Tuesday, March 02, 2010

The Year of Good Books, Redux: January

The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia
- Peter Hopkirk's story of the battle between Russia and Great Britain for dominance in Central Asia is filled with interesting stories, but it's far too anglocentric -- some of the most fascinating people are Russian agents mentioned only as shadowy presences (think Boba Fett in The Empire Strikes Back). However, it's worth reading if only to get an idea of the history of a part of a crucial crossroads between Europe, Asia and the Arabic worlds.

Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)
- Tom Vanderbilt investigates all things related to traffic and commuting. While it starts slowly, it is filled with lots of fascinating tidbits and trivia that might be useless if not for small talk at parties. Plus, it justifies being a late merger, which is nice.

Poker Nation: A High-Stakes, Low-Life Adventure into the Heart of a Gambling Country
- Andy Bellin's story mixes his personal history as a pro poker player with some information on the history of the game and lots of strategy tips. I'm not a big poker player, but I did find it interesting. For poker junkies (Big Dave), it'll be a good read.

Liar's Poker
- Michael Lewis wrote the definitive book on the attitudes and actions that drove the financial collapse of 2008. Sort of. Technically, it's the non-fiction story of his time on Wall Street (and The City in London) in the mid-80s, but the S&L crisis sounds pretty much identical to the most recent Wall Street fuckup. So, when Jamie Dimon or some other CEO claims that the banks learned their lesson, just ask if they've read this. If they say yes, give them the finger and tell them to shut their piehole. Great read, but incredibly frustrating to realize that nothing changed -- except that regulatory agencies weakened.

The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals
- Jane Mayer goes in depth to how the Bush Administration, led mainly by Cheney, turned 9/11 into an opportunity to enact sweeping changes that had been rejected during the Reagan administration as too reactionary. It's amazing how a handful of people, including John Yoo and David Addington, wrote memos arguing that a) torture wasn't torture if you were trying to get info and b) even if it is, if the President says it's ok, it's ok. It is amazingly infuriating to realize just how far these guys were from what I consider American ideals (the Geneva Conventions, the rule of law, habeas corpus, etc). It's also incredible how ineffective torture was in getting useful information. For some reason, even though their techniques were based on how the KGB forced false confessions, the men (and a smattering of women) in charge never realized that they were only being told whatever would get the torture to stop.

The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression
- Amity Shales's anti-Roosevelt screed isn't an unbiased history of the Depression. Instead, it's a companion to the traditional narrative* of how the New Deal saved the country. However, she gives almost no information on any positives of the New Deal or of the conditions that spurred it -- the Dust Bowl is barely referenced. However, some of what Roosevelt did and tried to do was amazing, such as his attempt to amend the Constitution to allow him to appoint extra justices to counter ones that disagreed with him and a variety of anti-business proposals. Worth a read, but remember that it's a history with a clear bias -- one that is clear when criticisms of government spending and jobs programs are criticized only when they are for non-war programs.

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