First, a confession. I have not read Thomas Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century, even though I went to high school with the guy who translated the book from French to English. I've read lots of reviews from different perspectives, so I feel like I've already read the book. But the truth is I haven't done the work. I could make this my New Year's resolution, but I'm not sure I want to set myself up for disappointment.
But there are three books that I haven't gotten around to reading this year but that I definitely intend to read in 2015. The first is Hector Tobar's Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free. I really enjoyed Tobar's novel, The Tattooed Soldier, as well as his reporting for the Los Angeles Times. (He once spoke to my community organizing class about his stories exposing LA's slumlords). The second book is Frank Bardacke's Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers. This is not only a history of the UFW but also a first-hand account of the lives and work of the people who pick our food under brutal, dehumanizing conditions. The third book on my "to do" list is Doris Kearns Goodwin's The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism. It describes the ties between progressive era activists, muckraking journalists, and reform-minded politicians who, in different ways, challenge the growing influence of America's corporate titans.
This is not a "50 best books of 2014" list. It is my personal and idiosyncratic list of books I found interesting and/or fun to read (or in a few cases, re-read) and that I think others will enjoy, too. Some of these books were published in 2013 or even 2012 but I just got around to reading them this year. They include fiction and non-fiction. They cover the gamut, including books about sports, sociology, history, politics, and other topics, including quite a few biographies and autobiographies.
Sasha Abramsky, The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives -- This lively, well-written book is part travelogue among America's poor and part sociological analysis of why we have so much misery amid so much affluence. It reminds me of George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier and Michael Harrington's The Other America. All three are books of moral outrage and journalistic description.
Sasha Abramsky, The House of Twenty Thousand Books - In 1969, on a whim, I took a course on Jewish history at University College-London taught by Chimen Abramsky. The course was way over my head but I enjoyed listening to Abramsky's lectures, given in a thick Jewish accent. At the time I knew nothing about the man's fascinating life. Now, thanks to this book by his grandson, I've learned that Abramsky he was an extraordinary historian and bibliophile, a world-renowned student of Marxism as well as Jewish history, and the center of a global network of scholars and activists. The book is part history (about his grandparents' background and their social, political, and intellectual milieu) and part memoir (about how Sasha absorbed that world of matzo balls and Marxism in his grandparents' London home). The book won't be published in the U.S. until the end of 2015, but you can buy it now through Amazon UK. Sasha Abramsky has also produced a five-minute video about the book that is worth watching on its own. It will surely whet your appetite to read the book.
Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness - This book made a big splash when it appeared two years ago. I re-read it a few weeks ago when I was preparing to speak at a teach-in at Occidental College about the epidemic of killing of black men (Michael Brown, Eric Garner, etc) by local police. It is a brilliant indictment of the racism of our society and our criminal justice system.
Elizabeth Bradley and Lauren Taylor, The American Health Care Paradox: Why Spending More is Getting Us Less - Why do many other countries spend less on health care but have healthier populations than the United States? The authors document that social and economic conditions have a bigger impact on our health than the provision of medical care. If we spent more addressing these conditions - including public health, environmental, and economic inequities - we could spend less on crisis-oriented medical care. This book isn't as much fun as Michael Moore's documentary, "Sicko," but it is filled with facts and insights that will keep you reading.
Ellen Cassedy, We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust -- Before the Holocaust, Lithuania (where my grandmother was born) had a large and thriving Jewish community, despite widespread anti-semitism. During the Holocaust, Lithuanians were known for collaborating with genocide, which destroyed all but a tiny remnant of Jewish life. Cassedy visited the country to explore her own roots and to see if there was any hope for reconciliation and renewal. This eloquent, beautifully written narrative will surprise you and open your heart.
Dorothy Sue Cobble, Linda Gordon, and Astrid Henry, Feminism Unfinished: A Short, Surprising History of American Women's Movements - This sweeping history of American feminism challenges the conventional wisdom. It is filled with hidden gems about the class, racial, and political differences within the women's movements and recovers some of the lost history of fascinating people and events that influenced the various wings of women's rights activism over the past century.
Robert Cottrell, Two Pioneers: How Hank Greenberg and Jackie Robinson Transformed Baseball -- and America -- Greenberg and Robinson were pioneers on and off the baseball field. In confronting anti-semitism and racism, they not only changed baseball but they also changed American society by challenging stereotypes and speaking out against bigotry. Not surprisingly, Greenberg was one of the few white ballplayers who supported and encouraged Robinson when he entered the major leagues in 1947.
Don DeLillo, Pafko at the Wall: A Novella -- This short novel describes the lives and activities of everyday New Yorkers during the 1951 National League play-offs between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants. The key event in that drama was Bobby Thomson's famous 9th inning walk-off home run that won the pennant for the Giants. This book is a revised version of the prologue of DeLillo's huge novel, Underworld. One could view this as a rip-off, but Pafko at the Wall is so well-written that it is worth reading on its own, even if you aren't a baseball fan. The real story of Thomson's feat - including the controversy around an allegation that he was the beneficiary of a sign-stealing arrangement - is told in Joshua Prager's gripping 2008 book, The Echoing Green: The Untold Story of Bobby Thomson, Ralph Branca and the Shot Heard Round the World.
Tom Diaz, The Last Gun: Changes in the Gun Industry Are Killing Americans and What It Will Take to Stop It -- The gun lobby isn't as powerful as many journalists and politicians think it is, but in politics, perception is power. Diaz not only tells the inside story of the National Rifle Association and its gun industry allies but also explains what it will take to defeat the gun lobby.
Paul Dickson, Bill Veeck: Baseball's Greatest Maverick -- Veeck, who at different times owned the St. Louis Browns, Cleveland Indians, and Chicago White Sox, was probably the only socialist to own a major league baseball team. (He voted several times for Norman Thomas, socialist candidate for president). Veeck was a brilliant entrepreneur and showman who preferred sitting in the bleachers to the box seats. This biography reveals Veeck's battles with his fellow owners and the many innovations (some pretty wacky) he brought to baseball.
Michael Stewart Foley, Front Porch Politics: The Forgotten Heyday of American Activism in the 1970s and 1980s -- This period of American history gets a bad rap. It is often identified as the disco decade and the "me" decade. But, in reality, it was a period of escalating activism and protest that built on and extended the movements of the 1960s. The 1970s and 1980s included grassroots movements around ending nuclear war and nuclear power, gay liberation, women's equality, Vietnam, agribusiness' attack on family farms, community organizing for tenants rights and against gentrification, and many other causes.
Joshua Freeman, American Empire: The Rise of a Global Power, the Democratic Revolution at Home 1945-2000 - This is the best history of postwar America, when the U.S. became the world's most powerful and affluent nation, but still had to confront its fundamental contradictions. Freeman charts the astounding rise of the labor movement and its pitched battles with big businesses, the Cold War, McCarthyism, and the Red Scare, civil rights, women's rights, and environmental activism, the New Left and the struggles over the Vietnam war, and the challenges by Third World nations seeking independence.
Dana Greene, Denise Levertov: A Poet's Life -- I was fortunate to know Levertov for a few years when we both taught at Tufts in the 1970s. We worked together on several political projects and I enjoyed her wonderful enthusiasm for life and her great sense of humor. I'm embarrassed to admit that although she was one of the greatest American poets of the 20th century, and I attended a few of her readings, I didn't know much about her background and I knew very little about her poetry. So I was pleased to read this engrossing biography that captures her remarkable life as a person, a poet, and an activist.
Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding: A Novel -- Many of America's greatest novelists and novels have drawn on baseball for inspiration. Harbach's first novel follows that tradition, but you don't have to love baseball to love this warmhearted story. Centered on a college campus, it revolves around the lives of five people whose secrets, hopes, ambitions, anxieties, and loves will keep you engrossed from beginning to end.
William P. Jones, The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights - Jones reminds us that the modern civil rights movement, including the 1963 March on Washington, was led by socialists and radicals, who understood the necessity of building a coalition between the civil rights and labor movements in order to win social and economic equality for African Americans.
Richard D. Kahlenberg and Moshe Marvit, Why Labor Organizing Should Be a Civil Right - We're in the midst of a resurgence of worker organizing in America, but our nation's outdated and one-sided labor laws make all efforts to win union victories an uphill battle. Kahlenberg and Marvit explain why a strong labor movement is necessary to address the nation's economic hard times and outline a new legal strategy to level the playing field between workers and employers.
Michael Katz, The Undeserving Poor: America's Enduring Confrontation with Poverty -- Katz completed a major update of his classic book shortly before he died earlier this year. This is social history at its best. Katz excavates the political and ideological battles over what we should do to lift people out of poverty and into the middle class. Like a good drama, it is filled with fascinating people - politicians, writers, policy wonks, activists, academics, philanthropists, and journalists - who have shaped how we view the poor and what we should do about poverty.
Ira Katznelson, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time -- It is easy to look back and think that the coming of the New Deal, in the midst of the severe Depression, was inevitable. But, in fact, FDR has plenty of opposition from business, ideological conservatives, and racists who viewed New Deal reforms as an opening wedge toward government control of business, racial integration, and even socialism. In this masterful history, Katznelson describes what it took - mass protest, political maneuvering, and reluctant compromises - to get Congress to enact New Deal legislation.
Harvey Kaye, The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great - Kaye has a different take on the New Deal. He shows how FDR helped to restore Americans' confidence in their country and their government by appealing to their hopes rather than their fears. Kaye focuses on FDR's famous "four freedoms" speech as the foundation of all subsequent progressive reforms.
Lane Kenworthy, Social Democratic America -- Drawing on the successes of European and even Canadian social democracies, Kenworthy shows how a more generous and better-designed set of government policies can improve living standards, security, and opportunity for Americans. You won't find a better summary of what's needed, but this is a book about policy, not politics. Although he documents that public opinion favors this bold progressive agenda, it says little about how to create the political will to get elected officials to translate these ideas into laws.
David Kirp, Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America's Schools -- There's a sensible way to rebuild public education and close the achievement gap for all students. As Kirp shows, this is precisely what's happening in a most unlikely place -- Union City, New Jersey, a poor, crowded Latino community just across the Hudson from Manhattan. The school district -- once one of the worst in the state -- has ignored trendy reforms in favor of proven game-changers like quality early education, a word-soaked curriculum, and hands-on help for teachers. Union City kids are achieving just as much as suburban students in reading, writing, and math. Nearly ninety percent of Union City's high school students are earning their diplomas and sixty percent of them are going to college. As Kirp writes, Improbable Scholars offers a "playbook, not a prayer book" for school reform.
Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate -- Climate change is the defining issue of our era. If we don't fix it, nothing else will matter. Klein is hopeful that campaigns to divest from fossil fuel companies, to stop the Keystone pipeline, and to invest in green jobs and public transit will not only improve the environment but also challenge corporate power and raise awareness about the dangers of unregulated economic growth.
Mark Kurlansky, Ready For a Brand New Beat: How "Dancing in the Street" Became the Anthem for a Changing America -- In 1964, Marvin Gaye, record producer William "Mickey" Stevenson, and Motown songwriter Ivy Jo Hunter wrote "Dancing in the Street." The song was by Martha and the Vandellas, with lead singer Martha Reeves arranging her own vocals. The song was supposed to be about the joyousness of dance, but events overtook it. It soon became an icon of American pop culture as well as a symbol of racial rebellion. This book is not only a history of a great song. It is an archeology of American culture. Kurlansky describes the many factors - the great black migration out of the South, changes in recording technology, Motown, urban racial segregation, the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the blues, jazz, and gospel music, and others - that led to the song's creation and its enduring popularity.
Robert Kuttner, Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility -- Over the past year, a grassroots movement has emerged to address the epidemic of consumer debt, including millions of "underwater" homeowners victimized by predatory loans, students overwhelmed by costly college loans, and families over-extended on their credit cards. Kuttner explains how we got into this mess. He challenges a cherished tenet of today's financial orthodoxy: that spending less, refusing to forgive debt, and shrinking government--"austerity"--is the solution to our economic crisis. Government debt isn't the problem. It is workers and consumers who have shouldered the burden of belt-tightening. They've had to borrow to make up for lagging wages and rising costs (including increased corporate profits). Corporations get to use bankruptcy to walk away from debt. Banks get bailed out by taxpayers. Kuttner shows that we need more public borrowing and investment to revive a depressed economy, and more debt forgiveness of ordinary Americans. Many of Kuttner's themes are echoed in House of Debt: How They (and You) Caused the Great Recession, and How We Can Prevent It from Happening Again by Atif Mian and Amir Sufi, economists at Princeton and Chicago, respectively.
Chris Lamb, Conspiracy of Silence: Sportswriters and the Long Campaign to Desegregate Baseball - Everyone knows that Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color line in 1947. But few people know about the bold inter-racial movement that laid the foundation for Robinson's achievement. Progressive and left-wing activists, radical journalists, and the Black press led the effort to desegregate baseball. The campaign was one of the most important civil rights stories of the 1930s and 1940s. Most white Americans knew nothing about this story because mainstream newspapers said little about the color line and less about the efforts to end it. Lamb shows how white mainstream sportswriters perpetuated the color line by participating in what their black counterparts called a "conspiracy of silence".
Paul Loeb, The Impossible Will Take a Little While: Perseverance and Hope in Troubled Times -- Loeb has thoroughly updated his book but it remains an upbeat antidote to cynicism and apathy. What keeps us going when times get tough? How have the leaders and unsung heroes of world-changing political movements persevered in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds? In the tradition of Studs Terkel, Loeb let's people talk for themselves, describing what's it's like to go up against Goliath--whether South African apartheid, Mississippi segregation, Middle East dictatorships, or the corporations driving global climate change.
David Maraniss, Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero -- Roberto Clemente was baseball's first Latino super-star. But his athletic accomplishments didn't stop the racism he faced on and off the field, including among teammates, fans, and especially many sportswriters. Like Jackie Robinson, he used his celebrity to speak out on social issues. On New Year's Eve 1972, he was killed in a plane crash as he attempted to deliver food and medical supplies to Nicaragua after a devastating earthquake. Maraniss captures Clemente's life and times, his baseball heroics, the obstacles he overcame, and his commitment to helping others. He also uncovered documents that reveal the negligence that led to Clemente's death in an uninspected, overloaded plane.
Michael Moss, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us -- Every year, the average American eats 33 pounds of cheese and 70 pounds of sugar. Every day, we ingest 8,500 milligrams of salt, double the recommended amount, almost none of which comes from the shakers on our table. It comes from processed food. Americans are addicted to foods that cause dangerous and costly health problems, shorten their lives and kill them. In this muckraking expose, Moss explains why by focusing on both the greed and the creativity of the food industry, which makes $1 trillion in annual sales. He names names -- Kraft, Coca-Cola, Lunchables, Frito-Lay, Nestlé, Oreos, Capri Sun, and many more - and shows how the industry misuses advertising and science to hook us, and campaign donations to keep government off their backs. If you liked Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation - which focused on the abusive working conditions of agricultural, slaughterhouse, and food processing workers as well as the quality of our diets -- you'll enjoy this book. Public health, consumer, and workers rights groups are winning some battles in their war with agribusiness and food manufacturers, but it is an uphill fight
David Owen, The Conundrum -- What would an environmental sustainable society look like? Owen, a writer for The New Yorker, explores this question by challenging the conventional wisdom and quick fixes. It isn't enough to recycle, drive Priuses, and use the right light bulbs and showerheads. The Conundrum is filled with fascinating information and anecdotes about the history of energy and the quest for efficiency, which Owen says is a major part of the problem. We already have the technology and knowledge we need to live sustainably. The problem, he says, is our over-consumption and making consumer goods more "efficiently" doesn't address this addiction. But Owen pays too little attention to how corporations feed our addiction to fossil fuels and use their political influence to thwart reform. For that perspective, read Klein's This Changes Everything.
Miriam Pawel, The Crusades of Cesar Chavez: A Biography - Chavez was an inspiring organizer and charismatic leader, but he wasn't a saint. Pawel shows that the cult-of-personality surrounding Chavez made it difficult for the United Farm Workers to sustain their many victories in the fields, among consumers, and in the political world. She describes the UFW's internal conflicts that ultimately weakened the organization, preventing many dynamic and committed rank-and-file leaders and staffs from fulfilling their potential within the union. One of the lessons of Pawel's book is the importance of training and empowering grassroots leaders and to embrace what organizer Ella Baker called "group leadership."
Laura Pulido, Laura Barraclough, and Wendy Cheng, A People's Guide to Los Angeles -- This isn't the tourist guide that the LA Chamber of Commerce wants you to read. It is, instead, a guide to the city's progressive history. During the Depression, the WPA funded writers to conduct oral histories and write guidebooks about different cultures and communities that included bottom-up struggles. Those days are long gone, but Pulido, Barrachlough, and Cheng have captured the spirit of those earlier guides. Their book documents 115 little-known sites where struggles around racial, class, gender, and neighborhood injustice took place. If you want to learn about LA's proud history of labor, civil rights, anti-war and other progressive movements, this is the place the start. The authors introduce us to people and events usually ignored by mainstream media but which have made LA a more inclusive, democratic, and livable city. Every city should be so fortunate to have a book like this.
Diane Ravitch, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools - Historian Ravitch, a former US. Assistant Secretary of Education, is now our leading critic of what she calls the "billionaires boys club" - folks like Bill Gates, the Walton family, Rupert Murdoch, and Eli Broad who use their wealth and political influence to turn public schools into business opportunities. They call it "school reform" but it is really about privatization - charter schools, high-stakes testing, bashing teachers and their unions - and draining students and funding from our public schools. Ravitch makes clear what is right about public education, how policy makers are failing to address the root causes of educational failure, and how we can fix it.
Michael Reich, Ken Jacobs, and Miranda Dietz, When Mandates Work: Raising Labor Standards at the Local Level -- We're currently witnessing a burgeoning movement of low-wage workers (for Walmart, fast-food chains, hotels, janitorial companies, etc) demanding a living wage in their workplaces and through City Hall. One of their biggest successes occurred earlier this year in Seattle, which adopted a $15/hour municipal minimum wage. Now more and more cities want to emulate Seattle, and business groups are worried. Local Chambers of Commerce warn that local laws that raise wages will "kill" jobs and destroy the economy. In this accessible, easy-to-read primer, economists Reich, Jacobs and Dietz explain why these business lobby groups are crying wolf.
Pietra Rivoli, The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy: An Economist Examines the Markets, Power and Politics of the World Trade - Last year more than a thousand Bangladeshi garment workers, making clothes for Walmart and other global retailers, were killed when their factory collapsed. The tragedy revealed the dark side of globalization. Multinational corporations scour the globe to get their toys, clothes and other consumer products made at the lowest possible cost. The result is widespread poverty, misery, injury, and, in some cases, death. In this engrossing, readable book, Rivoli chronicles the round-the-world odyssey of a T-shirt, from Texas cotton-growers to an African used-clothing bazaar, to reveal how the global economy really works. Rivoli isn't as hard on global corporations like Walmart as he should be, but you can read between the lines and recognize that decisions made in corporate board rooms often have tragic human and environmental consequences, especially when governments - in the U.S., China, Bangladesh, Mexico, and elsewhere - look the other way.
Adam Rome, The Genius of Earth Day: How a 1970 Teach-In Unexpectedly Made the First Green Generation - Just like the Southern student sit-ins in 1960, the first Earth Day in 1970 seemed to come out of nowhere. Both efforts could have quickly become one-shot protests, but thanks to talented organizers they instead became transformational moments, launching movements that changed American society and culture. Thousands of Earth Day organizers and participants devoted their lives to the environmental cause. Earth Day helped build a lasting eco-infrastructure--lobbying organizations, environmental beats at newspapers, environmental-studies programs, ecology sections in bookstores, and community ecology centers. Read Rome's book along with Robert Gottlieb's 2005 groundbreaking book, Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement, which links the contemporary environmental movement to earlier progressive movements for workers' rights, consumer protection, and urban social reform.
Fred Ross Sr., Axioms for Organizers -- Fred Ross Sr. was one of America's most accomplished community organizers, training generations of ordinary people in the tools of democracy. He pulled together many insights and helpful tips in this book, which his son Fred Ross Jr. (also a brilliant organizer) has now republished and updated. This small book packs a powerful punch. It belongs on the bookshelves of every activist, regardless of the cause.
Rob Ruck, Raceball: How the Major Leagues Colonized the Black and Latin Game -- After peaking at 27% of all major leaguers in 1975, African Americans now make up less than one-tenth--a decline unimaginable in other men's pro sports. The number of Latin Americans, by contrast, has exploded to over one-quarter of all major leaguers and roughly half of those playing in the minors. After reading this book, you'll never look at the business of baseball in the same way. Ruck presents the hard facts of Major League baseball's racist history, from its demolition of the Negro Leagues (without providing owners and players adequate compensation) to the exploitation of desperate players in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and other Latin countries. He traces the forgotten link between the great Negro baseball stars, including Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, and their Caribbean counterparts touring outside the U.S. in the 1940s. This is an eye-opening and wonderfully written expose of the "American pastime."
Bernie Sanders, The Speech: A Historic Filibuster on Corporate Greed and the Decline of Our Middle Class -- On Friday, December 10, 2010, Bernie Sanders stood on the Senate floor and galvanized millions of Americans with an eight-and-a-half-hour filibuster decrying a deal that preserved tax cuts for the super-rich and all it symbolized. He talked about corporate greed, the bankrupting of the middle class, and the outrageous political influence of big business. If you're going to a dinner party with conservatives, read this book first. It is filled with facts, anecdotes, and arguments that will provide you with enough talking points to last until the dessert is done.
Daniel Schulman, Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America's Most Powerful and Private Dynasty -- How has the right wing of America's business elite gained so much power? Schulman chronicles how Charles and David Koch took over Koch Industries from their father (a founder of the John Birch Society), built it into one of the largest private corporation in the world, and used their fortune to inject their ultra-conservative (and self-serving) views into the American political mainstream by funding right-wing politicians, publications, think tanks, and advocacy groups and organizing other billionaires to join them in the cause. The Kochs have been able to accomplish this because America's ruling class is no longer as politically and ideologically cohesive as it once was. Despite the efforts of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable to speak on behalf of the entire business community, most individual corporations and industry lobby groups look out for themselves rather the long-term interests of "the system." That's what Richard Nixon was complaining about in 1974 when he told the New York Times that the trouble with the country is the weakness and division among "the leaders of industry, the bankers, the newspapers." Nixon observed that "The people as a whole can be led back to some kind of consensus if only the leaders can take hold of themselves." In his new book, The Fracturing of the American Corporate Elite, Mark Mizruchi appears to agree with Nixon. His book challenges the view, voiced by Occupy Wall Street and many other academics, that in recent decades big business has become better-organized and more politically adept. That's what Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson argue in their must-read analysis, Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer--and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class. Or perhaps the corporate establishment has moved so far to the right that the Koch brothers are no longer on the lunatic fringe.
Pete Seeger, Pete Seeger: His Life in His Own Words -- With Pete's permission, sociologist Rob Rosenthal and musician Sam Rosenthal spent more than a year dumpster diving through the filing cabinets and boxes in Seeger's home in Beacon, New York. They pulled together Pete's best writings - articles for magazines like Sing Out!, book excerpts, letters, Congressional testimony, notes and memos - and put them between two covers along with biographical background to put Pete's words in their historic context. One of the great byproducts of this lovely book is that Pete agreed to appear on The Colbert Report to promote it. As a result, you can watch his awe-inspiring interview with Steven Colbert, and his performance of "Quite Early Morning" and (with Colbert singing along) "If I Had a Hammer." This was probably Pete's last TV appearance before he died at 94 in January 2014.
Patrick Sharkey, Stuck in Place: Urban Neighborhoods and the End of Progress toward Racial Equality -- It is well-documented that poor African Americans are much more likely to live in high-poverty neighborhoods than poor whites, Latinos, and Asians. Racially segregated ghettoes exist because discrimination in housing, jobs, and schools persists despite the passage of anti-discrimination laws. In this pathbreaking book, Sharkey shows how the consequences of ghetto poverty have long-lasting consequences over many generations.. For example, redlining by banks and the FHA in the going back to the 1950s deprived many African Americans the opportunity to buy homes in good neighborhoods, accumulate wealth, and pass on that wealth to subsequent generations. Sharkey shows that breaking the cycle of poverty will require more than equal treatment.
Ari Shavit, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel -- Anyone who cares about Israel's future has to wrestle with this spellbinding book. An influential Israeli journalist, Shavit draws on interviews, historical documents, private diaries, and letters, as well as his own family's story, to explain why Israel is stuck in an existential crisis with no easy answers. His story starts with his great-grandfather, a British Zionist who in 1897 visited the Holy Land on a Thomas Cook tour. He weaves his subsequent family history with Israel's history, recognizing the contradiction of idealistic socialists and Holocaust survivors colonizing the country in ways that brought prosperity to many Jews and Arabs but also brought misery and expulsion to many Palestinians. Shavit points his finger at both the Israeli and American Jewish establishments for promoting a narrow and self-defeating agenda for co-existence with Israel's Arab citizens and neighbors. Shavit is an elegant writer whose prose will keep you reading this book even though it is filled with more paradoxes than hope.
Clayton Sinyai, Schools of Democracy: A Political History of the American Labor Movement -- Many political pundits and politicians look at today's labor movement and see a "special interest" group that represents only 11% of the workforce. But Sinyai points out that throughout its history, the labor movement has been a voice for all working people in their workplaces and in society. In fact, unions have been "schools of democracy" that have educated workers to become engaged citizens and held both corporations and government accountable. He shows how labor activists wrestled with fundamental aspects of political philosophy and the development of American democracy, including majority rule versus individual liberty, the rule of law, and the qualifications required of citizens. Along with Nelson Lichtenstein's The State of the Union and Boyer and Morais' Cold War era Labor's Untold Story, this is the best one-volume history of American workers and their unions.
Judith Smith, Becoming Belafonte: Black Artist, Public Radical- Harry Belafonte is best known as a multi-talented singer and actor who popularized calypso music and became a superstar in films, television, records, and nightclubs. But he was (and is) also a courageous and committed radical activist. Smith explores the roots of Belafonte's cultural and political radicalism in New York's inter-racial left-wing circles in the 1940s and 1950s, the influence of his hero and role model Paul Robeson, his close ties to Martin Luther King and other civil rights figures, and his principled stances to challenge the Cold War blacklist, make films and TV shows that featured black performers and displayed black culture in a positive light, and used his celebrity to promote human rights around the world, including his involvement with the anti-apartheid movement. Read Smith's book in tandem with Belafonte's 2011 autobiography, My Song: A Memoir.
Jeanne Theoharis, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks -- The real story of Rosa Parks is much more interesting than the myth of a quiet seamstress whose single act - refusing to move to the back of a segregated Montgomery bus - sparked a boycott that launched the modern civil rights movement. Shortly after Parks died, the New York Times referred to her as "the accidental matriarch of the civil rights movement." But Parks was no accidental heroine. She was a veteran activist and a committed radical who throughout her adult life challenged segregation and pushed for voter registration when doing so require enormous courage. Because of her activism, Parks had a wide circle of black and white friends and allies, which helped make the bus boycott successful. Theoharis has uncovered aspects of Parks' personal and political life that other biographers missed. She makes a compelling case to see Parks as an early feminist through her work courageous efforts to bring to justice white men who'd raped black women. This is an inspiring biography of an inspiring women.
David Dante Troutt, The Price of Paradise: The Costs of Inequality and a Vision for a More Equitable America -- Many working class and even middle class American communities facie chronic problems: fiscal stress, neighborhood decline, environmental sprawl, failing schools, mass incarceration, an epidemic wave of foreclosures, a shortage of affordable housing, and severe public health risks. Troutt argues that we've locked ourselves into distinct residential enclaves separated by income and race that stifle opportunity and distort our politics. He draws on interesting on-the-ground observations in communities like Newark, Detroit, Houston, Oakland, and New York City to illustrate his themes. His book is clear, concise, and well written. He shares many of the views that John Mollenkopf, Todd Swanstrom, and I write about in Place Matters: Metropolitics for the 21st Century, a third edition of which was published in August.
Dave Van Ronk with Elijah Wald, The Mayor of MacDougal Street: A Memoir -- This is the book that inspired the film "Inside Llewyn Davis" about the Greenwich Village folk scene in the early 1960s. The film's protagonist is loosely based on Dave Van Ronk (1936-2002), one of the founding figures of the 1960s folk music revival. But Van Ronk was politically engaged, where the fictional Davis was alienated and politically aloof. Folksinger Elijah Wald worked with Van Ronk on his memoir and completed it after Van Ronk died. Van Ronk was a colorful character and a great storyteller (as well as an influential songwriter, arranger, and guitarist) and the book is filled with fascinating stories about his encounters with young stars-to-be like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell and older luminaries like Woody Guthrie and Odetta.
Jim Vrabel, A People's History of the New Boston - Vrabel is the Howard Zinn of Boston. After hundreds of interviews and prodigious archival research, he's written the best book about that city's history, from the perspective of the activists who battled the powers-that-be to reshape Boston into a more livable city. Vrabel chronicles the great struggles of the post-war era, including urban renewal, welfare, poverty, tenants rights, highways, gentrification, school integration, Vietnam, community development, and jobs. He gives credit to some members of Boston's business and political elite who recognized the need for change, but the book primarily gives voice to the outsiders and activists who challenged the status quo with cunning and courage.
Elizabeth Warren, A Fighting Chance -- I assigned Warren's autobiography in my Politics 101 class because it describes, better than any textbook, how American politics really works. Warren's story is compelling. She comes by her populist sympathies naturally, the result of growing up in a family that constantly faced economic hardship. After she managed to finish college and law school, she began studying why so many Americans fall into debt and bankruptcy. It was this research, while teaching at Harvard, that pulled her into politics, first as an expert, then as an advocate, next as a consultant to Congress, and then as a reluctant candidate for the U.S. Senate. The book is fascinating throughout but political junkies will particularly enjoy her analysis of how the banking lobby uses its influence to get Congress to do its bidding in ways that hurt consumers and the larger economy. Against the odds, Warren helped push Congress to pass the Dodd-Frank bill that included her plan for financial consumer protection agency. Cameo appearances by Ted Kennedy, Barney Frank, Barack Obama, and Warren's allies among progressive organizers and activists enliven the book and it is a wonderful read.
Duncan Watts, Everything Is Obvious: How Common Sense Fails Us -- Watts, a sociologist as well as a physicist, forces us to rethink much we take for granted. Why do we believe things that are factually wrong? Why do we accept as "common sense" ideas that make no sense at all? Drawing on sociology, psychology, marketing, education, advertising, economics, religion, and other disciplines, Watt shows how even the smartest people get blinded by false assumptions and misleading ideas. Missing from Watts' analysis is any discussion of power - or what some would call ideological hegemony. Why, for example, do so many Americans believe that global warming is not a serious problem? It isn't an accident or just a matter of ignorance. The Koch brothers and their allies in the energy industry have spent a lot of money funding so-called "research" and propaganda outfits designed to confuse the people and create a public "debate" over the issue even though all credible scientists disagree with the "denial" view.
Peter Dreier is the E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His most recent books are The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books, 2012) and Place Matters: Metropolitics for the 21st Century (University Press of Kansas, 3rd edition, 2014, coauthored with John Mollenkopf and Todd Swanstrom