Saturday, May 1, 2004

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May's Books of the Month

As I've suggested recently, over the past six months America has been inundated with a spate of tomes, memoirs, and policy dissections of the current administration's foreign policy/grand strategy. Almost all of them have been critical. Some of them have their merits, and some of them are so God-awful that I'm upset I wasted my time reading them.

I'm not the only one who thinks that a lot of these books are problematic. As the New York Times reported last week:

"These books are just stupendously enlarged newspaper stories," said Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, who argued that all of the books lacked the thoughtfulness, interpretative insight or literary quality that should distinguish books from newspapers or magazines.

"They represent the degradation of political writing to purely journalistic writing," he said. "The author in these works has been reduced to a transcriber or stenographer. There is no strenuous mental labor here. It is all technical skill. Books about urgent subjects used to have greater ambitions for themselves, but not these books. But this genre is something that passes, masquerading as something that lasts. Present history doesn't have to be quite this fleeting."

Readers of are busy people -- if you had to pick one book on the Bush administration's foreign policy, which one would it be?

This leads me to May's recommended international relations book: Ivo Daalder and James Lindsey's America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy. Of all of these books -- and I've read too many of them -- America Unbound has three merits that almost all of the other books do not. First, their prose is detached and analytical. There is some strenuous mental effort here, and it doesn't suffer from the tunnel vision that infuses Richard Clarke or Paul O'Neill/Ron Susskind's books. It does this without sacrificing much in terms of color or detail. Which leads to the second strength of the book -- it's exceptionally well-researched. Reading it, and perusing the footnotes, I was stunned at how much detail Daalder and Lindsey were able to collect from public sources. Third, the book's thesis is both counterintuitive but well-supported -- that despite what people say about neocon or Straussian conspiracies, the person who's clearly in charge of American foreign policy is George W. Bush. America Unbound is hardly uncritical of the administration; Daalder and Lindsey both did tours of duty as NSC staffers in Clinton administration. I didn't agree with all of it -- but I can't dismiss it.

The general interest book is Tom Perrotta's Little Children, a delicious look at the ecosystem of suburban parents and toddlers. Perrotta -- who also wrote the novel Election, upon which one of my favorite movies was based -- opens the book with this paragraph:

The young mothers were telling each other how tired they were. This was one of their favorite topics, along with the eating, sleeping, and defecating habits of their offspring, the merits of certain local nursery schools, and the difficulty of sticking to an exercise routine. Smiling politely to mask a familiar feeling of desperation, Sarah reminded herself to think like an anthropologist. I'm a researcher studying the behavior of boring subrban women. I am not a boring suburban woman myself.

Hyde Park is not a boring suburb, but the playground politics discussed in the book have the clang of familiarity that made it a fun read for me. Go check it out.

posted by Dan on 05.01.04 at 10:19 AM


Hey Dan, I know you commented on the Foreign Policy piece on which it was based, but have you read Gaddis' new book? If so, what did you think?

posted by: Josh Chafetz on 05.01.04 at 10:19 AM [permalink]

Josh -- I confess I haven't gotten to either the Gaddis or the Woodward yet. There's only so many hours in the day.

I will admit to feeling some shame about this, since I've been recently designated as required reading.

posted by: Dan Drezner on 05.01.04 at 10:19 AM [permalink]

Thanks for the recommendation. In my last round of book purchasing, I seemed to have missed that. Will buy it immediately.

With all these books out recently, we should thank Gaddis that he wrote a short book.

posted by: Chris on 05.01.04 at 10:19 AM [permalink]

Hyde Park is not a boring suburb...

Hyde Park prides itself on not being a boring suburb, but is in fact a boring college town stuck against its will in the middle of a nasty big city. I had no idea how insular the neighborhood was until I escaped it and moved to the North Side.

posted by: triticale on 05.01.04 at 10:19 AM [permalink]

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