Well-crafted account of an act of post-9/11 vigilante violence and its long reverberations for its survivors.
New York Times columnist Giridharadas (India Calling: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation’s Remaking, 2011) meticulously reconstructs two lives that collided in horrific fashion. In the charged, angry days after 9/11, self-styled “Arab Slayer” Mark Stroman murdered two immigrants in Texas, while a third man survived being shot in the head during Stroman’s spree: Raisuddin Bhuiyan, a Bangladesh Air Force veteran, was working at a Dallas-area convenience store as he established himself in America. Stroman was quickly apprehended and sentenced to death; Bhuiyan not only recovered from this harrowing hate crime, but thrived, building a career in IT management. Following a pilgrimage to Mecca with his beloved mother, Bhuiyan decided to channel his sense of good fortune into a social statement, pursuing a late-stage effort to block Stroman’s execution and reach out to his children. Although Stroman’s sentence was ultimately carried out, Bhuiyan’s determination to break what he saw as a never-ending cycle of violence between cultures through an act of forgiveness caused a groundswell of media attention and admiration, even in conservative Texas. Giridharadas writes in a maximalist, descriptive style that allows him to hew close to both Bhuiyan’s open-heartedness and Stroman’s racialized resentment, which he appeared to relinquish in his waning days on death row, moved by the interest of Bhuiyan and others. In building a close, empathetic portrait of the murderer, which includes his troubled extended family, Giridharadas convincingly argues that the rage and violence embraced by Americans like Stroman often results from constricted heartland social environments, where hard drugs (and subsequent criminal records) are easier to come by than good blue-collar jobs and racial tribalism reigns. Bhuiyan and the author seemingly concur that Stroman’s legacy will be the similarly constricted lives of his children.
A compelling, nuanced look at the shifting, volatile meaning of American identity in the post-9/11 era.
Do we come from the sea? Hoare’s (The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea, 2010, etc.) absorbing book may well lead you to think so.
Could not man have come from the sea in search of the bounty of tidal beaches? Anyone who has an affinity, indeed a need, for the water will understand the author’s desire to swim every day near his home in Southampton, England, where “it is never not beautiful.” “At low tide,” he writes, “the beach is an indecent expanse laid bare by retreat, more like farmland than anything of the sea: an inundated field, almost peaty with sediment, as much charcoal as it is sludge.” No matter what country or continent he visits, the author makes a point to swim and become a part of that sea. He’s fearless as he leaps into oceans near and far to commune with any swimming mammal that may be near; whether whales or a superpod of 200 dolphins, the mammals of the sea circle him, inspect him and accept him. His travels and his meandering, humorous writing take us from the Isle of Wight to the Azores, Sri Lanka, and the nearly primeval Tasmania and New Zealand, and Hoare delivers delightful descriptions of sea creatures and shore birds, bemoaning animals newly and nearly extinct. This is not a book following the geography of the sea; nor is it a history of sailing. It is an attempt to establish and examine the oneness that the Maori have understood for years: There is no difference between life on land and life in the sea. While the author may digress occasionally, readers will relish his writing and devotion to nature and likely won’t begrudge him a bit of family history here and there.
A beautifully written memoir/travelogue with readable diversions into philosophy.
A newsworthy, must-read book about what prompted Edward Snowden to blow the whistle on his former employer, the National Security Agency, and what likely awaits him for having done so.
In June 2013, the Guardian published the first of the revelations of the “Snowden file”—a huge trove of data, “thousands of documents and millions of words”—put in its lap by way of columnist Glenn Greenwald. Guardian foreign correspondent Harding (co-author: WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy, 2011, etc.) re-creates the curious trail that led Snowden to Greenwald and that led him to leak those documents in the first place. The author casts the prime motivation as a kind of revulsion born of Snowden’s experience as an analyst knee-deep in material that—it is very clear—was none of the NSA’s business, reinforced by Snowden’s time stationed in the relative freedom of Switzerland. It is also clear that Snowden’s act was premeditated, though not out of anti-Americanism (he’s a Ron Paul–type libertarian, it seems) and not for monetary impulse, though he could have sold the documents to any one of a number of foreign powers. Harding’s narrative covers numerous serial stories that developed from Snowden’s decision: first, the cloak-and-dagger work that got the files to Greenwald, then the NSA’s efforts and those of the larger American government to curb the post-publication damage (sometimes via British proxies), then Snowden’s flight into Russian exile in order to avoid the fate of fellow whistle-blower Bradley Manning. Harding closes with the thought that Snowden may have no other home for some time to come—but that even wider implications remain to be explored, including the possibility that British activists might be able to introduce something like the First Amendment to protect its press in the future.
Whether you view Snowden’s act as patriotic or treasonous, this fast-paced, densely detailed book is the narrative of first resort.
A New York Times reporter delivers a gripping narrative about the recent court battles involving California’s Proposition 8 (which outlawed gay marriage) and the Defense of Marriage Act.
In her note at the end, Becker writes that she enjoyed virtually unfettered access to the unlikely legal team that joined the opponents of Bush v. Gore (2000), conservative Ted Olson and liberal David Boies, in their battle against Prop 8 in the federal court system. But Olson and Boies aren’t the only notables. Becker also focuses on strategist Chad Griffin, on Hollywood’s contributions (especially the unrelenting efforts of Rob Reiner), Chuck Cooper (the lawyer for the opposition—he did not give the same access, but he was generous with post-trial interviews) and, of course, the four plaintiffs in the suit. (A California marriage in the final chapter is a genuine tear-jerker.) Although the author pauses occasionally to supply some background and/or history—the Dred Scott case, Brown v. Board of Education—her momentum is resolutely forward, her writing so brisk and urgent that even though we know the outcome, the tension in the courtroom scenes and the intervals of waiting for decisions remain taut, even nerve-wracking. Becker’s access gives us insights into other aspects of the story, as well—the deliberations within the Obama administration, the pro–gay marriage statements of Vice President Biden that seemed to animate the president, and the thinking in the Justice Department. She gives a gripping account of the trial in the U.S. District Court (with some fine analysis of the role of Judge Vaughn Walker, gay himself), some of which she reproduces directly from court records. Becker follows the case from there to the U.S. Court of Appeals and then the Supreme Court, where we listen to the oral arguments and follow the sometimes-twisted thinking of the justices.
First-rate reporting informs this thrilling narrative of hope.
With Chief Justice John Roberts' leadership of the Supreme Court approaching its 10th anniversary, Tribe (Constitutional Law/Harvard Univ.; The Invisible Constitution, 2008, etc.) and Matz, who clerks for a federal judge, provide a perspective on the changes reflected in the court's decision-making patterns.
The co-authors cooperate in a near-forensic dissection of the court's work under Roberts, comparing the arguments of each justice on a case-by-case basis. Many of their conclusions will be eye-openers for general readers. Contrary perhaps to expectation, this is not merely an account of a consistent five-member conservative majority against a liberal minority. Conservatives—e.g., Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito—can differ from each other as much as they do from liberals like Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor. Tribe and Matz fully address legal, philosophical and political motivations, and they document the general direction taking shape as one that tends to reverse law in many areas established since the New Deal. The authors systematically examine how the conflicting opinions on the court are coming together to reformulate the law's understanding of the Constitution in practice. The justices have focused much attention on cases that involve technical rules of procedure. In these cases, the court has favored big business and limited the rights of individuals to seek remedies through the courts for perceived wrongs. They have also used procedural cases to confer “near-total immunity on prosecutors and police,” even undercutting aspects of Miranda rights. Certain decisions on integration, voter rights and affirmative action have raised questions about plaintiffs' future abilities to pursue any rights case in the courts. The court’s decisions have also been geared toward establishing a new balance between federal and state governments and redefining congressional responsibility regarding the economy.
A well-researched, unsettling investigation of recent trends in the nation’s highest court.
National Book Critics Circle Award winner Biss (Notes from No Man’s Land, 2009) investigates the nature of vaccinations, from immunity as myth to the intricate web of the immune system.
The fears surrounding vaccines are not late-breaking news, as the author notes in this literate, rangy foray into the history and consequences of vaccination. In the 18th century—and frankly, little less today—it was understandable to associate vaccination with the work of witches: “The idea…that pus from a sick cow can be scraped into a wound on a person and make that person immune to a deadly disease is almost as hard to believe now as it was in 1796.” Indeed, the idea of poking yourself with a dose of virulent organisms to save yourself from them is not an intuitive leap. Biss ably tracks the progress of immunization: as metaphor—the protective impulse to make our children invulnerable (Achilles, Oedipus); as theory and science (the author provides a superb explanation of herd immunity: “when enough people are vaccinated with even a relatively ineffective vaccine, viruses have trouble moving from host to host and cease to spread”); as a cash cow for big pharma; and as a class issue—the notion of the innocent and the pure being violated by vaccinations, that “people without good living standards need vaccines, whereas vaccines would only clog up the more refined systems of middle-class and upper-class people.” Biss also administers a thoughtful, withering critique to more recent fears of vaccines—the toxins they carry, from mercury to formaldehyde, and accusations of their role in causing autism. The author keeps the debate lively and surprising, touching on Rachel Carson here and “Dr. Bob” there. She also includes her father’s wise counsel, which accommodates the many sides of the topic but arrives at a clear point of view: Vaccinate.
Brightly informative, giving readers a sturdy platform from which to conduct their own research and take personal responsibility.
A shimmering narrative about how the human and natural worlds coexist, coadapt and interactively thrive.
Prolific essayist and naturalist Ackerman (One Hundred Names for Love, 2011, etc.) offers absorbing commentary on both the positive and negative effects of human consumption and innovation on the Earth. We are an ever increasing population of “nomads with restless minds,” she writes, and her well-researched, substantiated observances take us from the outer reaches of space to view the world’s sprawling cities to the Toronto zoo, where the Orangutan Outreach initiative “Apps for Apes” improves the lives and expands the perceptions of primates whose population is declining. Humans have become “powerful agents of planetary change,” she writes, creating wildly fluctuating weather patterns and irreversible global warming, evidenced in our backyards and in the stratosphere and reflected in the migratory patterns of the animal world. Thankfully, Ackerman’s ecological forecast isn’t completely bleak; hope springs from fieldwork with geologists studying the fossilized record of the “Anthropocene” (the age of human-ecological impact), tech scientists creating bioengineered body organs from 3-D prints, and a French botanist whose research demonstrates the ability to “reconcile nature and man to a much greater degree” by rebalancing the delicate ecosystems damaged by invasive species. Ackerman optimistically presents innovations in “climate farming,” the exploding popularity of rooftop farming and the urban-landscaped oasis of Manhattan’s High Line. She also examines European attempts to harness everything from body heat to wind energy. Ackerman is less certain about the longevity of the animal world or the true charm of the robotic revolution, but whether debating the moral paradoxes of lab chimeras or the mating rituals of fruit flies, she’s a consummate professional with immense intelligence and infectious charm.
Through compelling and meditative prose, Ackerman delivers top-notch insight on the contemporary human condition.
A French academic serves up a long, rigorous critique, dense with historical data, of American-style predatory capitalism—and offers remedies that Karl Marx might applaud.
Economist Piketty considers capital, in the monetary sense, from the vantage of what he considers the capital of the world, namely Paris; at times, his discussions of how capital works, and especially public capital, befit Locke-ian France and not Hobbesian America, a source of some controversy in the wide discussion surrounding his book. At heart, though, his argument turns on well-founded economic principles, notably r > g, meaning that the “rate of return on capital significantly exceeds the growth rate of the economy,” in Piketty’s gloss. It logically follows that when such conditions prevail, then wealth will accumulate in a few hands faster than it can be broadly distributed. By the author’s reckoning, the United States is one of the leading nations in the “high inequality” camp, though it was not always so. In the colonial era, Piketty likens the inequality quotient in New England to be about that of Scandinavia today, with few abject poor and few mega-rich. The difference is that the rich now—who are mostly the “supermanagers” of business rather than the “superstars” of sports and entertainment—have surrounded themselves with political shields that keep them safe from the specter of paying more in taxes and adding to the fund of public wealth. The author’s data is unassailable. His policy recommendations are considerably more controversial, including his call for a global tax on wealth. From start to finish, the discussion is written in plainspoken prose that, though punctuated by formulas, also draws on a wide range of cultural references.
Essential reading for citizens of the here and now. Other economists should marvel at how that plain language can be put to work explaining the most complex of ideas, foremost among them the fact that economic inequality is at an all-time high—and is only bound to grow worse.
A distinguished NYU law professor and MacArthur grant recipient offers the compelling story of the legal practice he founded to protect the rights of people on the margins of American society.
Stevenson began law school at Harvard knowing only that the life path he would follow would have something to do with [improving] the lives of the poor.” An internship at the Atlanta-based Southern Prisoners Defense Committee in 1983 not only put him into contact with death row prisoners, but also defined his professional trajectory. In 1989, the author opened a nonprofit legal center, the Equal Justice Initiative, in Alabama, a state with some of the harshest, most rigid capital punishment laws in the country. Underfunded and chronically overloaded by requests for help, his organization worked tirelessly on behalf of men, women and children who, for reasons of race, mental illness, lack of money and/or family support, had been victimized by the American justice system. One of Stevenson’s first and most significant cases involved a black man named Walter McMillian. Wrongly accused of the murder of a white woman, McMillian found himself on death row before a sentence had even been determined. Though EJI secured his release six years later, McMillian “received no money, no assistance [and] no counseling” for the imprisonment that would eventually contribute to a tragic personal decline. In the meantime, Stevenson would also experience his own personal crisis. “You can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression, or injustice and not be broken by it,” he writes. Yet he would emerge from despair, believing that it was only by acknowledging brokenness that individuals could begin to understand the importance of tempering imperfect justice with mercy and compassion.
Science journalist Vince chronicles a two-year journey around the globe to evaluate warnings that we face an ecological tipping point.
“Deserts are spreading…forests are dying and being logged….Wildlife is being hunted and dying because of habitat loss,” writes the author, who also notes that we currently use 30 percent more natural resources per year “than the planet can replenish.” Geologists are calling this the Anthropocene epoch due to “the changes humans are making to the biosphere.” As the author acknowledges, we are the first species “to knowingly reshape the living Earth's biology and chemistry. We have become the masters of our planet and integral to the destiny of life on Earth.” Despite this dim picture, the author found grounds for optimism on her travels. Vince takes the hopeful view that we will act in a timely fashion to “preserve nature or master its tricks artificially.” In China and India, she chronicles government efforts to address atmospheric pollution and looming water shortages. Her main interest, however, is the inventiveness of people at the local level dealing with these problems. Vince believes that they are ushering in “an extraordinary new human age…creating artificial glaciers to irrigate their crops, building artificial coral reefs to shore up islands, and artificial trees to clean the air.” The author was most impressed by the cumulative effect of small changes in heretofore-inaccessible mountain regions that now generate electricity using microhydropower; these areas have also gained access to the Internet and improved sanitation. She discusses the work of “[h]ydrologists in Peru [who are] building tunnels to drain an Andean glacial lake” as a way to control disastrous flooding. On a smaller scale in the Indian village of Ladakh, a local engineer is leading a project to convert mountain wastewater into a series of man-made miniglaciers connected to irrigation canals. Everywhere she traveled, Vince continued to see great promise in human creativity.
A well-documented, upbeat alternative to doom-and-gloom prognostications.
A novelist and Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times reporter explores with nearly Javert-ian persistence one of the early cases of traffic fatalities caused by texting while driving.
On Sept. 22, 2006, college student Reggie Shaw, texting in his truck, veered into the oncoming lane on a narrow highway near Logan, Utah, and struck a car, knocking it into an approaching truck. Both men inside that car were rocket scientists with families, and both died. Richtel (Devil’s Plaything, 2011, etc.) begins his account with an MRI of Shaw’s brain (he returns to this scene near the end), then reports the crash in detail, following the story to its most recent legal and emotional conclusions (insofar as there can be conclusions). He alternates his focus throughout: from Shaw and his family, to the victims’ families, to the police and legal system, to the legislators considering texting laws, to the latest scientific research on how much we can possibly attend to in our incredibly distracting world (not nearly as much as we think). Readers will be alarmed to discover what science has learned about the dangers drivers create when they text or talk on the phone. The vast majority of us are just not capable of doing so safely. Richtel excels at bringing to life his cast of sundry characters. (Virtually everyone agreed to interviews.) Readers get to know Shaw’s parents, the widows, the daughters of the victims, the attorneys on both sides, a judge who keeps Les Misérables near at hand (and required Shaw to read it), a victims rights advocate, scientists and, of course, Shaw himself, who emerges as a modest young man (a devout Mormon), a young man who’d never before been in trouble, a young man who, we eventually realize, could be any one of us.
Comprehensive research underlies this compelling, highly emotional and profoundly important story.
In his companion to The Origins of the Political Order, the deeply engaged political scientist offers a compelling historical overview of a useful template for the retooling of institutions in the modern state.
Former neoconservative academic Fukuyama (International Studies/Stanford Univ.) is concerned about the functionality of government, specifically what he sees as the current “vetocracy” in the United States, which signals the beginning of political decay. Moving from the French Revolution onward and using myriad examples from Prussia to Nigeria, the author lays out the evolution of three essential political institutions: the state, the rule of law and democratic accountability. Fukuyama is commenting on (and updating) his teacher Samuel P. Huntington’s Political Order in Changing Societies (1968), in which Huntington argued that “before a polity could be democratic, it had to provide basic order”—e.g., the introduction of the Napoleonic Code in France. Fukuyama defines institutions, after Huntington, as “stable, valued, recurring patterns of behavior” around which humans act for the greater good. Why have some countries developed stable institutions like public safety, a legal system and national defense while others have not? The author delves into the making of the first stable and effective modern states, notably in Prussia, where Calvinist doctrine infused in leaders a sense of austerity, thrift and intolerance of corruption, and spurred a substantial army and education and taxation systems. Elsewhere, particularly in Greece, Italy and Argentina, where stable institutions should have developed, states were stymied by an absence of social trust and by clientelism, which depends on patronage. Fukuyama also looks at the roles of geography, climate and colonialism. Shaking off patronage-laden bureaucracies, as Britain and America managed to do, is essential to a stable state. In the U.S., Fukuyama decries the creeping “repatrimonialization” in the form of lobbyists and special interest groups.
Systematic, thorough and even hopeful fodder for reform-minded political observers.
The inside—deeply inside—account by the investigative writer who broke the British phone-hacking scandal wide open.
Davies (Flat Earth News: An Award-Winning Reporter Exposes Falsehood, Distortion and Propaganda in the Global Media, 2009, etc.) is known for his tenacious grip on his targets and his cutting, vivid writing style. Writing for the Guardian, he came across an enigmatic tip that journalists for Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid newspaper News of the World were routinely hacking into the voice mails of celebrities, famous athletes, regular citizens and royals and then grabbing photos and quotes from their victims to lay a false trail and publish a damning article. The phone hacking—perpetrated usually by private detectives hired by editors at the publication—eventually ensnared 6,349 victims and caused the News to shutter. At the end of the day, noted one prosecutor, it was nothing more than “at the highest level, a criminal enterprise.” If this book were merely about unethical Murdoch media outlets, it would serve as an educational read for journalism students. Because Scotland Yard continually refused to warn the victims and stonewalled Davies’ questions and because former News editor Andy Coulson became Prime Minister David Cameron’s media adviser, this is a darker, more engrossing tale about the web of unspoken, ultimately “passive” power Murdoch and his editors held over the power elite of the U.K. as they tsk-tsked them into embarrassing revelations. Davies has crafted nothing less than a primer on how to patiently, doggedly investigate a story, replete with a host of quirky characters—e.g., a bulldog of a lawyer with multiple sclerosis who had a sideline as a stand-up comedian and a reporter who specialized in dressing up as a “fake sheikh” to deceive sources into shedding their secrets.
No one does scandal quite like the British; this one is a real doozy that deserves Davies’ entertaining, no-stone-unturned eagle eyes.
A fresh perspective on the covert, crusading Internet activist group Anonymous.
Coleman (Scientific and Technological Literacy/McGill Univ.; Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking, 2012), a cultural anthropologist and Internet authority, spent several increasingly immersive years researching the calculated tactics of the global Anonymous collective. She tracks the hacktivist association’s anarchic history from its nascent disruptive publicity stunts and trolled online raids through the “4chan” public chat boards in 2003, executed in the spirit of “lulz” (public schadenfreude). Though the group’s later, more pointed, collaborative machinations would attract the aggressive attention of the FBI, writes Coleman, their activities were still partly implemented in the same roguish, mischievous spirit. Though her treatment is permeated with buzzwords, initialisms and computer jargon, even Internet neophytes will find Coleman’s text to be a consistently fascinating ethnography, as she folds the politics of hacking and website breaching techniques into intriguing stories from the stealth campaigns of microcosmic networks like AnonOps and LulzSec (“a crew of renegade hackers who broke away from Anonymous and double as traveling minstrels”), among others. The author examines the ways the Anonymous collective seeks justice (or, at the very least, a mean-spirited chuckle) through the seizure and release of digitized, classified information or by challenging corporate conglomerates, as demonstrated by the Wikileaks–Chelsea Manning scandal and an early, synchronized attack on Scientology, both of which Coleman generously references. The author is particularly enthusiastic about Anonymous’ interior motivations and provides pages of interviews with infamous, incendiary trollers, snitches and hackers, verbatim bickering chat-room dialogue, and leaked documents. For such a frenzied collective defying easy categorization, Coleman’s diligent and often sensationalistic spadework does great justice in representing the plight of these “misfits of activism” and their vigilante mischief.
An intensive, potent profile of contemporary digital activism at its most unsettling—and most effective.