Sunday, August 2, 2020

The Hour of Fate: Theodore Roosevelt, J.P. Morgan, and the Battle to Transform American Capitalism (Susan Berfield)

In The Hour of Fate: Theodore Roosevelt, J.P. Morgan, and the Battle to Transform American Capitalism, author Susan Berfield details the political fight between Theodore Roosevelt and J.P. Morgan during the early parts of the 20th Century. The book also discusses Roosevelt’s fights with and against Morgan over key political battles in the world of business and industry.

Berfield focuses on two major events: First, the Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902, a labor battle between the coal industry and miners over wages and hours worked. Second, the Northern Securities case regarding railroad trusts. These two moments were transformative for the role of government in regulating business and protecting workers. Both events also had Roosevelt and Morgan on opposite sides; although with the coal strike, Morgan’s direct involvement was not as minimal as it was with Northern Securities.

While these two events were the key “battles” waged between Roosevelt and Morgan, there were times when Morgan was helpful to American political interests. Both of these moments dealt with fiscal matters that involved either the American government, such as in the aftermath of the Panic of 1893, or Morgan’s strongarming of American banking in 1907. While the first of these was given more significant play, Morgan’s work in helping end the 1907 panic and subsequent work towards helping create the Federal Reserve were given much shorter mention. That aside, this book’s central argument of the importance of effective regulation and thoughtful checks on excessive corporate power is important to note in today’s times.


Saturday, August 1, 2020

Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions (Jeffrey Selingo)

I've always been fascinated by the whole world of college admissions. Why is it so difficult to get into Harvard? Stanford? Yale? In Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, author Jeffrey Selingo explains exactly what goes on behind the scenes in secretive college admissions offices and explains what exactly students can do to better the odds of getting in to their chosen school.

The key word in the previous paragraph was "secretive." Rarely does someone get the chance to ingrain themselves inside three different admissons offices as decisions are made that will affect the rest of a student's life. Selingo writes that getting in doesn't have as much to do with a student's test scores and extracurricular activities (although they aren't unimportant) as it does with what a particular school's "needs" are that year. He also argues that students should try to understand that there are plenty of great schools out there that "aren't" Ivy League or top-ranked and that broadening their choices may result in a wonderful experience at a place they never thought of.

My favorite book about college admissions will always be Jacques Steinberg's The Gatekeepers. However, this is a close second. It's meticulously reported and offers assistance to students and parents as they go through what many consider a very stressful time.


Available September 15, 2020

Saturday, July 18, 2020

The Daily Thomas Paine: A Year of Common Sense Quotes for a Nonsensical Age (Edited by Edward G. Gray)

Thomas Paine, one of America’s political philosophers whose prose helped shape the spirit of the movement of American colonies towards independence from Britain, had no shortage of thoughts on government, religion, and power. His 1776 pamphlet, Common Sense, is oftem cited as one of the inspirations that drove the independence movement. Edward G. Gray, a historian and professor, has compiled many of Paine’s quotes on politics, power, wealth, and religion and summarized them in The Daily Thomas Paine: A Year of Common Sense Quotes for a Nonsensical Age.

Gray’s editorial contributions to the collection include the context of Paine, an argument that he is relevant in today’s era, a brief biographical sketch, and a collection of quotes allocated by date. While there is little tie between the date and the quote assigned to it, it makes for the possibility of a reader being able to apply a number of approaches to the book - one quote per day or more quotes in a shorter period of time.

A collection of quotes in an editorialized format doesn’t often capture the essence of a writer. However, Gray does an effective job in offering insights into a man who had very strong opinions about monarchy, religion, and the pursuit of democratic and republican (not the parties but the political concepts) government.


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.