Archive for the ‘Book review’ Category

33612876440_84da454bc6_oIf you’ve lived through a period of unfettered market forces like Thatcher’s Britain then you’ll know all about the bankruptcy of that ideology and the social misery it unleashed.

Here in the American oligarchy of 2017 the same failed economic dogma holds sway: get government out of the way and let businesses get on with the business of making money. All boats rise on a tide of wealth creation, right?

Except, of course, they don’t. We’ve seen wealth flow into fewer and fewer hands, the ‘trickle down’ theory exposed for what it is and economic polarity widen to unprecedented levels.

The American Dream, exalting a meritocracy in which anyone can make it if they work hard enough, has become a nightmare; just ask any one of the 43m citizens living in poverty, or those living in “food Insecure” households (feedingamerica.org).

The amnesia of the book’s title references political memory loss about the period and the conditions that created America’s greatest prosperity, 1945 through to the 1970s.

During that time the mixed economy delivered the steepest increases in income, wealth, education, health, longevity, opportunity and security the country has ever seen.

Hacker and Pierson demolish the idea that small government is good government and show with sober, statistical analysis that it is an essential partner in capitalist enterprises.

Their examination of the country’s recent history shows the foundations for prosperity came from public investment in education, science, technology and transport.

Government, done right, serves societal needs, not just shareholder value. It intrudes on rampant capitalism with regulations in areas such as pollution, safety and health.

That these kinds of argument need to be restated given the boom and bust scandals of recent times is profoundly depressing.

Anti-government economic fundamentalists are more of a threat to America’s future than any of the inflated menaces of Moslem terrorism, illegal immigration and democratic socialism.

wallaceAmerican Dreamer: A Life of Henry A Wallace –  John C Culver, John Hyde

It’s fascinating to wonder what the world might have been like had Henry Wallace become president of the United States.

No Cold War perhaps, no arms race with the Russians, no domino theories to defend against global Communism, no Korean War nor Bay of Pigs debacles, no need to engage in the disastrous Vietnam War. No segregation. There’d certainly be no need for a wall between the US and Mexico.

Wallace was undone in a shameful night of chicanery at the 1944 Democratic Convention which opened the door for Harry Truman to get the VP ticket and, ultimately, the keys to the White House.

Until then, Wallace’s progressive ideas had saved US agriculture from the boom-and-bust of unfettered market forces and his wider philosophies helped shape FDR’s New Deal.

Fully two years before WW2 was won, while serving as Roosevelt’s vice-president, Wallace was thinking deeply about the peace.

How would the US switch from a military economy while maintaining full employment, how would it raise standards of education and improve health care, what kind of world would be built in the aftermath and what role should America play?

In 1941, Time magazine publisher Henry Luce envisioned a post-war “American century” in which the US could “exert…the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit.”

Wallace responded with his “century of the common man” speech in which colonialism would end and there would be neither military nor economic imperialism.

By 1944 he was prophetically warning against the dangers of American Fascism, writing in the New York Times:

“The American fascists are most easily recognized by their deliberate perversion of truth and fact. Their newspapers and propaganda carefully cultivate every fissure of disunity… They claim to be super-patriots, but they would destroy every liberty guaranteed by the Constitution. They demand free enterprise, but are the spokesmen for monopoly and vested interest. Their final objective toward which all their deceit is directed is to capture political power so that, using the power of the state and the power of the market simultaneously, they may keep the common man in eternal subjection.”

Widening an existing rift in the Democratic Party, the pejoratively dubbed ‘Dreamer’ was becoming a problem and the conservative, pro-business wing wanted him out.

They persuaded FDR, unwell and still consumed by the war, to ignore progressive advisers and to allow Truman to go up against Wallace as the VP candidate. And even though Wallace won the first ballot he didn’t have enough votes to secure the nomination.

From there, the party machinery went to work, deals were done, Wallace was crushed and when FDR died in April, 1945, the little-known, little-regarded senator from Missouri took the helm.

33745643431_5b4a5133cf_oGrape, Olive, Pig

Matt Goulden serves up hearty slices of life in Spain fusing foodie passions with history, curiosity and the joy of discovery.

The book is part travelogue, part chef worship, part love affair and it’s zested with deep respect for what is now his adopted homeland.

He takes us to the coast of Cadiz in the hunt for endangered Bluefin tuna, a village near Salamanca for ritual slaughter of acorn-fed pigs and to the freezing waters of Galicia for the perilous business of barnacle gathering.

Each of the chapters is a self-contained essay, a stage-by-stage gourmand route map to the heart of the nation’s soul, with stories told through the eyes of shepherds and slaughterhouse workers.

The drama of the almadraba, the ancient method of netting tuna, is Hemmingway-esque and one of the best.

The excitement of what’s about to unfold is tinged with superstition and fear: Will the catch measure up? Will the marine gods be kind? These are the brooding thoughts running through the mind of Antonio Gonzales as he “takes a fisherman’s breakfast of cigarettes and silence”.

It’s the descriptive passages around the events and characters we meet where the book is best, lifting it above a mere tasting menu of food indulgences.

Where it’s not so good are the parts of overblown prose like this description of a meal:

“Adria has long said that he’s not in the business of giving pleasure; he cooks in order to produce emotion. And there was no shortage in the range of feelings he pulled out of us that night. Like a hallucinogenic experience, we cycled through stages of nervous energy and quiet contemplation, inexplicable nostalgia and intense, childlike joy. If I really look back at my romantic life, it can be boiled down to one simple objective: to find the best dining partner possible. And here she was”.

The book is rife with similar passages that would be better served up in Private Eye’s Pseuds Corner and as my rapid and greedy consumption continued I began to experience symptoms over over-indulgence, there was just too much of it.

For that reason it slipped down in my rating which is a shame because, like a curate’s egg, it’s very good in parts though probably best savored in individual chapters rather than gutsed-down at a single sitting.

navyLife in Nelson’s Navy – Dudley Pope

You’ll get more than a whiff of sea air in this richly detailed telling of what life was really like in the “Wooden Walls” of England.

How about inhaling the funk of several hundred men and – yes – women, unwashed for months, living alongside livestock, and crammed into extremely confined quarters.

Fourteen inches were width allocations for hammocks. Floor to ceiling deck heights for hands could be as little as 4ft 10in.

As for toilet arrangements, these were, thankfully, neglected areas in Hollywood’s tales of swashbuckling heroes on the high seas.

Not so for Pope who explains how ‘heads’ in the bows were over-the-side, exposed-to-the-elements affairs. In heavy swells and chilly seas it was constipation that kept the surgeon busy.

The detail is both encyclopedic and entertaining but it’s the context that makes this such an enlightening read.

We’ve all read or seen stories about the floggings, the weevils, the press gangs and the brutality of life at sea; while they are largely true they neglect the context of the times and have to be seen as part of a bigger picture.

Only a small proportion of men were conscripted into the navy: for London the quota was 5,700 out of a population of 750,000. Pope sets that against WWII conscription rates in which every able-bodied man was called up unless they could prove their civilian job was essential war work.

Life was violent and harsh at sea, but life was harsh and violent on land too. This was a time when there was no police system and only a small standing army was retained lest it threatened overthrow of government.

Corruption and nepotism was evident in all areas of the navy – just as it was throughout the country – and disease was rife too.

It’s in the area of plague and pestilence that soldiers and sailors really suffered, especially those dispatched to the tropics where typhus, yellow fever, and fevers and agues took a heavy toll.

In the 20-plus years of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars the navy lost 1,875 men in a series of battles compared with more than 72,000 who succumbed to disease or died in accidents on board.

I still like reading yarns and seeing movies about the days of sail, but it’s also good to have a grasp of the grim and not-so-glamorous reality too.

BeastThe Beast Side: Living and Dying While Black in America – D Watkins

Get ready to be deeply offended. No matter how genuine you may be about achieving racial equality and equal opportunity, you’ll feel the heat from the burning rage of David Watkins and you won’t like much of what he has to say.

His perspective is heavily jaundiced and his anger unremitting, understandably so given almost routine cop killings of black people in the most questionable circumstances.

But sadly, he undermines the best justification of the rightness of his views, with emotional rants over more sober rationality.

Take this outburst against a cop jailed for the killing of a young black man. “Hopefully, he’ll get butt- and face-fucked every night until he passes out from his own screams. I hope his anus contusions get stitched every day and re-ripped every night. I hope he wakes up in an ocean of his own blood…”

And so it goes on: Hardly Martin Luther King, and not helpful in efforts to bridge the divide between police and public, the privileged and the poor, black people and white people.

The chapter headed Fuck the National Anthem, is another case in point, though at least his rationale for this provocation is better explained.

Watkins’ invective is at times so extreme it seems almost designed to alienate the very people needed to rally to the cause; the rants show the depth of his frustration but won’t bring about the change he seeks.

Here’s an example: “A racist cop quickly arrived on the scene and helped himself to a young black target. He probably salivated at the notion of killing a black kid, probably dreaming about the awards, medals and Zimmerman love he’d receive as he aimed and squeezed”.

Not all cops are racists, not all cops are targeting black people, not all cops are out of control, not all cops are killers and to suggest they are immeasurably weakens the cause he espouses.

It’s a pity his ire is so absolute because he does have plenty to say and he needs to be listened to. For sure, he is saying what many people think and his aim is to “spark a national dialogue for change, challenging our elected officials and inspiring others to look deeper and to fight the underlying, systemic ills responsible for our pain”.

I reckon we’d all agree with that, I just question how it might be achieved. Inflammatory language only adds fuel to the flames and right now the fire risk is high.

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Will in the World – Stephen Greenblatt

Is there anything new to say about Shakespeare? After reading this piercingly smart assessment on how Shakespeare became Shakespeare I’d say emphatically: Yes!

Amid a void of verifiable information on the topic, an industry in academic analysis has flourished, some good, some weak, but all of it built on flimsy foundations and topped with much speculation.

The perceptiveness of this book comes from the author’s skillful and intelligent construction of arguments that give glimpses into the enigma of the Bard and his genius.

Greenblatt layers intimate knowledge of the plays with a scholarly understanding of the context in which they were written – lines, passages, scenes and whole plays come alive with new meaning.

While we have to accept that we’ll never fully know the man, the gift of this book lets us draw nearer to him, enriching our grasp of the events that shaped his talent and enhancing our appreciation of a body of literary work that has no equal.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

image1Matthew Desmond deep dives into the lives of some of the most wretched people in America and produces findings that are an affront to any civilized society, let alone the world’s richest

Tracking eight families through Milwaukee’s dumpiest neighborhoods we get a first-hand account of the misery and the grinding poverty of their existence.

The reasons why they are there and why they can’t break out are mired in complexity but their prospects are unremittingly grim. Nationwide, according to Desmond, there are millions more like them.

Lack of affordable housing with subsequent evictions, exploitation and ghettoization is the core problem and one Desmond believes should be at the top of America’s domestic policy agenda.

He makes a good case: Not having a roof over your head clearly perpetuates the cycle of suffering and hopelessness.

Had the book given more detailed attention to possible solutions I’d have given it five stars. As it is, there are a scant few pages in the epilogue vaguely outlining a universal housing voucher system and the need for greater legal help for tenants taken to court by landlords.

For anything to really change however, a massive shift in societal attitudes (to this largely black underclass)  is required and that’s a tall order. Still, it’s a start.

bryson2The Road to Little Dribbling – Bill Bryson Cantankerous in the nicest possible way, Britain’s favourite grumpy old man shows us in all our eccentricity, boorishness and surliness.

It’s impossible to take offence at his wry observations because at heart he’s an admiring Anglophile who finds much to amuse in our foibles and foolishness.

Get him on pet topics of sullen service, dog shit on pavements and littering though, and he reveals an entirely different side to his character. He’s a grammar Nazi too, so watch your punctuation.

For the most part it’s a journey in which he finds much to like, an extended love letter to his adopted country.

There isn’t a landscape in the world more lovely to behold, he declares, and suggests it might be Britain’s most glorious achievement.

Britain, he judges, is calm, measured and quite grown up, a nation that appreciates small pleasures and is made up of “the only people in the world who become genuinely excited when presented with a hot beverage and a small plain biscuit”.

Under cover of advancing age, he does a nice line in bafflement at the world around him and incomprehension at living in a country full of celebrities whose “names I don’t know and talents I cannot discern”.

He’s an ideal travelling companion with a sharp eye, an inquisitive mind and an opinion on everything. He’s probably seen more of the British Isles than anyone who lives there – and still manages to like us.

dillenA Stratford Story: Including The Dillen and Mary, After the Queen

Imagine warming yourself round a log fire, flames flickering, sap hissing, wood spitting and being carried off to another world on the rustic dialect of a withered little man with a gleam in his eye and the gift of the gab.

George Hewins is The Dillen, the runt of the litter, a born storyteller who lived in such straightened circumstances that he and his wife had to share a bed with his mother-in-law yet still managed to conceive eight children.

The story of his hardscrabble life in my home town, Stratford-on-Avon, Warwickshire, covers the period between 1878 and the 1920s and is derived from a series of audio recordings made by his grandson’s wife, Angela Hewins, over a three-year period.

As she says, she’s added some h’s and omitted some repetitions but the grammar, the contractions and the speech patterns are still there and if you’re familiar with the Stratford accent, you can almost hear George speaking.

It’s this, George’s voice, George’s perspective, that give power to the narrative. It’s part oral history, part social history, and part memoir of poverty by someone who lived it, not just witnessed it. Above all it’s a thoroughly absorbing read.

From the off George relates how perilous his start in life was, how an old chap had told him of a man called Womack: “‘E sold your mother some medicine to get rid o’ you.”

Womack was “an ordinary working chap who made up pills and medicines for folks as couldn’t afford the doctor or chemist.”

George’s mother Emmie, then 18 and unmarried, was sent to him by her lover Tom Farr and “as soon as she’d took a couple o’ swigs of Womack’s medicine Emmie stopped fretting. She knowed it would work, like a spell, make the babby vanish; that’s what Tom said and he was always right.”

Not this time he wasn’t. He didn’t hang around and nor did Emmie, leaving George to be brought up by his mother’s aunt Cal.

What follows is a life of grinding poverty. George and his family live from hand to mouth. Work is scarce, wages are depressed and earnings sporadic. Rent arrears and eviction are ever-present fears surpassed only by the terrifying awfulness of the workhouse, the last port of the utterly destitute, where even dignity is taken.

It’s grim, for sure, but in the telling it’s not depressing. George the raconteur laces his tale with bawdy anecdotes and black humor. The story of how Tommy Taters got his nickname had me laughing out loud and George even manages to make light of a war wound he suffered after going over the top in 1917.

Caught in No Man’s Land, wounded in the hip by a shell burst, his officer also injured, George tells how a German came up behind them: “They was coming from behind! Captain Edwards saw him and shot him with his revolver, shot him from where he lay. He fell dead on me. But not afore he’d stuck his bayonet in my arse.”

George lost his ‘crown jewels’ in that encounter but not his sense of humor. His cheerful optimism lifts the book from being a bleak plod through the worst of times to an important record of life among those on the bottom rung of society, an authentic voice that is seldom captured.

lethalLethal Generosity: Contextual Technology and the Competitive Edge – Shel Israel

Let me say from the outset: Most adverts suck and I hate being marketed at. There’s a special place in hell for people who pollute my digital stream with pop-ups.

And for creators of pre-roll commercials that play unprompted, I have reservations for you in Hieronymus Bosch corner where you’ll be assured of extra special attention.

Given how much data I’ve surrendered and the liberties taken with it you, the marketing and advertising people, really should be doing better but old habits die hard.The banners you place are as welcome as wasps at a picnic and yet you persist with your poorly-targeted petitions urging me to click, to endorse, to buy, items of which I have no need, nor interest.

When you take people’s money and use it in this way how do you convince them that it’s good for business? It escapes me. If the messaging subliminally enters my head at all, it registers as the don’t-touch-this-with-a-bargepole kind.

Happily there’s a shake-out on the way and digital dinosaurs that use new technology to deliver old marketing methods will be flushed away with the detritus they promote.

In Shel Israel’s latest book, Lethal Generosity, he declares that the balance of power is shifting from sellers to buyers and “traditional marketing, even in digital form, often damages the brand trust it attempts to establish”. Halleluiah!

In his previous publication, Age of Context, co-written with technologist Robert Scoble, much of Israel’s emphasis was on connected data using time, place and context to deliver better customer experiences.

This sequel continues that theme but looks more closely at how technology and social change affects retailers and other public-facing businesses. Get it right and customers become loyal brand advocates, get it wrong and the results can be devastating.

Successful bricks and mortar businesses have always known this as evinced by the maxim: “The customer is always right”.

In the UK, department store John Lewis stands behind its slogan “Never Knowingly Undersold”, Marks & Spencer identifies with value and a quibble-free returns policy and Nordstrom is known for its exceptional service

“Treat customers as relationships to open, rather than as sales to close”

Good as they are, success in the past is no guarantee of success in the future. Shifting social and demographic trends plus new devices and new expectations mean upstart enterprises can swiftly undermine the foundations of even established businesses.

Just seven years after its launch in 2007 Airbnb became the world’s biggest hotelier, yet it doesn’t own a single hotel, or room, or bed and has fewer staff than a modest hotel chain.

It’s a software strategy eating into the profits of bricks and mortar businesses, one that The Economist predicts will cut hotel revenues by 10% by 2016.

Israel warns companies to actively listen, to treat customers as relationships to open, rather than as sales to close, and to treat them in a generously memorable way – even if it means sending them to a rival.

It’s easy to write about, much harder to do, and there are multiple examples of behaviours from companies that he thinks are on the right track and others that are getting it wrong.

Uber is a good case in point. At one stage, Uberize Everything was Scoble’s suggested title for the book but, wisely, given the controversies around the brand, Israel thought better of it.

Still, Uber stands as an example of a company that began with customer service at the heart of its operation and one which has delivered new norms of expectation from cab users.

There’s a really good segment on why millennials matter – they’re digital natives, the largest age-based demographic, born in the age of context and influenced by peers more than brand messages – and a  follow-on chapter about kieretsus, a Japanese term for interlocking relationships between businesses which millennials favor.

Beaconing customers, frictionless interaction, contactless marketplaces and human-centered design all lead on to what Israel calls: The Road to Pinpoint, where “close, personal service is scalable on a global level for the first time”.

Never mind the marketing-speak, for our world to become that personal we’re going to have to get comfortable with much greater levels of intrusion, data surrender and secondary uses of that data. Who owns it, what can be done with it and where should the boundaries be drawn around individual rights to privacy?

The answers to those questions are likely to be different for everyone and will be traded between perceived usefulness of a service and the amount of information required to be given up for it.

Israel covers a lot of ground in his dash towards the future and doesn’t dwell on this since it had an airing in the Age of Context book.  But with so many data breaches, so much hackery and so much suspicion about data mining, breezing over this topic gives the book an unrealistically optimistic outlook. It’s a safe bet that the spammers and scammers, crooks and chancers, won’t be far behind.

No matter, it’s still a great starting point for businesses to re-evaluate what they stand for and to look at ways they can deepen customer relationships, gain market share and increase profitability.

Whether you’re won over by the conversational tone and largely anecdotal evidence will likely depend on:

  1. How closely your views align with his
  2. Your technophile/technophobe tendencies
  3. What your peers say

The last word goes to the author whose final paragraph reads: “Entrenched brands may shrug all of this off. They will point out that they are doing just fine, that this is just a prolonged down cycle, and they will keep doing what they have always done. They will be the earliest victims of lethal generosity.”