Books Ranging From Astrophysics to the Resiliency of a Family

Books du Jour
May 23, 2017 Updated: May 26, 2017

A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order

By Richard Haass
Penguin Press
352 pages; hardcover $28.00

This book has a lot of merit, and more. Let me start with the merit part: Though I do not subscribe to all of his offered solutions, author Richard Haass chisels a new template for a productive global political environment, something he calls World Order 2.0.

Haass’s grasp of the international scene is pragmatic and solidly anchored in experience. One can sense that years in various positions such as special assistant to President George H.W. Bush, principal adviser to Secretary of State Colin Powell, and president of the Council on Foreign Relations, to name a few, have made him the de facto expert in foreign policy and international relations.

(Penguin Press)
(Penguin Press)

But what makes the book so engaging is its outline. Before offering his conceptualization and solution for the future of American relations, Haass gives a world tour of the current international climate, exposing the traditional triumvirate of power (Russia, China and United States), as well as current disruptors and rule-breakers, like ISIS and North Korea.

Now about the more. When I first heard about the book, the world was a different place. With the hindsight of the past several months of the Trump presidency, the book appears nearly prophetic. The upheavals that have unraveled since the beginning of the year suggest that Haass had his eyes glued directly to a geopolitical crystal ball. But this image would be misleading, because Haass is not a wizard but a finely tuned expert who has sharpened his tools on the stone of history.

What becomes valuable in Haass’s incisive analysis is his understanding of the breakdown of post-World War II models of foreign policies, seen as completely unfit to confront the new issues of terrorism, climate change, cyber war, and the potential threat of nuclear weapons. Nor is Haass afraid to mention past mistakes in foreign policy made by the United States, as well as its failure to act.

The tasks ahead for the new U.S. leadership are staggering, and Haass makes clear that if the United States wants to reinforce its ties with other sovereign nations, its leadership must radically change its understanding of this ever-changing world. Haass’s strength rests in his ability to broach the first steps without fear.

‘Rise: How a House Built a Family’

By Cara Brookins
St. Martin’s Press
320 pages; hardcover $25.99

“Rise” is a memoir of a long and incredible journey taken by author Cara Brookins, a single mother of four, who … Before I go further in telling you what the book is about, first let me explain why this memoir touches the nerve of the nation more than others of late, such as “Eat, Pray, Love” or “Wild.”

These bestsellers have a similar theme: a lost or troubled soul goes out into the world in search of meaning to restore of a sense of personal fulfillment.

“Rise” is free from the geographical journey found in the other titles. In fact, the story pretty much circles close to where the author’s life crumbled, Little Rock, Arkansas. 

(Saint Martin Press)
(Saint Martin Press)

There is a reason for this absence of a pilgrimage. “Rise” is about a house: the incredible endeavor of the author to build her own house with her four children. Knowing the symbolic importance of owning a house to the American psyche, Brookins offers a tremendous journey of resilience and recovery in the face of adversity.

Considering her three failed marriages with nefarious partners, Brookins has survived so much that it will be hard for readers not to sympathize with her predicament. Her kids are solid, insightful, and tuned in to their dire circumstances and their mother’s dilemma. Though Brookins’s writing flies off the page with exalting verve (which occasionally did not give me time to absorb the magnitude of what was happening), her story is deeply compelling. 

For those who believe that only a trip to India or a marathon jaunt along the Compostela trail could unlock their lives’ potential, they should be reminded that a home is also where one builds or rebuilds it. Expect Brookins to teach you that.

Waves Passing in the Night: Walter Murch in the Land of the Astrophysicists’

By Lawrence Weschler
Bloomsbury
176 pages; hardcover $25

If you wonder what “Apocalypse Now,” “The Godfather,” and “The English Patient” have in common, you may scratch your head for a while. Or maybe not. 

The connection is what Lawrence Weschler’s bold and engaging half memoir, half critical conversation is about. Its subject? The celebration of Walter Murch, the three-time Academy Award winner.

Murch is much more than a sound and film editor. Listen carefully to Craig Lucas’s first film, “THX 1138,” still his most futuristic and thought-provoking by far, and you will understand how Murch’s soundtrack contributed to the film’s masterpiece status. (Murch also co-wrote the script with Lucas.)

(Bloomsbury)
(Bloomsbury)

The book suggests that the sophistication of Murch’s sound editing obscures his other passion. For much of his life, he’s been a devout amateur astrophysicist, chronicling the long forgotten connection between the Titius-Bode theory and musical harmony in the universe.

For a long time, it was believed that each planet of the solar system emitted its own frequencies. In addition, the law was supposed to have a progression ordered very much like the Fibonacci numbers in which the sequence of certain numbers follows a mathematical formula—a progression often found in nature. Based on planets’ positions and rotations, one could deduce whether cosmic organization was subject to universal mathematical rules.

As you can imagine, a sound editor advancing a long discredited theory of physics did not go down too well with scientists. By reopening this investigation, Murch, at the heart of his quixotic quest, has questioned the nature of knowledge: How do we know what we know? And who is to decide what we should know?

These questions may seem a bit of a stretch: Not everyone agrees that we should expect order in the universe. But if these sorts of questions are not something you are used to thinking about, you are in for a seductive, compelling read.

The Age of Stagnation: Why Perpetual Growth Is Unattainable and the Global Economy Is in Peril’

By Satyajit Das
Prometheus Books
340 pages; hardcover $25.00

Although the title of Das’s book is enough to make anyone want to go back to bed, the book is not only an eye-opener but also a great clarifier. Written in clear prose with concrete examples, Das performs an excellent demystification of the concept of perpetual growth. Think of a car that’s running on empty but still aims to reach the moon. This is where the global economy stands: on the verge of a catastrophe.

Heavily indebted and plagued with poor policies, modern economies seem out of touch with reality. At the moment, for example, our national economy is fueled by a red-hot stock market, giving the impression that there is no trouble. This delusion echoes the mindset of the pre-2008 Great Recession. 

Das challenges the deep-seated assumptions that led us to spiral down into the global monetary crisis, the “easy money” approach, and he forecasts years of stagnation.

(Prometheus Books)
(Prometheus Books)

In what is the best part of the book, Das makes an important argument about the political responsibility of our leaders, who display denial and paralysis while still promoting short-term policies that only overwhelm the system. At this point, Das asks what the big picture will be going forward for Western countries, when GDP-debt ratios top 100 percent, yet policies call for increasing the national debt.

Won’t the diminishing supply of raw products and the disappearance of jobs take their toll and exacerbate the effects on the population? Are we indirectly endangering our democracy by setting the stage for quick-fix, iron-fisted opportunists? What to do when developing countries’ debts prevent them from ever becoming solvent and impact our polity?

These are just a few of the challenges that Das brings to the table. Perhaps endless growth is not the solution.

Frederic Colier is a writer, a producer, and an adjunct professor at the City University of New York.