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WPEC Retirees' Book Recommendations

WPEC Retirees have started a list of some books that they've read and enjoyed.  

1941 by Charles Mann.  This books combines scholarly research from multiple sources in a readable presentation describing societies in the Western Hemisphere before Christopher Columbus.  Although it's impossible to put together precise population numbers, the author deflates the notion that the Americas were an empty land with just a few nomadic tribes.

The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War, 2014, by Don H. Doyle. This book is about the PR battle, not the military battles. Both sides started out by saying it wasn’t about slavery (even though many of the documents of secession said it definitely was about slavery for the South). Southern and Northern agents sought to get the European heads of states to join their side, or at the very least, to remain neutral. The South came close to winning them over. The heads of state of the big European nations wanted to see the “democracy experiment” fail. Spain and France hadn’t given up on re-establishing footholds in the Americas. Confederate leaders weren’t adverse to re-establishing a monarchy (or at least an aristocracy) in the south since they didn’t like the “extreme democracy” advocated by the Northern leaders (i.e., too many people allowed to vote).

Fortunately private citizens stepped in to help by writing and distributing articles. They were often more eloquent than the U.S. officials in Europe (of course they were allowed to speak more freely). They weren’t reluctant to talk about slavery. Even Giuseppe Garibaldi, the hero of the Italian unification battle, stepped in to help. They helped keep the aristocratic European leaders from supporting the South. 

The Disc World series of 40 books by Terry Pratchett.  (Not to be confused with American novelist Ann Patchett)  Pratchett, an Englishman, wrote these humorous fantasies that parody an endless list of real world topics.

The Hidden History of the Korean War, 1952, by I.F. Stone.  This book, actually published a year before the cease-fire that ended the war, not only explains the war, but foreshadows the foreign policy thinking that has been behind many of the US wars since then.  Stone published an independent weekly newsletter between 1953 and 1971 which demonstrated his uncanny ability to find documents in that pre-digital era. This book is similarly well-sourced.  Like the Civil War book above, this book spends a lot of time on the PR aspects of the war.  General MacArthur and John Foster Dulles were still nursing the fantasy of "unleashing" Chiang Kai Shek from Taiwan to overthrow the government of China (a neo-con obsession that still endures).  They were able to misrepresent military situations to the press, President Truman, and the United Nations in such a way as to influence diplomatic moves and thwart efforts to end the fighting.  If you found the coverage of the Korean War in your school textbooks unsatisfying, this book will help put that tragic episode in perspective.  


The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.  Henrietta Lacks was a poor woman whose cervical cancer cells became the immortal cell line known as HeLa (without her knowledge or consent). Skloot researched Lacks’ life and her early death and talked with Lacks’ descendants about the ethical issues of how the cells were acquired and used. She also balanced it by describing the work of the scientists and technicians who struggled for so long to establish a cell line for research. It was one of UW-Madison’s Go Big Read program. The first book?


It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis.  This novel was published in 1935, a few months before the assassination of Huey Long, who was planning a run for the presidency in 1936 on a "Make America Great Again" platform.  This was also the time of rise of fascism in Europe.  Although fictional, his descriptions of characters are scarily accurate depictions of 21st century figures.

The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker, by UW-Madison’s Katherine J. Cramer, 2016. “How is it that the very people who stand to benefit from strong government services not only vote against the candidates who support those services but are vehemently against the very idea of big government?” Cramer helps you understand the role of “rural consciousness” but there are times when you’ll probably need to put the book down because of some of the statements and beliefs of the interviewees.  

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