went back for MBA and MPA degrees and now works in North Carolina for Duke Energy company -- by coincidence the same one I mentioned in my story on clean-coal projects in China -- directing sustainability projects.

    It Happened on the Way to War from Center for Global Initiatives on Vimeo.

    There is more at the site and of course in the book -- which is detailed, vivid, earnest, and remarkable in rendering with equal intensity his interactions with poor children in Nairobi and his experiences at OCS or on patrol in Fallujah. I was struck by its epigraph, which is also the slogan of Carolina for Kibera: "Talent is universal; opportunity is not." That is one of the clearest lessons of my own experience around the world over the years. It is heartening, in the current political mood, that a young, talented, ambitious American would choose that as the theme he wanted to stress.

    It is an interesting book, which has just been published, and an encouraging story. Check it out.

  • 'Best Book' Fiesta

    It's that time of year: Best Book lists!

    I generally dread year-end lists of anything, but the worthiness of the book business makes me happy to pitch in on "best book of the year" compendia. In my enthusiasm, I've contributed to three such lists:

    - The Atlantic's "Best Book I Read This Year" slideshow feature, here. Happily I've already read many of the books recommended by my colleagues, but I'm starting on the ones I haven't, beginning with James Gibney's nominee, The White Tiger.

    - Foreign Affairs recently compiled a list of suggested books for the years ahead; I weighed in with a bunch, all of which I heartily endorse.

    - Today Salon had its list too, for which I recommended a book that one of my colleagues picked for the Atlantic list. The last one I mention here is my sentimental favorite of all the year's offerings.

    Read 'em all! Enjoy.    

  • Reading List

    Reading tips from Foreign Affairs

    For the year-end issue of Foreign Affairs, also the last one under the editorship of James Hoge, its staff asked a number of people to recommend a book to put on a "Reading List for the 21st Century." I couldn't help myself and recommended a whole bunch. My own reading list is here -- and you have to scroll down to see them all, ending with the Rosales novels of the wonderful F. Sionil Jose. The all-hands compendium of suggestions is here.


    I felt especially serious and worldly when I found that Richard Holbrooke had also chosen one of the books on my mini-list: David Fromkin's A Peace to End All Peace! (At right.) Surprisingly enough, another international worthy had a different recommendation from mine. If you're short on reading material, browse around.

  • Karl Marlantes on C-Span

    A good interview about a very good book

    I've mentioned several times my enthusiasm for Matterhorn, a novel of Vietnam by my long-ago grad-school friend Karl Marlantes. I caught him on CSpan just now, in an hour-long interview you can see here. I don't think the interviewer (Ralph Peters) is likely to replace, say, Terry Gross as an interlocutor  -- Larry King, maybe! --  but Karl Marlantes himself is impressive and charming. Worth watching. (Screen shot below; no embedded video available.)


  • Just a Thought for the To-Read List: 'Dreaming' Comes to America

    Here's a good book to read—if I do say so myself

    A few months ago, I generously offered advice for those who found themselves in the UK and were looking for something interesting to read. Now I can extend this service to readers in the Western Hemisphere! Dreaming in Chinese is coming to America, and starting this summer you will be able to get it here.


    As mentioned the first time around, it is conceivable that I am biased about this book (by my wife). But you can read testimonials from slightly more arm's-length sources here. Just a thought...

    That is all. Until the book moves on to some new continent and needs its arrival there announced.
  • Two Recommendations

    Worthwhile reading, from the newsstand and the book store

    1) Usually when I mention an item in a new issue of The Atlantic, I make sure to add "subscribe!" Half schtick, half serious - and the remaining half serious too. This month, I'll say for variety: check out the newsstand version of our May issue. 

    This issue is about twice as fat as normal because in addition to the "regular" contents it has our annual Fiction issue with several powerful short stories, plus an essay by Joyce Carol Oates and an interview with Paul Theroux. I won't go through the whole lineup but will just say that the three feature-length "well" pieces in the issue really deserve attention for their variety of narrative and reportorial strengths. Marc Ambinder's personal-and-policy account of what it might take to deal with America's obesity epidemic, David Freed's whodunnit about the very public persecution of an unlovable but innocent man, and Howard French's vivid and original analysis of what China's new form of non-gunboat colonialism will mean in Africa -- these are illustrations of what journalism can do. I am never objective about the Atlantic, but I can be more or less arm's-length about this issue because I don't have an article in it. Check it out.

    2) I mentioned several weeks ago that when I met Karl Marlantes in graduate school in the early 1970s, he was talking about his recent service as a Marine in Vietnam and his intention to write about it some day. Through most of the intervening years, he has been working on his novel, Matterhorn.


    It's a long book, which I have read obsessively this past week. It is truly a magnificent work.

    As almost every review has mentioned, the book's first few pages are somewhat labored, introducing a cast of characters (who after first mention are last-name-only through the rest of the book) and doing organizational setup. They do not suggest the narrative velocity and emotional and moral richness of what comes after that. I predict that if you get twenty pages in -- to roughly the episode with the unfortunate Marine named Fisher and the leech -- you will want to keep on until the ending, 500-plus pages later. 

    This is certainly one of the most powerful and moving novels ever written about Vietnam, and its description of combat rivals anything I have read on the topic -- by Erich Maria Remarque, Norman Mailer, James Jones, James Webb, John Keegan, Paul Fussell, anyone. I've mentioned before that my personal test for the quality of fiction is whether I find myself remembering a book -- characters, scenes, choices -- months or years after I've put the book down. I expect to remember this one.

    Matterhorn is in a strict sense apolitical but can be read as a complete indictment of the Vietnam War in concept and execution (the action concerns the taking, abandonment, and devastatingly bloody re-taking of a hill that doesn't matter to either side) -- and also as the most moving description of heroism and sacrifice by men at arms. It richly deserves the acclaim it is receiving.
  • Congratulations to Liaquat Ahamed and Gene Weingarten

    The Pulitzer committee makes some good choices with its awards this year

    The Pulitzer prizes, like most professional awards, are a real grab-bag by any real-world standard of merit. Half the awards make you think, "Of course!" The other half, "Huh???"

    The choice today of Liaquat Ahamed's Lords of Finance as the prize winner in history was resoundingly in the "of course!" and "well deserved!" categories. I mentioned my enthusiasm for the book a year ago here. Probably more important is the sample mentioned here of the luminous and vivid explanation that makes the book such a success. As a reminder (quoting myself):

    As the world financial crisis spread after the 1929 stock market crash, the flow of gold became highly unbalanced. The United States, with its undamaged industrial-export base (and its determination to collect on wartime loans to the Allies) was piling up gold. So were the French, for various reasons of their own. This meant big trouble most of all for England, which was losing gold and therefore had to imposes a domestic credit squeeze. You could put it that way -- or you could write this:

    "Unknown to most people, much of the gold that had supposedly flown into France was actually sitting in London. Bullion was so heavy -- a seventeen-inch cube weighs about a ton -- that instead of shipping crates of it across hundreds of miles from one country to another and paying high insurance costs, central banks had taken to 'earmarking' the metal, that is, keeping it in the same vault but simply re-registering its ownership. Thus the decline in Britain's gold reserves and their accumulation in France and the United States was accomplished by a group of men descending into the vaults of the Bank of England, loading some bars of bullion onto a low wooden truck with small rubber tires, trundling them thirty feet across the room to the other wall, and offloading them, though not before attaching some white name tags indicating that the gold now belonged to the Banque de France or the Federal Reserve Bank. That the world was being subjected to a progressively tightening squeeze on credit just because there happened to be too much gold on one side of the vault and not enough on the other provoked Lord d'Abernon, Britain's ambassador to Germany after the war [WW I] and now [1930s] an elder statesman-economist, to exclaim, 'This depression is the stupidest and most gratuitous in history.' "
    This paragraph is from Liaquat Ahamed's Lords of Finance, recommended here previously. There are many touches I love in this passage, from the "small rubber tires" detail and mot juste "trundling" term, to the vivid real-world description of how grand policies worked in practice, to the perfectly used quote at the end. No larger point here; just worth noticing admirable examples of explaining the world.

    Well deserved, author. Good choice, prize committee!
    UPDATE: I have just seen that the prize for feature writing went to Gene Weingarten, for an article in the Washington Post magazine. As I have mentioned before in footnotes here and here, this is the most haunting and, in its way, horrifying magazine article I have ever read. You can find it here. Congratulations is not the right word for a project of this sort. It commands respect.

    And congrats to ProPublica for its prize too.

  • Wrapping Up the Neustadt/Obama Point

    Everyone's talking about Richard Neustadt and his lessons for Barack Obama

    Twice recently, here and here, I discussed whether the Obama Administration's health-care reform victory was likely to spill over into broader or longer-term legislative accomplishment. The obvious maxim to apply here (and I didn't resist!) is from the late Richard Neustadt, in Presidential Power, about success today improving the odds of success tomorrow. This might sound like nothing more than "momentum matters" or "them that has, gets," but it actually is more interesting and complicated in Neustadt's telling.

    Just to round out the point, here are several recent nice references to Neustadt's premises and principles in Obama's age. Michael Nelson, of Rhodes College, has a Chronicle of Higher Education essay here;  and Matthew Dickinson, of Middlebury, has a blog entry here. Three  years ago Dickinson co-edited a book of analyses and appreciations of Neustadt by many of his students and colleagues, here. All of this material is highly recommended and is useful in thinking about the power of our current president.  Cover photo from the 2007 book:


  • A Book to Buy: Matterhorn (updated)

    A universally-praised new book about Vietnam, nearly a lifetime in the making.

    A look just now at the preview of Sebastian Junger's rave review in this Sunday's NYT Book Review filled me with happiness, comradely pride, anticipation, and a note of chagrin. The review is of Matterhorn, a new novel of the Vietnam war, by Karl Marlantes (below), which Mark Bowden of the Atlantic had also extolled in a special Amazon commentary. ("There are passages in this book that are as good as anything I have ever read," etc.) Junger's version is that the book may be "one of the most profound and devastating novels ever to come out of Vietnam -- or any war."  The author:


    The book:


    Happiness, because of the appearance of what is by all reports a great new book. Comradely pride that a project now more than 40 years in gestation has come to such a successful conclusion. Marlantes, who was from a tiny coastal town in Oregon, had gone to Yale in the mid-60s and then to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, in the class just before Bill Clinton's. He left to join the Marines and saw intense combat in Vietnam. His citation for the Navy Cross is here. He then went back to Oxford in the early 1970s. I met him there, where he tried to explain what he had seen to those of us who hadn't - and had mainly opposed the war. He said he knew he would have to write the story out. Eight* U.S. presidents have come and gone, socialist Vietnam is increasingly hard to tell from a capitalist bazaar; and now Karl Marlantes has finished and apparently perfected his book. This kind of long-run saga does not always turn out so well.

    My anticipation is of course to see what is in the book. The note of chagrin? I actually have a copy of the book at home but had not yet started reading it -- and didn't bring it with me on a current long trip. Drat. But -- ahah! -- I see that it's available on Kindle! [Thirty seconds later:] I see the first page now.

    UPDATE: A good interview of Marlantes with Steve Scher of KUOW in Seattle, here. Among other things it clearly conveys his affability and good humor.
    * OK, we're on our eighth US president during Marlantes' time with the book, from Nixon through Obama. But since one of them is still in place, it's not quite right that eight have come and gone. Still, it's been a long time. Also, pending the time that our "category" feature is revived and I can link to others in the "Book List" series, I'll give a gentle reminder for this book.


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming



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