Tuesday, July 7, 2020

The Beauty and the Terror (Catherine Fletcher)

Most of us likely know at least a little about the Italian Renaissance from textbooks and have read about Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. But underneath the surface, there is much more to Italy in the late 15th and 16th centuries and the role the Catholic church played in guiding Italian politics than just what is in textbooks. Catherine Fletcher’s The Beauty and the Terror provides a very comprehensive, chronological look into what is now Italy during the Renaissance.

You may not remember that Italy wasn’t an actual country in that timeframe - the “boot” of Italy was made up of several city-states, areas under the control of the Catholic church, and kingdoms based in Naples and Sicily. Fletcher covers the political, artistic, religious, and even love lives of the leaders and some of the lesser known individuals of the Renaissance, focusing roughly on a period that coincides with the Italian Wars from 1494 to 1559. Although there are mentions of the artistic and scientific advances of the time, more focus is in the politics and conflicts that flared through Italy then.

I found Fletcher’s book enjoyable, educational, and hard to put down. If you love history and intrigue, The Beauty and the Terror will be very much worth your time.


Monday, July 6, 2020

Reprogramming the American Dream (Kevin Scott)

In Reprogramming the American Dream, author Kevin Scott, who makes his career in technology, talks about his life and shares his recipe for improving rural America. Scott grew up in rural Virginia and, like J.D. Vance in Hillbilly Elegy, shares a tale of rural struggle to riches, escaping the hinterland to make something of himself in the big city.

Scott’s book discusses how Artificial Intelligence, or AI, can help businesses in rural America survive and thrive in the coming years. AI has been a disruptor on many facets of American employment in the past dozen or so years, and Scott anticipates that it will continue to cause disruption to vast swaths of American employment in the years to come. However, Scott also feels that AI can be a force for good if politicians and businesses take necessary steps to address technology in the workforce with effective policy and parameters around how it is used. Among Scott’s suggestions are an advocacy for increased technical education, retraining of workers impacted by AI, and increased access to high-speed internet. Many of Scott’s suggestions are practical and apolitical - geared to help rural America bridge the opportunity gap that is increasing between it and more technologically wired and advanced metropolitan areas.

Scott goes to great lengths to educate the reader on AI - maybe a bit too much - but it is done with a purpose to instruct and inform what technological advancement actually is. If you can handle some heavy reading at times, Scott’s practical suggestions around technology and education are valuable for the discussion on rural issues that continue to dominate chunks of policy.


Sunday, July 5, 2020

The Garden of Small Beginnings (Abbi Waxman)

My first impression of Abbi Waxman's The Garden of Small Beginnings was that it was trying too hard to get laughs. But as I settled in with it, I began to understand that humor was really the main character's coping mechanism for dealing with grief.

Lilian Gervan is an illustrator with two children who also watched her husband die in a car accident three years ago in front of her. After a complete breakdown, she tries to pick up the pieces of her life and move forward as best she can. When a new illustrating project opens up at work, Lillian is asked to take a Saturday gardening class for research. She grows close to her fellow classmates, and even finds herself attracted to the instructor. 

The Garden of Small Beginnings is really unique book. Waxman is not asking her readers to feel sorry for Lillian. Instead, we root for her as she gets a little stronger everyday. At times laugh-out-loud funny and other times heartbreaking, this is a great feel-good book for any time of year.


Saturday, July 4, 2020

Ghosts of Harvard (Francesca Serritella)

Francesca Serritella's Ghosts of Harvard has a premise that grabs you from the start -- a college freshman's quest to understand her brother's suicide. The problem is that there were so many other things stuffed into the book that it was hard to keep my interest.

Cady Archer enrolls in Harvard, the place where her brother, Eric, ended his life. She is desperate to find what she might have missed to save him. Along with normal college things that everyone goes through (like a grueling class schedule and living with roommates), Cady spends her time dissecting her brother's final year. She also begins to hear voices, which turn out to be ghosts from long ago. Is Cady developing the same mental illness that contributed to her brother's tragic end?

Serritella is certainly a talented writer, and Ghosts of Harvard clearly shows that she did her research. But it was at least 150 pages too long and could have benefitted from more editing. To me, it wasn't really clear how the ghosts fit in with the main theme of the story. Toward the end, the book began to try to fit in other themes like espionage and just became tiring to finish. I'm probably in the minority with this one though -- it seemed like many people liked it.


Friday, July 3, 2020

The Dissidents: A Memoir of Working with the Resistance in Russia, 1960-1990 (Peter Reddaway)

Peter Reddaway's The Dissidents is his account of working with Soviet dissidents over a thirty year period. Reddaway is a professor emeritus of political science and international affairs who first visited the Soviet Union in the early 1960’s as a student. In this book, he chronicles his work in Soviet and Russian affairs and his relationships with those who spoke out against the Communist regime of the Soviet Union.

One of the most intriguing and interesting parts of the book is when Reddaway discusses how the Soviet Union treated dissenters in means that went beyond mere jail time. While one can easily assume that there were human rights abuses in the repressive Soviet state, The Dissidents goes into detail and depth on its effects on those who dared speak out for reform and democracy behind the Iron Curtain and how the Soviet regime would wax and wane between tolerance and crackdown depending on the balance of power in Moscow.

Reddaway’s work is solidly researched. It is not necessarily captivating but is very informative and detailed, especially for those who have an interest in or are doing work in the field of Russian and Soviet history. 


Thursday, June 4, 2020

The Education of John Adams (R.B. Bernstein)

John Adams is quickly becoming one of my favorite subjects of study in American history. Our nation’s second president is a lover of books (score one point), helped establish the Library of Congress (yay), and also was an avid writer of both broadsheets (the 18th Century of a Medium op-ed) and letters to most anyone and everyone. Adams’s life and educational journey are highlighted in R. B. Bernstein's The Education of John Adams.

Bernstein’s book is arguably not much different than other biographies in style. For instance, you find out about Adams’s career trajectory from attorney to politician during the American Revolution to diplomat back to politician to retirement. However, Bernstein's approach focuses on his evolution in thinking, which was grounded in respect to tradition in English law and classical Greek and Roman thought but also looking forward with regards to experimenting, reforming, and improving that within American legal thinking. We also see some of his political weaknesses at work throughout his career and how Adams coped and dealt with the struggles in helping shape a new nation.

I found this an enjoyable read. It’s not groundbreaking in any sense given the volume of material written about Adams, but the reader will get a sense of Adams the thinker, the reformer, and activist. The reader will also learn about how those who wrote about Adams in recent decades perceived him...aman whose political beliefs could run in conflict with many in both Federalist and anti-Federalist circles but whose ideas and theories helped shape much of our country today. Adams’s complexity and convictions are worth learning about, and this book provides a well-grounded view on a man who was more than a mere four-year blip between Washington and Jefferson.


Sunday, May 24, 2020

The Bookshop of Yesterdays (Amy Meyerson)

I have always loved books about bookshops. There's just something so cozy about curling up with one and settling into the story (see Veronica Henry's fabulous How to Find Love in a Bookshop for a great example in this sub-genre). Amy Meyerson's The Bookshop of Yesterdays does not quite give off that cozy feel. There's too much mystery and drama for that, and not all of it fits in well with the story.

Miranda Brooks is a history teacher in Philadelphia living with her boyfriend. But she grew up in California, where she spent a large amount of time in her Uncle Billy's bookshop, Prospero Books. When Miranda turns twelve, Uncle Billy has a fight with Miranda's mother, and Miranda never hears from him again. But when Billy dies many years later, he unexpectedly leaves Miranda the now-almost-bankrupt bookshop, along with a literary scavenger hunt to tell her his secrets.

Throughout the book, I didn't think the characters were fleshed out as much as I would have liked them to be (with the exception of Miranda and her mother). The ending also felt a little flat and unrealistic. And as I said, when I read a book about a bookshop, I love to get that cozy feeling, and I didn't really get that with The Bookshop of Yesterdays. However, if you like your bookshop books to have a little mystery and drama in them, you may just enjoy this one.