I suspect that most people who boast of having read The Man Who Knew: The Life and Times of Alan Greenspan have not, in fact, persevered through 800 pages. (I did, but quickly…) It’s too bad, since we should probably all know a little more about the Federal Reserve Bank and how financial policy is set but a book this long and this detailed will comfort us in the thought that all this stuff is just too complicated and too tedious.
My favorite part of the book, as is often the case, was Greenspan personal history, a math prodigy raised by a single mother who was utterly devoted to him, and who saw himself at a pure libertarian and statistician — quite at odds with his later political career as a regulator!
The book focuses on his not seeing the 2008 bubble coming, which is a little too easy to say in hindsight — but certainly it was no secret that the real-estate market was bubbling. And to fill the 800 pages we get abundant details about Ayn Rand’s lovers, White House parties, how Greenspan proposed to his second wife, and of course who said what to whom at various Oval Office meetings. Where are the Cliff Notes?
Written by a passionate lawyer, The Soul of the First Amendment fiercely defends the freedom-of-speech right enshrined in the First Amendment, contrasting it with other approaches in several other Western countries. It’s more a pamphlet than a balanced exegesis of the law, and it’s a little scary, since its main point is that putting any restrictions on the First Amendment would amount to intolerable government censorship. Funny that other countries are somewhat managing to place some restrictions on free speech without breaking democracy. Forcefully argued, but lacking a counter-argument.
It’s interesting that the author of The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency chose to highlight only the gatekeeping functions of those who may actually be the most powerful people in the US, the presidential chiefs of staff. Readers who love politics will undoubtedly love this book, full of intrigues and details and funny stories. Those who do not, like me, may be nonplussed after reading it. O, the stories and lively and suck you in. But it reveals a White House that is immensely sexist (exhibit A: not a single chief of staff has been a woman), preoccupied by small issues and rivalries rather than important policy decisions, and, as a consequence, apparently incapable of focusing on a few strategic concerns. It’s a miracle that it works at all!
Human Acts tells the story of a teenager killed in riots that erupted in South Korea in 1980 through multiple points of view, always staying in an impressionistic mode that keeps us readers on our toes. It would be impossible to tell upbeat stories about what is essentially civil war but this book is particularly dark. I much preferred The Vegetarian by the same author but I admired this achievement.
Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right starts with a wonderful mission: to listen to conservative voters in the Louisiana bayou and understand how their lives and circumstances brought them to support the Tea Party and Donald Trump. It’s a noble cause, embraced somewhat naively as the author starts with a conviction that people who have suffered many disastrous pollution events should naturally lean left — but of course there are more reasons to choose sides than the environment, and in any case regulations and government interventions post-disasters have left locals bitter about slow and ineffective solutions.
That said, it is very interesting to see how deep-seated emotions such as the disgust at people taking advantage of government benefits (sometimes, interestingly, themselves!) and the deep-seated beliefs that oppressed people should rise up and resist rather than leave their countries can be stirred and exploited by political parties and candidates into cries for lower taxes and fewer refugees.
The Fix: How Nations Survive and Thrive in a World in Decline is a puzzling book, as it claims to share stories of positive political change but starts with a gloomy introduction that claims that the world is in utter crisis. Somehow I can think of even relatively recent times when the gloom was darker. The author then proceeds to tell 10 good-news stories, pleasingly drawn from all corners of the globe. But despite his attempts to bring them together at the end into a set of reproducible best practices, most stories seem to have required that most elusive of treasure, a selfless, incorruptible, charismatic, visionary, hands-on leader — or have serious side effects (which the author volunteers, refreshingly). As I said, it is a rather puzzling book…
The hyperactive subtitle of Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World’s Superpowers announces it: this book may be focused on the Pacific Ocean, but adeptly serves stories as diverse as navigating without instruments, how Larry Ellison spends his money (apparently paying someone to retrieve basketballs shot from his yacht), the discovery of entirely new life forms at the dark bottom of the ocean, and how a mostly unknown American Colonel divided Korea into two countries. There are lighter moments, such the history of surfing, but each chapter cleverly moves from a specific anecdote to a larger topic. Entirely enjoyable, even for readers who do not live right by the Pacific.