Will's Staff Favorites
Will is interested in history and current events. In fiction, he's recommending some novels that are either dark or funny or both, and some that offer interesting views of society.
Many Americans choose to believe the myth that the U.S. is a nation-state that is merely defending itself in far-off lands. Immerwahl destroys these illusions in his biting and comprehensive history of America in various stages of Empire. The land grabs and forced removals of the indigenous people "domestically" in the 19th Century expanded to the brutal colonization abroad of the Philippines and Puerto Rico with dire circumstances for the natives. A fascinating and lesser known period of resource extraction from the "guano islands" of the Pacific and Caribbean for fertilizer led to the eventual strategic conversion of some of the islands to military functions and listening posts. The next phase of imperialism culminated in statehood for Alaska and Hawaii. Now, of course, the U.S. occupies over 800 military bases in 80 countries, a troubling situation unique to the world. This brief review merely skims the surface of this wildly readable, fact-filled history where the colonized were "shot, shelled, starved, interned, dispossessed, tortured and experimented on" and has details that most of us don't know and that will surprise many.
McCann uses his poet's eye for describing the people, place, and history behind the 2016 armed occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. He takes the reader down the various ideological and religious rabbit holes that bound together these seemingly superfluous people—armed interlopers who believed themselves to be infuriatingly ignored in an increasingly corporate and global economy. The followers of Ammon Bundy were radicalized by media myths and fueled by Facebook and Youtube; the overlapping conspiratorial ideas that attracted the extralegal posse members pieced together cowboy martyrdom, John Birch screeds, fringe religious beliefs, white supremacy and most commonly sovereign citizenry, which extracts a partial passage from the U.S. Constitution and ignores the context and meaning of the document. As the occupation developed, it resembled a bizarre recreation of Manifest Destiny in which most local Oregonians, but more specifically Native American tribal members (who were, of course, earlier displaced by, among others, ranchers) objected to the takeover of public lands by a self-described patriot movement. The eventual Bundy acquittal in court highlights the arbitrariness of the justice system and has emboldened a cultural movement that has increasingly dangerous consequences as it embeds itself within state and national government and inspires armed, individual actors.
Every so often a book is written that clarifies the world in ways that we experience, yet have previously been unable to lucidly and more fully explain. Zuboff has studied the corporate use of technology and its effects on the marketplace and produced this wonderful, scary, and necessary book. Big Tech corporations have broken apart from the controls of democratic society; in the way that the Industrial Age harnessed and exploited the natural world, now Surveillance Capitalism harnesses human nature itself by renditioning our experiences, dealing in predictive products, and eventually modifying behavior. No longer, argues Zuboff, are we the citizen, the consumer—or the product, even—but after the likes of Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Cambridge Analytica are done with us, we are more akin to an elephant carcass after the poacher has extracted its ivory tusks. (As I write this, there is a startup corporation in England proposing that for $29 they can brainwash any individual that has a Facebook page—not exactly power to the people.) It will take a much more functional democratic society than we currently have to push back against the parasitic and rapacious surveillance capitalists.
This book is a doozy, a colorful history of a specific time and place, which continues to have major implications today. New York in the early 1970s was facing many of the same economic problems as the rest of urban America: simultaneous blows of recession, inflation, and suburban flight sucked revenue out of the city and provided an economic shock that provided the circumstances for the financial sector to impose its will on the political system. In order to ride out the immediate crisis, political choices eventually led to austerity in regards to public spending combined with subsidization of the financial and real estate sectors. These fateful, pressured decisions subsequently provided a blueprint for succeeding decades of neoliberal hegemony. Public good was sacrificed at the altar of the banking industry and economic stratification resulted. The hundred-year-plus practice of free college tuition was hurriedly discontinued and spending on the departments of parks, police, fire--and, famously, sanitation--were all drastically cut, as garbage piled high in the streets. Emblematic of this period was the rise of rich redlining heir, Donald Trump. His real estate projects were gifted with massive local tax abatements (and his subsequent misadventures have been buoyed by federal tax and bankruptcy law). In stark contrast was President Ford's harsh response to the city's request for federal public aid, which was summed up by the iconic '70s newspaper headline, "FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD." Phillips-Fien describes increasing institutional distrust in the wake of austerity measures with examples of major events of the time: garbage strikes, blue flu, and a particularly trenchant comparison of the contrasting political responses to the blackouts of '65 and '77.
Of the myriad of books describing the devastation of working class towns across America, perhaps none better describes the societal and economic failures of late capitalism's transition from industrialism to financialization than Glass House does. Alexander's reportage brings the fight to the doorstep of the people and systems truly responsible: the depraved neoliberal economic policies promoted by Milton Friedman that inspired a generation of politicians and enabled a class of pirating financiers. For much of the 20th century, Lancaster, Ohio, was a quintessential company town essentially run by the locally owned and managed glass factory that hired a large union labor force. With regulations stripped in the 1980s, Anchor Hocking and the people of Lancaster became the prey of a dizzying succession of green-mailers, debt-chasing hedge funders, and distant private equity raiders. Some of the names of the predators that sized-up Lancaster for its stripping apart are all too familiar today: Romney ("consulted" but couldn't close), Icahn (tragically did close on the company's future), Gallo (the ex-Amazon.com President crushed the local schools by extracting an exchange of school funds for a huge corporate tax abatement). The strength of Glass House is its description of each successive generation's further loss of opportunity and education and the resulting deep fall into the traps of poverty, drug addiction and imprisonment. Unlike the more facile and self-serving Hillbilly Elegy, Alexander shows that in Lancaster, "it's not the culture of the people that's the root problem, it's the culture of those who've broken faith with them."
SAD! Cults, Hucksters, Holy Rollers and Snake Oil Salesmen, Oh My! A funny (and scary!) history of our truly exceptional cultural morass (er, I mean Republic, or Shining City on a Hill, or something).
Sometimes one has to leave a place to discover truths that are hidden by its myths and propaganda: in the case of America, fairy tales spun about exceptionalism and indispensability have allowed U.S. imperialism to cause destruction abroad and increasing austerity at home. A highly educated young journalist, Suzy Hansen had to move to Turkey and explore the surrounding region to fully take stock of the corruptions and coups caused by American foreign policy and to realize America’s place in projecting power and creating chaos in world events. Hansen's loss of illusions make her a fascinating guide to empire in relating her own travels--and using James Baldwin's works and experiences as political and cultural touchstones--to examine America’s outsized, almost willful ignorance of the world. Deceptive policy narratives, where foreign occupations and support for right-wing dictatorships are dressed up as modernization and “good intentions abroad”, are created primarily to be sold domestically. These false stories only serve to obscure the measure of American decline in the world and decay at home—a decay made ripe ironically for authoritarian and kleptocratic figures, similar to strongman dictators that America has promoted abroad, that now ominously threaten our own republic. Hansen's engaging work is necessary for our times.
If Franzen's earlier novels showed that all unhappy families are dissimilar, then Purity goes a step further in the 21st Century to show that the nature of the post-middle class family and individual identity are even more of a mystery. Franzen has fun putting his characters into misery again, but this time they have a bit more free will than he normally affords them as they struggle in a larger, perhaps more political landscape. Pip, who is burdened with crushing college debt and haunted by not knowing the identity of her father, leaves her bullshit job selling fake green energy scams to unwitting consumers, and instead follows a path into the hacker world and investigative reporting. And Andreas Wolf is a charismatic hacker who steals the secrets of others while harboring his own. Wolf navigates two separate totalitarian worlds: first in East Germany before the fall, and then later traversing the landscape created by today's massive tech companies. It all makes for a darkly comic, compelling novel. Oh, and there's a missing nuclear warhead, too.
Osborne's compelling story of decadent Westerners carousing at a luxurious villa plopped into the harsh desert of Morocco is one of the fine overlooked novels of the past few years. The descriptions of lavish lifestyles in lush settings contrast with the rigid landscape and the bleak lives of the desert dwellers.The extended weekend-long party allows for a variety of revealing and savage character depictions. Post-Colonial (or really, updated colonial) tribes intersect uneasily, but their contact only yields greater cultural misunderstanding: native and foreigner, Western and Islam, privileged and servant, modern and traditional, European and American, male and female, straight and gay, and importantly rich and poor. But centrally--and fatally--it is the collision of East and West and their disparate values and concepts of justice ("between the two men there existed a mental chasm--centuries of antagonism and mutual ignorance"), that vexes and leads to devastation.
Why do the promotion of market forces and stated efforts to reduce red tape only result in more more bureaucracy, pointless meetings, more paperwork, bullshit affidavits and web-forms, and endless waiting on hold or in "virtual cues"? Anthropologist Graeber explores corporate and government workings in a series of essays that attempt to put the structural violence of bureaucracy in perspective ("Whenever someone starts talking about the "free market" it's a good idea to look around for the man with the gun. He's never far away."). Readers of The Baffler will recognize the expanded essay on technological disappointment: instead of the promise of visionary and potentially useful inventions like robotic maids (or flying cars!), modern society has not only abandoned fanciful dreams when it comes to invention, but has accepted technologies that "furthered labor discipline and social control." Corporate-inspired inventions can now track us, quantify us as consumers, and have created more bureaucratic functions to keep us working longer hours. Even science fiction has shifted from possibility to dystopia. And, finally, Graeber has some fun dissecting popular super-hero movies for their reactionary themes in service of modern bureaucracy.
This anecdotal history of baseball is a gem. Musings--both personal and historical--are intertwined with snippets of Americana, dashes of history, and cultural observations by an urban anthropologist. Flip through the book and randomly read about pissing in the Wrigley Field troughs, Allan Dulles' CIA coups, bubble gum and tobacco rituals, the politics of facial hair, and both religious and ideological attempts to co-opt sport. Or better yet, read it again in the way the author intended and see the connections between Baseball and Machines, Militarism, the Animal World, Nationalism, and the Corporatocracy.
The fall of the Soviet Union left a power vacuum in which organized crime and former KGB agents coalesced in the newly capitalist state.The 2006 London assassination by poison of dissident Alexander Litivinenko served as a lethal threat to Russians who would defy the kleptocratic state and also displayed the willingness of some Western politicians to acquiesce to Putin's authoritarian regime in order to keep new Russian money flowing.Litvinenko had reported on the alliance of Russian mobsters and state actors and he was a potential witness in a related criminal case in Spain.Harding details multiple oafish poisoning attempts and recounts how Litvenenko, while dying in a London hospital, solved his own murder, and how Scotland Yard subsequently followed the radioactive trails to connect the dots.British politicians, however, slow-played the legal proceedings during a period of rapid investment and eventually dodged leveling punishments in deference to Russian capital and power. Over a decade later, as authoritarianism and bloated, predatory tyrants take root in Western governments, the brazenly public murder of Litvinenko may serve as the proverbial canary in the coalmine to those countries who acquiesce to strongmen who issue grave threats against free speech and the rule of law.
Eggers has created a thoughtful--and at times darkly humorous--idea novel that aspires to challenge the all-encompassing corporate rule of the present day, in the way that Orwell confronted the authoritarian state of the previous century.The Circle is an amalgamation of several recognizable tech/marketing/social media companies, which is led by corporation's "3 Wise Men," seemingly benevolent Big Brothers whose twisted Utopian mission involves making everyone's actions transparent to all. Young Circle hire Mae Holland is ecstatic to join the powerful company and she gradually gives up her own identity in a progressive series of Pavlovian work assignments and lifestyle compromises. Mae leans in eagerly to the slick, soft embrace of The Circle, a totalitarian world where those who acquiesce receive material benefits to drape over their hollow, media-addicted lives--but all are subject to a nightmare of surveillance, attacks on privacy, and assaults on human dignity. But, Mae? She wins the victory over herself. Like Winston in 1984, she loved The Circle.
Packer has gathered the stories of Americans across social and economic classes in this narrative history of American institutional decline over the past few decades--a decline that has created a more divided, less equal, and more downwardly mobile country. At the heart of the book, Packer focuses on the quixotic journeys of three people: a laid-off factory worker who becomes a community organizer, a gas station-convenience store owner who reinvents himself into a biofuel evangelist and entrepreneur, and an idealistic political aide turned lobbyist who ditches easy street in a doomed attempt to enact just political reform. Interspersed throughout the stories of these people's adversities, Packer weaves in reportage of some of the major influences of the last quarter century by chronicling the crash of the housing market and the resulting displacement of citizens, the crushing of labor and the manufacturing industry, and the corrupting of the political system. Packer lays the responsibility for institutional failure at the doorstep of "a decadent kleptocracy" and an insulated elite class represented in profiles of celebrities: haughty entertainers (Jay Z. and Oprah), hubris-filled Wall Streeters (Robert Rubin), hustling corporate magnates (Sam Walton), hyperbolic propagandists (Andrew Breitbart), huckstering politicians (Gingrich and Biden), and a huckstered frontman (Colin Powell). The Unwinding is a disturbing examination of the real human and societal costs of late-stage financial capitalism.
No matter ideology or partisanship (or lack thereof), Americans increasingly see government as beholden only to elite interests, the economy as rigged, and politics as mere theater. Lofgren, a self-described moderate Republican who worked as an analyst on Congressional budget committees for almost three decades, spills the beans on the unseemly process of sausage-making. While there is occasional hand-wringing about domestic deficiencies and the accompanying prescription for further austerity, the real spoils are looted by a permanent class that drifts from elected office to Wall Street firms, lobbying outfits, weapon and surveillance contractors, propaganda tanks, obscenely lucrative speaking circuits, and then occasionally back to either elected or appointed high office for victory laps. The nexus of power rests clumsily in the often complimentary interests of the donor class and their various industries, which frequently are at odds with the health of what is now crudely referred to in Washington as the homeland. Lofgren brilliantly dissects the banality of a fraudulent system that effectively seals off democracy, upholds corporate interests over human ones, and promotes perpetual war and occupations as industries from which to profit. And so it goes.
This essential book's power is revealed in it's unique format. Printed on accordion-style paper to reveal 24 drawings that fold out to depict the first day in the Battle of the Somme, Sacco's black-and-white illustrations show the horror of the war by drawing us into details of the battle. Inside the endless trenches, nearby the constant explosions and oddly--both distinct from and very much a part of--military regiment and routine, Sacco beautifully renders the devastation and human toll of the war. Because of the unique nature Sacco's art, this is a book to reflect on small details by yourself, but also to share and observe with others.
The strange and sheltered business of college basketball, where coaches and players alike perilously teeter between personal and professional ruin and waver between adulthood and adolescence, is the setting for this often hilarious and ultimately disturbing novel. A range of character sketches reveal a world where everyone is playing everyone else to get ahead--and the basketball games themselves are a mere backdrop to the often harebrained scheming. Bradburd has exposed the dark, dank underside of a shady business and has seemingly picked up a rock to expose the creatures that slither out: venal coaches, dishonest recruiters, opportunistic administrators, and disloyal teammates.Make It, Take It is a wisely funny novel with a jaundiced view of a very American social institution.
The extensive 2010 military public relations campaign waged in order to expand the Afghanistan War (specifically modeled after the failed counter-insurgency tactics used originally in Algeria by the French in the 1950's, and then again disastrously a half-century later in Iraq by the U.S.) is the basis for this outstanding reporting on U.S. military leaders run amok.
Hastings, a Rolling Stone reporter, was recruited by General Stanley McChrystal's bloated entourage to write an article that they were sure, with the usual public relations massaging, would celebrate the great man facade and make McChrystal a "rock star" warrior for mass adulation. Instead, what Hastings uncovered was a military culture that has become increasing separate from and unchecked by an easily-manipulated civilian leadership, a complicit press, and an indifferent American citizenship.
Sadly, Hastings concludes that in the last decade "we were fighting the wrong war, in the wrong way, in the wrong country." And yet, many of the military elite (as well as a sycophantic U.S. press corps) used the war to advance their careers, their pocketbooks, and their public standing at the horrible cost of the many. And so it goes.
This grand Icelandic epic is one of my favorite novels. Steeped in myth and darkly comic, the story involves an improverished sheep farmer's heroic but ludicrous battle for independence from the large-scale farmers, bankers and politicians that exploit the peasants at every opportunity. The farmer's absurd stubornness is matched only by his daughter's struggle to be independent from him. The novel successfully balances scathing satire with the compassionate conviction that "the source of the greatest song is sympathy." --Will
With beguiling wit and a compellingly bizarre plot, Under the Skin turns the crank on contemporary society in this dark, and at times comic, parable. Male hitchhikers are being picked up for the ride of their lives. As the nightmarish story unfolds, a wide range of social ills are held up to a looking glass: the randomness and harshness of society to its most disenfranchised, the evil of multinational corporations, the inability to make moral decisions in an amoral world, and the failure to recognize the natural beauty of the places we inhabit. This eerie novel will not only keep you up at night while you are reading it, but will also haunt you long after you have finished.--Will
Ever since his brilliant debut, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, Richard Powers has established himself as one of the most interesting contemporary novelists. Gain alternates between two narratives: the background tale involves the growth of a business over two centuries from a family-run soap company to a multinational conglomerate: the foreground story centers on a woman's discovery that her ovarian cancer may be linked to that corporation's growth. Powers adroitly manages to make the evolution of American business entertaining, while he devastatingly describes the underbelly of the American dream.--Will
Lightman uses touches of dark humor and echoes of Kafka while weaving a variety of storytelling techniques (from email messages to Socratic lessons) to capture the frenzy of the information age. The main character alternately experiences memory loss, numbness, and paralysis as he futilely pursues a “diagnosis,” instead of the latest incarnation of the American Dream.--Will