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Monday, December 31, 2012

Books of 2012

Books - bookcase top shelf
Photo credit: Phil Moore

As I have annually since 2005, I am posting a nearly complete list of books I read in the preceding year.

Allow me to repeat the groundrules: I will not list books that I reviewed, unless those reviews were published. In my academic job, I reviewed a number of books for a committee that will award $100,000 to a work that exhibited the best "ideas for improving world order."  However, none of those books are listed here except for the winning entry. I read it as a member of the Final Selection Committee.

Of course, since I'm an academic, I read multiple chapters and large sections of many books pertinent to my research and teaching. However, I'm not going to list those here unless I read them cover-to-cover. Save for the books I use in class or read for review, I often skim over some portions even of outstanding books. It's a time/efficiency issue.

So, what did I read this year, mostly for pleasure? (Some of the recommended books include a link to Powell's books; the blog receives a 7.5% commission on sales that begin via these links).


Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan.

Slouching Towards Fargo by Neal Karlen

The Big Short by Michael Lewis

Our Enemies and US by Ido Oren

It Ain't over 'til It's over The Baseball Prospectus Pennant Race Book by Baseball Prospectus writers.

Additionally, I read just about every word in Baseball Prospectus 2012, but not in cover-to-cover fashion. It was edited by King Kaufman and Cecilia M. Tan.

Of these non-fiction books, most were worth reading. The Chenoweth and Stephan book quite deservingly won the 2013 Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order. I blogged about it at the Duck of  Minerva. Slouching Towards Fargo is an excellent book about minor league baseball, with a good deal of commentary about celebrity culture since Daryl Strawberry and Bill Murray play prominent roles in the tale.

The Big Short is a pretty good book by Michael Lewis on the 2008 financial collapse. He found some financial analysts who saw it coming -- and profited from it by "shorting" the investments that others were buying. 

Ido Oren's book should be read by every Political Science doctoral student as it provides an excellent history of the discipline's early political influences.

I was disappointed by t he relatively dry BP Pennant Race Book. A few chapters were excellent, but too many featured dull writing.


Gun, With Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

A Case of Exploding Mangoes by  Mohammed Hanif

Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card

White Butterfly by Walter Mosley

Yesterday's Spy by Len Deighton

Diamonds are Forever by Ian Fleming

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith.

Ubik by Philip K. Dick

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell 

Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

God Save the Child by Robert B. Parker

Man with the Getaway Face by Richard Stark (Donald Westlake)

Road Dogs by Elmore Leonard

Heaven's Prisoners by James Lee Burke

The Long Lavender Look by John D. MacDonald

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene

Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Next by Stieg Larsson

Watchmen by Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore

A Drink Before the War by Dennis Lehane

The Dark Tunnel by Ross MacDonald

Killing Castro by Lawrence Block

Last Call for Blackford Oakes by William F. Buckley

The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown

Pygmy by Chuck Palahniuk.

In most years, I place the best works of literature at the top of the list, then the remaining genre fiction. The least entertaining are then listed last in each section. I abandoned this approach for 2012 for obvious reasons. First, though Palahniuk's Pygmy is not genre fiction, I really disliked it and needed to list it last.

In contrast, Lethem's Gun with Occasional Music seems like genre fiction, but it encompasses two significant genres: science fiction (think Philip K. Dick) meets detective story (think Raymond Chandler). In any case, I enjoyed the book very much and already recommended it to others.

The Hunger Games  has proven to have mass appeal, but that doesn't diminish the accomplishment by Suzanne Collins. It is an engaging story. Hanif's work was marketed as literature, but it is a topical story about Pakistan's military.

The mass market books by Card, Mosley, Deighton, Fleming, and Highsmith were some of the most entertaining books I read this year. Card's Ender is a great character and is much more credible in this book than he was in Ender's Game. White Butterfly is an excellent crime book, I'd recommend it to anyone who likes the genre. Deighton was a master at the spy story and Yesterday's Spy is a strong work. I'm reading the Bond books in order and I believe Diamonds are Forever is the best one so far. 

Thanks mostly to Bookmooch and PaperBack Swap, I continue to read books by a diverse group of (mostly) hard-boiled crime story writers. These authors typically develop a single main character across a long series of books: Parker's Spencer, Stark's Parker, John MacDonald's Travis McGee, Burke's Dave Robicheaux, Mosley's Ezekial Rawlins, Buckley's Blackford Oakes, and Brown's Robert Langdon. Most of them were worth reading, though Buckley was clearly out of steam and Brown was strictly beach-worthy. I also read some Sherlock Holmes short stories and read the initial Lehane book featuring Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro. Those were good too, though Lehane's book featured enough violence for three or four books. 

The novels by Orwell, Greene, and Dick are not among their very best works, though some reader's really like Ubik. I found it the best of these books. Watchmen was interesting, but I certainly wouldn't rank it in the top 100 novels of all-time. 

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Sunday, December 30, 2012

Films of 2012

Movie night
Photo credit: Andrei Z on Flickr

As I note annually, I watch a lot of movies, though most are viewed on DVD (or from DVR recordings, or since August streamed from Netflix) on my television. Because I do not see that many new films in the theater, I cannot at year's end write a credible post on the best movies of 2012. After all, I have not yet seen many of the highly touted films released in late December. I will see them, of course. Eventually.

This year, I missed most of the summer blockbusters as well. For various reasons, I simply didn't watch all that many 2012 films.

In fact, many of the best films I saw this past year were older films on DVD/DVR/Netflix that I originally missed in the theaters -- or were late 2011 films I saw in the theaters during early 2012.

To make this abbreviated 2012 list, I scanned the top grossing movies of the year, as well as IMDB's most popular titles for 2012 and Movie Review Intelligence. In rank order of my preference, these were the best 2012 films I saw this year, so far as I can tell:

Moonrise Kingdom **
The Hunger Games **
Skyfall **

I think almost any film lover would enjoy these films. The list is topped by "Moonrise Kingdom," an engaging film that my wife and I saw on a scorching hot 4th of July day. I liked "The Hunger Games" more than I did any of the Harry Potter films. Indeed, I liked it so much that I borrowed the book from my daughters and enjoyed it too. Woody Harrelson is terrific in "Rampart," but he plays a bad cop. "Arbitrage" was not as good as last year's "Margin Call," but the story serves as a powerful metaphor for the Wall Street collapse of 2008. "Skyfall" was a very good Bond film, but not a great Bond film. It almost topped the next section of the list, but I kept it here as I have not yet seen any of the end-of-year Oscar contenders.

Indeed, the rest of the 2012 films I watched aren't ranked with much care, though the films near the top of this list are better than the ones near the bottom:

21 Jump Street
Jeff, Who Lives at Home
Friends with Kids
Dark Shadows
Thin Ice
The Avengers
The Grey
Men in Black 3

** I saw these films in the theater.

These films are entertaining, generally. If I was grading, I'd give most of them a C+ or B-. Then again, I tend to avoid films that the critics hate (thanks to Metacritic, and links on IMDB, the ratings are easy to find).

Here's the annual list of movies I intend to see in the future (hopefully in 2013): Amazing Spider-Man, Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Bourne Legacy, Chronicle, Cosmopolis, Dark Knight Rises, The Dictator, Django Unchained, End of Watch, Five Year Engagement, Flight, Headhunters, Hitchcock, Hope Springs, The Impossible, Killer Joe, Killing Them Softly, Lawless, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Looper, The Master, Not Fade Away, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Premium Rush, Prometheus, Queen of Versailles, Ruby Sparks, Rust and Bone, Safety Not Guaranteed, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Savages, Searching for Sugar Man, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, The Sessions, Silver Linings Playbook, Sleepwalk With Me, Ted, This is Not a  Film, To Rome With Love, We Need to Talk About Kevin, West of  Memphis, Your Sister's Sister, and Zero Dark Thirty.

Metacritic helped me form that list.

Keep in mind that I didn't get around to seeing many 2011 movies from last year's wishlist:  Another Earth, A Better Life, Certified Copy, A Dangerous Method, Go Go Tales, Higher Ground, Hugo, The Interrupters, The Iron Lady, J. Edgar, Jane Eyre, Le Havre, Like Crazy, Lovers of Hate, Mysteries of Lisbon, Myth of the American Sleepover, Of Gods and Men, Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times, Point Blank, The Robber, A Separation, The Skin I Live In, Small Town Murder Songs, Terri, Tree of Life, War Horse, The Way Back, We Bought a Zoo, and Weekend.

Many of those 2011 films are on Netflix, so I'll probably get to them before winter ends.

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Photo credit: Andrei Z on Flickr

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Coach Pitino on Guns

Rick Pitino in his red suit
Photo credit: Bailey Richards
Today's Courier-Journal had a short piece about an unusual portion of coach Rick Pitino's recent exchange with the press about guns. Pitino, like Jim Boeheim, the Syracuse basketball coach, thinks that gun control should be a very high priority. Here's how Pitino expressed his thoughts:
“The fact that every single person would not want it (gun control) would be a mystery,” Pitino said. ”This is not the beginning of American civilization where we need guns ’cause it’s the wild, wild west. We’re not talking about a hunting license.

“There should not be guns in our society. We all know that."
The University of Louisville basketball coach continued:
If they [elected politicians in DC] were doing what’s right for America, that next day (after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting), the country would demand gun control. So Jim (Boeheim) is right. We don’t need that in our society. But more important than that, I don’t know how anybody lives that. I don’t know how anybody could close their eyes in those families.
“There can be no good that comes out of that (tragedy), except immediate gun control.... 
We don’t need guns in our society.


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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Gun Rights and Violence

Gun violence protesters march on NRA lobbying offices
Photo credit: Jay Mallin on Flickr
On December 18 (yesterday), the Christian Science Monitor ran an excellent short piece by NYU history professor Jonathan Zimmerman that contests the claim that the Second Amendment to the constitution has always protected individual gun rights. Just to refresh everyone's memory, here is the relevant text from the Bill of Rights:
A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.
Gun advocates typically emphasize the last two clauses of that sentence and claim an individual right to own firearms. Two recent Supreme Court cases have upheld this apparent individual right: District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) and McDonald v. Chicago (2010).

Yet, as Zimmerman argues, the individual right to bear arms was never really upheld until these recent cases. Previously, the Supreme Court had pointed to the words "well regulated militia" and "security of a free state" and concluded that individuals did not have a right to own guns.
Until the very recent past, individual gun rights were severely restricted. Believe it or not, the entire concept of “gun rights” – that is, of citizens’ unbridled freedom to buy and own firearms – is largely a creation of our own times.

Yes, the Second Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the “right to bear arms.” But if that means individual citizens – as opposed to state militias – can carry firearms anywhere they want, someone forgot to tell our 19th-century forebears. As law professor Adam Winkler has found, 10 states passed laws in the 1800s barring the possession of concealed weapons.

One of them was Texas, the lodestar of the gun-rights movement today. But as the Lone Star governor said in 1893, “the mission of the concealed weapon is murder. To check it is the duty of every self-respecting, law abiding man.”
Saul Cornell, the Paul and Diane Guenther Chair in American History at Fordham University, made a very similar argument in The Daily Beast on December 18:
A cursory look at the history of the Second Amendment shows that regulation was a central part of its rationale—putting “well regulated” at the very start of the amendment was no accident. For instance, starting in the colonial period, states enacted a variety of “safe-storage” measures to deal with the danger posed by stored gunpowder. A 1786 law went as far as prohibiting the storage of a loaded gun in any building in Boston. Up until the 1980s, there was no “individual-rights” theory of the Second Amendment.

See also Jeffrey Toobin in The New Yorker, December 18.

Cornell (as does Zimmerman) quotes this interesting statement from conservative chief justice Warren Burger:
As late as 1991, former Supreme Court chief justice Warren Burger famously called the idea of an individual right to bear arms “one of the greatest pieces of fraud—I repeat the word ‘fraud’—on the American public by special-interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”
Indeed, Cornell, Toobin and Zimmerman all credit  (or blame) the National Rifle Association (NRA) for creating the political movement to change the Court's interpretation and make gun ownership an individual right. 

Cornell points out that the Court's recent cases, especially Heller, are clearly not grounded in the original intent of the Founding Fathers:
[Justice] Scalia produced a pompous, error-filled opinion that has done more to discredit his beloved originalism than a generation of liberal academics ever could. Even leading conservative legal scholars have harshly criticized the ruling: federal judge Richard Posner said most professional historians reject Scalia’s historical analysis in the case, and described Scalia’s jurisprudence as “incoherent”.
See also this Harvard Law Review article by Reva B. Siegel.

In any case, virtually all the legal analysts agree that even if individuals now have a right to bear arms under the Second Amendment, it is certainly not an absolute right that trumps other freedoms. America is a land of free speech, but the First Amendment does not allow anyone to yell "fire!" falsely in a crowded theater, incite illegal activity, defame others, publish obscenity, utilize false and deceptive commercial advertizing, etc.

Thus, the federal government surely has the constitutional power to ban assault weapons, as it has done previously, limit the number of bullets in a magazine, tax ammunition, close the gun show loophole on background checks, etc.

Stanford Law professor John Donohue explains the effectiveness of Australia's set of gun policy reforms after a horrific gun massacre in 1996 that left 35 dead:
The Australian federal government persuaded all states and territories to implement tough new gun control laws. Under the National Firearms Agreement (NFA), firearms legislation was tightened throughout the country. National registration of guns was imposed and it became illegal to hold certain long guns that might be used in mass shootings.

The gun ban was backed up by a mandatory buy-back program that substantially reduced gun possession in Australia.

The effect was that both gun suicides and homicides (as well as total suicides and homicides) fell. Importantly, while there were 13 mass shootings in Australia during the period of 1979--96, there have been none in the sixteen years since.
Australia's policy, by the way, was changed under the political leadership of Prime Minister John Howard, a self-described conservative.

As Peter Bergen wrote for CNN this week, gun violence can be viewed as a national security issue. Since the 9/11 attacks, jihadi terrorists have killed 17 Americans in the US, while "88,000 Americans died in gun violence from 2003 and 2010." The numbers are actually lower because of improved medical treatment in U.S. hospitals -- "the number of people seriously injured in gun-related violent incidents has actually gone up almost 50 percent in the past decade."

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