Current Affairs December 2006

Cover to Cover

A guide to additional releases
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CURRENT AFFAIRS

Off the Books
by Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh (Harvard)
A sociologist examines the underground economy of a poor Chicago neighborhood and discovers a thriving system of licit and illicit exchange. Although the resourcefulness of certain drug dealers, back-alley mechanics, and fly-by-night day-care providers is remarkable, Venkatesh argues that under-the-table transactions work to further separate their participants from the economic mainstream.

The Way to Win
by Mark Halperin and John F. Harris (Random House)
Two ultra-insider political journalists sketch a road map for prospective 2008 presidential hopefuls and bemoan the media “Freak Show” that will make those unlucky candidates’ lives a shallow, overexposed nightmare. Halperin and Harris’s observations manage to be both knowing and learned, but their zest for the horse race is everywhere palpable, and so renders their good-government protestations a little suspect.

HISTORY

Justice for All
by Jim Newton (Riverhead)
A thorough and enlightening biography of Earl Warren, a man responsible for no shortage of polarizing Supreme Court decisions: Brown v. Board of Education, Griswold v. Connecticut, and Miranda v. Arizona, as well as the conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in assassinating John F. Kennedy. Newton avers that Warren had an instinctively conservative temperament somewhat at odds with his liberal legacy, and presents his life as a “reminder that centrism today is a lonely idea, honored mostly in the breach.”

The Classical World
by Robin Lane Fox (Basic)
An Oxford classicist provides this sweeping and stylish history ranging from Homer’s Greece to Rome in the second century A.D. Fox’s command of his material seems effortlessly complete, and the events of his narrative feel surprisingly immediate.

Iron Kingdom
by Christopher Clark (Harvard)
From the military and agricultural innovations of Frederick the Great to nineteenth-century high academic politics to Bismarck’s social-security system, this magisterial and remarkably well-written history of Prussia traces back to the eighteenth century the region’s surprisingly tolerant and intellectually rich culture. Clark, a Cambridge historian, suggests that the world is poorer for Prussia’s absence.

The Fire
by Jörg Friedrich (Columbia)
Recently, many Germans have taken to seeing themselves as victims of atrocities inflicted by the Allied air campaign during the Second World War. Depending on one’s point of view, this is evidence either of a mature effort to see the war afresh or of a chronic obtuseness coupled with an unlovely tendency toward self-pity and self-righteousness. This haunting book, which recounts the effects of the bombing campaign, is largely responsible for Germans’ new perspective. Written by a formerly left-wing Berlin-based historian, it has aroused a sensation in Germany, where both peace activists and neo-Nazis have lauded it. Forceful, incendiary, and selective in its arguments, it’s now translated into English.

Pathfinders
by Felipe Fernández-Armesto (Norton)
In this elegant survey of human exploration from prehistory to the present, a prominent British historian describes humanity’s long, slow discovery of its scattered constituent parts. For all the explorers’ apparent gains, however, Fernández-Armesto somewhat poignantly regards their efforts as “a march of folly, in which almost every step forward has been the failed outcome of an attempted leap ahead.”

Dark Side of the Moon
by Gerard J. DeGroot (NYU)
DeGroot presents a more focused chronicle of exploration, concentrating on the utter uselessness of NASA’s lunar missions, boondoggles every bit as myopic and costly as the Cold War that spawned them.

SOCIETY and CULTURE

The Female Thing
by Laura Kipnis (Pantheon)
In acid, intelligent essays on “envy, sex, dirt, and vulnerability”—here defined as the four primary regions of the female psyche—the author of Against Love presents an overview of the present’s extremely complicated relationship to feminism and femininity.

What Paul Meant
by Garry Wills (Viking)
The author of What Jesus Meant turns to the apostle most often blamed for steering Christianity toward a joyless rigidity. Wills takes a more positive view, arguing that Paul’s epistles (which predated the Gospels) “stand closer to Jesus than do any other words in the New Testament.”

Moving the Chains
by Charles P. Pierce (FSG)
A Boston-based sportswriter chronicles a season in the life of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. A lowly draft pick who rose to Super Bowl stardom through honesty, thrift, and hard work, Brady is no doubt admirable, but that Pierce is admiring nearly to a fault proves distracting as the chapters go by.

Jim Brown
by Mike Freeman (William Morrow)
A more complex figure than Brady, Jim Brown was, in the eyes of this biographer, “the greatest pure football player the sport has ever known”—not to mention a civil-rights activist, the first black action-movie star, and the unwitting quarry of a hyperactive FBI. From Brown’s early heroics to his occasionally violent, uncertain, and disappointing later life, his story is as all-American in its way as Brady’s.

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Benjamin Healy is an Atlantic Monthly deputy managing editor.

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