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.
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.
Rebecca Frankel is an editor at Foreign Policy, a friend of our family, and the author of a great new book called War Dogs. Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post, a man who does not lightly distribute praise, gave it a very positive review in the Post this past Sunday ("exceptionally interesting and surprisingly moving"). The NYTBR wrote about the book here, and you can hear her on the Diane Rehm show here.
This evening at 7, I'll be leading a discussion with Rebecca Frankel at the Sixth and I Synagogue in downtown Washington. Tickets are $12, but you get two free tickets with the purchase of one of her books for $26. More details here. I am looking forward to talking with her, and I hope to see you there.
I give the "by friends" disclosure just for the record. I mention these books because, whether or not I'd known their authors, I would think they deserved attention. And I'll mention each as tersely as I can, both so you can discover their virtues for yourself and because if I waited to do "real" writeups I'd probably never get around to it.
1) All Our Yesterdays, by Erik Tarloff. Erik and his wife Laura D'Andrea Tyson were friends of ours when my wife and I lived for a while in their home town of Berkeley, and when they lived for a while in our current home town of DC. Erik has been a successful screenwriter and novelist, plus a correspondent here. Two of my favorites from his oeuvre are Face-Time and The Man Who Wrote the Book.
His newest book is a love story, heartbreak story, mystery story, cultural portrait, and character study set in Berkeley from the late 1960s through the present. It is carried by its dialogue, which I mean as a compliment, and every few pages I marked a sharp observation or witticism I wanted to remember. You will enjoy it.
2) The Dog, by Jack Livings. I don't know this author, but I do have friends involved with the book at its publisher, FSG. The book is a collection of short stories set in contemporary China, featuring people very different from those who usually come to foreign attention. You can get an idea by reading the title short story as published in the Paris Review nine years ago.
I am wary of harping too often on the gulf between the varied, chaotic, contradictory, simultaneously horrible-and-uplifting, vividly human on-scene realities of China, and the simplified view of either an economic juggernaut or a buttoned-up central-control state that necessarily comes through many media filters. But I'll harp on it again, because one of the rewards of this book is the range of vividly human experience its presents. Plus, Jack Livings is a very gifted story-teller.
3) China's Super Consumers: What 1 Billion Customers Want and How to Sell It to Them, by Michael Zakkour. I do know and like Zakkour, whom I met with while in China. His book is worth reading alongside The Dog, because it depicts what seems to be an entirely different universe from the one of Jack Livings's stories, but which in fact coexists within the same national borders.
For all the problems the "Chinese model" is now encountering, for all of the doubt about when the supposedly reformist president Xi Jinping will switch from merely cracking down on dissenters and enemies and start loosening up, hundreds of millions of people inside China are moving onto a different economic plane. This is a business-minded book about some of the ramifications of that change.
4) The Tinderbox Way, by Mark Bernstein. This is an odd entry, in that the book is not new, and my occasion for mentioning is a podcast rather than a physical or electronic book.
Mark Bernstein is the creator of intriguing idea-organizing Mac software called Tinderbox, which I've mentioned over the years. I have never met him but have often corresponded; three years ago, he was a guest blogger here. This week, in a podcast interview for the Sources and Methods site, he talks not so much about his software but about the larger question of how thinking interacts with the tools of the electronic age. If you find the podcast provocative, you might well be interested in the book The Tinderbox Way, which is equal parts guide to Bernstein's Tinderbox program and meditation on the right and wrong approach to "information farming." As you'll gather from the podcast and see in the book, the kind of farming he has in mind is nothing like mega-scale factory farming and very much like an artisanal plot.
Bonus! 5) Also on the "works by friends" theme, please see John Tierney's latest American Futures dispatch, on the surprising new growth industry of, yes, meaderies in an industrial area of Pennsylvania.
Two weeks ago I mentioned five good books that all happened to be by people I knew and that I thought very much deserved attention. As a reminder, three were about China: Louisa Lim's The People's Republic of Amnesia, about the organized forced-forgetting of the Tiananmen Square repression 25 years ago this week; Evan Osnos's Age of Ambition, about the very human (and often humorous) face of China's simultaneous opening-up and closing-down, its idealism and its crassness; and Howard French's China's Second Continent, about the extension of the Chinese model and Chinese vision into Africa. Plus Ken Adelman's Reagan at Reykjavik, which is a vivid backstage view of the meeting that in many ways was the beginning of the end of the Cold War; and Ralph Nader's Unstoppable, on which I am about to say more.
Now, three more good books—actually, two new mentions, plus an augmented description of the Nader book from the earlier list. As was the case previously, these are all by people I know but are books I'd recommend anyway. As a bonus in today's installment, I'm including recent reviews or article that highlight some of these books' strengths.
The Director, by David Ignatius. Newspaper readers know David Ignatius for his columns and reporting from around the world. Book readers know him for a series of elegant spy novels over the past two decades, starting with the wonderful Agents of Innocence and continuing now with The Director. I've known David through both kinds of readings, and as a good friend since our teenage years.
David Ignatius's novels have always been a clef in the best sense: closely connected to, and very revealing and insightful about, the trends and tensions in the news. His previous Bloodmoney, for instance, remains one of the best guides to the moral complexities of drone-era warfare and the future problems America is now thoughtlessly creating for itself. Before that, The Incrementwas about Iran's nuclear ambitions, as seen on the Iranian side as well as in the U.S. His latest book, The Director, is not explicitly about Edward Snowden or the NSA, but it is all about the technological, commercial, governmental, and journalistic world in which that news is unfolding. As well as being the usual page-turning read. On NPR Alan Cheuse had his very positive review here. (Cheuse also covers a spy book based in modern China, Adam Brookes's The Night Heron, which I've bought but not yet read.)
Mad Music: Charles Ives, the Nostalgic Rebel, by Stephen Budiansky. Budiansky, a friend from our time working together at US News, is the closest thing modern nonfiction writing has to a genuine polymath. He was originally trained in chemistry and applied mathematics. His early journalistic work was about science-and-technology policy and national defense. At practically a book-per-year rate over the past 15 years he has produced a series of erudite and entertaining works on topics that range from the psychology of horses (and dogs, and cats), to the science and history of code breaking, to the history and sociology of post-Civil War terrorism in the South, to the evolution of civilian and military air power. He does all this from a small, working farm in Virginia—where, for the record, he and his family were for a while custodians of our late beloved Mike the Cat and his littermate WhiteCap.
Budiansky is also an accomplished musician. His latest book Mad Music, on the eccentric composer Charles Ives, is as effortlessly informed and enlightening as his other works. Here I refer you to two recent positive reviews, one by Jeremy Denk in the NYRB and one by Sudip Bose in the WaPo.
Unstoppable, by Ralph Nader. In my earlier item I mentioned that Nader's latest book was informal, jokey, and positive-spirited in a way that might come as a surprise for many readers. Timothy Noah's recent enthusiastic-but-realistic review in the WaPo is an occasion for stressing one further point about Nader's case.
Since his famous and consequential run for president in 2000 (which, for the record, I opposed), Nader has obviously been identified with an attempt to move beyond our two established parties. Usually we think of a beyond-party movement in a wholly negative sense: These established groups are both so corrupt, there's not a dime's worth of difference between them, and so on. That tone was obviously a notable part of Nader's early runs.
But as Noah's review indicates, the whole premise of Unstoppable is Nader's emphasis on the positive similarities between the parties, and the associated "conservative" and "progressive" sensibilities. He says that there is a lot to like about the small-c conservative nature of American neighborhood life. And there is a lot (he says) that those conservatives should ally with in the "everyone deserves a fair shake" impulse of many "liberal" policies. It's an approach with obvious appeal but with surprisingly few other advocates on the national scene right now. It's worth reading the book if only to see the way he applies this "convergence" sensibility to a range of economic and social issues.
Portion of the cover of the book that has helped keep Random House going. (Wikipedia)
I've long been wary of Amazon, for reasons that have come to a head with its highly publicized struggle with Hachette. This recent Atlantic item by Jeremy Greenfield lays out the stakes well. To summarize:
In the short run, Amazon can argue that it's working purely "in the customer's best interest" by squeezing publishers to agree to its terms. In the longer run, the result will be a further destructive "de-bundling" of the book market and book industry, skewing the supply even more heavily to lower-risk blockbuster books.
How is publishing "bundled"? One example: Over the past few years, the Random House empire has regularly praised heaven for the existence of E.L. James's Fifty Shades saga, which has underwritten a lot of other projects the house has supported. (Say, like this one.) The Amazon-vs.-publishers struggle is a version of the arguments about Wal-Mart's effects—"better" for customers day by day, much worse for traditional downtowns—or about lower-cost, mass-produced fast food. These big questions of measurable efficiency, versus other unmeasurable or longer-term components of social well-being, have been with our country from the start. (I went into them a lot in More Like Us.)
But on the other side, here is a pro-Amazon note from a publisher. The author says that Amazon's radically more efficient business practices have been a boon to him, in his role as a small publisher (of DVDs), compared with traditional retailers or distributors. He writes:
I am seeing the Amazon-ire over Hachette gathering steam in some quarters, and certain I share concerns (Oh wait, I was concerned about this years ago!)
What I am not seeing is anyone talking about the actual dollars and cents, and offer the below as hard data on what our experience is with Amazon and other retailers and distributors....
Like many, perhaps the majority of products on Amazon, our DVDs are sold under Amazon's consignment program. They are branded as Sold by Amazon, but as a matter of how the money actually changes hands, it's a consignment arrangement.
As needed, Amazon sends us a stock up request for various numbers of our various titles. We pay shipping, but we do not pay storage in Amzon's warehouse.
We set the MSRP [Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price], but Amazon sets the discount. Paradoxically(?) the faster a title is selling, the deeper Amazon discounts. My presumption is this is done algorithmically. We've seen our titles discounted anywhere from 0% to ~35%.
Regardless of Amazon's discounting at the end of each month Amazon pays us 45% of MSRP. This is done automatically and a full accounting of sales, monies owed and paid is available online through our consignment retailer interface, which also gives us complete control over the product description and some (but sadly not sufficient) control over the product metadata.
If our DVDs sat on Amazon's warehouse shelves too long Amazon would send them back to us at our cost, but this has never happened. We can also make stock-up requests if we think our inventory at Amazon's warehouse is insufficient to meet upcoming demand.
By comparison, if we were to do business with Baker & Taylor or other "traditional" middlemen they would pay us no more than 40% MSRP, pay invoices in 90-180 days, over order titles and then back-charge us for returns.
In short, Amazon is the best deal going for a small publisher: a better price and better reach than any other options. I make no presumption that Amazon is 'the bad guy" in their dispute with Hachette, or even that there is a bad guy. If Hachette has a better deal somewhere else, they should take it.
I assume that Hachette's retort would be: When certain players become dominant enough, it is cutesy rather than realistic to say "If you don't like our terms, go find a better deal somewhere else." No one else is in a position to offer comparable deals. Of course the history of technology is of "impregnably" dominant figures suddenly being disrupted. Anything anyone says about Amazon was said with 100 times more rancor about Microsoft a mere 15 years ago. This era too will presumably pass; the question is what gets disrupted or eliminated in the meantime.
For now, I'll thank the reader for this side of the story. And I'll note that whenever possible I've been buying and ordering books from independent sellers; ordering electronic versions in the B&N Nook version or another ePub format rather than Amazon Kindle (each sluices into my iPad); and directing book-related links to the author's site, or the publisher's, or some local retailer's, rather than to the Amazon listing. All tiny gestures toward keeping the book-producing infrastructure diverse.
Update A reader writes in with a different experience and interpretation:
Amazon is indeed a wonder and a terror. Our general merchandise (but mostly pool accessories and costumes) business has come to depend on Amazon for approximately 70% of our revenue. Not only has this driven prices (and profits) the rock-bottom, it can become devastating when they change their rules. Several times they have updated the data requirements for product listings without providing enough time for us to comply. The results have been hundreds or thousands of products "hidden" from their marketplace as we put other projects on hold to update these old listings.
There's a lot of money to be made there. But in my experience they have very little regard for their merchants. Their domination of online retail feels very precarious, for them and merchants. But, hey, I guess consumers are able to buy products at 5% over wholesale.
A good side of the writing/journalistic life is that many of your friends end up being people in the business. Well, most of the time that's a good side. It's also the set-up for the news I'm presenting here: the arrival of five books worth your attention, all by people I happen to know. They're books I'd recommend anyway—just as I would urge that you read Ta-Nehisi Coates's new piece even if he weren't a friend and colleague.
As director of U.S. arms-control policy under Ronald Reagan, Kenneth Adelman was on the scene in Reykjavik as Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev held their dramatic talks that, Adelman argues, were the beginning of the end of the Cold War. The line from Reagan intimates and admirers over the years has been that the Gipper, beneath his casual and even befuddled-seeming exterior, was a shrewdly observant strategist. This is the impression conveyed by Phil Hartman's immortal SNL sketch about "Mastermind Reagan." Ken Adelman's view of Reagan is highly admiring (in the view of David Hoffman in the WaPo, too much so), but the book is full of color, details, vignettes, and drama that buttress Adelman's view and made me glad to have read his account. It's also a very useful refresher on a reality now easily forgotten: how stressful and genuinely dangerous those Cold War years were.
The People's Republic of Amnesia, by Louisa Lim. Over the past few years in China, there has always been some "special" circumstance that required an "unusual" tightening of censorship, surveillance, and vigilance against protest. If it's not the "Twin Meetings" it's the visit of a foreign dignitary or an important anniversary. Right now, the increasing tumult and anti-civilian terrorist violence in Xinjiang have further ratcheted up security.
Even without these latest events, China would have been on lockdown for the next few weeks, because of the impending 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests and resulting crackdown, on "May 35th," 1989. (Chinese censors tend to block out references to "June 4," giving rise to the "May 35" workaround.) Louisa Lim—well-known to US listeners for her NPR reports, and a friend and colleague when I lived in Shanghai and Beijing—has revisited the story with an emphasis on the nationwide depth and seriousness of the uprising in 1989—in contrast to what was usually portrayed as a Beijing-centered phenomenon—and the thoroughness of the government's effort to remove it from public memory. That's one more reason it's worth reading as a counterpart to Ta-Nahesi Coates's piece on what's been effaced from American public memory.
Unstoppable, by Ralph Nader. I first met and worked for Nader when I was 19 (and when he was a nationally famous figure in his mid-30s). I have kept in touch with him over the years, even though—like many of his one-time colleagues and supporters—I strongly disagreed with the way he continued his presidential run in 2000 and was at odds with him for a time after that.
Whatever your view of the Ralph Nader of 2000, or the 1960s, or other eras, I think you will be intrigued and impressed by the case and face he is presenting now. In a recent C-Span hour with Brian Lamb, Nader was relaxed and jokey. I will say more in another installment about the parallels between Nader's arguments in this book and the practical-minded successes my wife Deb and I have been seeing and writing about in our recent travels. (Eg, in comparing Burlington, Vermont, and Greenville, South Carolina.)
For now I'll say: at the national level, a pox-on-both-their-houses, all-politicians-are-crooks outlook on politics can be nihilist and destructive. We have two national parties; one or the other is going to hold power; and there are big and growing differences in their values. But at the local and state level, a lot more is possible. So Nader argues, in a book and with a style that I think can broaden his appeal. Also, he's arguing for a right-left convergence to challenge corporate overlordism, something that neither of the major parties is positioned to pull off. Worth checking out.
China's Second Continent, by Howard French. Four years ago in the Atlantic, Howard French—long of the NYT, now of Columbia Journalism School—had a great story about how Chinese interests and the Chinese government were extending their reach into Africa. It was a process that both resembled previous Western imperialism and differed from it—including, importantly, in the absence of gunboats and colonial administrators.
French's new book is on this same theme, and the wonderful aspect about it is its reportorial vividness. "Modern China" can sound boring in the abstract, to say nothing of "Modern China's relations with still-developing powers." But the actual human beings and organizations who make up modern China—with their dreams, their excesses, their dramas, their achievements and failures—are very interesting, and these are the stories French tells on-scene.
Age of Ambition, by Evan Osnos, of the New Yorker. My friends and family are sick of hearing me say that this is the golden age of writing about China—but that's still true, and Evan Osnos's book is another great illustration. It's the golden age because so many foreigners (and Chinese) are prowling around the country and learning about it; because there are so many facets of the country's story to tell; and because so many writers have found ways to make all the big points about the country's past, present, and future through novelistic or picaresque tales or memoirs.
Evan Osnos applies this universal-in-the-particular approach very well in this book. It is wryly funny throughout, laughing with rather than laughing at the absurdities of daily life in China; without being too obvious about the point, it conveys how contradictory and sometimes out-of-control the contending realities in China are; and it gives a clear sense of the mixed nature of China's modern "rise." Plus it's fun to read.
Make allowances, if you will, for the fact that I'm talking about books by my friends. Then, after making the allowances, dig in.
1) You don't often read things in the periodical press and think, people will still want to read this many, many years from now. But I had that feeling when reading Roger Angell's remarkable "Life in the Nineties," in The New Yorker.
Roger Angell has one of the longest and most distinguished writing careers in American letters, but I think this is his very finest work. You have probably heard about it by now. It is extraordinary.
2) Angell is of course best known as a literary-sportswriter. A different kind of sports-and-society work is The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown. This is hardly a darkhorse book, having been a best-seller list perennial since its appearance last year. But it is genuinely interesting on many levels, from the psychology (and physics and sociology and anatomy) of the once wildly popular sport of competitive rowing; to the class tensions and national rivalries in that sport; to the foreboding drama of the 1936 Berlin Olympics; to the particular culture of the Depression-era Pacific Northwest, especially Seattle.
The shot above, from a promotional video for the book, shows (I am pretty sure) boats racing through the Montlake Cut in Seattle. "The Cut" is part of the canal between Lake Washington and the Puget Sound, and it is where the heroes of the tale, the nine-man University of Washington crew, were based. I assume this picture is of that boat, which means that it was taken nearly 80 years ago. The races on the Cut didn't look much different when we watched them while living in Seattle in the early 2000s.
I could say more about the book and its obvious parallels, from The Amateurs to Chariots of Fire to Jesse Owens's story. Instead I'll just say that I'm glad to have read it and think most people will be too.
3) I know John Judis somewhat and respect him greatly. His 1980s biography of William F. Buckley was penetrating and surprisingly sympathetic, given Judis's standing as a man of the Left. (He co-founded the magazine that became Socialist Review and wrote for In These Times.) Soon after George W. Bush became president, Judis and Ruy Teixeira wrote The Emerging Democratic Majority, which made a case that seemed unlikely at the time but almost too obvious now. (In brief: that demographic and educational changes were working powerfully to the Democrats' advantage on the national level.)
John Judis has spent nearly a decade on his new book, Genesis, the story of how Harry Truman decided to throw his and America's weight so strongly behind the creation of Israel. The book also explores what long-term tensions Truman's decisions both resolved and increased. This book has the same careful, deliberate authority, but with an edge, that has characterized Judis's other work. You can read a New Republic excerpt from it here. For instance from that excerpt:
Truman was not a philo-Semite like Balfour or Lloyd George. He was skeptical of the idea that Jews were a chosen people. (“I never thought God picked any favorites,” he wrote in his diary in 1945.) He had the ethnic prejudices of a small town Protestant Midwesterner from Independence, Missouri. He referred to New York City as “kike town” and complained about Jews being “very very` selfish.” But Truman’s prejudice was not exclusive to Jews (he contrasted “wops” as well as “Jews” with “white people”) and did not infect his political views or his friendships with people like Eddie Jacobson, his original business partner in Kansas City. He was, his biographer Alonzo Hamby has written, “the American democrat, insistent on social equality, but suspicious of those who were unlike him.”
There were two aspects of Truman’s upbringing and early political outlook that shaped his view of a Jewish state. Truman grew up in a border state community that had been torn apart by the Civil War. That, undoubtedly, contributed to his skepticism about any arrangement that he thought could lead to civil war. And Truman, like his father, was an old-fashioned Democrat. His political heroes were Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, and he shared Jefferson’s insistence on the separation of church and state. He blamed Europe’s centuries of war on religious disputes, which, he said, “have caused more wars and feuds than money.” That, too, contributed to his skepticism about a Jewish state.
When Truman assumed office in April 1945 after Franklin Roosevelt’s death, he had little knowledge of Palestine and even less of what Roosevelt’s policies in the region had been. What immediately concerned him was what to do about the Jewish refugees, the survivors of the Nazi’s final solution, most of whom were stranded in ramshackle displaced person camps in Central Europe, and some of whom wanted to migrate to Palestine. Truman was deeply sympathetic to the Jews’ plight and defied the British, who still controlled Palestine and were worried about the Arab reaction, by calling for 100,000 Jewish refugees to be let in.
I mention this book both because I learned a lot from it, and because it was the object of a churlish put down on (surprise!) the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal. For instance, and incorrectly, "Genesis reduces [Truman's] tortuous deliberation into a simplistic tale of Jewish bullying."
Unsavory Elements is a new book of reflections, tales, and memoirs of China by 28 foreigners who have lived there. It's edited by Tom Carter, and among the contributors is my wife Deb, known to the reading public for Dreaming in Chinese and imaginatively but more or less realistically portrayed in the cartoon above. See if you can pick her out. I feel fully entitled to reprint the cartoon, since I bought a color original from the artist.
Starting at 8am Eastern time on December 6, the Unsavory authors and their editor Tom Carter will be doing a 24-hour-long AMA on Reddit. You can find a Facebook description of the event here; an Atlantic interview of Carter by Matt Schiavenza here; another Q&A with him here; a list of the contributors' books here; and a link to Reddit Books, which will host the chat, here. I can think of a few questions I would like to ask one of the contributors.
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.
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:
If 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.
Clive Crook has written a wonderful appreciation of Dreaming in Chinese, by Deborah Fallows, who for this and many other reasons I am delighted to say is my wife. The book has received a lot of positive reviews, but I think Clive comes closer than anyone else to capturing its spirit and value. Check it out -- Clive's item, and the book.
I am also grateful to Ian Johnson and Jeffrey Wasserstrom, themselves the authors of a number of very valuable books about China (and, in Johnson's case, on Europe-and-Islam as well), for a year-end wrapup of books about China, at the Asia Society's site. Their discussion of the books they're considering, whose covers are shown in the collage below, makes me want to get and read the two I haven't already seen. And of course I am grateful that they include China Airborne in their list (and for Johnson's previous article about it in the NY Review of Books).
My favorite nonfiction book this year has been James Fallows's "China Airborne." On the surface it's about aviation in China, but it's also one of the best books on China ever, one of the best books on industrial organization in years, and an excellent treatment of economic growth. It's also readable and fun.
The greatness of Tyler Cowen knows no limits. But you'd probably want to check it out for yourself. See you in Boston/Cambridge.
1) Kill Decision, by Daniel Suarez. Over the months Atlantic writers have considered how much less attractive military-drone technology will seem, from the American perspective, when it is no longer a U.S. monopoly. See installments by Steve Clemons, Robert Wright, and me, including allusions to David Ignatius's novel Bloodmoney.
In Ignatius's book, drones were an incidental motivating factor. In Daniel Suarez's Kill Decision, they are the center of the action. Timely, cautionary -- and of course very interesting.
Lofgren is a long-time Congressional staff member, recently retired, whom I have quoted frequently in this space. His new book, which came out just last week, is an expansion of the jeremiad from him that I discussed last year. For a gloss on his topic and appropriately sympathetic book review, see this essay by my friend (and also Lofgren's) Chuck Spinney in Counterpunch. Also this essay by Kelley Vlahos in The American Conservative.
3) "7 Reasons Why Israel Should Not Attack Iran's Nuclear Facilities," by the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, over the weekend on our site. I have one percent as many contacts in Israel as Jeff Goldberg does, but even I have started getting messages from friends there saying that the bomb-Iran drumbeat is reaching new intensity.
From the start, the main problem I have had believing that the Netanyahu team could be serious about these threats is that a bombing attack on Iran would be so recklessly self-defeating, above all for Israel. Goldberg's item lays out the self-defeating aspects systematically and convincingly. Let's hope they are convincing to the audience that matters within the Israeli government.
Stay tuned for Part II, with a China theme, this evening (or when I get to it).
The item posted a few minutes ago on this site, which is part of the 'China Takes Off' special coverage we are featuring this month, is drawn from the introduction to my book China Airborne, whose official pub date is a week from today. Also: the current issue of Popular Science has a nice (in my view) excerpt from the book describing how China is planning to cope with the environmental consequences of its aerospace boom.
A few words to put this excerpt in context. It describes my wild-and-woolly first encounter with the world of small-plane flight in China, soon after I moved there in 2006. The larger point of the book is to ask whether the whole roiling, exciting, fast-changing, uncontrollable Chinese "miracle" of the past generation will lead the country to a further level of technological and economic sophistication -- or limits of various sorts are now coming into view. That is, it's a "China Takes Off" question. This section gives a glimpse of an area where China's government strategists and individual visionaries (and boosters and idealists) are trying hardest, and fastest, to remake their country's fortunes -- and their own.
A word to aviators: the last part of this excerpt describes how Peter Claeys, my friend who was "pilot in command" for this flight, and I reacted when the instrument-landing beam at Zhuhai airport momentarily failed. I have deliberately put the description in slow-mo terms. In reality, no more than two or three seconds passed between an indication of trouble and our glimpse through the clouds. Claeys's hand was on the throttle instants away from pushing it full-forward for the "go missed" procedure. But three seconds of chronological time felt like about ten years of emotional time, which is why I have described it the way I did.
Now, to the photos. I mentioned that we had some trouble finding "AvGas" to get the plane fueled in the first place. This is the kind of thing I had in mind. This is an actual photo of refueling the plane at the Changsha airport, about an hour before we took off. That's Claeys in the truck along with staff members of the Broad Air Conditioning company. I explain in the book why the Broad people were involved.
Here is how it looked when the same plane was being refueled in Japan, on another trip I took with Claeys.
As I explained several years ago, the two photos reminded me that Japan was all about the way of doing things, and China is all about finding a way to do things.
In the excerpt I describe the three "souls aboard" on this eventful but turned-out-fine flight: Peter Claeys, our Chinese friend Walter Wang, and me. Here we are, in grateful mood after landing at Zhuhai -- from left, it's Claeys, Wang, Fallows:
This excerpt talks about a famous Chinese female aviator and business woman, Chen Yan. We spent the evening in her "Blue Angel" bistro in Zhuhai, whose walls bear many photos of her, like this one:
And the point of this trip was to get the little Cirrus SR-22 in which we were flying to the Zhuhai Air Show, where producers and purchasers from around the world gather to display and inspect their wares. The vast expanse of the Zhuhai runway and ramp area, barely used most of the year, is during the air show covered with aircraft large and small. If you look really hard, you can see the same Cirrus SR-22 in which we had been flying nestled beneath the tail of this gigantic Russian airplane.
The excerpt also talks about the "booth babes" who were a notable feature of the Zhuhai air show. I have some pictures of them, too, but for another time.
This is a trifecta! I'm able to knit together three previous contacts and/or themes.
#1: Patrick Anderson, who was long ago my mentor/boss on the Carter '76 campaign team, and who since then has been a book writer and regular book reviewer for the Washington Post.
#2: The late Donald Westlake, a master of the comedic crime novel who was so prolific that he adopted a whole slew of pen names, much as Michael Crichton did, to avoid possible recoil at the sheer quantity of his (nonetheless very good) work. Previous mention here.
#1 -> #2 -> #3 harmonic convergence triple play: Two days ago in the Washington Post, AndersonreviewedThe Comedy is Finished, a recently discovered book by Westlake, that is coming out under Ardai's Hard Case imprint. (The book also has one of Hard Case's trademark 1950s pulp-look covers, at right. Another example is below -- from a book by Ardai himself under his alias, Aleas.) I would be a fool to ignore this combination of auguries, so I've ordered the book. Will check in with results.
There's a lot of politicking still ahead of us, so to pace myself I need a break from insights about the Live Free or Die state and whether it will support a "Santorum surge," and so on. In case you're in a similar mood, here is a tip for enjoyable political reading this weekend:
You can go to your local bookstore, should one quaintly still exist, or look online for Walter Shapiro's One-Car Caravan, his idiosyncratic and entirely charming report on the early stages of the 2004 presidential campaign. The book's publication date is 2003, which is a clue to what is unusual in its approach. Walter Shapiro (disclosure: a long-time friend) began covering the field of Democratic aspirants two years before the election, in 2002. At the time, John Kerry, John Edwards, Howard Dean, Dick Gephardt, et al had no media pools following them and were meeting potential supporters and donors in groups of two or three. Walter traipsed around the country with them, and his resulting report has the kind of timeless texture and insight about politics that you also find in the (better-known and much longer) What It Takes, Richard Ben Cramer's wonderful account of the 1988 campaign.
It is also a sympathetic and human book, in an enriching rather than a sappy way. One of the surprises of the book is how much Walter Shapiro ends up, yes, liking John Kerry, against Shapiro's own anti-snob instincts and contrary to the well-established image of Kerry as a stiff. He makes Kerry likable to the reader, too -- maybe the DNC should have thought of airdropping the book over Ohio in 2004. The book also has this to say about the process we're now living through:
As a political reporter, I am prepared to offer a spirited defense of New Hampshire's outsized role in presidential politics. Nowhere else in the nation do voters display such fidelity to old-fashioned civic obligations.... New Hampshire may be a living monument to participatory democracy, but what in God's name is the justification for making the Iowa caucuses the campaign equivalent of the book of Genesis?
He goes on to explain his complaint about what the Iowa caucuses have done to politics, journalism, and American life. I am biased in Walter Shapiro's favor. He and I started out at the Washington Monthly together back in the Watergate era, and just after Walter's own quixotic attempt as a 25-year-old to unseat an incumbent Republican congressman in Michigan. But you don't have to know him to find this book enjoyable and still-relevant. Check it out.