Sunday, January 5, 2020

Presidential Misconduct: From George Washington to Today (James M. Banner)

Presidential Misconduct was originally compiled in 1974 at the request of Congress, during the investigations of Richard Nixon. It was intended as a historical account of past misdeeds, scandals, and investigations in presidential administrations from George Washington through Lyndon Johnson. One of the historians that contributed to the 1974 report, James M. Banner, has put together another panel to review administrations from Nixon through Barack Obama. This update was done in response to the current investigations surrounding the Trump administration.

The original report found that each president save for William Henry Harrison has been accused of misconduct of some level, from rigging elections to fiscal mismanagement to employing corrupt staff. Yes, even George Washington was levied with charges of being a tyrant by anti-Federalists.  The updated account includes Watergate, Iran-Contra, Whitewater, and other events that were heavily investigated by Congress or the press. Some presidential accounts are much longer than others for a host of reasons. Some of the investigations were legitimate but others came about as the result of overinflated charges made by enemies of that particular administration.

Given the highly political times we are in, this book is a great reference on how politics, power, and the pursuits of both have shaped the ebb and flow of the behavior of presidential administrations over the years. Congress’s response to perceived and actual corruption is also brought in for each president’s record. Presidential Misconduct is written without bias and with heavy reference to past historical records and worth your time if you are a student of history or political science.


Saturday, December 28, 2019

Christmas Shopaholic (Sophie Kinsella)

Reading about the exploits of Becky Brandon (nee' Bloomwood) is like spending time with an old friend. Christmas Shopaholic is the ninth of Sophie Kinsella's Shopaholic books, and while there's nothing earth-shattering here, it's still a fun way way to while away a wintry afternoon.

Becky loves Christmas, but this year, her parents have moved away and asked her to do the hosting. Hosting Christmas in this family is the opposite of a low-key affair: Becky's sister, Jess, wants a vegan turkey and each attendee in turn has demands of their own. Becky is just plain stressed out, wanting everything from the gifts to the decorations to be absolutely perfect. Misunderstandings ensue until the final twist at the end (which genuinely surprised me). And of course, we couldn't have a book in the Shopaholic Series without lots and lots of shopping; this being Christmas, Becky takes it to the extreme.

I usually find Becky Brandon to be a fun character, but in this one, she gets into a few too many frustrating situations. Not my favorite Shopaholic book but still an entertaining read for the holidays.


Saturday, November 30, 2019

Christmas in Vermont (Anita Hughes)

When you find yourself meandering over to the bookstore's holiday section, you usually know what you're going to be getting. There are no surprises in a holiday novel, but readers love them precisely for their predictability so they can escape from the real world. All that being said, it's important that a holiday book have at least some whimsy and warmth and for any book to keep the reader's attention. Even with a title like Christmas in Vermont, I didn't really find either of these in this book.

Emma is a Manhattan copywriter who visits a pawn shop on Christmas Eve. She finds her ex-boyfriend's engraved watch and wonders whatever became of him. Her best friend, Bronwyn, discovers that Fletcher, the ex-boyfriend, is staying in a snowy Vermont inn and sends Emma there. What Bronwyn doesn't know is that Fletcher has a fiance and a daughter.

Christmas, a Vermont Inn, snow -- sounds magical, right? It is in theory, but while holiday novels do require the reader to suspend disbelief at times, this one had way too may "coincidences" to be believed. Hughes calls it "synchronicity" in the book, but it just came off as annoying. Finding ex-boyfriend's engraved watch in a pawn shop? Check. Best friend sends me to the same middle-of-nowhere inn as my ex-boyfriend? Check. I become close with my ex-boyfriend's ten-year-old daughter? Check. Ex-boyfriend has a fight with his fiance and the fiance leaves? Check. You can only guess how it ends.

There are better holiday books out there.


Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Messengers: Who We Listen To, Who We Don't, and Why (Stephen Martin and Joseph Marks)

Messengers by Stephen Martin and Joseph Marks makes the argument that we often are basing our opinions and decision-making not by the facts being argued but by whom is doing the persuading.  These "messengers" are influencers within business, politics, and our broader way of life, and we arguably live in an Instagram Influencer world.

Martin and Marks do a very thorough job exposing the traits that create these powerful messengers. Dominance, trustworthiness, warmth, and socioeconomic positions are four of the traits and characteristics that are given extensive discussion. The reader learns how and why one video may get many more views than another, how one person's tweet may get a lot more traction compared to someone else’s, and how political candidates are perceived by the public at large.  Some of these reasons, regardless of truth, are pretty sobering.

Understanding these traits and the associated reasons for people thinking and acting the way they do is important. What this book lacks is coming up with steps to deflate the messenger’s influence and how we can better arm ourselves against being swayed by that tweet in the echo chamber, that piece of fake or questionable news, or that click-bait headline. However, Messengers is a good study of our psychology and, for anyone in a position of leadership, a book that is worth a read.


Tuesday, November 26, 2019

The Immortalists (Chloe Benjamin)

Chloe Benjamin's The Immortalists confronts the reader with a common question: Would you want to know the date you are going to die, and if you did, how would you live your life differently knowing it?

In 1969, four young siblings sneak away to see a fortune teller who claims to know everyone's date of death. For some of the children, the date they hear is devastating and so much sooner than they ever expected. Subsequent sections follow each of the Gold siblings as they try to live their life with the prophecy in their minds. All four are very different but connected by what they know...or believe to be true.

The Immortalists has a very original premise, and Benjamin set the narrative up in a way that each brother or sister must deal with their siblings' deaths as they come. For me, though, the execution wasn't entirely successful because I didn't feel that the characters were fleshed out as much as they could have been.

Still a worthwhile read and one that makes you think about your own life.


Saturday, November 23, 2019

The Turn of the Key (Ruth Ware)

I've read and reviewed everything Ruth Ware has written, and she is definitely one of my go-to authors, mystery or otherwise. During my bookstore days, The Woman in Cabin 10 was the book I most often recommended when customers asked for a suggestion. I am a very slow reader, but I stated in my review that I read the whole thing in a 24-hour period and raced to the end to see how Ware would wrap it up. The same thing happened to me with her latest, The Turn of the Key.

This is your classic "All alone in a big haunted house in the middle of nowhere" story; however, Rowan Caine is not "quite" alone. She answers an ad to become a live-in nanny to four children (well, three and a teenager in boarding school), a job which pays a suspiciously outrageous sum but has lost all the other nannies over the years. The house feels like it is constantly watching, and that's because it has cameras everywhere.

But this isn't where the story begins -- it starts with Rowan in prison after her stint as the nanny. She is writing letters begging Mr. Wrexham to become her new solicitor and adamantly proclaiming that she did not kill that child. So before we even get into the main gist of the novel, Ware sucks us in
with the knowledge that one of the children will end up dead and Rowan will be arrested for the murder.

From the intriguing beginning to the final twist on the last two pages (literally), Ware has created another fascinating page-turner. I may even go all the way in saying that The Turn of the Key is now my favorite Ruth Ware novel, beating out finally The Woman in Cabin 10.


Friday, November 22, 2019

More from Less (Andrew McAfee)

More from Less is a rather optimistic view of the 21st Century globally. Author Andrew McAfee chronicles how, despite challenges from climate change, environmental pollution and other man-influenced and man-made causes, parts of the world are showing signs of producing more by using less of the world’s resources. It’s a fair take and a reasonable argument to make, and McAfee provides a lot of charts and data to back up his assertions. 

McAfee’s message is both incredibly optimistic and also a bit muddled. Optimistic in the sense that he is a bit of a progress champion, saying technology and capitalism will continue to push us forward provided there’s reasonable government regulation in place. The message becomes muddled when he wanders into the weeds of some of the negative sides of globalization. While it makes sense to touch on these, some of his suggestions to address problems that are the side effect of globalization run counter to earlier arguments made within his book. Even within that inconsistency in message, however, his points on social capital are certainly worth further discussion. That, perhaps, could have been its own book.

More from Less on the whole makes a number of good points about how technology will help us use less of our natural resources in the coming decades. What could have been a stronger argument for innovation and progress, however, gets muddled in some inconsistency in message.