Sunday, September 25, 2022

Geography is Destiny: Britain and the World: A 10,000-Year History (Ian Morris)

From isolation from continental Europe to integration with it, whether it be by brute force, religious ties, or economic support, the British Isles have had a long, conflicted relationship with Europe. For those of us in America who watched Brexit take place from 3,000 miles away, the context of this struggle between England and Europe was new. However, as Ian Morris points out in his book Geography Is Destiny: Britain and the World: A 10,000-Year History, Britain’s relationship to Europe has been a continual ebb and flow between close ties and distance.

Morris’s book tackles England’s history to the broader world context, but the heaviest focus is on its European relationships. The author talks about the changing worldview and England’s relationship to it - from one where England was the literal edge of the known world (to Europeans), to one where they were the metaphorical center of it, to a geography where they are one of the outsized players on the world’s financial stage (albeit not *the* principal player like it once was). Morris, with brilliance and humor, explains how England evolved and its relationship to the world changed over the centuries.

In about 500 pages, Morris does a wonderful job explaining the major points of British history and its context to modern times. In many respects, what’s past is repetitive prologue in the sense that history has set the stage for the present and that it has, in some ways, repeated itself. Examples of this include England’s relationship to Scotland and Ireland or its relationship to Europe. For us in America, Geography Is Destiny is a great tool in helping us understand English history…and, as a bonus, how one historian perceives our independence in 1776.


Saturday, September 17, 2022

The Book Lover's Guide to London (Sarah Milne)

It's hard to think of a city with a more rich literary history than London. In Sarah Milne's The Book Lover's Guide to London, the author takes the reader to locations in each area of the city where London's writers (and even their famous characters) were known to frequent or live.

The book is divided nicely into specific areas for easy reference and features beautiful full-color photographs to go along with the text. Some authors are mentioned quite a lot, like Dickens, Woolf and Wilde -- perhaps a bit too much. It would have been nice to read about some lesser-known London authors too. Home addresses are mixed with pubs and other locations (of which quite a few still exist today). 

The one thing I felt lacking in this book was how inconsistently the sections were set up. Some sections had a lot of text that seemed unrelated to the heading. For example, there's a section titled A.A. Milne with additional unrelated information about other authors (like Bram Stoker) -- this was a bit jarring. The book could have used some careful editing. However, most of the stories are interesting, so lovers of London literary history (and just London) will probably enjoy it.


Friday, September 16, 2022

Going Downtown: The US Air Force Over Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, 1961-75 (Thomas McKelvey Cleaver)

Thomas McKelvey Cleaver’s Going Downtown: The US Air Force Over Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, 1961-75 recaps the United States Air Force’s battles in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Cleaver’s book is a successor to his book. The Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club, which covered the U.S. Navy during the same timeframe. 

This book is a historical account of the Vietnam War, starting with the context of France’s involvement and Vietnam’s independence movement, crossed with the U.S. Air Force’s campaigns in it. Those major campaigns included “Rolling Thunder”, conducted in the mid 1960’s, followed by “Linebacker I” and “Linebacker II” in 1972. The author talks about the logistical struggles the Air Force had in dealing with a robust air defense system, along with micromanagement of the war from Washington, DC. Also, the author stresses the larger geographic scope of the Air Force’s battles in Southeast Asia, encompassing Laos, Cambodia, and the staging of operations in Thailand. While we think of the Vietnam War for the battles fought in the country, battles were also fought in surrounding countries and there was war support, such as planes and air defense systems, provided for North Vietnam from China and Russia.

Like Cleaver’s book on the Naval battles in Vietnam, Going Downtown incorporates first-person accounts from a number of Air Force veterans and individuals from both North and South Vietnam who fought during this timeframe. Going Downtown is a highly technical, detailed account into the Vietnam War’s aerial battles and the evolving American strategy in the 1960’s regarding North Vietnam’s involvement in South Vietnam.


Sunday, August 28, 2022

Chorus (Rebecca Kauffman)

Rebecca Kauffman's Chorus follows the seven Shaw siblings (and their parents) through various time periods and events in their lives. I think this book could have been great, but it never really hits its mark.

Chorus goes back and forth through time from the early 1900s through the 1950s. There aren't really chapters, but vignettes about the family of various length. When something happens in an early time period (like their mother's death or a teenage pregnancy), it's brought up again later with a variety of recollections. Each sibling goes through a lot in their life, but the book is not really about anything. I've read many quiet stories about families, but there has to be a sense of connectedness throughout for it for it to be interesting. Chorus, to me, lacks that. 

Despite its shorter length, this book took me a very long time to read. It felt disjointed, and I never felt like I got to know any of the characters well. This was a big miss for me. 


Thursday, August 18, 2022

Rickey: The Life and Legend of an American Original (Howard Bryant)

Rickey Henderson played in Major League Baseball for 25 years, playing for nine teams. Included in those teams were four separate terms playing for the Oakland Athletics, where many casual baseball fans remember him from. Growing up in the 1980’s, I liked watching Rickey play baseball despite his perceived cockyness and aloofness as presented to the media. Rickey could run for days on the basepaths and his keen batting eye helped him set a major league record for most walks over a career. 

Howard Bryant presents Rickey through a new lens in his book Rickey: The Life and Legend of an American Original. Bryant talks about Henderson not just from a biographical perspective but ties in his story to that of many Black baseball players in the 1960’s, 1970’s, and 1980’s. Oakland was one of the nation’s baseball hotbeds during these years, fueled in part by The Great Migration of Blacks seeking a better life from America’s South out to California during and after World War II. Henderson and many other kids grew up in West Oakland, played sports together, and pursued professional sports as a livelihood. Many, like Henderson, were very successful in their career. But very few set records for longevity and success like Henderson did.

Bryant’s biography shows not just the aspect of place in fueling one’s life but how Rickey was often misunderstood and poorly characterized by sportswriters and many in the public for some of the ways he went about his business. Some of that, fueled by stereotypes, made Rickey out to look dumb or arrogant. In many cases, Bryant argues that Rickey was living true to keeping his public life and private lives very separate, living true to himself as a player, and fighting for his worth. Given the value of many baseball contracts today, Henderson’s arguing for an extra million per season looks like mere child’s play. However, he was among the pioneers in the free agent era that fought hard for what they perceived themselves to be worth.

I follow baseball much less now than I used to but I found it very refreshing to read back to a day when guys could hit for batting average, occasionally hitting for power, while not striking out 200 times a year. It was the baseball I remember as a kid and many people older than me would remember baseball at its best being played that way. Bryant’s book is not only a great reminder of what was arguably a more entertaining era of baseball but of a player that was very responsible for it being a show.


Friday, August 5, 2022

The Digital Mindset: What It Really Takes to Thrive in the Age of Data, Algorithms, and AI (Paul Leonardi and Tsedal Neeley)

Technology and information are driving vast, rapid changes in how businesses operate. Smart businesses are able to transform their operations and their procedures to account for the ever-evolving age of data that we’re now in.  Paul Leonardi and Tsedal Neeley’s book The Digital Mindset: What It Really Takes to Thrive in the Age of Data, Algorithms, and AI offers practical, thoughtful solutions that businesses can follow to thrive in this new era of work.

Technological innovations have been with us for centuries - from the physical in the form of wheels and tools to the industrial with the uses of water, coal, and other sources of energy to fuel faster creation of products. The current set of innovation involves the use of data and computer literacy to help fuel business productivity. The authors suggest that businesses need to become fluent in key technological concepts - either through self-training or hiring key personnel who can effectively lead internal innovation - to help build what they term a “digital mindset” inside an organization. The authors stress that it’s important for companies to collaborate internally to ensure that remote and non-remote workers are included in key decisions, as well as to ensure that any changes to a company’s operations are made with all the necessary players involved. The biggest piece that is stressed is that companies help encourage their personnel to be self-driven to embrace learning new technological concepts and that this change not be “forced” but guided through the use of early adapters, influencers, and others who can help shepherd the company through innovation.

The Digital Mindset is very effective in laying out technological terms and concepts at an easy-to-understand level. The arguments are clear and persuasive, but more importantly, delivered at a fair and balanced perspective that simply shows the importance of understanding technology and how it ultimately applies to a business’s success or failure.


Saturday, July 23, 2022

Tracy Flick Can't Win (Tom Perrotta)

Having read Tom Perrotta's Election and seen Reese Witherspoon's iconic performance of Tracy Flick in the movie, I had high hopes for Perrotta's novel Tracy Flick Can't Win. But after I read it, I was left wondering -- what was the point?

Fast forward decades later, Tracy is a hardworking assistant principal and single mother. When longtime principal, Jack Weede, announces his retirement, Tracy assumes that she has the principal job on lock. Tracy is also asked to serve on the selection committee for the school's brand new Hall of Fame. Among the proposed inductees is Vito Corleone, the high school's star quarterback back in the day who had a short career in the NFL. As the ceremony comes up, Tracy wonders if the principal job will really be hers or if people are plotting against her. 

All of this makes for a really implausible storyline with multiple characters providing points of view (most of whom seem meaningless). A plot point is brought up (like Vito possible having CTE) and then just disappears. And the ending is so out-of-the-blue it's laughable. The worst of this for me though is that, besides the ambition, there doesn't seem to be much of the Tracy Flick we know from Election. Which again brings me to -- what was the point of it all?