A surprising look at societies grappling with profound change.

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DANCING BEARS

TRUE STORIES OF PEOPLE HELD CAPTIVE TO OLD WAYS OF LIFE IN NEWLY FREE SOCIETIES

The unsettling transition from socialism to democracy leaves many people longing for the past.

Polish journalist Szablowski (The Assassin from Apricot City, 2013), winner of journalism awards in his native Poland as well as an English PEN award, investigates the effects of newfound freedom on individuals who spent their lives under authoritarian rule. Some of those individuals are bears: captured, tethered, and trained to dance in order to provide a livelihood for their Romani owners. In 2007, when Bulgaria joined the European Union, keeping these bears was outlawed; they were removed from captivity and sent to a wildlife refuge where they could roam free. Freedom, though, proved a challenge: having been plied with alcohol and candy, “they were used to having somebody do the thinking for them,” and they became aimless and depressed. The bears’ difficult adjustment to freedom serves as an analogy for humans in countries that emerged from communism. Like the bears, many individuals found freedom “extremely complicated.” “It turns out,” the author discovered, “that fear of a changing world, and longing for someone who will relieve us of some of the responsibility for our own lives” is widespread, even beyond “Regime-Change Land.” In a brisk narrative, translated by Lloyd-Jones, Szablowski reports from Cuba, where people fear that Castro’s death will change the culture for the worse; and from Albania and Estonia, where people complain about the breakup of the Soviet Union, the infiltration by the European Union and the U.N., and the trials of independence. “What do we need all this capitalism for, all these American cheeses, juices, and chocolate?” one woman complains. When a power station was built in Kosovo, residents opted to buy their own small generators rather than pay electrical bills. At a Stalin museum, docents extol Stalin’s memory, defending him from such events as the famine in Ukraine and the Katyn massacre. Communism provided free health care, education, utilities, and security, the author was repeatedly told; capitalism leaves some feeling unprotected and at sea.

A surprising look at societies grappling with profound change.

Pub Date: March 6, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-14-312974-5

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Penguin

Review Posted Online: Nov. 26, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2017

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A declaration worth hearing out in a time of growing inequality—and indignity.

ECONOMIC DIGNITY

Noted number cruncher Sperling delivers an economist’s rejoinder to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Former director of the National Economic Council in the administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, the author has long taken a view of the dismal science that takes economic justice fully into account. Alongside all the metrics and estimates and reckonings of GDP, inflation, and the supply curve, he holds the great goal of economic policy to be the advancement of human dignity, a concept intangible enough to chase the econometricians away. Growth, the sacred mantra of most economic policy, “should never be considered an appropriate ultimate end goal” for it, he counsels. Though 4% is the magic number for annual growth to be considered healthy, it is healthy only if everyone is getting the benefits and not just the ultrawealthy who are making away with the spoils today. Defining dignity, admits Sperling, can be a kind of “I know it when I see it” problem, but it does not exist where people are a paycheck away from homelessness; the fact, however, that people widely share a view of indignity suggests the “intuitive universality” of its opposite. That said, the author identifies three qualifications, one of them the “ability to meaningfully participate in the economy with respect, not domination and humiliation.” Though these latter terms are also essentially unquantifiable, Sperling holds that this respect—lack of abuse, in another phrasing—can be obtained through a tight labor market and monetary and fiscal policy that pushes for full employment. In other words, where management needs to come looking for workers, workers are likely to be better treated than when the opposite holds. In still other words, writes the author, dignity is in part a function of “ ‘take this job and shove it’ power,” which is a power worth fighting for.

A declaration worth hearing out in a time of growing inequality—and indignity.

Pub Date: May 5, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9848-7987-5

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 26, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2020

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No one’s mind will be changed by Karl’s book, but it’s a valuable report from the scene of an ongoing train wreck.

FRONT ROW AT THE TRUMP SHOW

The chief White House and Washington correspondent for ABC provides a ringside seat to a disaster-ridden Oval Office.

It is Karl to whom we owe the current popularity of a learned Latin term. Questioning chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, he followed up a perhaps inadvertently honest response on the matter of Ukrainian intervention in the electoral campaign by saying, “What you just described is a quid pro quo.” Mulvaney’s reply: “Get over it.” Karl, who has been covering Trump for decades and knows which buttons to push and which to avoid, is not inclined to get over it: He rightly points out that a reporter today “faces a president who seems to have no appreciation or understanding of the First Amendment and the role of a free press in American democracy.” Yet even against a bellicose, untruthful leader, he adds, the press “is not the opposition party.” The author, who keeps his eye on the subject and not in the mirror, writes of Trump’s ability to stage situations, as when he once called Trump out, at an event, for misrepresenting poll results and Trump waited until the camera was off before exploding, “Fucking nasty guy!”—then finished up the interview as if nothing had happened. Trump and his inner circle are also, by Karl’s account, masters of timing, matching negative news such as the revelation that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election with distractions away from Trump—in this case, by pushing hard on the WikiLeaks emails from the Democratic campaign, news of which arrived at the same time. That isn’t to say that they manage people or the nation well; one of the more damning stories in a book full of them concerns former Homeland Security head Kirstjen Nielsen, cut off at the knees even while trying to do Trump’s bidding.

No one’s mind will be changed by Karl’s book, but it’s a valuable report from the scene of an ongoing train wreck.

Pub Date: March 31, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5247-4562-2

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Dutton

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2020

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