Most people would remember Robert the Bruce from the movie Braveheart. While it wasn’t the most flattering portrayal, Penman’s academic biography goes...moreMost people would remember Robert the Bruce from the movie Braveheart. While it wasn’t the most flattering portrayal, Penman’s academic biography goes further to reveal his alliance with the English to obtain the Scottish throne, his murder of John Comyn to do the same, and how it really wasn’t until the death of Edward I, that he made any progress in sustaining his kingdom. What I find particularly interesting is that popular books and series, such as Game of Thrones, pale in comparison to the level of politics and treachery that actually came from the time period. One could draw allusions to Rob Stark “King of the North” to Robert the Bruce “King of the Scots”. Robert the Bruce would become the first King of Scotland by repeatedly defeating and embarrassing the English, at one point almost capturing Edward II. It was the gap between the death of Edward I, the repeated clashes with Edward II, and the peace pact with Edward the III, that establishes the Kingdom of Scotland separate from the English.
While this could have been a fascinating account of the time period with all sorts of treachery, desperate times, and glorious battles, Penman has created a purely academic text without narrative flow. While he could have taken some time with the imagery and created powerful scenes (such as at the Battle of Bannockburn where he splits Sir Henry de Bohun with a battle axe), he rushes through all the information, giving names, dates, and battles as if one was to commit it to memory. One could compare this to Thomas Costain’s the Three Edwards and be left wanting. While Penman provides more detail on the Scottish side of the story, he really needed to create a better narrative.
Penman takes great pains to correct the poet John Barbour, whose poetry shaped much of the primary history of the time period, but takes away any of the drama in doing so. He creates a man out of the myth, but he pulls apart the tapestry in the process. It is an informative account and timely with the Scottish Independence vote coming to a head as this book was being published, but it lacks the dramatic narrative that is required of most biographies for the general public. It seems as if someone could use this as a jumping off point to create one. (less)
With dozens of books and more than a few feature films on Richard Nixon, one would be hard pressed to unearth any revelations about Richard Nixon’s pr...moreWith dozens of books and more than a few feature films on Richard Nixon, one would be hard pressed to unearth any revelations about Richard Nixon’s presidency. The Watergate scandal made headlines and changed the way we see the president. John Dean thinks that he can unearth even more material using information from the National Archives digitization process. In this way he can squeeze that much more blood from the turnip and attempt to reveal what no one can, what were on those erased 18 minutes?
Dean painstakingly goes over the entire Watergate chronology. He actually doesn’t go back to the 18 minutes as he puts the really juicy parts in the appendix. There he reveals how unlikely it is that the secretary mistakenly recorded over the tape as the new machine had designs to specifically protect against such a problem. Dean attempts to uncover details that have not been covered before with his unique insider perspective, but he has already put out his own version of events. It doesn’t seem to be that he was trusted with information as other associates as he was perceived to be unwilling to participate in nefarious illegal schemes (much to his credit), so it is difficult to claim any insider information on the topic at this point. Dean doesn’t reveal what was on the tape, he can’t, he can guess and he has put together an entire book to venture that guess. It was probably unnecessary for Nixon to erase part of the tape, but it's fun to play conspiracy theory with it. Nixon’s ultimate problem was Nixon. He would be cruising to re-election, but he was paranoid and that was his downfall. (less)
Thomas Piketty’s treatise, Capital, belongs with the larger canon of economic research and literature. This is a surprisingly readable economic text w...moreThomas Piketty’s treatise, Capital, belongs with the larger canon of economic research and literature. This is a surprisingly readable economic text with literature/pop-culture references and research to back up many of our anecdotal assumptions of wealth distribution in the west. He takes issue with how economic research and theory has been taken out of a social and historical context. They are the cold numbers of growing wealth instead of the very human impact of wealth inequality. As a result, he wants to examine the nature of wealth inequality, how it starts, how wealth is redistributed, and what this means for the future.
His thorough examination includes 200 years of research mostly from western nations (France, U.K., and U.S. in particular). Most of his research stands upon past economic and political philosophy from Adam Smith to Karl Marx and modern day economists. His purpose in making literary references, primarily to Pride and Prejudice and Pere Goirot, is that things have not really changed that much since those times in regard to wealth through labor and wealth through capital.
Those who have capital assets will continue to grow wealthier and leave that wealth to their benefactors. From country to country and citizen to citizen, the chasm between the rich and the poor will continue to widen without action and “…these inequalities may lead to conflict. It is therefore important to understand the economic, social, and political forces that determine the degree of labor income inequality in different societies." He further expands on what can happen with extreme inequalities:
"If, for example, the top decile appropriates 90 percent each years output (and the top centile took 50 percent just for itself in the case of wealth), a revolution will likely occur, unless some peculiarly effective repressive apparatus exists to keep it from happening. When it comes to the ownership of capital, such a high degree of concentration is already a source of powerful political tensions, which are often difficult to reconcile with universal suffrage. Yet such capital concentration might be tenable if the income from capital accounts for only a small part of national income: perhaps one-fourth to one-third, or sometimes a bit more, as in the Ancien Regime (which made the extreme concentration of wealth at that time particularly oppressive). But if the same level of inequality applies to the totality of national income, it is hard to imagine that those at the bottom will accept the situation permanently."
Further… The world to come may well combine the worst of two past worlds: both very large inequality of inherited wealth and very high wage inequalities justified in terms of merit and productivity …Meritocratic extremism can thus lead to a race between supermanagers and rentiers, to the detriment of those who are neither. P. 415
In order to combat this trend he recommends a few changes. Implementation of Transparent Taxation (no more hidden bank accounts), higher taxes, and an increased focus on investment in social and educational programs are some suggestions. Capital can still be allowed to grow even with these tax and transparency policies. Those in possession of capital will still grow wealthier, but gone unchecked the imbalance will become increasingly severe. It is a return to capital wealth of pre-World War I.
The rise of rentiers (those with capital wealth who make more money on renting what they have) and supermanagers (CEOs of major corporations with ridiculously high salaries not for performance, but “paid for luck”) are the two main culprits in wage inequality. Societal rhetoric overemphasizes the meritocracy angle self-justifying this inequality particularly with the supermanagers.
The book itself is very readable. The first 200 pages are heavy in economic language and formula, but he never fails to lighten the mood with literature and pop-culture references and the occasional joke. I think this book is far more readable than any of the professional reviews I have read online (London Review of Books in particular). Through diligent research over time, Piketty has provided a formula to solve many of the economic inequality that can lead to strife and war. Whether or not anyone would implement his plan seems very unlikely, but it can stroke those flames of justice that many activist and politicians have been working towards for years.
Further favorite passages:
“…property sometimes begins with theft, and the arbitrary return on capital can easily perpetuate the initial crime.” P. 426 “The primary purpose of the capital tax is not to finance the social state, but to regulate capitalism. The goal is first to stop the indefinite increase of inequality of wealth, and second to impose effective regulation on the financial and banking system in order to avoid crises. To achieve these two ends, the capital tax must first promote democratic and financial transparency: there should be clarity about who owns what assets around the world.” P. 556 To be sure, the principle of specialization is sound and surely makes it legitimate for some scholars to do research that does not depend on statistical series. There are a thousand and one ways to do social science, and accumulating data is not always indispensable or even (I concede) especially imaginative. Yet it seems to me that all social scientists, all journalist and commentators, all activists in the unions and in politics of whatever stripe, and especially all citizens should take a serious interest in money, its measurement, the facts surrounding it, and its history. Those who have a lot it never fail to defend their interests. Refusing to deal with numbers rarely serves the interests of the least well off. P. 604
The inescapable reality is this: wealth is so concentrated that a large segment of society is virtually unaware of its existence, so that many people imagine it belongs to surreal or mysterious entities. P. 259
Housing is the favorite investment of the middle class and moderately well-to-do, but true wealth always consists primarily of financial and business assets. P. 260(less)
A Sense of the Enemy combines psychological thought, emotional intelligence, pop science, and history to explain key turning points in history. It is...moreA Sense of the Enemy combines psychological thought, emotional intelligence, pop science, and history to explain key turning points in history. It is Zachary Shore’s intention that emotional intelligence and strategic empathy are key traits in war and politics. One could also turn this book into a business science book the way authors have done with The Art of War. Emotional Intelligence is a key feature of good leadership and Shore does demonstrate how those with strong traits succeeded and those with weak traits failed. The problem with this technique is an over attribution to mostly minor occurrences. While it is important to have strategic empathy when dealing with an opponent, it is never the full story when dealing with historic changes.
Shore has several examples: Gandhi and the British Empire, the rise of German power after World War I, Stalin’s failure to predict a Nazi invasion, Roosevelt’s read of Hitler, and the Vietnamese view of the United States during the war. Shore is looking for pattern breaks in the opponent’s behavior. These are events in which the “enemy” breaks from an established pattern of behavior. It is in these decisions true intentions can be determined. Gandhi realizing that the British did not support the massacre at Amritsar allowed him to exploit the atrocity to unite India against the British. German diplomats are secretly building weapons with the Soviets in violation of the World War I Treaty of Versailles. Will the Germans cave to Soviet threats to expose their actions or will the Germans discover that the Soviets and even Britain and France have more to lose in that declaration than Germany? The realization that they could do nothing to stop them is a critical point in the rise of German power pre-World War II. Stalin’s failure to read Hitler and his intention to invade the Soviet Union cost millions of lives. His failure to understand his opponent via strategic empathy is to blame. The Vietnamese understood that a protracted war with the United States would result in their withdrawal from the conflict. The key break was the reaction to the Gulf of Tonkin incident. The Americans wanted war, but not all out war. This key distinction solidified a strategy for the Vietnamese to expel the American forces.
The general problem I have with the book is that while Emotional Intelligence and Strategic Empathy are critical traits for success, the author needs to decide which way he is going with the work. If it is just a historical exercise, the aspect of Strategic Empathy is such a small one that one would be foolish to attribute a turning point in history to it. A massacre would certainly turn the tide against those committing the atrocity. The weak state of Europe after World War I and German humiliation thereafter is enough to set the stage for another World War. The Vietnamese had been fighting for decades to kick out invaders and that determination hardens over time. This work is not a psychological work either via Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow even though he does reference the work several times. The book is not a business book to help those deal with business rivals either. It’s disappointing in this way as I enjoyed the historical aspects and conclusions, but they were too insignificant to suggest a major cause of action.(less)
The real brilliance of this biography is Meacham’s ability to ferret out Jefferson the man and what made him a legend. There have been many biographie...moreThe real brilliance of this biography is Meacham’s ability to ferret out Jefferson the man and what made him a legend. There have been many biographies on Jefferson; he is an icon lifted up. Jeffersonian Republicans would win every election from 1808 to 1840, creating a political legacy unmatched in U.S. history. It makes it difficult to find the man inside of those writings, the true Jefferson. Meacham finds him and brings this man of marble to life.
Meacham avoids the common pitfalls in discovering Jefferson. He is not a carbon cut-out or a man from dry high school text books. He finds the soft spoken man, the man who always searched for the “smooth handle” in politics and in life. His quiet style would create a strong presidency, while at the same time, not turning into a dictatorship. Even though his party would dominate for decades, it was never by force, but by listening to the people.
Meacham also finds some fascinating angles, weaving the history of the American Revolution as a logical historical step in English history. Leading up to the Revolution, England's government evolution (from the English Civil War to the Restoration) becomes America's Revolution, implementing the democracy not with a king, but an executive, all masterminded by Thomas Jefferson. Here we read about how the times, history, and philosophy all coalesce in one mind, leading to the birth of American Democracy.
Shrouded in patriotic history, it's interesting to note how much of Jefferson’s original Declaration of Independence was taken out as not to offend the English too greatly. A firebrand, using modern philosophy to declare Independence and create a new government from that was truly revolutionary. It was enlightening to read how much the American Revolution relied on the biblical aspects and enlightenment from the English Civil War. Biblical imagery was used to further their cause and rally colonists behind it.
While he authored the Declaration of Independence, many of the major governmental reforms took place while he was a diplomat in Paris. A new constitution, new officers, the establishment of President Washington, all took place without a word from him. The Federalism that took hold would later be used by Jefferson to find a balance between the heavy government Federalists and the small government Republicans. Meacham ferrets this information while many other biographers have painted Jefferson as an extreme radical loathed by Washington, Hamilton, and later John Adams. The Federalists agenda dominated much of the 1790's until the Jeffersonian presidency. They would never win another election, fading as a part around the War of 1812.
The politics of the day between Hamilton and Jefferson factions are certainly just as heated if not more so than the politics of the day. Jefferson was constantly frustrated with Hamiltonian monarchist leanings. The Federalists of the north feared the south and the power of Virginia, at one time even threatening secession. At one point the Federalists almost purchased a line of royalty from England to rule the country, shocking to Jefferson and to myself.
A quiet presidency tolerable of criticism, Jefferson makes it appear he is taking a backseat when he is controlling every aspect. He meets people with little ceremony and without show. With this seemingly amiable style, he is able to defeat political rivals, affirm presidential powers, thwart foreign intervention, and double the size of the United States all within eight years. It’s difficult to separate the legend from the man and the politician. Meacham is able to find the man, discover what made him great, and allow the reader to appreciate both this legend and the very human man behind it. I’ve appreciated many presidential biographies, including others by Meacham, but this one is by far my favorite of them. It’s an inspirational read of the man who is the philosophical bedrock of the United States.
Favorite Parts: "He dreamed big but understood that dreams become reality only when their champions are strong enough and wily enough to bend history to their purposes." P. 10
"The lesson for Jefferson, the man who would come to be seen as the great democrat, tribune of liberty, and scourge of elite authority? Never give up the political fight and never shy away from using any and all means necessary to carry the day." p. 61
"With the power of the pen, he had articulated a new premise for the government of humanity: that all men are created equal." P. 111
Jefferson on the presidency:
"For well I know that now man will ever bring out of that office the reputation which carries him into it." P. 256
“He had a defining vision, a compelling goal—the survival and success of popular government in America. Jefferson believed the will of an educated, enlightened majority should prevail. His opponents had less faith in the people, worrying that the broad American public might be unequal to self-government. Jefferson though that same public was the salvation of liberty, the soul of the nation, and the hope of the republic. “
“Open political warfare was not for him; he preferred to impress himeslef on the course of events without bombast or drama, leading so quietly that popular history tends to make too little of his achievements as president.”
“He believed in constant conversation between the president and lawmakers, for Jefferson thought that “if the members are to know nothing but what is important enough to be put into public message… it becomes a government of chance and not of design.” The president had to be able to trust lawmakers with insights and opinions that he might not offer a broader audience, creating a sense of intimacy and common purpose." (less)
Most of Conor O’Clery’s book is a sort of denouement of the fall of the Soviet Union. All the action happens before the events of the book. Even the l...moreMost of Conor O’Clery’s book is a sort of denouement of the fall of the Soviet Union. All the action happens before the events of the book. Even the last day itself is filled with formalities with the end already decided. What led to the moment is told in reminiscence, a conversation, an argument, tension, is all explained within this history. The story is well written with a journalist’s eye that can make the smallest detail very compelling. It's much like reading a long New York Times story.
The details of Yeltsin and Gorbachev drive the story. Gorbachev is, of course, known from history as freeing the Soviet Union. His Glasnost and Perestroika led to the opening of the Soviet Union, but as the book documents, this led also to his downfall. He revealed the problems in the system and the anger of a people long suppressed is unleashed. The book documents a bit more in this area. Gorbachev wanted to open the country, but he still had Soviet-styled ideas and did commit crack-downs while still promoting Glasnost. There may have still been a reversal without the complete destruction of the Soviet government. That process, Yeltsin help to set in motion.
The story is a back and forth on the contribution from each of these leaders, one ending the Soviet oppression, the other starting a new way of life for Russia. Gorbachev opposed the independence of the individual states, while Yeltsin secretly encouraged that and through a secret agreement helped foster independent states and an independent Russia.
Chapter 17 is one of the better chapters as it explains the attempted August Coup. That alone demonstrated that Gorbachev could not continue as the leader of a new Soviet or independent Russia. He was part of the old world that the Soviet would try to use to retake their power. Yelstin's heroics during that time period solidified his power to become the new Russian president and Gorbachev's final fall from power.
Generally, the story seems to stretch out the last day, December 25, 1991, into a movie like scene. Each action cuts back to where it came from over the years, the Gorbachev-Yelstin rivalry as the main story. It seems to stretch the story too far, particularly near the end of the book. The author tries to fast forward to today to show the impacts of those events. While it does beautifully explain a very confusing time period, he doesn't seem to come to any significant conclusion about it. (less)
Brookhiser, an expert on the subject of Washington and the Founding Fathers, gathers leadership lessons from Washington's decisions. From General Wash...moreBrookhiser, an expert on the subject of Washington and the Founding Fathers, gathers leadership lessons from Washington's decisions. From General Washington to President Washington, Brookhiser puts forth snippets of crises Washington had to endure and the morals and lessons are provided at the end of each section.
Some examples of this technique:
On Washington insisting on digging latrines, a little used process of sanitation not used by the army: "What is obvious to you as a leader may not be obvious to everybody; if it's necessary for the health of your organization, then it's necessary for you to keep after it.". p. 15
On Washington going to the constitutional convention in spite of the fact that he didn't like the politics and that it would make him president: A leader must be flexible enough to leave old worlds, and tough enough to survive in new ones. p. 36
Overall it is an good book on Washington and presented many of his experiences into leadership lessons. However, I think the approach is a little too spoonfed for me. I can read a biography of Washington or any leader (my preference are presidents), and pull leadership lessons from it. It is a little too Aesop's fables of Washington for me, but overall a good book.
Horse Soldiers tells the story of Special Military Forces that are dropped into Afghanistan with the sole purpose of aiding an outnumbered and outgunn...moreHorse Soldiers tells the story of Special Military Forces that are dropped into Afghanistan with the sole purpose of aiding an outnumbered and outgunned Northern Alliance. These soldiers had to be very nuanced, demonstrating respect and the support of the Northern Alliance leaders, while showing their force in the field of battle. This included dropping guided bombs from B-52s from 20,000 feet in the air. It's an excellent example of the use of guerilla warfare in battle, gaining trust of the existing force, gaining the trust of the Afghan people, and getting rid of the Taliban with minimum US troops on the ground.
What I liked about this book was that is reads like a military thriller or spy novel. The book starts off telling the story of these soldiers before they are called into battle. Their personal lives, their backgrounds, even their conversations make the story compelling. You want these soldiers to succeed, get rid of the Taliban, but come back to their families and be fathers and husbands too. It could be easily made into a movie. (I would also recommend Lone Survivor, it has the same compelling narrative, takes place in Afghanistan, and provides a great background on what it takes to be a Navy Seal. A harrowing story as well as four soldiers have to fight off 200 Taliban soldiers.)(less)
California by Kevin Starr is the primer on California history. It covers every facet of the state in a clear and readable history. I love these kinds...moreCalifornia by Kevin Starr is the primer on California history. It covers every facet of the state in a clear and readable history. I love these kinds of histories because he doesn't cover just the political and geographic history but the social history as well. He covers art and literature that reflected the history of the state, something I really enjoy in a history. It doesn't gloss over anything either from race issues to the dillusionment of California. This is also a great book to focus in on aspects of California history that may be of interest. It covers all of California as well even to parts of the state that are typically glossed over. An excellent history. (less)
The life of Theodore Roosevelt couldn’t possiblty be covered in one book. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt is the first part of a trilogy by Edmund Morr...moreThe life of Theodore Roosevelt couldn’t possiblty be covered in one book. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt is the first part of a trilogy by Edmund Morris and covers his life before his presidency.
A sickly child, Roosevelt had to work twice as hard as anyone else to build his physical and mental strength. His weakness grew into a determination so large it would overcome any opposition. The early ridicule of his classmates, the rejection of Alice (his would be first wife), and even the resistence from the New York Political Machine seem insurmountable, but his persistence and tenacity leads him to victory. The early death of his father due to political corruption further plants a seed that would end the Guilded Age in America and begin the Progressive era. His anti-corruption campaign in the New York Assembly and the Federal Civil Service Commission, as well as his hawkish political views would provide a foreshadowing of his presidency.
The first hundred pages of this biography are awfully dry. Morris has harvested information from Roosevelt’s family, but also from a diary he started when he was nine. Morris masters the diary finding a pattern in Roosevelt's behavior. At times there is constant chatter on a topic, but there is mysteriously little of it afterward. It’s a sign that the event did not go well. He didn’t want to remember it, but also knew that his correspondence and diary may be public at some point. When Roosevelt met failure, whether his inability to make a good impression on Alice (his eventual first wife), or his entry into the New York State Assembly (where he was viewed as a country bumpkin), Morris cracks the code and fleshes it out here, providing deeper analysis into his personality.
For me, the book didn’t get interesting until his political fights against corruption. Partly his own ambition and partly revenge for his father he becomes a force to be reckoned with passing reform bill after reform bill. This section is also cast against his trips west to the Dakotas and his cattle ranch there. Morris demonstrates how much Roosevelt reflects his time. It’s amazing to read how much of the country can be reflected in one man, from political fighting in the east to cattle ranching in the west.
Morris documents his literary achievements from his examination of the Naval History of the War of 1812 to his famous Winning of the West. A true renaissance man always looking forward, Morris deftly compares him to Henry Adams. Adams, eventually made famous by his The Education of Henry Adams, reveals a fear of the future, while Roosevelt seems to be made for it.
The last quarter of the book is certainly the most exciting, covering Roosevelt’s rise to the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, bullying his way to improvement of U.S. Naval forces. His aggressive expansionist stance is an extension of his love of Manifest Destiny, eventually resulting in the Spanish-American War. His fame in the war leads him to nomination for Vice-Presidency and with the assassination of President McKinley, the presidency.
Morris uses one of Roosevelt’s favorite stories, that of King Olaf, to lead each chapter, mirroring Roosevelt’s meteoric rise to that of the mythical King. It provides a lyrical quality, especially at the end. I loved the ending. He paints this picture of Roosevelt reflecting on all of his accomplishments while he sits in the mists. Will this as far as he rises, to the Vice-Presidency? Has his chance slipped away? Then he sees a man with a telegraph running toward him, out of the mists. (less)
This was an excellent book to read during the first weeks of the Obama Presidency. On reading the book, I could tell that Obama was using the same tec...moreThis was an excellent book to read during the first weeks of the Obama Presidency. On reading the book, I could tell that Obama was using the same techniques as FDR to manage the banking crisis. Of course, on reading the book, the crisis FDR faced was far more dire than the current one.
Overall, the book showed FDR as more human and politically driven than any type of savior. He did things to make himself look good and manipulated the press for his own interest. His burdens were heavier, dealing with those who would ditch democacy and capitalism for socialism and fascism. Our faith in those systems are stronger now.
This was a rather dry book. It's attempt is to explain the difficult period between the British surrender at Yorktown and the establishment of the Art...moreThis was a rather dry book. It's attempt is to explain the difficult period between the British surrender at Yorktown and the establishment of the Articles of Confederation (the first version of the United States Constitution).
This was difficult read and I would recommend other books on the topic. Instead of focusing on one or two major characters or theaters, it attempts to cover them all. The result is just as you are getting into a certain segment, you are then dragged over to another area where the action is. It is very informative as to emphasize how far away peace really was after Yorktown (a peace treaty wasn't sign until two years later), but it was just hard to get through. The parts I enjoyed most were about George Washington and his critical role in achieving victory, peace, and democracy, but I can get a better version in a different book. (less)