With the semester concluding, I feel it is time to upload some more book reviews. I apologize for not doing this more regularly, but the past few months have been a tad more hectic than usual. The good news is that I have still had time to read, so I’ve got plenty of books to review. As usual, I will not review everything, but I hope to cover a good number of books over the next few weeks.
1. Can it Happen Here? Authoritarianism in America (edited by Cass Sunstein): This is a great edited volume and a good book. As with every edited volume, some of the essays are incredibly captivating and insightful while others are disappointing and poorly written. Happily, the vast majority of the essays contained within Sunstein’s newest work are absolutely worth reading. As the title suggests, the book grapples with the problems posed by increasingly radical elements within the U.S. This is admittedly a somewhat tired subject, but the sheer diversity of topics and views within Can it Happen Here? ensures that most of the content is novel and multidisciplinary, making it a valuable addition to anyone’s library. Perhaps the most interesting takeaway for me was the largely sanguine views of those who contributed to the book: As many of you are likely aware, I’m fairly certain that the threats of populism and authoritarianism are overblown, but I honestly thought this was a contrarian view. Alas, I seem to be closer to the modal view than I assumed. Don’t feel that this consensus means the book is not worth reading, though, as each chapter approaches the question from very different perspectives and frameworks. I don’t think it is worth really delving into the content because of the book’s idiosyncratic nature; there is no central thesis, after all. However, I will say that the best chapters are those written by Posner, Cowen, Goldsmith, and Stone while the worst ones are those by Power, Ginsburg and Huq, and Minow. I nevertheless recommend reading the book cover to cover, as even the most well-read comparativist and Americanist will glean a great deal from this timely work.
2. The Weapons Wizards: How Israel Became a High-Tech Military Superpower (by Yaakov Katz and Amir Bohbot): Unfortunately, I found this to be a very disappointing read. To be fair, it began promisingly, and some of the arguments advanced in the introductory chapter seem plausible and worth investigating. For example, I found the contention that IDF success is based largely on Israel’s informal culture and the close ties between military units and private companies to be quite compelling. Some of the other arguments, such as the value of Israeli chutzpah, seemed a tad underdefined, but I generally find cultural arguments to be overly maligned and was thus willing to give the authors the benefit of the doubt here. Despite the promising setup, the rest of the book was a shambles: There was no coherent research design, and the case studies seemed ad hoc and more interested in promoting Israeli exceptionalism than rigorously determining the factors that undergird Israel’s impressive military success. Indeed, several parts of the book seem closer to propaganda than disinterested analysis. The book also fails to develop the historical background necessary to accurately assess the IDF’s success in doctrinal development, organizational principles, and operational tactics. And, perhaps most surprisingly, there is effectively no discussion of American military aid, which both undermines the credibility of the authors’ thesis and supports my belief that this is mostly nationalistic propaganda as opposed to serious analytical work. I suspect I’m partly to blame for my disappointment, as I am overly conditioned to expect social science research papers. I nonetheless think that this book is absolutely not worth the money or time, and it will likely only enrage those with a nuanced view of the Jewish State.
3. Gorbachev: His Life and Times (by William Taubman): This is an absolutely fantastic book that is full of interesting nuggets sure to enrich one’s understanding of Gorbachev and the empire he led. Taubman’s extensive interviews with Gorbachev really help to add nuance and detail to our understanding of the General Secretary’s worldview and motivations, and his clear command of the secondary source literature allows him to weave everything into a coherent and holistic narrative. I particularly enjoyed the discussion of Gorbachev’s family life – his wife Raisa is likely one of the most intelligent and impressive individuals I’ve ever encountered – and internal politicking. I also think that one can learn much about Soviet society from extrapolating from Gorbachev’s life: He was able to leverage the social mobility afforded by the communist system to quickly rise through the ranks, but his personal experience in the agrarian hinterland imbued him with a sense of skepticism toward the whole communist project, which likely contributed to his reformist tendencies. Finally, as many other reviewers have also noted, I was stunned by the lack of attention Gorbachev gave to matters of foreign policy. In light of many American’s overly simplistic views on the end of the Cold War – usually giving way too much credit to American foreign policy – I think this fact is particularly important to note. There are a few minor problems with the book due to it still being in its first edition – several typos can be found among its pages and there are a few factual errors – but these are minor and easily overlooked. Most reviews I’ve seen assess this to be one of the best books of the year, and I absolutely agree.