This year’s Wisconsin Book Festival, held on the cusp of a particularly odd and polarizing presidential election, features an array of serious nonfiction books on policy and politics.
Leading the pack in terms of scholarly heft — the book you’d most want the next Oval Office occupant to have read — is Andrew Bacevich’s 2016 America’s War for the Greater Middle East (Oct. 22, 2 p.m.), which seeks to make sense of the last four decades of U.S. entanglement in that part of the world.
Bacevich, a retired U.S. Army officer and professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University, focuses on the series of escalating blunders that constitute U.S. military policy toward this region. He notes that from the end of World War II to the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979 and 1980, “virtually no American soldiers were killed in action while serving” in the Greater Middle East. But, since 1990, virtually none have died in action anywhere else. Bacevich provides an exhaustive, occasionally exhausting, history and critique.
Another worthy book that takes a long view of historical events in Mark Stein’s 2014 American Panic (Oct. 21, 7:30 p.m.). Stein recounts our nation’s recurring eruptions of outsized fear over groups of people and ideas. Subtitled A History of Who Scares Us and Why, it covers everything from the Salem witch trials to the current wave of Islamophobia, stopping along the way to look at panics over black people, Asians, Catholics, Jews, communists and “illegal” immigrants. There’s even a chapter on hysteria over corporations, as evidenced in part by the portrayal of Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life.
Stein’s approach, while occasionally strained, proves our constant appetite for scapegoats and villains. In one enlightening passage, he notes how widespread animosity toward the Chinese abated as Americans shifted their hatred to the Japanese. Maybe he’ll talk about the panic over creepy clowns.
No offense to Katherine Cramer, but the UW-Madison professor of political science has written a book that may be more enjoyable to talk about than it is to read. The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker (Oct. 22, 6 p.m.) is an unabashedly academic work, with methodologies, footnotes and graphs. But its central finding is not complex: Wisconsin’s rural residents feel disrespected, a sentiment politicians have managed to expertly exploit.
In the conversations with Cramer at the core of the book, one rural resident says city folk “think they’re smarter than ya. Got that book learning. People go to college they come out dumber than they went in.” Another puts it like this: “They shower before work, not after.”
Viet Thanh Nguyen, whose novel on the fall of Saigon, The Sympathizer, won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, has followed with Nothing Ever Dies (Oct. 22, 7:30 p.m.). In this nonfiction meditation on the Vietnam War, Nguyen explores the transformative power of remembrance: “Nations cultivate and would monopolize, if they could, both memory and forgetting.” His work stands as a rebuke to that determination.
Matthew Desmond, a UW-Madison alum who is now an associate professor of social sciences at Harvard, dives deep into the plight of pushed-out tenants and the landlords who shove them in Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (Nov. 1, 7 p.m.). The Milwaukee-based book, the subject of a recent cover story in Isthmus, has been selected as the UW’s Go Big Read offering for 2016.
Jack Mitchell, the former longtime director of Wisconsin Public Radio, has produced Wisconsin on the Air (Oct. 21, 6 p.m.), described in a recent Isthmus review as “a lively and loving history” of the first 100 years of public broadcasting in Wisconsin. The book cracks open a treasure chest of anecdotes and insights into what is hopefully the foundation for the next 100 years.