Book Review

An online-only review of books and arguments about books.

The People, It Depends

The People, It Depends

What’s the matter with left-populism?

The New Deal is the ultimate horizon of Frank’s political imagination. In the 1930s, Frank argues, the Great Depression finally forced the American ruling class to rethink its unabashed elitism, leading inevitably to the rediscovery of the virtues of the populist tradition. The New Deal was at its heart, then, a cultural and rhetorical phenomenon with downstream economic consequences. He devotes orders of magnitude more attention and detail to poets like Carl Sandburg (whose epic The People, Yes gives the book its title), filmmakers like Orson Welles, and the oratory of FDR at his most fire-breathing than to the substantive economic policy of the President and his postwar successors. Frank even quotes, approvingly, labor secretary Frances Perkins’ remark that the New Deal was “basically an attitude.”

After Neoliberalism

At the heart of the new age are novel configurations of fear, certainty, and power

The big reveal: Google and Facebook are marketing companies. That is how they make money. What is more extraordinary is how much the two companies have thus far dominated their markets. Zuboff reports that between 2012 and 2016 Google and Facebook together accounted for 90 percent of the growth in global advertising expenditures. But there is nothing much “unprecedented” about advertising.

Argument Without Argument

Argument Without Argument

Robert M. Gates and America’s forever foreign policy

The more time one spends in Gates’s head, the more one is struck by the increasingly nihilistic quality of the American exceptionalist creed. Gates and his ilk remain committed to the idea that when there are problems in the world, the United States must “do something.” What is that something? It usually doesn’t matter much.

The Wantok System

The Wantok System

A horizon of maximum difference, a test bed for linguistics and for linguists

New Guinea remained on my radar: a horizon of maximum difference, a test bed for linguistics and for linguists. Elsewhere, linguistic differences usually stem from geographic isolation. But in much of New Guinea the diversity is actually deepest in places where travel is easiest. Instead of using religion, clothing, or food, Papua New Guineas have distinguished themselves above all through language. Call it tribalism or, as linguists do, the “constructive fostering of variegation” through “intentional language change.”

Pollito, Chicken; Gallina, Hen

Pollito, Chicken; Gallina, Hen

American Dirt in Mexico

Notice how the register of the prose, with its figures and rates, evokes the rhetoric of nonfiction. The use of general, declarative sentences about Mexico, in particular, makes me think of what my journalism professors used to call the nut-graf—the paragraph in the article where the journalist briefly pauses her account of the news to establish, in the most efficient way possible, the context for the events on which she is reporting. The result is that Cummins’s book often slips into didacticism.

Eating the Frog

Eating the Frog

David Wallace-Wells’s new book is one of the few honest accounts of the costs, both tangible and metaphorical, of global warming.

David Wallace-Wells’s new book, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, reads at once as an innovative look at manmade climate change and also as old news. As Wallace-Wells himself states at points, not much in his book is new. Even the scariest near-term predictions and assessments, like the possibility that “should the planet warm 3.7 degrees . . . climate change damages could total $551 trillion—nearly twice as much wealth as exists in the world today,” or that, at the upper-end of temperature predictions for the end of this century, “humans at the equator and in the tropics would not be able to move around without dying” have been accessible to the general public online or in academic articles and assessments. What is new is the candor of the narrative and relative impassivity with which Wallace-Wells, a career journalist, elucidates the distressing implications of the facts that he reports.

Other People’s Blood

Other People’s Blood

On Paul Volcker

Those who praise Volcker like to say he “broke the back” of inflation. Nancy Teeters, the lone dissenter on the Fed Board of Governors, had a different metaphor: “I told them, ‘You are pulling the financial fabric of this country so tight that it’s going to rip. You should understand that once you tear a piece of fabric, it’s very difficult, almost impossible, to put it back together again.” (Teeters, also the first woman on the Fed board, told journalist William Greider that “None of these guys has ever sewn anything in his life.”) Fabric or backbone: both images convey violence. In any case, a price index doesn’t have a spine or a seam; the broken bodies and rent garments of the early 1980s belonged to people. Reagan economic adviser Michael Mussa was nearer the truth when he said that “to establish its credibility, the Federal Reserve had to demonstrate its willingness to spill blood, lots of blood, other people’s blood.”

The Prison House of Language

The Prison House of Language

On Rachel Kushner and Sergio De La Pava

The women in the novel are subjected to sexual violence so regularly that it is treated as if it is just another part of their punitive program. For many of them, this sexual violence is not unique to their time in jail. Kushner wisely demonstrates throughout the novel that patriarchy and its parallel oppressive structures are not phenomena specific to incarceration; they groom these characters from birth to feel comfortable in the rigidly authoritative structures of prisons. “I had been a waitress at IHOP right after I graduated high school,” Romy says. “I was waitress 43, and the cooks would call, Forty-three! Your order is up! Which, as I only saw later, had been preparing me for here.” With wrenching flashbacks to Romy’s youth that bare the bruises of innocence forcibly taken, Kushner shows us Romy navigating and bucking authority throughout her life, in her predatory friendships, in her work as a stripper, and in her experiences with men. By the time she ends up in prison, like the rest of the women around her, she hardly has the capacity to question or resist authority.