The Common Good

In the Stacks, June 20, 2012

Among my must reads are the Sunday New York Times Book Review and other book reviews I come across in various media outlets. There are too many books being published that I would love to read, but just don’t have the time. So, I rely on reading book reviews as one way of keeping in touch with what’s being written. 

Photo by Tischenko Irina/
Photo by Tischenko Irina/

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Here are my picks in this week’s books of interest:

Barack Obama: The Story

By David Maraniss, Reviewed by James Fallows

The making of the President.

Maraniss, a Washington Post veteran and author of a celebrated biography of Bill Clinton and other works, has (with assistants whom he credits) applied a version of the Robert Caro treatment to a politician who, unlike Caro’s Lyndon Johnson, is still in his functioning prime. The book begins with people Barack Obama never met and certainly knows less about than Maraniss does, his great-grandparents on both sides. Nearly 600 pages later it ends with the current president, at age 27, driving a used yellow Datsun away from Chicago, where he had been a community organizer, to Harvard Law School and what Maraniss presents as the end of his search for identity and the beginning of a purposeful political career.

American Tapestry

By Rachel L. Swarns, Reviewed by Edward Ball

Rachel L. Swarns tells the story of several generations of Michelle Obama’s family in a book that reads like a panorama of black life in America.

Rachel L. Swarns, a reporter for The New York Times, has uncovered the story of an ordinary black American family, typical in so many details: generations of forced work on Southern farms; sexual exploitation; children born half white; attempts to flee slavery; emancipation at the end of a rifle barrel; terrorization by the Klan during Reconstruction; futility stirred in with pleasure and church in the 1900s; a stepladder into the working class — and finally, the opportunity that allowed for Michelle Obama’s superior education and unlocked 150 years of bolted doors.

The Syrian Rebellion

By Fouad Ajami, Reviewed by Dexter Filkins

A Middle East scholar offers historical perspective on Syria’s yearlong uprising.

In “The Syrian Rebellion,” the Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami weaves the threads of Syria’s past with the events of the previous year to give us a portrait of the country as it hurtles toward its moment of decisive transformation. This is no small feat: Syria is a country of enormous ethnic and religious complexity, and the story is moving very fast. “The Syrian Rebellion” is an elegant and edifying book, written on the fly, by an observer who retains an almost loving intimacy with his subject. But it is underlain by a sobering subtext: Ajami suggests that the dynamics of Syria’s politics and history are leading inexorably toward a catastrophe, or at least no quick and happy end. If he’s right, we have probably not yet seen the worst.

End This Depression Now!

By Paul Krugman, Reviewed by Matthew Bishop

The conventional wisdom in America and Europe is making things worse, Paul Krugman says.

If ever there was a moment for fresh thinking, this is surely it. Indeed, Paul Krugman argues in “End This Depression Now!,” without a radical change in economic policy in both the United States and Europe, the likeliest outcome is a prolonged depression, perhaps not as “great” as in the 1930s but with clear similarities, above all in the immense human cost of needlessly high unemployment. As Krugman sees it, fiscal austerity, a fashionable idea on both sides of the Atlantic, can only make matters worse. This new “austerian” conventional wisdom, Krugman says, has “completely thrown away Keynes’s central dictum: ‘The boom, not the slump, is the time for austerity.’ ”

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