Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Adam Smith: Father of Economics (Jesse Norman)

In Adam Smith: Father of Economics, author Jesse Norman looks at an individual who is often considered one of the fathers of modern economic thought. Smith’s life, theories, and the application of his beliefs to the modern challenges that we face are the subject of Norman’s book, with the author taking the protagonist position that Smith’s views are often used in error and not thoroughly appreciated by his supporters, detractors, and by many in the economic field.
Adam Smith is divided into three parts. Smith’s life and energies devoted to his signature works are the subjects of the first part, with the second devoted to the content that makes up the signature works and theories that Smith espoused. Last, Norman tackles Smith’s impact on capitalism and how his belief system is critical in shaping the challenges that modern capitalism faces today. Norman advocates the need for capitalist reform through effective regulations and smarter government. He often cites that supporters and detractors of Smith’s views do not fully understand and appreciate Smith’s beliefs that economies work best when there is balance and equilibrium in government and business. The author argues that Smith believes that the best interests of the public can come apart “when markets cease to function well”, citing 2008’s financial crisis and the increase in Western financial  inequality as symptoms of that.

Norman pushes for a renewed introspection into Smith’s words and beliefs and argues that society must rise to the challenges that it faces, arguing for respectful debate in that process. Adam Smith is a respectful, decent look at a man who has helped shape modern economics and modern capitalism. If past is prologue, it may pay heed to turn our views back a bit and look at just what Smith believed in as economic policy and philosophy continues to evolve. Norman makes that his very valid central point in this effective book.


Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Once Upon a River (Diane Setterfield)

I was anxiously awaiting getting my hands on a copy of Diane Setterfield's Once Upon a River. I adored The Thirteenth Tale and had mixed feelings about Bellman & Black, so I was interested to see where her latest would fall. The answer is square in the middle.

It's very difficult to even do a synopsis of Once Upon a River. Some of it is fantastical, some is tragedy, and part of it is romance. One night, an injured man opens the door to a packed inn on the Thames. In his arms is a little girl; she is pronounced dead but miraculously awakens, later to be claimed by three different families as one of their own. There is a large cast of characters to keep straight as the story unwinds to its conclusion; some are far more interesting than the rest.

Once Upon a River is terribly long-winded. It's an ambitious read and one of those books that you feel guilty for not liking as much as you did. But when it all comes down to it, Setterfield writes exquisitely and is always eager to take you on her journey with her.


Monday, November 5, 2018

A Spark of Light (Jodi Picoult)

I've been a big fan of the great Jodi Picoult since the beginning and always look forward to her books with much excitement. Most of her novels have attained well-earned fours and fives on this site, but there have been some that I've liked less (I'm looking at you Sing You Home!). For me, A Spark of Light falls squarely in the middle of the pack.

As Picoult fans know, she often takes on a hot button issue in her books -- this time, it's abortion. Hugh McElroy is called to the scene of a hostage situation at an abortion clinic; the situation gets even more devastating for Hugh when he finds out that his teenage daughter is in there. He needs to put his questions aside about why she is there in the first place in order to save her and all the other people inside. What is interesting about A Spark of Light is that it is told backwards in time. Some reviewers have commented that, for them, it didn't add anything to the plot to do that, but for me, it did. Knowing what was going to happen to each character first made everything that came before much more powerful.

What didn't work for me was the preachy tone of the book. It's obviously fine for an author to take a side in his or her own work, but it needs to be woven naturally into the story. It's jarring as a reader for the narrative to abruptly stop for characters to have a 3-page conversation about the issue. For that reason, I can't give my usual 4 or 5 to Picoult's latest.


Sunday, October 28, 2018

Red Flags (George Magnus)

George Magnus’s Red Flags documents the rise of China during its present-day Communist era, focusing specifically on the current regime of Chinese Premier Xi Jingping and his growing assertiveness within the Chinese bureaucracy and on the foreign stage. China’s economic development has been remarkable in the scope of history; Magnus devotes a fair amount of coverage in explaining how that has taken place and discusses items that he sees as potential “red flags” in the coming decades. These flags could trip up China and perhaps increase instability in an already unstable world.

Red Flags
tackles age, currency, debt, and trade, as well as internal and external politics in explaining how the country’s economic and potentially political growth could falter. The country’s aging population may limit economic growth as the country grows old in the coming decades, which may fuel issues with debt and with its currency. Political issues and America’s current nationalism on economics likely will impact how China manages its relationships globally and may also hinder economic growth. Magnus articulates a call to action on how the global community engages with China, where cooperation can be utilized and where China can be called to task when it steps out of line.

There is extensive thought given to the country on its rise on the world’s economic and now political stages. Magnus makes an effective argument in shaping concerns that could hamper China in the coming years, which in turn could have impacts on the rest of the world given how connected the global community is. This book’s target reader is someone interested in business, geopolitics, and international trade - and Magnus’s words will be worth considering even if his purported red flags fail to flap in any headwinds.


Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The Night Olivia Fell (Christina McDonald)

From the very beginning of The Night Olivia Fell, readers know that this is one story that will not end well. Author Christina McDonald pulls no punches in this one, offering a heartwrenching novel that's also strangely uplifting.

While asleep one night, Abi Knight receives a call that every parent dreads -- her daughter Olivia has fallen from a bridge. She races to the hospital, and the doctor tells her that even though Olivia is brain dead, she must be kept alive with machines until her baby is born. Abi is shocked not only by her daughter's accident but also by the news that Olivia is pregnant. From there, McDonald takes us back and forth in time and switches narrators from Abi to Olivia until finally, we learn what really happened on the night Olivia fell.

I found this one very similar to Reconstructing Amelia, but it has its own heart and voice. The writing is superb, and I couldn't wait to pick it back up in the evenings when I got home from work. As the reader, you know what's eventually coming, but, just like Abi, you find yourself hoping for a miracle.


Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (Francis Fukuyama)

The current rise of nationalism and identity politics has driven a heated and contentious debate in both Europe and America over what it means to be a citizen of a country or a part of a larger community of nations (as is the case of individuals in Europe). Francis Fukuyama’s Identity attempts to parse through the rise of identity politics in democracies and discusses what the effects of this current realm of politics is having on the democracy and on self-value.

Fukuyama spends a fair bit of time tying in psychological and personal connections to the landscape by weaving politics with personal dignity and value, arguing that the current state of political affairs is driven by grievances that are herded in smaller and smaller tents than by greater socioeconomic issues. He ties into historical context by sharing the ebb and flow of nationalism through the centuries and how the definition of identity of one’s self has largely remained centered around language, culture, and shared values (and in history’s darker episodes, used for evil and not good). He props up the idea that increasing fragmentation, political polarization, and social media have driven a large chunk of today’s political landscape and that sensible reforms are needed from political leadership. More important, the courage to make those reforms is necessary given what the author argues that vetocracy (lobbyists and special interest groups) has prevented many needed reforms from taking place, specifically in America.

For 183 pages, Identity provides an effective short-form read into Fukuyama’s thoughts on nationalism and the political landscape in the West. It is a bit simplistic in some respects, such as painting this debate in a mostly left-right context when some of the issues about immigration and economics find similar strains in both left and right politics. But it is effective in shaping the argument that reforms and political courage are needed to address the problems facing the West before things get more heated and arguably worse.


Monday, October 15, 2018

Our House (Louise Candlish)

I was drawn immediately to the cover of Louise Candlish's fabulous Our House. The house itself is designed with a bright exterior and a beautiful tree outside, but wait...are those black clouds looming ominously above it? How can such an innocent-sounding title take you on such a thrilling roller coaster ride? The answer is in the little details that form such an extravagant, horrifying puzzle.

One of the most exciting events in anyone's life is the purchase of a house. But what if the person living there never sold it in the first place? Such is the beginning of Our House, when Fiona Lawson comes home one day to find strangers moving into her treasured home. How can this be? Where is her husband, Bram, in all this? Candlish takes her time with piecing the puzzle together, allowing the reader to get just a tantalizing piece or two as she deftly goes back and forth in time. The story is told both through Fiona's eyes and Bram's, and Candlish wisely makes each section just a few pages. I was addicted, as were many people judging from the reviews, and found myself reading way past my bedtime.

Some reviewers have said the middle bogged the story down, but I didn't feel that way at all. Candlish wrote every word for a reason, and by the time, you get to the heart-stopping conclusion, you understand exactly how the dominoes started to fall from the very first page.