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I made an all-too-hasty promise at the start of 2010 to list my reading and comment on the books as I made my way through the year. I failed, in large part, because my book tour (110 cities in 90 days) put me behind on my own reading and way behind on writing about it. While I did a little bit better in 2011, this year I’ll attempt to get my notes on books I’ve read done in a more timely fashion.
So here’s what I’ve knocked out so far, starting with the book I finished most recently and working back to 2010.
A disappointment. After an odd nine-page preface that opens with a Robert F. Kennedy 1968 speech about the notion of GDP, there are 121 herky-jerky pages on how an Italian monk and Venetian merchants used Arabic numerals and Greek math to construct the rudiments of modern accounting. One hundred and twenty-two pages follow on how accounting has contributed to the decline of the planet and the growth of rapacious capitalism, while hiding the fact that the true cost of a Big Mac is $200. No kidding. I’ll look for a better volume on the same topic and report later.
This is a wonderful, brisk exploration by a talented historian of the Civil War’s first year. Adam Goodheart tells the story of America’s descent into conflict through sketches of memorable characters who may be unfamiliar now, but who were very well known to the country then. These include the commandant of Fort Sumner, the young military officer whose tragic death plunged President Abraham Lincoln into despair, and the three slaves whose escape to freedom helped alter public opinion in the North and seal the fate of the South’s “peculiar institution.” This is a great read.
66 The New Leviathan: How the Left-Wing Money-Machine Shapes American Politics and Threatens America's Future
Horowitz and Laskin have penned a sharply worded, deeply informed expose of the powerful, very wealthy network of liberal foundations that's spending hundreds of millions to reshape America's politics, culture and economic structure. The authors shart the liberal foundation executives and the money they’re using to drive the country leftward. The irony is that the money often comes from foundations founded by conservatives. Read this and be afraid.
I don't read much fiction but the stories, tales and essays of the Argentinan fabulist, Jorge Luis Borges, are worth reading and re-reading, as I did when I picked up a new collection of his work EVERYTHING AND NOTHING (NEW DIRECTIONS PEARLS), with stories drawn mostly from FICCIONES (English Translation). I enjoyed dipping back into Borges, with his stories about the encyclopedia on a nation that doesn't exist to a murder mystery to a lottery in Babylon at the dawn of civilization, that I devoured the larger volume from which most of EVERYTHING AND NOTHING was drawn.
This scholar at the American Enterprise Institute has written a spectacular must-read volume that destroys the conventional wisdom about how the United States mobilized is industrial might to build the weapons that win the greatest conflict in human history. Herman builds a powerful,case that our country's war success depended on a small group of buccaneering businessmen who used their talents at organizing manufacturing cars and building ships and constructing airplanes to expand on an exponential scale the industrial might of the US, thereby providing the weapons and materiel for us and our allies to win WWII. He limes wonderful portraits of these now too forgotten leaders on whom so much depended and adds to the record of FDR as a often-confusing, too often inconsistent, frequently unpredictable president. An WWII history buff should pick this book up, A great read.
Having read little about Regency England, that period at the start of the 19th century where King George III sank into insanity, I learned much from this thin volume that centers on the rule by the Prince Regent (the future William IV) between 1810 and 1820.
While the last few years of the 18th century and the opening two or three decades of the 19th saw Great Britain vanquish Napoleon, it was also a period of scandal and decline for the British aristocracy and, with the start of the Industrial Revolution, also a time of growing social unrest and reaction (it is here the Luddites arise to protest the coming machine and power age), followed by the stirrings of reform.
Lively, bright and fast-paced, this slim volume was a delight to read.
A hard-hitting volume packed with contributions from an all-star cast of Nobel laureates, economists, business leaders and public intellectuals, The 4% Solution is a refreshing and provocative look how to advance economic growth by a greater emphasis on free-markets.
The issue of the economy dominates the 2012 presidential race, thus The 4% Solution is a timely addition to the national debate and essential reading for reform-minded Americans concerned about the nation’s future.
For more information, including where to get your copy: http://bit.ly/OltbrL
61 Daisy Petals and Mushroom Clouds: LBJ, Barry Goldwater, and the Ad That Changed American Politics
Mann, a LSU professor of journalism, has written a crisp, short volume about the famous 1964 Johnson campaign ad that – without ever mentioning Goldwater’s name – labeled him as someone too dangerous to trust with his finger on the nuclear trigger.
Mann makes clear the ad’s success – and it was shown only one time by LBJ’s campaign – came from the ad resonating with existing widespread fears about Goldwater’s stance on nuclear weapons, not from imparting new information to voters. He also suggests it may have been unnecessary, since Johnson was already poised for a landslide victory.
The author also deals with a trivia question of interest to hard-core political junkies, namely who was the actual creative spark behind the ad. And he packs the appendices with interesting memos circulated between the members of LBJ’s top White House aides, officials at the Democratic National Committee, and the head of Doyle Dane and Bernbach, the ad agency in charge of Johnson’s TV campaign, that shed light on the thinking inside in the Democratic campaign that fall.
One Johnson adviser who doesn’t come off particularly well in Mann’s account is Bill Moyers, later of CBS News and now of PBS fame. Moyers and a crew of White House aides dubbed “The Five O’Clock Club” somehow obtained advance copies of Goldwater’s schedule and speeches (from a mole in Barry’s HQ?) and Moyers himself in October 1964 asked the FBI to investigate a dozen Goldwater staffers.
All in all, a good read for the politically obsessed.
An Iowan who now teaches at Des Moines Community College, Mr. Danielson did graduate work at the University of Alabama and, in this fast-paced volume, demonstrates a Northern sensibility to original Southern source material that helps readers understand how the Civil War shaped attitudes and politics for over a century.
Northern Alabama was hard for the Confederate government to defend and dangerous for the U.S. military to occupy. The conflict between Southern true believers on the home front, on the one hand, and northern troops sent to subdue the rebellion and save the Union, on the other hand, spiraled downward once the region fell into northern hands. Southern families, planters and communities suffered increasing privation at the hands of Union troops, themselves maddened by the constant sniping and guerrilla attacks and looking for ways to break Southern resistance.
If I had one criticism, it is that Mr. Danielson says nothing about the one north Alabama county where loyalty to the Union and antipathy to the slave power led residents to succeed from the succession. The Free State of Winston is an interesting side story and even a few pages on it would have added to this interesting book.
59 America's Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union
An independent historian, Bordewich has written a lively, deeply researched volume on the Compromise which, while it did not save the Union, at least kept it together for ten critical years during which the northern states could unwittingly prepare its industrial muscle and transportation sinews for the coming Civil War.
Bordewich paints illuminating portraits of the drama’s main actors, adding richness and texture to an often-told story. Henry Clay is both the extraordinary statesman who conceives the compromise and expends virtually all that is left in his frail, failing frame to secure its passage but also the petulant politician who makes approval of his compromise initially impossible by acts of anger and rancor. Mississippi Senator Henry Foote emerges from obscurity to play a vital role in keeping Unionist southern senators in support of the measure. Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton rages wildly against the interests of the country and his home state, often out of personal pique at his lose of status and power. And Stephen A. Douglas steps forward when failure appears final and by legislative legerdemain and deft leadership, rescues the Compromise and saves for a decade the country.
I’m reading too much about the Compromise of 1850 because I think it carries lessons for our current situation as leaders in Washington search for “A Grand Bargain” to the nation’s fiscal crisis. Maybe the lesson of the Compromise of 1850 is that sometimes too much is too much. The Compromise initially failed because all its elements bundled together caused too many senators to vote no. Yet when its six measures were broken apart, each was approved, albeit with a different majority behind each measure. Perhaps there is a lesson there for Washington’s leaders today.