Grant by Ron Chernow – Book

 

Grant by Ron Chernow is not a book; it is tome. He writes a very contemporary biography of Ulysses S. Grant, perhaps unclouded by the political passions and machinations of the 19th century. We often hear more that is negative about Grant than what was positive. We hear he was often drunk, that he headed one of the most corrupt governments in our history, that he was a gullible and simple man, without social graces or persuasive public speaking abilities. Writers in the past accepted, for the most part, that Grant had strong military successes, but opinions of his abilities range from a lazy leader to a military savant (which Chernow feels is much closer to the truth).

Prior to the Civil War, America was experiencing a time of great divisiveness (perhaps even worse that what we are seeing in the 21st century). Slavery and state’s rights were the issues that most passionately divided the nation (and they still are 151 years later). Strong abolitionist movements in the northern states enraged the South whose lifestyle and economy revolved around slave labor. The South claimed that the Federal government had no right to make laws in this matter. The verbal battles were bitter and the differences irreconcilable. Whatever you may feel is the reason for the Civil War (the GOP still cites the state’s rights issue; while Dems tend to cite the issue of keeping human beings as slaves), Grant evolved on the issue of slavery until he came to believe that it was an anathema and absolutely the point of the war. The Union considered the South to be traitors who wanted to dissolve the Republic. Although it may drive you crazy, you need to remember that in the 19th century Southerners were the Democrats and the abolitionists were Republicans.

Chernow does not sidestep graphic descriptions of the terrible tragedy of human destruction left in the wake of every victory and every defeat in the brutal Civil War. Grant, who seemed unable to be a successful businessman, proved to have a genius for warfare, a focus that seemed to appear only when battle loomed, and a broad and long view of the overall geography, scope, and strategy involved in any given battle. Since Grant was educated at West Point, he knew many of the officers on both sides in the Civil War and he had personal insight into how they would behave. Try not to read about these battles while eating.

I can never cover all of the information imparted in this biography. It is minutely comprehensive and still, somehow, eminently readable. It is long but well worth the investment in time. What I appreciated most about Ron Chernow’s tome is the attention he gave to what happened in the South after the war. Perhaps Grant was too sympathetic to the officers and men when the war ended at Appomattox. He did nothing to humiliate them. He let them lay down their weapons and leave without persecution to go home to their land and families. But perhaps this allowed the South to keep too much of its pride and they secretly kept alive the resentments that had caused the rift to begin with. Chernow does not skirt the details of the ways Southern slave owners took out their anger on freed Americans of African Descent.

According to Chernow and his exhaustive research Ku Klux Klan activity was far more prevalent and deadly in those years of Reconstruction than represented in the stories we tell ourselves today (and in our school history classes). Current events teach us that those feelings kept alive in the South and imported to the North still inform our politics, and the feelings of white supremacy that seem to have been resurrected, but which never actually left us. Grant earned the lasting respect of black folks by sending troops to try to stop the carnage and the total unwillingness of slave owners to accept the freedom of their former slaves. He supported programs to educate former slaves and the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments were passed while he was President. Frederick Douglas remained a loyal acquaintance of Grant and expressed his gratitude again and again for the support Grant provided to back up freedom for all Americans. If Grant accomplished nothing else, what he accomplished in the arena of freedom and equality for formerly enslaved Americans should move him far above the rank he held until now in the pantheon of American presidents. He deplored the fact that Reconstruction did not end racial hatred in Southern whites.

Mr. Chernow does not buy the tales that make drunkenness a key trait in Grant’s life. He finds a pattern to Grant’s binges and gives him credit for fighting against the hold alcohol had for him when he was without the comforts of his family (as soldiers often are). He admits that Grant was connected to a number of corrupt schemes while he was President and later when he resided in NYC. But if you follow the money you find that Grant never was at all corrupt himself. He was guilty of being unable to see through people, especially when they were friends. Since many people had been his fellow soldiers he tended to give them credit for being loyal friends when they were actually involved in collecting payoffs in scams such as the whisky ring, and the Indian ring, and other scandals of the Gilded Age. Juicy, interesting, and deplorable stuff. Many government rules were different than they are today and corruption was easy if you valued money over morals. Probably a number of rules and protections in our current government were passed to fight the human impulse to corruption which exists, of course, to this day.

It’s a wonderful biography, well researched and full of quotes from primary sources and although it may put a crimp in your accounting of the number of books you get to read this year it will offer such in-depth quality that you will not mind the hit you take in terms of the quantity of books you get to read.

 

 

Notes on a Foreign Country by Suzy Hansen – Book

Suzy Hansen won a writing fellowship in 2007 from Charles Crane, “a Russophile and scion of a plumbing-parts fortune,” and it allowed her to go abroad for 2 years. She went to Turkey, much to the dismay of her family and friends. This grant was rumored to have been reserved for spies but Suzy was in Turkey as a journalist. The book she wrote is called Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World. Hansen goes off to Turkey believing that America is the exceptional nation that it claims to be. She had been taught, as we all have, to feel a certain smugness about being American, brought up in a can-do nation where freedom reigns. But the people of Turkey had not been indoctrinated in the American version of American history. They experienced the Turkish version of American interaction and they were not as enamored of America as some of us, in all our innocence, tend to be.

America has had a sort of missionary zeal about spreading the wonders of our Democracy to nations it has deemed might be tending towards Communism. The period after WWII was all about a sort of contest between Russia and America to divide the world’s nations like so many spoils of war, much the way England and Spain, in all their pride, divided up the world (something the world did not necessarily know about or agree to).  We tend to think of America as being different from those early imperialists, but what Hansen learned in Turkey, and then in Greece, and Afghanistan is that imperialism was still practiced by America, but in different forms.

America went on a tear after the Marshall Plan went into effect in the post-world war II years and aggressively wooed any nation that it thought might be susceptible to Communism. It offered “modernization” in the form of convincing nations to develop their resources and to welcome industry and business (Capitalism). It tempted citizens with luxury goods and pricey comforts. Before nations even realized what was happening they began to lose their individuality, their unique culture, even in some cases their language.

America tempted governments with weapons and military accessories like planes and ships and if they were reluctant America would even support political turmoil and install a new leader. All these meddlesome things were done in the arrogant belief that people wanted to live like everyone lived in America. If they even had to modify their Muslim faith to fit in these new tastes that it would turn out well for them (or for America anyway) in the end. According to Ms. Hansen, America, in its extreme hubris has wreaked havoc with cultures all over the world and we have a lot to answer for. She is not alone in this belief.

I was torn as I read this book. I have always respected the idea of democratic governance. I also knew that America had never, from its very beginnings, lived up to its creed. Our forefathers said that all men are created equal and they wrote it down for all to see, even though they kept slaves who were also human beings, and some of them even admitted that these slaves were human beings. The very fact that our Constitution was based on a lie may have doomed American democracy from its inception. That may be why we see ourselves in one rather glittery way and why others think that luster is quite tarnished.

I understand what Suzy’s European friends felt and I understand that they experienced America from a different perspective than we often do. I am rather ashamed of the America she describes in this nonfiction book based on her first-hand observations. Probably, although you may resist the message that Ms. Hansen brings us from our neighbors on this planet, you should still give this book your careful attention. She and her favorite author, James Baldwin, can help you readjust America’s halo.

I want America to face up to its flaws and do better. Although that seems quite impossible right now, I want America to eventually succeed in finding a balance between power and humility. If we cannot mend our ways in the world it is possible that the American culture, as many claim, will truly be in decline. I would hate to see the idealistic aims of our democracy disappear because we cannot contain our rapaciousness, which is often a sin that comes with power.

In the Epilogue Suzy Hansen talks about America after Trump:

“But I did believe that in at least one way Trump voters were little different from anyone else in the country. They, like all Americans, had been told a lie: that they were the best, that America was the best, that their very birthright was progress and prosperity and the envy and admiration of the world. I did not blame those voters for Trump’s election…I blamed the country for Trump’s election because it was a country built on the rhetoric and actions of American supremacy or ‘greatness,’ or ‘exceptionalism,’ … it had been built on the presupposition that America was and should be, the most powerful country on the planet.”

I have not given up on my country yet, despite all its flaws, although I have never been more tempted to become an American in exile, a lifestyle I cannot afford. It never hurts an individual to do some introspection and it never hurts a nation (made of individuals) to turn critical and honest eyes inward. Suzy Hansen’s book Notes on a Foreign Country was an emotional and an intellectual journey.

 

 

 

 

Evicted by Matthew Desmond – Book

Matthew Desmond’s book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City summarizes the lengthy and intimate researches of this sociologist with a MacArthur Genius Grant who has done his due diligence. His interest is in analyzing and discovering ways for breaking up stubborn, seemingly impossible-to-resolve problems that make life a misery for poor folks, especially black poor folks, and single mothers who are at the absolute bottom of the economic heap.

Mr. Desmond, a young man, still in college, moves into two different poor neighborhoods in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Since he is white he perhaps would have been distrusted in a minority neighborhood so he started out in a trailer park at the edge of the city with a more mixed-race population. This allowed him to make some connections, see some possible housing issues and eventually he was able to enter the predominately black North Side as a resident. He roomed with a black policeman called Officer Woo (a childhood nickname).

Obviously poverty and all of the things attendant on it, such as lack of education or training, being limited to low paying jobs, being hungry and having to spend too much time finding food for your family, not having an appropriate job wardrobe are all factors that contribute to keeping poor people from rising.

But Matthew Desmond decided to focus on the issue of housing and he exposes an angle on urban poverty that we have not yet explored in enough detail. He looks specifically at the part evictions play in squelching opportunity. He looks at a cycle that allows ever higher rents that do not decrease for low value properties. He looks at the gap between incomes and rents. He introduces us to the people he met who let him have access to their personal finances. I will issue a warning to you that they still haunt him even as he moves on to pursue his own life, and they will stay with you also.

Anecdotal studies are difficult because of the fact that the researcher is present and interacting. This can change the data in ways that are quite subtle, and perhaps not so subtle, sort of the way in which a rock bends the current in a stream. Desmond tried to keep his presence somewhat personal even as he also stuck to his position as a writer and a recorder of the lives of the people he met. He calls his report, his book, an ethnography, which seems accurate enough.

Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey has a book club every summer. He chooses a title and everyone who signs up for the book club reads the same book. There is a discussion session at a certain date. This is the book for summer, 2017. You could probably still sign up.

I’m not going to summarize Desmond’s findings or his suggestions for fixing this seeming unresolvable dilemma of inner cities which seem to act like traps, robbing Americans of the comforts we expect life in America to offer. These observations are the entire content of his book. However, I will say, “Good choice, Cory Booker!”

Flâneuse by Laura Elkin – Book

Laura Elkin’s book Flâneuse is not the first book about women who are the counterparts of the more usual male figure, the flâneur, A few other books with this title predate hers. Her book has a subtitle: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London and reads very much like a doctoral dissertation, although the language is not quite as academic, and the book tends to offer a warmer reading experience than the expected dry fare of the dissertation. The flâneur she tells us is “one who walks aimlessly…A figure of masculine privilege and leisure, with time and money and no immediate responsibilities to claim his attention.

Flâneuse is the feminine form and denotes “an idler, a dawdling observer, usually found in cities. But each flâneuse discussed in any detail by Elkin is not truly idle. These women were writers, photographers, artists. Until recently it was difficult for a woman to be a flâneuse. Writer Janet Wolff did not give credence to the flâneuse as “such a character was rendered impossible by the sexual divisions of the nineteenth century.” Other writers agree. But Elkin reminds us that the rise of the department store in the 1850’s and 60’s “did much to normalize the appearance of women in public.”

Laura Elkin was born on Long Island where no one walked anywhere. Her father was an architect who designed some of the corporate headquarters as companies left the city and moved into newly designed corporate parks. But Elkin discovered that she belonged in cities when she moved into New York City to attend college. “To sit in a restaurant on Broadway with the world walking by and the cars and the taxis and the noise was like finally being let in to the centre of the universe, after peering in at it for so long.”

The book is dense with detailed examples of women writers, artists, journalists, and more who felt most at home in cities and used the intimate details of city life gained through wandering and observation to enlighten us all. Elkin gives us a taste of London, following in Virginia Woolf’s footsteps; a soupçon of Venice, New York, and Tokyo (where wandering alone around the city is basically impossible even in daylight); but mainly of Paris which ended up being her home.

Artists she expands on in some detail, both about their lives and their work include Jean Rhys (allied with Ford Maddox Ford), George Sand (who dressed as a boy/man to roam the city freely), Virginia Woolf, Martha Gellhorn (wife of Ernest Hemingway and war journalist and more), and Agnès Varda, in French films.

Elkin’s sums things up in this way, “You don’t need to crunch around in Gore-Tex to be subversive, if you’re a woman. Just walk out your front door.” Reading this tome is a bit like being a literary flâneuse without having to leave your armchair – lots of great little tidbits.

Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant – Book

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How often have you wondered what traits and habits turn someone into “an original” – someone who succeeds in some way that makes them stand out, or even just someone who pursues their own interests without being concerned about what is considered as “normal”, or “cool”? How often have you wondered if you might be an “original” if you only did not have to work? This nonfiction offering, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant, attempts to study individuals or businesses that cultivate new ground either successfully or not. There is, quite logically, an attempt to create a matrix of characteristics which might help you analyze whether or not you might be an original, and traits which might explode some myths about people we respect as originals. He includes examples from current culture to back up his points.

Originals may not have the traits you would expect them to have. For example, the author tells us, originals are often procrastinators who put off delivering their final product until the last minute, which gives them time for late developments. They do not accept failure but they often fail many times before they find an idea that works. Grant tells about the ups and downs of the Warby-Parker site creators of the online eye glass site. People thought buying eyeglasses online would never fly but this site is now quite successful. The authors tells us that these originals and, in fact, most of these risk-takers often do not give up their day jobs. It seems that leaping in one aspect of your life while maintaining stability in others areas seems to be the rule rather than the exception.

The author goes through many studies that have been conducted by business experts trying to discover what makes businesses succeed or fail. The Segway and the Polaroid camera are both examples of business products that lost ground because the creators did not want dissenters and hired only admirers who could not break the “bubble” that would have allowed the business to respond flexibly to cultural trends or be aware of market trends that should have been heeded.

I don’t know how exhaustive our knowledge of “originals” is as a result of what this author shares with us. Any attempt to quantify complex and many-faceted intangibles; to produce a list of causes that will produce a desired effect in order to bring about such a non-concrete outcome, is bound to be oversimplified. Adam Grant does not actually give us a list of methodologies to become originals, rather he attempts to explode the myths we already have about what conditions it takes to be such an inventor, creator, prime mover. However there is plenty of encouragement In Grant’s book for people who think that all Originals are uniformly productive and consistently confident. It is also interesting to see what areas are the focus of those who study businesses.

You can find my reviews at Nancy Brisson at http://goodreads.com/

 

From Silk to Silicon by Jeffrey E Garten – Book Review and Comments on Globalization

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I tend to think that we are living in the most global age ever and my take on global government often harkens back to the science fiction books I have always enjoyed so much, so my construct tends to actually be governance of the galaxy. In The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov the Galactic Empire exists but it is on its way out. Preparations have already been made to train brilliant humans who will bring the Empire back from the Dark Ages into which it has been plunged. In Dune we have the Spacer’s Guild, the Bene Gesserit, and the noble houses in a feudal society with everyone owing allegiance to the Padishah Emperor. In Star Wars we know that there is a rebel alliance at war with the empire and prequels fill in the backstory showing us a government full of corruption, swollen, unwieldy, and divided.

So I often try to imagine what our government might be like if we did have a global government. I can imagine a system where we keep our individual nations but belong to some overarching body that coordinates everything and keeps a more and more complex world ticking along smoothly and peacefully (which you would think might be the United Nations, except that this idea makes some people paranoid). I realize that this is as much science fiction right now as any of my old beloved sci-fi books, but there is a corner of my mind that believes that we could possibly pull this off (a very optimistic corner of my mind).

But, Jeffrey E. Garten the author of From Silk to Silicon: The Story of Globalization through Ten Extraordinary Lives does not see globalization as something to be achieved in the future if we ever get our act together. He feels that people on this planet have been making the world smaller and more connected for centuries and he doesn’t even go back as far as the Roman Empire. He goes back to Genghis Khan (1162-1227) ravaging his way across most of Asia and even perhaps into a swath of Europe conquering and killing out of motives very like vengeance but also mixing cultures along the way, sending beautiful objects and bright people to live in the peaceful parts of his empire and setting up the trade routes that became the very well-traveled Silk Road.

He goes on to talk about nine more people who have connected parts of the globe and made it easier for goods, services, and people to wander further and/or faster or even to stay in one place and still connect with distant corners of the planet. He includes Prince Henry the “Navigator” (although he believes that name is a misnomer), too young a son to inherit a kingdom but driven to find his niche in Portugal and perhaps his legacy. He begins as a conqueror, continues as a sponsor of explorations, and sadly winds up bringing slaves to Europe from Africa.

We have Cyrus Field who tried time and time again until he devised a system that worked to lay a trans-Atlantic telegraph cable from Newfoundland to England allowing messages to travel in minutes rather than weeks and months. Garten tells us about a Jewish banker who went home to the Jewish ghetto each night but was trusted to bring funds and investment money to and from rich and even royal men all over Europe and England. He tells us how Mayer Amschel Rothschild continued to live in his old neighborhood even as he founded banks in all of the important European cities and sent his sons out to run them. Would we have a modern banking system without him? Maybe, but it might not have gotten off to such a prosperous start.

Even Margaret Thatcher, a Prime Minister who people love to hate, is given credit for breaking up socialism in England and sponsoring free trade, things which ended what might have been a long-standing recession in Great Britain, at least for a time. And he tells us about Andrew Grove, eventual CEO of Microsoft, with his grasp of detail and his apparently inborn work ethic who revolutionized the microchip production industry when no one else seemed to be able to manufacture microchips that had the necessary qualities of consistency and usability.

There are a few others I did not name in this book review (great book, you should read it) but one of his main points was about what these folks had in common. They did not set out to contribute to the overall globalization of the world. They were not even always people who you would want to be in the path of, they could be cruel, they were all extremely determined, and their goals were often quite narrow, but offered out-sized consequences, sometimes deliberate, sometimes not.

So it seems all our talk about globalization in the 21st century needs to be placed in the context of all the connections made on our planet which began long before any of us existed. In other words, there is a historical context in which modern globalization is a continuation of a human tendency, rather than an innovation that is just coming into existence. Who will be the extraordinary individual who takes the baton and runs the next lap? Is this person already here, or far in the future? Only hindsight will tell. It could be you.