When I looked back at the last few weeks, the books I’ve been reading are mostly about war and the threat of it.
Not by design, and hopefully not an omen. It’s incredible to think that, just 22 years ago, Tom Clancy could write a huge best-seller about a weak, insecure Chinese regime that managed to unite the US and Russia—as allies—against her. If you remember those days, it wasn’t far-fetched…then. Now, it looks like the least-likely possible turn-of-events. I wonder why that is?
Here’s what I’ve been into:
“One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khruschev, Castro on The Brink of Nuclear War” by Michael Dobbs (2008) Rightly hailed as one of the best Cuban Missile Crisis accounts ever, Dobbs avoids the tendency to lionize JFK or demonize Nikita K. Both made their share of blunders, but this is a fascinating account of history, military strategy, and even management.
“Great Society: A New History” by Amity Shlaes (2019) I’m a fan of her landmark book about the New Deal (“The Forgotten Man”) and her excellent bio of the underappreciated last champion of small government, Calvin Coolidge. Both of those subjects lend themselves to her most recent book, about the LBJ/Nixon war-on-poverty, where it came from, and where it went wrong. To understand what’s happening in America’s big cities today, you have to read this tragic account of the choice of big government, public sector, socialism over limited government, private-sector, capitalism. Unlike the New Deal, which still has its ardent, numerous defenders, the Great Society today is an orphan no one want to take credit for. But it is still with us.
“The Sixth Commandment” by Lawrence Sanders (1979) I like Sanders novels, but this one actually put me in mind of another favorite author: Ross MacDonald. Sanders’ protagonist, a PI who words for a massive charity, investigates a medical researcher with a world-shattering discovery, and a small town that is united in fear and dependency. Lew Archer would feel right at home, which is to say, completely on-edge, surrounded by conflicted cops, desperate women and, always, the most-admired guy in town who’s actually a basket case.
“The Bear and The Dragon” by Tom Clancy (2000) It’s hard to explain the Clancy phenomenon these days, but for a while in the ’90s and early 2000s, Clancy novels were as ubiquitous in airport terminals as rolling luggage. This is part of his “Jack Ryan” series: Ryan has become president as a result of a massive attack on the US Capitol (yes, a jetliner crashed into it), and his administration uncovers a Chinese plot to invade Siberia and assassinate the pro-Western president of Russia. Oh, and there’s a missile crisis too (see above). Over 1,100 pages that you’ll read like 300.
“The Clocks” by Agatha Christie (1963) Later in her career, the British grand dame of mystery was not above some self-mockery, as you’ll read in this Poirot tale of a murdered man without an identity, in the home of a blind lady, in a room full of clocks she has never owned.
“The Hidden Persuaders” by Vance Packard (1957) A sensation when it was published, and required reading for mass-comm students for many years after, Packard today could be dismissed as anachronistic. He shouldn’t be. As he describes the birth of “depth marketing”, how we are sold on everything from cars to cleaners to candidates, you will recognize modern times and methods. It is eye-opening and riveting, plus the anecdotes about how consumers had to be tricked into buying things like instant coffee, filter cigarettes and ready cake mixes are very cool.
“Blue Skies and Blood” by Edwin P. Hoyt (1975) Blog readers will recognize Hoyt as one of my favorite WW2 historians. In this short, fact-packed history of one wartime moment, he takes us back 80 years to the Battle of the Coral Sea. It was the first true carriers v. carriers conflict, and I think that makes it not only one of that war’s earliest pivot points, but possibly the first battle of current-day naval ideology. Many reviewers at the time remarked that it read more like a novel, but it’s all true.