Monday, February 26, 2024

The Last Ships from Hamburg: Business, Rivalry, and the Race to Save Russia's Jews on the Eve of World War I (Steven Ujifusa)

Immigration to America in the late 19th and 20th Centuries was a big business, large enough that J.P. Morgan was involved and millions of dollars could be made by funneling Europeans on large steamer ships across the Atlantic. In fact, over two million Jews traveled from Eastern Europe and Russia to escape persecution and search for a better life.

Steven Ujifusa's The Last Ships from Hamburg: Business, Rivalry, and the Race to Save Russia's Jews on the Eve of World War I chronicles the migration of Europeans in the decades preceding World War I and men who built large businesses and banked huge profits off the transport of those wishing to go to America. It also describes how America gradually turned insular and anti-immigrant due to a number of factors. 

Ujifusa focuses much of the book on Albert Ballin, a Hamburg businessesman who was the managing director of the Hamburg-American line. Ballin created a sprawling network of trains and steamships to funnel migrants west. But his empire came crashing to the ground with the onset of World War I, as migration ceased and Europe and the North Atlantic turned into a war zone. Despite the war's end in 1918, immigration in America was severely restricted due to nativist and racist forces gaining influence in immigration policy.

The Last Ships from Hamburg is a great telling of the story of migration through Europe and to America but through the prism of how business in Europe helped in the mass migration.


Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Sparks: China's Underground Historians and Their Battle for the Future (Ian Johnson)

Sharing untold but true stories of a nation's past is important and necessary to help it learn about itself. While this can usually happen in America with little fanfare, it is much more dangerous in places where the state exerts full control. Ian Johnson's Sparks: China's Underground Historians and Their Battle for the Future details the stories of China's underground historians and their quest for truth, sometimes at the price of everything they have.

Chinese officials have oscillated over the seven decades of Communist control. In Mao's time and increasingly in Xi's time as leader, expressing an opinion different from the party line could find people ostracized or worse. Telling the stories of those who dissented, or weren't ideologically "pure" enough, was a fraught exercise that could end in prison time or death (see the Cultural Revolution as an example of this). Sparks highlights the brave historians who look for ways to bend and ebb around Chinese state control to ensure stories can be told.

Johnson is greatly effective at detailing several key points in Chinese history: the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, the Tiannemen protests, and the early days of the pandemic in Wuhan. The tales of the "counter-history" from these points in time and the people who told them are powerful reminders of the need for authentic storytelling before the stories of the past are forgotten.


Monday, February 12, 2024

Foreign Bodies: Pandemics, Vaccines, and the Health of Nations (Simon Schama)

Before Covid-19, periodic bouts of contagion ravaged cities and countrysides throughout the world, killing multitudes. Smallbox, cholera, and bubonic plague ebbed and flowed based on movement of people and pests. Combating these diseases, people looked for ways to protect populations and come up with innovative solutions, even in places that didn't seem to be the most innovative for scientific breakthroughs.

In Foreign Bodies: Pandemics, Vaccines, and the Health of Nations, author Simon Schama highlights a number of unsung heroes throughout the centuries, most notably Waldemar Haffkine, a Jewish student in Odessa who became a microbiologist under Louis Pasteur. Haffkine developed a cholera and bubonic plague vaccine that saved millions of lives in British India around the beginning of the 20th Century. He was celebrated by the masses but shunned by the scientific community of the time. Haffkine's innovation in developing mass-produced vaccines helped set the stage for mass innoculations that would protect against a long list of diseases.

Foreign Bodies is ultimately a great story but ends rather awkwardly with its pivot to modern-day anti-vaccine movements. The book's final chapter on Covid-19 seems almost like a rant against those who disliked Anthony Fauci, instead of covering a nearly eight-decade history of vaccine and global communities coming together under the World Health Organization (WHO). Covid-19 produced a wide range of policy decisions for population health, ranging from near "anything goes" to WHO-supported lockdowns similar to those in China. The book would have ended more effectively if it offered less of a political rant, which provided a down ending to a great story.


Monday, January 29, 2024

President Garfield: From Radical to Unifier (C.W. Goodyear)

James Garfield's six month presidency is noted more for the reforms that happened after his assassination than for what had happened in the few months he was alive. The assassination brought about long-needed civil service reform in the federal government, which eliminated much of the patronage and "spoils system" that had marked federal government employment in preceding decades. Garfield's life and political career were more noted for his being a leader in the early Republican party and one that pivoted at times from progressive to pragmatic. C.W. Goodyear's book President Garfield: From Radical to Unifier highlights the life and career of a man whose political moderation helped propel him to the highest office in the United States.

The Republicans in the 1870's were divided into two roughly equal factions. The Stalwarts were a more progressive branch of the party that believed heavily in political patronage and rewarding fellow Stalwarts with plum federal jobs. Half-Breeds were the opposing faction that were more moderate but believed in civil service reform. Garfield, a member of Congress from the Civil War through 1880, drifted from the Radical camp into a more moderate position as he rose in leadership within the Republican party. The battle between Stalwarts and Half-Breeds, which had paused during the Hayes administration, exploded in the 1880 Republican Convention as factions between James Blaine and Ulysses Grant vied for over thirty ballots on becoming the party’s nominee for President. Garfield emerged as a compromise candidate and won on the 36th ballot, eventually winning the Presidency. 

Garfield was generally known for being a pragmatic moderate and a reasoned voice in the Republican party. Goodyear’s book does a great job of capturing the story of a President that many of us know little about and whose administration is known more for what happened after his death than during it.


Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Open Talent: Leveraging the Global Workforce to Solve Your Biggest Challenges (John Winsor and Jin H. Paik)

The Covid-19 pandemic reset much of what was considered conventional wisdom in the workforce. Many workers left their employers and transitioned into gig work or even started their own ventures. Companies, in response to this shift, have had to adapt to find talent both internally and externally. However, many are struggling to adapt successfully. Harvard Business School's John Winsor and Jin H. Paik discuss how companies can better harness talented workers in Open Talent: Leveraging the Global Workforce to Solve Your Biggest Challenges.

The authors argue that internal collaboration and leveraging external resources will help companies improve productivity. From a detailed rundown of "gig work" companies to internal strategies that companies can utilize, this book thoroughly details best practices that companies can experiment with, along with case studies that show successful adaptation, improved internal innovation, and reduced employee turnover in recent years.

As workplaces continue to evolve thanks to the call for flexibility from white collar workers, Paik and Winsor argue that innovation on sourcing talent and breaking down internal silos will help improve company performance. Open Talent advocates for companies opening up to new ideas as critical to success in the coming years.


Monday, January 8, 2024

Spies: The Epic Intelligence War Between East and West (Calder Walton)

Espionage is not solely the stuff of James Bond movies. People like Aldirch Ames, Robert Hanssen, and Harold “Kim” Philby have all served the Soviet Union or Russia with information while working for Western intelligence agencies. There’s a long, dubious, and tumultuous history of espionage between the West and Russia that goes back over 100 years. Calder Walton captures this history in Spies: The Epic Intelligence War Between East and West.

Spies is a detailed, well-researched history of Russia, America, and British intelligence since World War I, with much of its attention paid to the Cold War era through the present day. Russian meddling in Western affairs is nothing recent or new, Walton argues, pointing to various attempts by Russian-influenced groups to run interference on Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980’s. Unlike then, however, Russia’s attempts are more brazen and direct, using new methodologies in an attempt to control minds. Walton also dedicates some of his book to discussing China’s increasing use of spies and espionage in Western politics over the past decade and how China is likely going to be the biggest challenge to the West in the coming decade.

Spies is a thorough history of West vs. Russia espionage and how it has evolved over the decades and become more sophisticated and subtle. Walton provides practical arguments and lessons for the coming decades and how trusting and funding the intelligence movement is helpful for promoting democratic ideals and countering those who wish to undermine the West.


Tuesday, January 2, 2024

Amazing Grace: A Cultural History of the Beloved Hymn (James Walvin)

The song Amazing Grace was written in the 18th Century by John Newton, at the time an Anglican minister in a small town. This song has become a staple of American music over the past 200 years, iconic for its message of redemption and forgiveness, sung by audiences of all sorts at various occasions. James Walvin shares its background in Amazing Grace: A Cultural History of the Beloved Hymn.

Walvin’s story is a brisk read - less than 200 pages - all very detailed and powerful. The song is a reflection of Newton's personal experiences. He wasn’t particularly religious as a child and went into the Royal Navy as a young man. After, he captained slave ships and survived a particularly bad storm off the coast of Ireland. He subsequently became religious and eventually ended his seafaring to become a minister. Newton over time became an abolitionist and in his latter years was an advocate for the end of slavery in England, which finally occurred in the year of his death in 1807. The song was written in 1772 and eventually became a staple of American music, particularly in Black and rural churches throughout the South and Midwest, gradually working its way into commercial prominence thanks to several influential musicians. While the hymn didn’t capture the initial and lasting popularity in England that it has in America, recent years have shown a fresh appreciation in the UK.

The author’s research and writing are powerful and compelling. If you’re interested in musical history, religion, and both the human and American experience, Amazing Grace sums up much of our complex, ever-evolving story.