When I thought back to the past few weeks, the books I read were mostly about war and its threat.
Not by design, and hopefully not an omen. It’s amazing to think that just 22 years ago Tom Clancy could write a huge bestseller about a weak and insecure Chinese regime that managed to unite the United States and Russia – as a allies – against her. If you remember those days, it wasn’t far-fetched…so. Now, that looks like the least likely turn of events possible. I wonder why?
Here’s what I’ve been into:
“One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, Castro on the Verge of Nuclear War” by Michael Dobbs (2008) Rightly hailed as one of the best accounts of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Dobbs eschews the tendency to idolize JFK or demonize Nikita K. Both have made their share of mistakes, but it’s a compelling account of the history, military strategy and even management.
“Great Society: A New History” by Amity Shlaes (2019) I’m a fan of his landmark New Deal book (“The Forgotten Man”) and his excellent biography of the last underrated champion of small government, Calvin Coolidge. Both of these topics lend themselves to his most recent book, about the LBJ/Nixon war on poverty, where it came from and where it went wrong. To understand what is happening in major American cities today, you must read this tragic account of the choice of big government, the public sector, socialism over limited government, the private sector, capitalism. Unlike the New Deal, which still has its strong and many supporters, the Great Society today is an orphan for which no one wants to take credit. But he is still with us.
“The Sixth Commandment” by Lawrence Sanders (1979) I love Sanders novels, but this one made me think of another favorite author: Ross MacDonald. Sanders’ protagonist, a private investigator who talks about a massive charity, investigates a medical researcher with a shocking discovery and a small town united in fear and addiction. Lew Archer would feel right at home, which is to say completely nervous, surrounded by conflicted cops, desperate women and, always, the most admired guy in town who is actually a hopeless case.
“The Bear and the Dragon” by Tom Clancy (2000) It’s hard to explain the Clancy phenomenon these days, but for a time in the ’90s and early 2000s, Clancy’s novels were as ubiquitous in airport terminals as rolling luggage. It’s part of his “Jack Ryan” series: Ryan became president following a massive attack on the US Capitol (yes, an airliner crashed there), and his administration uncovers a Chinese plot to invade Siberia and assassinate the pro-Western President of Russia. Oh, and there’s also a missile crisis (see above). Over 1,100 pages that you’ll read like 300.
“The Clocks” by Agatha Christie (1963) Later in her career, Britain’s leading mystery lady was not above self-mockery, as you’ll read in this Poirot account of an unidentified man murdered in the house of a blind lady, in a room full of clocks she never owned.
“The Hidden Persuasors” by Vance Packard (1957) A sensation when published and required reading for students of mass communication for many years after, Packard Today might be dismissed as anachronistic. It shouldn’t be. As he describes the birth of “in-depth marketing,” how we’re sold on everything from cars to cleaners to candidates, you’ll recognize modern times and methods. It’s eye-opening and captivating, and the stories of how consumers must have been tricked into buying things like instant coffee, filter cigarettes, and ready-made cake mixes are very cool.
“Blue Sky and Blood” by Edwin P. Hoyt (1975) Blog readers will recognize Hoyt as one of my favorite WWII historians. In this short, factual story of a moment of war, he takes us back 80 years to the Battle of the Coral Sea. This was the first real carrier-vs-carrier conflict, and I think that makes it not only one of the first pivot points of that war, but perhaps the first battle of current naval ideology. Many critics at the time remarked that it read more like a novel, but it’s all true.