Bombs Away 

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"A Time to Fight: Reclaiming a Fair and Just America" (Broadway, $24.95)ÿby Jim Webb

Early on in his new book (his eighth) Sen. Jim Webb answers the question that has lately become a roar within the political chattering spheres: Did Teddy Roosevelt deserve to be awarded the Medal of Honor 103 years after his famous charge up San Juan Hill? Book sales won't likely be dented noticeably if I spoil this one and say that his answer is a resounding no.

He spends a few pages on this digression before launching into a spirited celebration of Roosevelt's views on economic justice and their resonance today, a tour de force of statistics, history and well-formulated outrage that may as well be the first lobbed grenade in a rhetorical class war. For a man who, at another point in the book, describes neoconservatives as "so far on the Trotskyite left, people think they're on the right," Webb is not shy about using explicitly class-based language in his defense of the laborer.

The penchant for such digressions is one of the few weaknesses in "A Time to Fight," which mixes autobiography, history, current affairs and (dare it be whispered?) self-promotion. Webb lays out his views on some political issues hastily: He sees hot-button social issues such as abortion, gay rights and flag-burning as pointless distractions from the problem of increasing inequality and says little else about them. He goes into greater detail on issues that resonate with him, devoting an entire chapter to his view that the American criminal justice system is in disrepair.

The Roosevelt section is in some ways representative of the book itself: There are occasional head-scratching detours, but in writing about both domestic and military matters, Webb marshals his impressive grasp of history in the service of forceful positions on current challenges.?ÿ-- Dan Dueholm

"The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics, and Religion at the Twilight of the American Empire" (Spiegel & Grau, $24)

by Matt Taibbi

A contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine, journalist Matt Taibbi is often billed as a modern Hunter S. Thompson. But while Taibbi is a savagely funny political writer, he's a much better investigative reporter than Thompson ever was.

The son of NBC News television reporter Mike Taibbi, Matt cut his teeth in Russia working as a sports reporter for The Moscow Times (after being kicked out of Uzbekistan for writing stories critical of the country's president). Since returning home, he's been earning attention with clear-eyed, ruthless political reporting at Rolling Stone, whether on the campaign trail or as an embedded reporter in Iraq.

His latest book is a thoroughly entertaining read that delves mostly into post-9/11 fringe groups on the right and left -- with Taibbi burying both under equal heaps of indignation. Secretly infiltrating both John Hagee's evangelical church in Texas and national meetings of the conspiracy-loving 9/11 Truth Movement, Taibbi finds major similarities between them.

"Trained for decades to be little more than good consumers, we had become a nation of reality shoppers, mixing and matching news items for our own self-created identities, rejoicing in the idea that reality was not an absolute but a choice, something we select to fit our own conception not of the world but of ourselves. We are Christians, therefore all the world events have a Christian explanation; we hate George Bush, therefore Bush is the cause of it all." Taibbi finds these fringe groups becoming more mainstream -- and poll numbers agree.

With biting humor and outlandish detail, Taibbi scours these bizarre but recognizable characters and begins sinking deeper into depression at the lack of any worthwhile attention to the country's most obvious ills, which he views as stemming mostly from a Congress sold to the highest bidder. Particularly worth reading is his chapter on covering Congress and how to spot disguised earmarks in a budget. A privileged Northeasterner by birth, Taibbi can be a misanthrope at times, but he's a gifted writer who never sugarcoats anything, preferring withering prose -- although sometimes he gets a little wound up emotionally, like a college sophomore in his first sociology debate.

While his writing may strike some as cruel, especially when dealing with born-again Christians, Taibbi injects welcome commonsense into the national debate on the country's direction. His is the kind of urgent, frustrated response that comes from living in another country and perceiving America with senses not yet completely numbed by a lifetime of white noise. -- Brent Baldwin

 

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