The Common Good

In the Stacks, October 17, 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/Shutterstock.com
Photo by Tischenko Irina/Shutterstock.com

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Here are my picks from this week’s books.

“Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power”

By Seth Rosenfeld, reviewed by Matt Taibbi

A journalist wins his fight to obtain the records of F.B.I. surveillance of the University of California, Berkeley.

“Subversives” has a powerful story to tell about the vanity and stupidity of political leaders of any persuasion who squander public resources spying on personal enemies and obsessing over personal hangups — and the frightening weakness of the laws designed to restrain their authority. In “Subversives,” men like J. Edgar Hoover treat the law, at best, as a minor political consideration. And whether it’s Hoover embarking upon the quasi-legal Responsibilities Program (a secret project to disseminate derogatory information about “politically suspect” teachers) or the F.B.I. agent George Dalen committing illegal break-ins (“It was strange,” Dalen wrote, “that I should join the F.B.I. and learn how to become an institutional liar”), government officials worry fleetingly about breaking the law but quickly grow accustomed to it.

“500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars”

By Kurt Eichenwald, reviewed by Thomas E. Ricks

Kurt Eichenwald maintains that the Bush administration’s response to 9/11 was driven by panic.

This book is misleadingly titled. “500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars” seeks to provide a global account of the period after 9/11, leaping from a prison cell in Syria to the nightclub bombing in Bali, but it’s best and most informative when depicting how the Bush administration, and especially its lawyers, suffered a protracted nervous breakdown during that time. In that respect, it is an ambitious undertaking and a valuable resource.

Kurt Eichenwald, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and a former reporter for The New York Times, makes his methodical case against the Bush administration with detailed examples rather than flat assertions. With each piece of evidence, it becomes clearer that in late 2001 and in 2002, President Bush and Vice President Cheney had begun panicking. Mistaking rumors and lies fabricated by victims of torture as actionable information and elbowing aside skeptics, they gave rein to their fears that the worst was yet to come — and their hysteria spread to and infected parts of the national security ­establishment.

“America’s Unwritten Constitution: The Precedents and Principles We Live By”

By Akhil Reed Amar, reviewed by Ken Gormley

Threads that weave our nation together.

The unwritten commands of America’s Constitution, Amar declares, exist side by side with the written text, and “the two stand together and support each other.” But he bristles at the notion that the unwritten Constitution is nothing but an invention of activist judges who make up rights out of whole cloth to satisfy their personal predilections. Rather, it comes from viewing the written document as a whole (including its amendments), instead of parsing words and reading them in lifeless isolation. It comes from the Federalist Papers and other founding documents. It comes from historical context. (President George Washington’s diplomatic efforts culminating in the Jay Treaty set the stage for President Thomas Jefferson’s broad authority in negotiating the Louisiana Purchase, which shaped the scope of presidential power today.) It comes from the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and other iconic texts that help define what “we the people” stand for as a nation. (For instance, President John Kennedy openly invoked the Gettysburg Address in June 1963, in calling on Congress to enact comprehensive civil rights legislation to give meaning to the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.)

“Joseph Anton: A Memoir”

By Salman Rushdie, reviewed by Donna  Rifkind 

Salman Rushdie invented a new self, “Joseph Anton,” as he hid from a murderous fatwa.

Salman Rushdie’s memoir is many books in one book. It’s a personal story that takes place at the center of an international crisis: the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s 1989 denunciation of the author’s fourth novel, “The Satanic Verses,” as a work of blasphemy against Islam, and his call for Rushdie’s death. It’s a portrait of the artist as a young man that describes his influences, obsessions and ambitions as well as his rise in the publishing world. It’s a record of his relocation from Bombay to London to New York, where he settled in 2000. It’s an intimate tale of fathers and sons, of the beginnings and ends of marriages, of friendships and betrayals.

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