This January marks the one year anniversary of my first post on tomsbooks, a short review of John McWhorter’s “Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care,” posted on January 22, 2012. As we all look to the year ahead, I thought I would add a few paragraphs of my thoughts on tomsbooks’ first year.
Over the course of 2012, tomsbooks kept to a fairly rigorous routine of posting a review once every two weeks, with only minor delays and a couple of deadlines narrowly missed. During the year, I reviewed 32 books in 25 separate posts; 15 were newly-written during 2012, 17 were drafted earlier and revised in varying degrees. The Word Press site helpfully provides an Annual Report, which I’ve decided to make public (Word Press allows me to keep it private, but I feel like a corporate big wig compelled to explain to wary shareholders what he did with their money). The report reveals that there were approximately 3700 views of tomsbooks during 2012, coming from 46 countries, with the most from France, followed closely by the United States and Belgium. Almost exactly 100 comments were posted in response to the reviews.
Tomsbooks addressed a fairly wide range of subject matter within the generally narrow framework defined as its area of interest, or AOI: modern history, politics, and political theory (AOI is adopted from a military acronym I learned in 2012, AOR, Area of Responsibility – my daughters, however, prefer their own colorful acronym to describe the books I like to write about, BS, which of course stands for “boring stuff”). The specific topics and subject matter under review seemed to go in streaks and waves. Early on, many of the books were on French history, with a three-book review of the Dreyfus affair; another on French women in Nazi prison camps; and a third on Americans in Paris in the 19th century. But after those early reviews, I went in another direction, reviewing five books on Islam and its compatibility with what we sometimes term Western values. Then, toward the middle of the year, I waded gently into the turbulent waters that marked the US elections, with four books explicitly on American politics: two books on neo-conservatism; one on Jewish-American voting patterns, and a fourth on why the United States never saw a traditional socialist or social democratic movement gain traction. I finished the year with two books on Germany from 1944 to 1950, which together treated the transition from the horrors of Nazism to the efforts to bring Germany back into the world mainstream. In between, I was able to address Russian and Soviet politics and cultural trends in three books and even ventured outside my AOI: in addition to my first post was on English grammar, I also reviewed a book on wine; two on the sad plight of my home city, Detroit; and another on aging in the United States.
At one point in the year, I began to think of tomsbooks as a site written by a Newsweek reader for Newsweek readers and people like them – folks interested in history and politics, but not specialists or academics — but about books that were unlikely to be reviewed in Newsweek. Little did I realize in developing that catchy sound bite that Newsweek as my generation knows it was about to go into the dustbin of history, along with the Edsel, Marxism, and real baseball stadiums. So in 2013, I will have to develop another sound bite to describe tomsbooks, and of course readers are invited to provide their clever suggestions.
Looking back at my reviews of 2012, I find it ironic that the three I consider to have been the most technically proficient might well have been reviewed in Newsweek (challenged by google as well as everything else cyber, I can’t confirm that they were actually reviewed in that forum):
- David McCullough, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris;
- Janny Scott, A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother; and
- Alan Riding, And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris.
Each at least flirted for a time with bestseller lists. If I had to pick the one book which I most enjoyed writing on, it would be Janny Scott’s biography of Barack Obama’s mother, Anne Dunham. Having now voted twice for Dunham’s son, I felt I came to understand him better through the portrait of his mother which Scott provided. Since reading Scott’s book, it is rare that I see the President on TV and don’t think of his mother and the joy she would have experienced had she been lucky enough to live to follow her son’s improbable odyssey to the White House in 2008 and his re-election in 2012, when the odds against him often looked so steep.
The AOI of tomsbooks is not likely to change significantly in 2013. I am hoping, however, that we can garner more comments this year. Many friends tell me that they read the reviews, but I would be very grateful if more would take the time to share their views on the review or its subject matter by posting a comment. The comments must, of course, be “civil and respectful,” as I said here last year. Not surprisingly, every one of the nearly 100 comments posted in 2012 easily met that standard, without a single comment that even approached the forbidden territory of the uncivil and disrespectful. There’s no reason to suspect that 2013 will be any different in that regard. We are by our very nature a civil and respectful lot.
Happy and lucky 2013 to all, with thanks for following tomsbooks in 2012.
4 responses to “tomsbooks@1”
Just read Tom’s description of Frederick Kempe’s history of the superpower negotiations that led to the Soviet Union’s construction of the Berlin wall. I have no way to dispute Kempe’s analysis, that Kennedy — by speaking in terms of West Berlin — signaled a willingness to let the Soviets block off its sector of the city from the three western sectors, in violation of the Yalta and other four-power agreements. But, at least based on the summary, I am not sure that I agree that Kennedy should be castigated for his asserted ineptitude, which of course complements his Bay of Pigs ineptitude. So much for bipastisan government, given his reliance the prior spring on Republican Allen Dulles.
There were a number of factors at work, in addition to the Soviets’ promise to permit Berlin to be governed in occupation as a unified city. The reality was that the way Berlin was structured, the DDR (East Germany) was being bled dry of productive citizens, especially skilled ones. They simply needed to travel to Soviet East Berlin, hop on a subway and get off in a stop in one of the Western sectors and then proceed by one of the open air or land corridors to the DBR (West Germany) proper.
The Soviet Union had no choice but to do something to stop this otherwise uncontrollable bleeding, i.e., its propaganda could go just so far in convincing citizens about how wonderful the social workers’ paradise was. Candidly, the Berlin “problem” meant more to the Soviet Union than its solution meant to the United States.
Did the United States want to risk an armed conflict over Berlin, especially when American foreign policy had evolved (or was evolving into) one encouraging bright lines between the two blocs? Stated differently, the world would be more stable if it was clear whether a given jurisdiction “belonged” to one bloc or the other. In this reasoning, the Soviets were not unhappy with a strong DBR; nor the US with a properly functioning DDR. But where the lines were blurred were also places that potentially led to incitement of unrest and instability — and potentially a not war.
Like statemnts by our professional military during hearings in 1951, related to President Truman’s firing of General MacArthur as commander of United Nations troops in Korea, while there could have then been an opportunity to engage the then new PRC miliarily by crossing the Yallu River, which divided China and North Korea, I think that engaging the Soviets over Berlin in the summer of 1961 would have been the wrong step, at the wrong place and the wrong time.
February 6, 2013
Bob, Thanks for your incisive comments. I think you hit the nail on the head when you say that the “Berlin ‘problem’ meant more to the Soviet Union than its solution meant to the United States.” Kempe comes across in this book at times as a little like the other Dulles, John Foster, a 1950s hardliner pushing for the “rollback” of communism. Kempe is not an ideologue, however, or at least I doubt that he is. He’s DC based, a former President of the Atlantic Council which, from what little I know of it, is bi-partisan and very much a part of the Washington foreign policy establishment. But a point I wanted to include in the review –but ultimately determined that I didn’t have quite the expertise to make – is that Kennedy’s actions on Berlin in ’61 were very much in line with Western actions toward Eastern Europe since Winnie, FDR and Uncle Joe first met in ’43 in Teheran: fairly tough talk, but when push comes to shove, the Western powers would let first Stalin, then his successors have their way. The only time that comes to my mind where the West really stood up to the Soviet Union on Eastern Europe was in the Berlin blockade of ’48 –certainly not in ’53 in Berlin or ’56 in Budapest. Add to that, of course, that 50+ years later, with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, it’s easy to say Kennedy should have been tougher on Berlin. There’s a quotation attributed to Kennedy in Kempe’s book that I thought about including in the review, to the effect that a “wall is way better than a war.” And that’s how he was looking at it in 1961, with a well-founded fear that Khrushchev was a semi-mad man fully prepared to push the nuclear buttons. If we now see that that fear was unwarranted, no one on our side back then was ready to say Khrushchev was all bluster and bluff.
Since you first launched Tombooks and committed yourself to such an academically rigorous book review schedule I have counted myself fortunate to be included in the ‘cyber-equivalent” of your mailing list. The sheer number of reviews over the past year is impressive; but when one considers your detailed treatment of each work along with the variety and daunting subject matter contained in the Tombooks reading room it must be said that you have achieved a feat of stunning proportions.
I have noticed that most of the books you have selected to review are historical. In your latest posting “Closing the Sussex Gate” I noticed that you and author David Caute were clearly captivated by a university hiring selection process which played out in the 1960s. For both of you the event, or non-event, revealed a great deal about the Cold War and how Britain and the United States came to perceive the competing economic frameworks.
How has your work on behalf of the Department of Justice informed your choices of which books to review and have you found that any of the works you have selected to read and analyze impacted your approach to the work you do abroad on behalf of the United States?
Thanks for the nice words, Jay, and also for raising an interesting question, to which the short answer is not much. Only one review thus far has even had marginal relationship to my professional work, in May 2013, a joint review of Misha Glenny’s near best-seller, McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld and a lesser known book on human trafficking, W. Benjamin Skinner’s A Crime so Monstrous: Face to Face with Modern Slavery, reviewed together under the title “Criminals Without Borders.” The link is:
More recently, I read Stephanie Hepburn and Rita Simon’s Human Trafficking Around the World: Hidden in Plain Sight, a book which received a good review in the Washington Post, but one which I decided not to review (it reads like a string of the State Department’s annual human trafficking country reports, of which I have already read more than my fair share). In my “on deck circle” to be read sometime in the near future is Juan Zarate’s Treasury’s War: The Unleashing of a New Era of Financial Warfare which, the jacket tells me, is about America’s war against “financial regimes of rogue regimes, proliferators, terrorist groups and criminal syndicates.” But those are the only four books since I started the blog that touch directly on the work OPDAT does.
But in another, less evident sense, the work of OPDAT and my main reading interest converge. I am fascinated by the notion of democracy, or what is sometimes called liberal democracy. Although he didn’t get everything right, Winston Churchill hit the nail on the head when he said something to the effect of democracy being the worst system of governing, except for the others. No other system offers more opportunity to more people to be what they want to be and have a fighting chance to enjoy at least some level of material prosperity. I’m very interested, for example, in the historical question of why democracy proved so ineffectual during much of the 20th century in Europe, but now dominates the continent; and how and why American democracy self-corrected in the Civil War era, then again in the Civil Rights era, during our lifetimes.
In a way that may not be immediately apparent, the OPDAT mission also bears on questions similar to the above. The broadest reason for which OPDAT assists partner countries in strengthening criminal justice institutions and the rule of law is to help them become more democratic. Deciding civil disputes and imposing criminal sanctions pursuant to fair and recognized procedures is a critical component of the rule of law which, in turn, is a critical component of democratic governance. OPDAT thus has a small but significant part in what is sometimes termed democracy promotion. Just as there are fascinating issues about the nature of democracy in Europe and North America, so too are there such issues in the countries where OPDAT works: most fundamentally, can it exist and gain foothold in countries with little democratic experience, as in Romania and Bulgaria and most if not all of the SELEC countries. Can it gain a foothold in Muslim countries, which do not buy into many basic “Western” values: secularism, equality of women, etc. Or in countries like Benin and Togo, where I am presently working, which were once under the thumb of colonialists who basically took over the country and exploited it for their own ends. Is democracy promotion still another form of Western imperialism, as some have charged? I am very lucky to have had the opportunity to work in a very small way on issues like the above, issues that I also enjoy reading and sometimes writing about.