Books of 2017

OK, so here are some of the best books I read last year.

Gorbachev: His Life and Times, by William Taubman###

Big book, big man, an epic account. Almost a day-by-day telling of his rise and fall. The big thing which struck me was that he didn’t seem to have a plan beyond talking about “reform!”. No actual strategy for changing the USSR’s economy. He seems to have rejected Chinese-style gradualism as inappropriate (perhaps because of bad advice). For all his vision and intelligence, Taubman paints him as thinking the primary duty of governance was making speeches and not paying enough attention to policy detail. Or perhaps the reform challenge was just too overwhelming. Certainly his geriatric colleagues in the standing committee did not have anything to offer - ultimately they could not even organise a successful coup against a man who natural supporters had been alienated long-ago. And as for Yeltsin, Gorbachev appears to have not even considered the self-aggrandizing dull bully as a significant threat.

Fast forward to Beijing 2018, the Chinese “communists” appear to have concluded that their Soviet comrades’ crime was that no one was man enough to fire on the 1989-crowds. General Secretary Xi is said to have just that:

“Why must we stand firm on the Party’s leadership over the military?” Xi continued, “because that’s the lesson from the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the Soviet Union where the military was depoliticized, separated from the Party and nationalized, the party was disarmed. A few people tried to save the Soviet Union; they seized Gorbachev, but within days it was turned around again, because they didn’t have the instruments to exert power. Yeltsin gave a speech standing on a tank, but the military made no response, keeping so-called ‘neutrality.’ Finally, Gorbachev announced the disbandment of the Soviet Communist Party in a blithe statement. A big Party was gone just like that. Proportionally, the Soviet Communist Party had more members than we do, but nobody was man enough to stand up and resist.”


The line from CCP Central is now that the Soviets had lost their “ideals and convictions”. This seems to me to miss the point entirely; the Soviet system was dead on Gorbachev’s arrival - the bureaucracy sclerotic, the elite untalented, the people bored and poor. Even the army and Politburo hardliners seemed to realise that firing on the crowds was not a solution; thus Yeltsin bestriding the tank. Beijing’s latest assault is on “historical nihilism”, CCP-ese for “fake news”, which seems to include any serious discussion of the 1949-78 period. Beijing’s far more successful economy, incentivised bureaucracy and still-generally hopeful public sets China’s Communists up for a very different, and potentially very delayed, ending. Xi-style communism though seems more akin to Brezhnev though - closing down all the interesting art, media, games, scholarship, independent-thought, ramping up the Han nationalism, and blanketing everyone into apparent submission.

Cartel Land, by Don Winslow and A History of Violence, by Oscar Martinez

Well, both these books are gruesome, horrific, and soul-draining. And brilliant. One is jet-fuelled fiction based on what I guess is largely cartel fact, while the other is made up of Martinez’s extraordinary reports from the killing fields of Mexico and other drug-war battlefields. Winslow does what James Ellroy did for 1930-60s America for the 1990-2000s world of US/Mexico/El Salvador/rest-of-cocaine-blighted-Latam. Bad-ass DEA agent goes up against the child-killing drug king-pins and rapist-beheading foot-soldiers. Think Narcos on coke, without any of the humanity. Martinez, author of the brilliant The Beast, takes us to visit with peasants thrown off their land by the cartels and then by the army, to assassins, to insanely-brave politicians standing against the drug tide.

Both these books left me with many of the same thoughts. The hunger for illegal drugs out of the US and Europe has led to the destruction of much of the fabric of Mexico and Central America, funding the most destructive forces in their societies, poisoning their institutions, unleashing unbelievable violence, leveling humanity, forcing tens of thousands of ordinary people to flee north. Without drug legalisation in the US, these states stand little chance. Their only current hope is that the drug business can be monopolised by a single cartel or two, preferably not the psychos who make up state-gangs like Los Zetas, and some kind of peace can be restored. That was, interestingly, the solution proferred by Sicario, the movie. Another conclusion: if the US wants war, it cannot successfully fight with law enforcement methods alone. But putting into play the special forces option brings with it horrible choices too. And that brings to mind Patriot Games, with Harrison Ford mucking around in the Colombian jungle.

Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years, by John Guy

A wonderful read - Elizabeth not as ethereal god/mother/queen, but as hesitant, manipulated, tormented monarch. Brilliant, readable scholarship.

Dodgers, by Bill Beverly

LA gang-kids road-trip story, goes kind of wrong, ends kind of right. Pretty poetic.

White Working Class, by Joan Williams

Let us count the ways we - liberal, university-educated, rich, city professional folk - mis-understand our country-men out in the rural, school-educated, job-working, conservative world. Since Trump and Brexit, there’s not been enough of this kind of explanation. The culture chasm hit home reading this - and given the educational resources city folk are throwing at their kids and the exploitation of rural fears by the far-right, its probably just going to get worse. There is racism, sure, out there. But there is a lot of angst and insecurity too - and if we don’t deal with that, we are doomed. Williams makes many great points in this short treatise, including the insight that it was not “the poor” who voted for Trump en mass, but “the working class” who fear they could become the poor - and don’t understand why tax-resources go mostly to the poor (or at least that’s the perception). Its that “I’ve worked hard but someone else is cutting in line” worry. Policies like “the Wall” are silly in practice, but hugely symbolic; Trump is saying to the working class “I care about you”, not the outsiders, and that resonates. Trump is a lying scam-artist, wholly unqualified to be president. But to fight him you have to take his people away, at least some of them. And that means us liberal city folk have to begin to think about “Wall” policies that signal we really do care.

China’s war with Japan, 1937-1945, by Rana Mitter

Very solid scholarship. The KMT fought the Japanese, while Mao’s CCP hid out in the west, biding their time.

Dictator, by Robert Harris

Remarkable how Harris is able to think and write his way into Cicero’s world. Its a great device, giving us a perch into elite politics - as Julius Caesar gradually wipes out his opposition - but at one remove. The assassins of Brutus, holed up on the hill, fearful to act, ignorant of the public reaction, what a sorry sight. Cicero is pompous, scheming, honourable and mostly-loyal to the end.