Tuesday, June 15, 2021

The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War (Louis Menand)

Louis Menand's comprehensive The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War discusses American and Western European culture in the years after World War II through the middle of the Vietnam War. 

Menand’s work dives into the economic, technological, cultural, political, and social evolutions over a rough twenty-five year period, focusing on key personalities that helped drive or lead the massive amounts of change that took place over the start of the Baby Boom era up through 1970. America’s role in the world was more than just the leader in economic might; it exported substantial amounts of culture globally as well. Art, music, literary works, movies, and even political thinking were chief American exports. Menand ties a bow on much of the work in showing how segments of these cultural institutions were underwritten by the CIA as part of the government’s work against communism.

I enjoyed the book although I found it meandering at times. The author occasionally dove very deep into the weeds on topics that he seemed either more knowledgeable or more passionate about, and I felt that those moments took focus away from the overarching themes of the book about American cultural influence in the post-World War II era. I would have appreciated seeing some additional content on the CIA’s subversion of cultural and philosophical institutions during these years or some references to other material I could read on the subject. That said, The Free World is a wide-ranging, comprehensive book that really reinforces the importance of art, ideas, and culture in the world.

MY RATING - 4

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Metabolical: The Lure and the Lies of Processed Food, Nutrition, and Modern Medicine (Robert H. Lustig)

Dr. Robert H. Lustig’s career was spent in pediatric medicine, working largely on the growing issue of childhood obesity and diabetes. In Metabolical: The Lure and the Lies of Processed Food, Nutrition, and Modern Medicine, he discusses the role that processed foods have in impacting our society’s health...and not for the better.

Most of us often think of fat in food and fast food as bad things. Lustig argues that while, yes, those things are bad that it is really sugar and the lack of what he terms “Real Food” as the culprit of our medical issues. Real Food is unprocessed whole grains, nuts, fruits, vegetables, and meat that is raised and farmed in a non-industrial manner. While processed foods offer convenience and relatively lower upfront costs, Lustig advocates that the long-term health impacts from lower nutritional content and higher preservative and nitrate content will cause longer-term health issues. 

Lustig asserts that the medical community is also complicit in contributing to America’s poor diet as medical school offers very little class time on nutrition and that Big Pharma and Big Food underwrite much of the research and education that don’t educate people on nutrition and instead focus people’s attention on calorie count. Lustig argues that not all calories are created equal nor are the impacts from those calories going to be the same. 


Lustig wraps up Metabolical by offering policy ideas, similar to the ones used to counter tobacco and alcohol such as taxing sugary items and putting restrictions on advertising. Knowing the obstacles that some of the sugar taxes have had on a local level, a national or state level of taxation may face some tough opposition. 

Metabolical to be very much one man’s indictment of Big Food and Big Pharma, at times as bombastic as much as it is educational (and Lustig educates the reader a lot in this book). The adage “you are what you eat” keeps coming to mind; Metabolical may very well have you rethinking how and what you eat by the time you are done reading it.

MY RATING - 4

Friday, May 21, 2021

The Bookshop of Second Chances (Jackie Fraser)

I usually love books about bookshops. Veronica Henry's How to Find Love in a Bookshop is one of my favorite books. Unfortunately, I didn't feel the same way about Jackie Fraser's The Bookshop of Second Chances.

Thea Mottram's husband has just left her -- for her friend (ouch!). Conveniently, she learns that her great uncle has passed away and willed her his home in Scotland. Trying to pick up the pieces of her life, Thea decides to escape there and immediately loves it. She gets a job in the town bookshop, which is owned by grumpy Edward Maltravers, who is also in the middle of a long-standing feud with his brother, Charles.

As I tried to assess why I didn't love this book, I came up with a few main reasons. 1. The characters are unlikeable. Edward even tells Thea that he usually doesn't hire women. 2. Some of the plot points are not believeable. For example, Edward's feud with Charles is from something that happened when they were teenagers. Decades later, Edward continues to get revenge on Charles in an egregious way (there's that unlikeable thing again). 3. There are pages and pages and pages of dialogue. Everything gets spelled out to the reader instead of letting us discover things on our own.

But what I really didn't like in this book is that the bookshop isn't really part of the story. Yes, Thea and Edward work there so there are a few scenes there. But more action takes place in Edward's upstairs flat that in the bookshop itself. I just didn't get that cozy feeling that I usually get from these types of books. So if you like bookshop books, you may be disappointed in this one.

MY RATING - 2

Monday, May 17, 2021

Lincoln in Private: What His Most Personal Reflections Tell Us About Our Greatest President (Ronald C. White)

Abraham Lincoln was a private man who would extensively work and refine his thoughts before speaking or releasing a statement in public. His “best thoughts”, as he self-described them, were left on short fragments of paper that he placed in his desk drawer or in his top hat. These thoughts contained unrefined and rough draft thoughts regarding some of the important issues of his time. Ronald C. White’s Lincoln in Private captures these note fragments and offers fresh insight into a man many American historians regard as the nation’s greatest president.

White shares 111 of Lincoln’s notes, all listed in the appendix with context of their approximate date, with twelve of the notes receiving commentary from White. In this commentary, we see Lincoln’s thinking evolve over the issue of slavery, his wrestling with the development of the Republican party in the 1850's versus his prior longstanding affiliation with the Whigs, and the advocacy for national unity in the midst of developing the secession crisis in 1860 and 1861. White’s objectiveness helps us see Lincoln through Lincoln’s own words, not the author’s, and helps the reader see more of Lincoln as he reflected on the challenges he and his country were facing.

The most surprising note shared in Lincoln in Private was Lincoln’s prose about Niagara Falls, reflecting a much more philosophical and poetic side of Lincoln that we don’t often see. I really enjoyed the book and wish White had offered additional commentary in a few more notes; the appendix is well worth spending some time in a deeper dive.
 
MY RATING - 4

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Better, Simpler Strategy: A Value-Based Guide to Exceptional Performance (Felix Oberholzer-Gee)

Businesses often succeed when they can create and effectively execute a strategy and plan. Felix Oberholzer-Gee’s Better, Simpler Strategy: A Value-Based Guide to Exceptional Performance establishes a framework to help businesses rethink and rework how they operate.

Oberholzer-Gee’s method to madness centers around value-based strategy. The author advocates two metrics: The first being the most someone would pay for a product or service; the second is the minimum compensation that employees and suppliers (in manufacturing) would require. The difference in these two metrics is the value that a business creates and, according to the author, where businesses should focus their efforts. The author talks at length about this being represented by a “value stick” and then provides examples where either of the metrics (willingness to pay or willingness to sell) is changed and how those changes transformed the performance of the company.


Better, Simpler Strategy is a valuable resource for any business executive who is thinking about how their organization’s performance can be transformed. Given the fast change of pace in today’s world, keeping the strategy simple and focused on value will help not only the business but also the employees.

MY RATING - 4

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

What We Owe Each Other: A New Social Contract for a Better Society (Minouche Shafik)

Minouche Shafik's What We Owe Each Other: A New Social Contract for a Better Society advocates for a rethinking of how societies can support each other to help improve economic and societal conditions for all. The book is written with an eye to thinking about how tweaking (and improving) parts of the social contract between government and citizens can result in better outcomes for all.

Shafik covers all stages of life - raising children, education, health, and retirement - and talks about how improving conditions for all through providing stronger social safety nets will yield improved economic, health, and educational performances in countries. While her audience is directed globally, the author is adept at utilizing examples from Europe and “Western” societies and those from elsewhere around the globe to show various models that work and how these models can be adapted in other places if necessary. Shafik spends a relatively short amount of time talking about how those improvements to the safety net can be properly financed - this is an area that could have used additional focus. 

What We Owe Each Other is organized and thoughtful and offers a fresh perspective on how governments should organize social contracts with its citizens. While some of the ideas proposed may be very difficult to see implemented and get financed, the discussion of how to improve benefits and support systems for people is worth having.

MY RATING - 3.5

Saturday, May 1, 2021

The Hidden History of Coined Words (Ralph Keyes)

Examples of coined words include "blog", "quark", and "buttonhole"; all of which were created either in jest or through misprints (in the case of "quark"). Those who are responsible for coining some of English’s more unique words come from diverse backgrounds - a humorist, a botanist, a cartoonist, and even politicians have all contributed words that have had staying power to our discourse over centuries.

Ralph Keyes’s The Hidden History of Coined Words dives head-first into a treasure trove of word origins, outlining in great detail how terms came into existence, whether those terms had staying power or were mere fads, and how they may have evolved over the years. Did you know that "hipster" is not a recent word invention, despite the current term identifying many craft beer aficionados and fans of indie rock? Or that "spread’s" meaning today is not necessarily the same as it was in an earlier time? Keyes closes with a tutorial on how to coin words and what letters coined words should start with. He also expresses hope that a number of expressions that we struggle with can find better meaning.

The Hidden History of Coined Words an enjoyable book, one well-suited for linguists and wordsmiths who are curious to gain further insight into ever-evolving language.

MY RATING - 4.5