Thursday, March 16, 2023

Brotherhood of the Flying Coffin: The Glider Pilots of World War II (Scott McGaugh)

The Waco CG-4A was a military glider that was used by the Americans in World War II to carry troops and cargo behind enemy lines while also taking out enemy military installations. These planes could fly independently or get towed behind a larger cargo plane and were used to carry out high-risk military operations. They became known as “flying coffins” because of the risk of being shot out of the sky, or simply crashing due to turbulence and weather. Scott McGaugh captures the stories of these brave men who flew in these planes in Brotherhood of the Flying Coffin: The Glider Pilots of World War II. 

McGaugh’s book goes into detail about the use of these military gliders in the European theater of World War II, as well as the stories of those who flew in these risky missions from their debut in Sicily in 1943 to their final use in the late stages of World War II in 1945. Their most critical contributions arguably occurred in the Battle of the Bulge, delivering medical goods and gasoline to troops that were surrounded by Germans.

McGaugh highlights the stories of these battle-tested individuals, bringing to the forefront unsung and often anonymous individuals who contributed to the Allied victory in Europe. His detailed analysis of their contributions, along with transcribed oral histories, brings to life another chapter in the history of World War II.


Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Bookshop by the Sea (Denise Hunter)

When I see the word "bookshop" in a book title, it's usually an automatic read for me. These types of bookd usually involve romance (like one of my favorites - How to Find Love in a Bookshop by Veronica Henry) and the much of the action takes place in, well, a bookshop. Denise Hunter's Bookshop by the Sea adds a third intriguing factor to these books -- the sea. But unlike others, it didn't resonate as well with me.

The book begins at Sophie Lawson's sister's wedding, where Sophie sees the best man (and her ex-boyfriend), Aiden, again. Years ago, Aiden moved away to start his own business, leaving Sophie to take care of her sick mother and two younger siblings. Sophie's dream was always to open a bookshop in a beach town, but she needed to put her dreams aside to take care of her family. Now years later, it's finally time to pursue her dream when Aiden enters the picture again. 

Bookshop by the Sea suffers from too many implausible scenarios. How much bad luck can happen to one person in the span of a few weeks? Plus, I felt the title was misleading. While some of the book is about Sophie opening her bookshop, much of it takes place away from there. All in all, this book was just ok for me.


Monday, February 27, 2023

The Peaceful Transfer of Power: An Oral History of America's Presidential Transitions (David Marchick, Alexander Tippett, and A.J. Wilson)

The transition of the American presidency from one administration to another has been a peaceful, if not always smooth nor efficient, process where one President and their staff leave the White House and a new administration is set up to take their place. Ronald Reagan called this process nothing less than a miracle given you have just over 70 days between Election Day and January 20th to set up a wholly new administration and be ready to run on Day 1. Over 4000 political appointees are brought in to replace the prior administration’s crew of appointees. It’s a huge task and comes with risk to our nation’s security. 

David Marchick, Alexander Tippett, and A.J. Wilson interviewed several individuals who studied historical presidential transfers of power, as well as current government officials responsible for it, in The Peaceful Transfer of Power: An Oral History of America’s Presidential Transitions. The book provides a historical look at how the transfer of presidential power has evolved over time, how nominated candidates for the White House are now beginning the process of setting up their administration months in advance of Election Day (win or lose), and how the best laid plans for transition of power can be tossed into a dumpster at the whim of a winning candidate’s inner circle.

These interviews share much about the lessons learned with modern presidential transitions, as well as provide important insights about how involved and detailed the process of setting up a new government in a short period of time really is. The Peaceful Transfer of Power reminds readers that the presidency is a serious job and requires the right planning, support, and leadership from the presidential candidate and their inner circle to effectively transition…and even then, it won’t be perfect.


Friday, February 10, 2023

The Forest of Vanishing Stars (Kristin Harmel)

For me, the gold standard for World War II novels in the historical fiction genre are Krisin Hannah's The Nightingale and Tatiana de Rosnay's Sarah's Key. By gold standard, I'm talking about books that leave a mark on your soul. The Forest of Vanishing Stars is my first introduction to author Kristin Harmel. It's a worthwhile read but one that doesn't quite match the profundity of the other two books I mentioned.

The story begins with a very young Yona being kidnapped from her German parents by a very old woman. She is raised in the forest and left completely alone when the woman dies. But that changes when she comes across a group of Jews in the forest who are trying to escape the Nazi regime. Yona teaches the group what she knows about living in the forest until her past comes back to haunt her in a big way.

The Forest of Vanishing Stars is well-researched (as the author note describes) and inspired by true events. There are times when it is very moving and suspenseful. The love stories interspersed between the stories of survival take away from the novel a bit for me, but it is still worh reading. I will definitely read more by this author.


Sunday, January 22, 2023

Yellen: The Trailblazing Economist Who Navigated an Era of Upheaval (Jon Hilsenrath)

Janet Yellen is the first American to serve as leader of the three main financial agencies in the United States: The White House Council of Economic Advisers, the Federal Reserve, and as Treasury Secretary. Her long career has been filled with advocating a combination of Keynesian thinking about government guidance of the broader economy while pushing for lower budget deficits when economic conditions warrant. Her life’s work is chronicled in Jon Hilsenrath’s biography Yellen: The Trailblazing Economist Who Navigated an Era of Upheaval.

Yellen is not just about Janet. Much of the book covers her family – her husband, George Akerlof, is also an economist, and their son, Robert, followed in the family footsteps too. Their story, in addition to Janet’s, is woven beautifully into the book. Janet has cited her husband as a career mentor, guiding and pushing her thinking on economic matters as the two have complimented each other…and occasionally butted heads on economic philosophy or on how to handle economic issues. At the end, these stories help show how Janet’s thinking would evolve and guide important events that she faced in her career such as the Great Recession and its recovery, as well as the years after the onset of COVID-19.

Hilsenrath, a writer for the Wall Street Journal, provides a balanced and fair perspective of Yellen’s life and career. Yellen points out her mistakes and the author fairly covers her life and how her thinking impacted the broader economy. Regardless of political thinking, it’s fair to note that Yellen’s career is remarkable in being the first to lead all of the major financial offices in the United States. Yellen provides a balanced look at the woman who rose to the top of government finance.


Sunday, January 1, 2023

Realigners: Partisan Hacks, Political Visionaries, and the Struggle to Rule American Democracy (Timothy Shenk)

America’s two major political parties have evolved in their core beliefs and voter makeup since the establishment of the Republicans in the 1850’s. Throughout our country’s history, there have been two major factions that have competed for control over government at various levels. While occasional usurpers come along regardless of the strength of the political parties, in the end, Americans often face a choice between one party or another. These parties are made up of coalitions of voters that make up a wide swath of economic, ethnic, or geographic interests and are realigned from one party to another every so often. These realignments happen because of various events (think of the Great Depression and abolitionism as two examples). But often, they feature a prominent person at the forefront of driving a shift in political party alignment. Timothy Shenk covers these in detail in his book Realigners: Partisan Hacks, Political Visionaries, and the Struggle to Rule American Democracy.

Shenk discusses these political realignments in a chronological order, starting with James Madison and continuing through the present day with Barack Obama and the populism that is bubbling up on the American right. In addition to Madison and Obama, the reader is introduced to Mark and Ruth Hanna, who helped build the modern organization of a political party on a national level. Mark, the father, was the leading voice of bringing the Republicans back into the White House in the late 1890’s after the nonconsecutive terms of Grover Cleveland. Ruth, his daughter, was one of the leading voices of the women’s suffrage movement and helped to maintain Republican control of the White House through the 1920’s before the Great Depression (a realigning event) created a new coalition of Democratic rule. 

Realigners is at its strongest when it discusses some of the forgotten (to many) names that have helped guide and shape the coalitions, like Charles Sumner, the Hannas, W.E.B. DuBois. While Shenk’s personal politics and worldview can leak through into his writing and cloud some of his arguments, the book is engaging and well-researched and showcases how Republicans and Democrats have shifted over time and how the current system (or mess, depending on your opinion of the two parties) reached its current point.


Friday, December 23, 2022

The Rise of the Rest: How Entrepreneurs in Surprising Places are Building the New American Dream (Steve Case)

Steve Case made his mark as one of the cofounders of AOL in the 1990’s, eventually becoming a venture capitalist and investor. Over the past decade, Case has spearheaded bus tours of a number of mid-sized cities throughout America to help promote innovation and venture capital for startup companies in parts of the country that typically are not known for technological innovation. He chronicles his journeys over the past decade in The Rise of the Rest: How Entrepreneurs In Surprising Places Are Building the New American Dream.

Case breaks his book down into small stories and case studies into areas of America where innovation is taking place outside of the “known” hubs of Silicon Valley, New York, and Boston. In each of these examples, Case offers insight into how these communities have supported and cultivated innovation, providing the incubation for startups to grow to scale. Case highlights several examples of companies his group invested in through his bus tours and pitch competitions, highlighting what factors guided the decisions to award them money.

The book spends very little time highlighting the “secret sauce” that cities should strive for in becoming hubs for regional innovation. That sauce, if you’re wondering, is a combination of corporate, government, and community support and money. While Case spends much of the book talking about some of the nation’s successful innovation cities, I think more attention could have been paid to discuss how more national investment to the local level would be useful, along with how larger companies and the federal government could help level up the Pittsburghs and Salt Lake Citys of the world.