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on 21 September 2013
This book offers an insight into what has been happening to America over the past three decades or so that is close to genius. It is written with the descriptive style of a gifted novelist but tragically, it is not fiction. America - so like us but so, so different. The American psyche is enigmatic and seemingly, the more one knows the less one understands. Perhaps it is the country's pioneer roots and the self selecting nature of the 300 million descendants of the original immigrants who had the courage to seek a better life in a 'new world', but it is their very qualities, which made America, that now seem to be working against it. To me, those 300 million souls appear to have confused competing for a better life with competing against each other. America's physical isolation and its people's widespread lack of knowledge about the rest of the world, with their susceptibility to believing in the thoughts of others, whether a religion, an advertisement or the persuasions of an interest group, has left the nation prey to a self interested political class that is itself controlled by an even more self interested business elite. What other nation can suffer such widespread medical problems for lack of healthcare but still get angry at the suggestion of a healthcare system similar to the rest of the civilised western world? Perhaps because Americans appear reluctant to think for themselves they believe it would make them communists since they have swallowed hook, line and sinker the propaganda of the medical industry which, to preserve its privileged position, has told them universal healthcare is 'socialised medicine'. America has a painful time ahead if it is to develop successfully into an advanced 21st century state. The trouble is, the rest of the world will have an equally painful time whilst it makes that adjustment.
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VINE VOICEon 4 July 2013
America is a country I've grown to love (or at least certainly the bits I've visited). And as Bono has said more than once (perhaps explaining why he's never forsaken his Irish roots despite his love for the US): Ireland's a great country, but America is a great idea.

But like all idealism, it often gets dislocated from reality. Patriotic fervour blinds us to the margins and the dispossessed. Which is why New Yorker staff-writer George Packer's new book is so extraordinary. The Unwinding: An Inner history of the New America is nothing short of a masterpiece. The prose is superlative: understated, humane, at times even lyrical. The subject-matter is dealt with great sensitivity and non-partisanship. There are no political sideswipes here. He is merely trying to hold up a mirror. This is more a careful diagnosis of a country that is greatly loved but for which is there is great (and justifiable) concern. For what is happening to the great American idea when such contrasting bandwagons as Occupy and the Tea Party have gained such traction? How did the Credit Crunch and the sub-prime mortgage scandal come about; what has happened to the much touted American sense of optimism? Why do the big institutions like the federal government, banks, media and the legal system all seem to be failing those who need them most?

Packer artfully manages to take the nation's temperature by means of a handful of individuals, whose stories from the last 30 years he tells through the book. They are well-chosen: a small-business entrepreneur in North Carolina; a newspaper reporter in Tampa, Florida; an African-American single mother in the Rust Belt; an Indian immigrant struggling to keep her motel franchise afloat; a DC beltway insider who has been lawyer, Wall St drone, on Joe Biden's senate staff, successful lobbyist; a key player in Silicon Valley. These stories are leitmotifs, around which Packer weaves thumbnail sketches of iconic figures in recent American history like Newt Gingrich, Oprah Winfrey, Sam 'Walmart' Walton and short story writer Raymond Carver.

His thesis is striking for its moderation, in a way. He doesn't detect a total collapse, as more histrionic or irresponsible journalists might. He simply calls it an 'unwinding', something which has happened from time to time in American history, and from which the country has often bounced back. But left unaddressed, the genuine grievances articulated here will lead to a problem far more serious than a mere unwinding.
"When the norms that made the old institutions useful began to unwind, and the leaders abandoned their posts, the Roosevelt Republic that had reigned for almost half a century came undone. The void was filled by the default force in American life, organized money. ... The unwinding is nothing new. There have been unwindings every generation or two." (p3)

Drawing on conversations with silicon valley billionaire Peter Thiel, there is an interesting point about the 2012 presidential election:
"President Obama probably believed that there wasn't much to be done about decline except manage it, but he couldn't give another `malaise' speech (after what happened to Jimmy Carter, no one ever would again), so his picture of the future remained strangely empty. Both Obama and Romney ended up in the wrong place: the former thought American exceptionalism was no longer true and should be given up while the latter thought it was still true. Neither was willing to tell Americans that they were no longer exceptional but should try to be again." (p385)

For foreigners like me, the notion of American exceptionalism is a tricky one. I can't help but be reminded of the jingoistic pride of British imperialism 100 years ago. I say this with what I hope is sensitivity, but to consider one's country as the best in every way is both fallacious and idolatrous. It is of course totally different to aspire to be great as a country, but one has to be very careful to choose the right criteria for measuring that greatness. Having the world's biggest defence budget or largest economy might not be the best yardsticks, especially when there are such significant problems as personified by the testimonies recounted in this book. Again the libertarian-minded Peter Thiel has a challenging warning:
"In the history of the modern world, inequality has only been ended through communist revolution, war, or deflationary economic collapse. It's a disturbing question which of these three is going to happen today, or if there's a fourth way out."(p372)

For all our sakes, but especially for those trapped at the bottom of a deeply divided society (and therefore a long way from experiencing true American liberty), let us hope there can now be a rewinding.
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on 2 August 2013
This is a brilliantly written and unsettling analysis of the American way of life over the past 30 years - one might say the decline of the American way of life.

Written through the eyes of half a dozen characters the 'Unwinding' really does get to the heart of the decline of a once great nation - lessons for us in the UK as well.
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on 12 June 2013
For all the literature on what ails the US, this is the most moving and engrossing I have read. There is no political or economic or cultural explanation at all, only the profiles of about two dozen Americans, some famous but mostly from normal backgrounds, which profile how their lives have changed over the last twenty to thirty years. Whilst there is no commentary or explicit opinion given by the author, the main themes jump out from the pages; inequality, pursuit of profit, decline of industry, spin, lobbying.

I anticipate this is is going to be one of the most talked about books in the years ahead ... and if not, it should be.
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on 27 September 2013
George Packer's overview of the United States is well conceived; by focusing on three or four people over the last three decades we see how their lives have been affected by large financial institutions. Ronald Reagan's "trickle-down" of wealth from the very rich to the poor never happened; people have to re-apply for their jobs but for less money. Others took on mortgages that they could never afford to repay (the storm at the centre of today's financial crisis). The sick cannot afford proper treatment (see Breaking Bad), and there is no national healthcare like Britain's National Health Service which is free-at-point-of-use because medical insurance companies believe their profits will be trashed. In other words, big business is running the USA's social policy and doesn't give a damn about those who fall through the cracks. The stories that Packer tells us are those of people who keep on trying to make ends meet.
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on 21 August 2013
For someone who has limited knowledge of America and politics, George Packers book was both engrossing and stimulating to me. If you read one more book before the end of the year let it be this one. A sobering reflection on life and the impact greed has on our lives and what it does to us, from the highest to the lowest and the fallout from those policies that keep real people trapped in never ending cycles of poverty. There is hope though and you just might find it written in the lives of those featured in these pages.
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on 3 January 2016
The other reviews have it right. This is a very upsetting book. It's well written and tries to avoid drawing conclusions. But the events it records are really sad. To a non American, it is also hard to understand some of what people think. Are there really people who would rather suffer untreated cancer themselves than see universal healthcare provided? How is it that so many houses were repossessed on the basis of fraudulent documents? Why didn't the police investigate these systematic frauds which surely must have been a criminal matter? It's the hideous unfairness of it which is distressing. Virtually everybody who made millions or billions got away with it, and millions of ordinary lives were ruined. And now in 2016 one can see no end to it.
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on 3 July 2013
This is the best book about the USA that I have read in the last ten years. It is as moving and readable as good fiction, and captures the human, moral costs of radical free-market solutions (and the corruption of politics by the financial industry) better than any polemic ever could. He tells the story of the USA over the past 30 years through the individual stories of a diverse cast of characters, ranging from a poor black factory worker to a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and a Beltway operator and lobbyist. In lesser hands this could be a bore, but I found Packer's book utterly compelling. He intercuts the narrative with brilliant satirical portraits of the celebrities of the age, the people we're expected to envy and admire.

It is also a book about the future in Britain. Be warned.
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on 8 July 2013
The author focuses on the problems caused by Wall Street and an ineffective government since 1972. He follows the fortunes of various people taking part in the economy and their hopes and failures. I am uncertain about this book because I think that much of what he describes is the result of an economic Depression during a time of great change in world economics. We know that this is not necessarily someone's fault, although his case against Big Money is quite convincing. His thesis is that people face life alone, without the normal institutions to guide or protect them, largely because of financial greed in high places. Regulation and education would go a long way to help the situation and more clarity about how to get it would have illuminated that remedy. He seems to regard the country as ungovernable, blocked by Republicans in all directions. On that I would agree.
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on 12 September 2013
As I write, the UK government announce the sell off of The Royal Mail. This book tells you just why it's a terrible idea. A love letter to American society and the forces of capital that have come close to destroying it; it's a terrible, beautifully written, warning.
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