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on May 22, 2013
First off, this is not a polemical book with Packer trying to thrust his viewpoint down your throat. Packer's own voice is largely absent from this book. Instead, he lets his characters speak for themselves. Regardless of your politics, you have to agree with Packer that since the 1960's, Americans have "watched structures that had been in place before your birth collapse like pillars of salt across the vast visible landscape." Government no longer consists of genuine politicians seeking to help the people, banks are no longer the staid institutions we once knew, and American manufacturing and the stable union jobs that accompanied it are mostly gone. As Packer notes, the loss of these institutions has obviously hurt some and helped others to prosper.

Packer tells this story by presenting a series of compelling profiles of several individuals: among them a union worker in Youngstown, Ohio, a entrepreneur/bio-fuels evangelist in North Carolina, a D.C. insider, and a Silicon Valley innovator. These profiles follow the progression of their protagonist from the late 70's to the present day. Each story is independent, but all share a common thread: as the institutions that provided security to Americans following the New Deal and into the 70's started to fall apart, each person is forced to deal with their new found freedom. Some thrive, while others struggle to survive.

Interspersed in these longer narratives are shorter profiles of key players in the unwinding, from Newt Gingrich and Andrew Breitbart to Oprah Winfrey and Jay-Z. As he skips ahead in years, each new section is foreshadowed by a collage of words - snippets of movie and music quotes and headlines from newspapers - that Packer uses to expertly capture the mood of each year.

The genius of this book is that Packer doesn't tell you what to think. Instead, he presents indisputable facts by way of the stories of real people to show both sides of this "unwinding." At the end, you can draw your own conclusions. Packer is simply using his amazing powers of shaping narratives to capture this unique time of upheaval in America. It's easy to lose track of the drastic changes that have taken place over the last few decades unless you read a book like this, which captures the transformation of American institutions to American individualism. If you are liberal and mourn the loss of these institutions, Packer will force you to consider the opening of opportunities that came with these losses. If you're conservative and applaud the rise of the rugged individual, he will also make you recognize the price some people have paid due to the loss of security.

I would recommend this book to anyone that sees the change that has happened in the U.S. Although it is never stated, I think Packer is asking his readers a seemingly simple question: what does it mean to be an American, and what do we want this country to be? Is the price of freedom the loss of the common bonds that kept us all together, or is the overriding right to be free paramount to all else? I can guarantee that anyone who finishes this book will have a lot to think about and will have enjoyed reading these profiles.
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A while back, I read an article about how a part of the reason for our opioid epidemic is our loneliness. In many ways, Packer’s The Unwinding is the story of how that loneliness came to be; how we have gone from a thriving society in which as de Tocqueville wrote “Americans of all ages, all stations of life and all types of disposition are forever forming associations” to one in which people turn to opioids as their only companions. It is, in short, the story of an unwinding.

It's an unwinding that’s been going on for a long time. We have seen it every day in our drive to and from work, to and from school. We have seen it in our papers and on our TV screens. We have lived it. And we have become used to it. We stopped noticing. What George Packer does is force us to pay attention once again.

He shows us the factories closing, the Wal-Marts and the parking lots taking over, the suburbs where no-one ever meets anyone else. The awful aloneness of living in poverty. He tells the story through the eyes of a biodiesel entrepreneur, a Joe Biden staffer and lobbyist, a factory worker turned community organizer. He tells us stories about the founders of the Tea Party and the founders of Occupy Wall Street. He talks about Peter Thiel and Elizabeth Warren and Newt Gingrich.

But most of all he talks about America. About an America where people used to meet each other but don’t anymore, an America where people used to be able to count on schools and roads and hospitals and the government and a job. And how that America slowly disappeared, leaving us poor and alone. Leaving houses that need to be torn down and crumbling roads. Leaving crumbling people.

Except—and this is the amazing thing--the people in these pages don’t crumble. They are sustained by many different things: love of family, religion, a dream but somehow they keep going. This was a very hard book to read because it forced me to see what I look at every day. But in the end, it was worth it because the last sentences of the book are “He still had a dream of building a big white house and filling it with children. He would get the land back.”

In the midst of so much despair and unwinding, it is good (even if painful) to read about people like that.
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on April 3, 2017
I wish I had read this pre-Trump. The book provides amazing context for the last 18 months. That can be gained in Packer's definition of "unwinding"..."a contract that said if you work hard, if you essentially are a good citizen, there will be a place for you, not only an economic place, you will have a secure life, your kids will have a chance to have a better life, but you will sort of be recognized as part of the national fabric."

Through biographies of a few Americans he proves the downside of this thesis. The "stories" run from 1978 to 2012 covering the mortgage crisis, the decline of manufacturing, and money in politics. He believes that the unwinding is a natural occurrence and has happened before. It signifies a decline in trust and belief in traditional institutions that Packer believes underpinned 'the American contract'. This void has now been filled solely by money. It is easy to see Trump's success in this theory.

On a positive note, the theory continues by suggesting good things come out of these unwindings. They eventually bring new energy and cohesion. The downside is they grant greater individual freedom. That freedom makes people more untethered because institutions are in flux. In this flux Packer says the winners win bigger and the losers fall farther.

For the sake of America let's hope the unwinding leads rapidly to cohesion.
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on April 27, 2016
Brilliant book--has a big reputation that is deserved!

It took me a while to get hooked, although when I put down the book after reading a couple of sections I was always ready to pick it up again. During the last half or so of the book I ended up so gripped by the narratives about a selection of ordinary Americans that I stayed up most of the night. I'm a fiction addict, don't spend a lot of time with nonfiction, but this book rivals most novels in its plotting and character development. And it's all real.

Warning: if you don't hate what has happened to the U.S. economy you will if you stay with this book. There's nothing in it but the truth, and the truth isn't good for many working- or middle-class citizens.
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on November 24, 2016
This is a must read book, especially after the election of Trump as a President. George Packer describes the lives of many American, from famous to little known ones. How people have struggled in this changing country, the closing of factories, and corporate greed. Few have made millions and most are struggling to survive. A farmer in North Carolina and an African American woman in Ohio face failure and redemption and then failure again.
It is astonishing that Wall Street and Banks faced little consequence for their reckless actions that led to the housing crisis. The surprising thing was that Democrats or Republican held more or less similar views and attitude toward the rich and powerful.
It is a must read book if you want to understand what is happening in America.
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on November 17, 2016
I'm fairly confident that this was not George Packers intention, but I come away from his book with a better understanding of the forces that caused American voters to reject traditional politicians. Packed tells the stories unknown Americans and interleaved them with stories of Americans from the news stories. This effectively explains what was happening on the ground, and how reassuring discussed in politics and the media. Here is hoping that Trump does not appoint Goldman Sachs alums to key economic positions, like Obama mistakenly did.
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on March 20, 2017
This book is one of the most instructive, educational and enlightening on what has happened in America the past 30 years. If one wants to know the why behind the factory closings, the effects of racism, the disparity in incomes, the rise and bursting of tech and housing bubbles, the machinations of Wall Street to the detriment of their country, the rise of some celebrities such as Oprah and Jay-Z, politics being money and not people driven and much, much more, read this illuminating book. It is also, as a bonus, written novelistically so to be extremely hard to put down. Bravo! Mr. Packer.
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on November 9, 2013
Having read "assassin's gate" years ago and thoroughly enjoying it, I was excited over Packer's latest and was not disappointed.
The book is a series of biographies ranging in all scales of success and nonsuccess in the US over the last 30-40 years spanning factory workers in Youngstown to Silicon Valley billionaires and I loved every page of it.
Much of the criticism I've read of this book is that it doesn't try to answer any of the problems in brings up from the people in the book. However, I found that to be the most appealing part. While I am apolitical, I found the book had a slight left-lean and am glad that the author didn't overly inject his thought process into the narrative, or try to conclude on his own what the solutions were. I think that he presents stories from people that you will form your own opinions on based upon your own personal beliefs. So if it seems like too much is spent on the way a woman struggles in Youngstown or a North Carolinian drives around trying to push biodiesel on deaf ears it might say a lot about the way we think in general.
Do you feel empathy for Tammy when she becomes pregnant in high school? Do you feel empathy for the Hartzells in Tampa who can only find employment at Wal-Mart barely scraping by but still able to have cable tv and play online video games? So if you find yourself rooting for Dean Price or , conversely rooting for Karen Jaroch's, you probably know which side of the political spectrum you fall on and will find in them either a hero or a villain. I feel Packer doesn't do the judging himself and lets the reader decipher their own thoughts. I came away thinking that dividing the problems of peoples lives along political lines is ignoring the fact that massive changes need to start on a community level first and not from the top down where the money pulls the strings (which is the focus of Connaughton's story).
But, I do think this book will either be highly praised or jeered depending on political leanings. I think the mistake people could have is treating this like a text book and not just enjoying the ride. When Dean sees the truck of chickens going to the slaughter house and goes through this thought process of how it ultimately leads to people being too fat to walk, it's hard not to see what a diamond of a paragraph it really is. When Peter Thiel argues with Schmidt from Google about how in his mind the future was supposed to be about outer space and instead all we got was 140 characters, it makes you ponder the state of technology. I was immersed in this book in the same way I was with Assassin's Gate and look forward to his next work.
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on October 22, 2014
The establishment could fail and fail, and still survive, even thrive.
This book is not giving us news, but it spreads out known facts in an impressionist way, providing a plausible picture. We learn about American lives during the last half century.
A chain store operator from a poor white Bible Belt background, who moves into renewable energies, and struggles. A black woman from the rust belt: factory worker, union member, single mother, community organizer. A political functionary who moves back and forth between actual politics and lobbying, never quite happy with either.

Several people with names, celebrities. A political master hypocrite, who gets caught with his lies. A miraculously successful be-esser in the media world. A drinking blue collar writer. A popular miser, who made America cheap. A gay libertarian Silicon Valley mogul and social philosopher. The world's greatest staff officer, who lost his integrity by deceiving his people. A fresh food pioneer turned sustainability evangelist. A Wall Street chieftain in the Clinton administration, who cashes in all the way to the crash, but is not responsible for anything that went wrong. A popular genius from Bed-Stuy with a celebrity wife and a criminal history. A rogue rightwing journalist, who dies young. A rogue left wing politician who dares to annoy banks.

We follow the demise of steel, the slump of cars and car parts, the explosive growth of the giant supermarket, the exuberance and the horror days of the financial sector, the jungle of the net, the irrationality of media and pop, the hurrah and crash of real estate, the relentless commercialization of politics, the destruction of the political center by ideology. The wonders of outsourcing, bankruptcies, 'turn-arounds', executive bonus payments, golden hand shakes, work force lay offs, the amazing career of crack, the Ponzi scheme called Florida, the foreclosures, the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street...

The book has been compared to John Dos Passos' monumental USA trilogy. Not so off, though Dos Passos wrote 'fiction' with facts and factoids. Packer writes 'non-fiction', though these labels are questionable. He outlines patterns of a changing society, and gives us details. He does not provide analysis, a recipe, a solution. The celebrity portraits don't go much beyond Wikipedia entries, as somebody complained. I don't see that as a real weakness though. They are pieces of a puzzle.
My favorite piece: the chapter on Rubin, with its scathing sarcasm on accountability. He condemns Obama's surrender to Wall Street. Equally obvious: the financial sector together with a corrupt political class has brought America down. Whatever or whoever raises it up again, that will not be the same who took it down.
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on February 26, 2014
A depressing book - chronicling the triumph of lobbying, the crisis of mass unemployment, and the abandoning of the middle class in early 21st century America. I usually can't get enough takes on current (and recent past) U.S. history, but I had a hard time getting through this one - not because the writing was unsatisfactory but because the subject was so stark.

The approach was different. The author has chosen some "ordinary" people, and shows how the first decade of the new century treats them. He also highlights Tampa, which supposedly was on its way to becoming the next glittering example of urban growth and power in America, but which continues to decline during the Great Recession. Tampa, and the people, continue to be featured in succeeding chapters.

The best part of the book, though, is the chapters on well known figures: Newt Gingrich, Oprah, Sam Walton, Colin Powell, Alice Waters, Robert Rubin, Jay-Z, Elizabeth Warren. I really enjoyed these vignettes, learning quite a bit about each of the rich and/or famous, and how they fared during the Great Recession and beyond. This part of the book rates 4 stars.

The author presents his material well, and I appreciate his perspective, but I found myself skimming chapters on the less well known characters, since keeping up with daily events has provided more than enough discouraging news about what's happening in today's America.
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