Monday, December 17, 2018

Book Review: In the Hurricane's Eye

In the Hurricane's Eye: The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown
Nathaniel Philbrick

Nathaniel Philbrick is an outstanding writer. This is a good book. It's not Philbrick's best work, however.

The aim of In the Hurricane's Eye is to tell the real, de-mythologized story of the Battle of Yorktown. In particular, the battle would never have taken place without the intervention of the French fleet, and it wouldn't have succeeded without French troops. None of what happened was inevitable. Philbrick does a nice job of making a narrative out of the various strange contingencies--the arguments between Washington and the French, the misjudgments on all sides, the titular hurricane, and many more--that led to the astounding result.

All the same, there are so many aspects in play here that the book is somewhat fragmented. The main story has to do with the naval strategy, and the main theme concerns just how much the Americans owed the French; but there are a great many excursions and side trips, and the story of Yorktown itself is curiously divorced from the rest of the book. Perhaps it's necessary to understand the war in the southern colonies in detail, along with Benedict Arnold, Lafayette, the siege of New York, and so forth, in order to fully understand Yorktown. Yet in a narrative history, the narrative has to be king.

Don't get me wrong. I read this book in a couple of gulps, enjoyed it, and will be back for more. It's a good read for anyone with a basic grounding in the facts of the American Revolution. If it's a little undirected at times, that at least accurately reflects the confusions and concerns of Washington and his contemporaries.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

"Holmes on the Range" RETURNS!

It's no secret that I like Steve Hockensmith's writing. Heck, I shamelessly ripped off lovingly borrowed his main characters.

Now, after a long hiatus, they're officially back. The Double-A Western Detective Agency is on Amazon even as we speak. Short summary: I liked it a lot, and not just because I had the chance to see an early draft of the manuscript. This is an actual Adventure, with quick pacing and a good deal of action. There's a nice intertwining of multiple plot threads at the denouement, too. There's even an honest-to-God theme about going it alone vs. relying on others.

If you liked the prior books in the series, you'll like this one.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Book Review: Leadership in Turbulent Times

Leadership in Turbulent Times
Doris Kearns Goodwin

Doris Kearns Goodwin is an outstanding writer. Team of Rivals is a classic for a reason. Wait Till Next Year is a wonderful memoir. The Bully Pulpit is an insightful and sometimes moving triple portrait of Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the progressive press.

Leadership in Turbulent Times is a business book.

It's not bad. As a reading experience, in fact, it's pretty good. It serves as an interesting four-way parallel biography of four presidents--Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. It proposes an interesting thesis, which is that these represent four different types of leadership (transformational, crisis, turnaround, visionary). But the business book is a fundamentally limited endeavor, and Goodwin doesn't transcend those limitations.

The weakest part of Leadership in Turbulent Times, in fact, is its most business-book-y part--the third of its four sections. The first two sections are narrative and descriptive, describing her protagonists' childhood and formative political experiences. She goes one president at a time, in chronological order. That works fine. It lets her compare and contrast each man at analogous points in their lives. 

But in the third section Goodwin veers down into the swamp of distilling the biographies into maxims, and the four-way structure doesn't cut it. She should have organized section by leadership practice, and then show how the four presidents applied them--differently, similarly, or both. Instead,  every president is treated in sequence. There are a lot of problems with this, but here are the killers:

  1. It's shallow. By drawing on each leader's life individually, Goodwin's text is reduced to a series of platitudes. Of course it's good to "Lead with your strengths," to "Bring all stakeholders aboard," and so forth. Did anyone doubt it?
  2. It's not coherent. Any litany of this sort is bound to be littered with contradictions, of the "don't look before you leap" vs. "he who hesitates is lost" variety.
  3. It's forgettable. By the time you get to "Know when to hold back, know when to move forward" (Lyndon Johnson), you've probably forgotten about "Acknowledge when failed policies demand a change in direction" (Lincoln).
  4. It doesn't support Goodwin's own taxonomy. If you want to establish that transformational leadership is actually distinct from crisis leadership, for example, you need to establish that the "transformational" rubric "Tell the truth" doesn't apply, or at least applies differently, in the "crisis" case. Using silos doesn't do that.
Regrettably, this is what business books do: provide a series of shallow, easily-parroted buzzwords that simple minds can easily turn into shibboleths (and bumper stickers). I'm not a fan of the genre. I'm still a fan of Goodwin's; I just don't think Leadership in Turbulent Times plays to her strengths.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Book Review: On Grand Strategy

On Grand Strategy
John Lewis Gaddis
History, politics, warfare

It's not often that I have a hard time describing my reaction to a book. On Grand Strategy is not exactly a military-history book, not exactly a philosophy book (in spite of heavily referencing Isaiah Berlin), not exactly a political-theory book, not exactly a descriptive book, not exactly a prescriptive book, not exactly an analytical book. I'm not entirely sure who the intended audience is, in fact; it's too popular to appeal to academics, and too academic to appeal to the public. Smart undergraduates, maybe?

Gaddis's thesis is that large scale strategy--whether political, military, economic, or what have you--is always a balancing process. If you fix your eyes on your ultimate ambition, you can lose sight of the practical necessities. If you keep your mind firmly on what's realistically achievable, you can narrow your vision to the point where you don't actually achieve much. Aspirations can be limitless; resources can't; to engage in grand strategy is to establish a meeting point. Or, in Berlin's famous formula, "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing."

To this end, the book proceeds largely as a series of parallel lives. Usually Gaddis picks out one historical personage who failed to negotiate this balancing act, and contrasts him with another one (either a contemporary, or someone else in a similar situation) who succeeded. These case studies are interesting, but they don't add up to a conclusion. That the tension cited exists is plain; a series of examples doesn't constitute any kind of explanation, much less a theory. Woodrow Wilson at the end of World War I, for instance, was obviously a prisoner of his ambitious ends. He didn't compromise on his means, and so his ends went unachieved. Okay, true. And . . . ?

The real weakness, to put it another was, is that it's all hindsight. Given a taxonomy and 20-20 postdiction, it's always easy to fit your cases into your structure. Whether that really explains anything, much less accurately reflects how the real historical figures thought or worked or acted, is a much more doubtful question.

I should stipulate that there's much to admire in On Grand Strategy. The scholarship is deep, wide, and erudite. The writing is quite fluid. The content is intellectually challenging, ambitious, and thought-provoking. All the same, when you write a thick book that effectively boils down to "good leaders know how to match means and ends," you haven't quite fulfilled your promises.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Book Review: First Man

First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong
James R. Hansen

[Yes, I saw the movie. Naturally, that meant I had to read the book.]

Suppose you were a baseball fan. Suppose further that you had a favorite player--Babe Ruth, say. You might find yourself reading, and enjoying, a biography of the Babe that was mainly about his playing days. The statistics--the great games--the sixty-homer season--the awards--the "called shot" home run . . . great stuff.

Substitute "space" for baseball, and "Neil Armstrong" for Ruth, and you've got First Man. Aircraft flown--missions accomplished--piloting deeds--feats of analysis under pressure--touch-and-go-emergencies . . . great stuff. To quantify it (a thing which Armstrong would have approved of), First Man is 389 pages long. Armstrong becomes a pilot on page 46; he retires on page 330. In between is a sports bio for nerds.

Within that limitation, First Man is pretty good. It gives a very complete picture of Armstrong's famously reserved and analytical personality. There are some illuminating anecdotes from the people around Armstrong, though nothing to his discredit. It's exciting in the exciting bits. It's (just) sufficiently technical in the technical bits. It's a little bit hero-worshiping. To nobody's surprise, Apollo XI occupies the biggest single chunk.

The portrait of Armstrong that emerges is an interesting and detailed one, too. He seems to have been a man who avoided strong emotions and was uncomfortable in the limelight. He believed that problems have solutions. (As an engineer, I think I recognize a kindred spirit.) If this doesn't make for the most colorful personal story ever told, it's at least an insightful one.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Book Review: The China Governess

The China Governess
Margery Allingham

At one time Margery Allingham had a reputation, along with Christie and Sayers, as one of Britain's Golden Age Queens of Crime. I haven't read all that much of her output, but what I have read leaves me puzzled as to why anyone would think so. The China Governess did nothing to enlighten me. It's a mess. In fairness, it's the next-to-last book she completed; I'll assume provisionally that it does not represent Allingham at the height of her powers.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Book Review: The Poison Squad

The Poison Squad: One Chemist's Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century
Deborah Blum
Biography, science, politics

In 2010, Deborah Blum published an excellent book entitled The Poisoner's Handbook. The Poison Squad is in many ways a sequel, or para-quel. Unfortunately, the comparison doesn't work in the current book's favor. In The Poison Squad, Blum slips over the line from writer to cheerleader.

The book is centered strongly on Dr. Harvey Wiley, "Father of the FDA". That in itself is a good choice; Wiley was a remarkable character, and provides a unifying thread. However, Blum makes a dreadful choice in her presentation of facts: a reader of The Poison Squad could be pardoned for concluding that everything that Dr. Wiley said, did, or proposed was absolutely righteous, because it was Dr. Wiley saying, doing, or proposing it.

This is nonsense. However well-intentioned Wiley was, and however nefarious his adversaries--and some were pretty nefarious!--he was not a prophet. The eponymous Poison Squad studies were far better than the previous standard, which consisted of nothing; but they would be laughed out of court today, due to tiny sample sizes and a lack of rigor. To use the existence of those studies to support their conclusions is absurd--but Blum does it, over and over. In no case does she even refer even glancingly to the actual, you know, currently-accepted facts. No: Dr. Wiley was always right, and his foes were always wrong (and not just wrong, but EEEVIL).

Blum likes horror stories. She flings around the fact that formaldehyde was used as a food additive like a mad card sharp pulling aces out of her sleeves, apparently because the phrase "formaldehyde in food!!!!" is a scary phrase. She doesn't mention that formaldehyde occurs naturally in some foods, much less give us meaningful facts by which we could compare quantities or make reasoned judgments. She kicks up Wiley-quotin' storm on the terror that is sodium benzoate, but does she include anything like Science Magazine's commentary on the stuff? I'll give you one guess. (Hint: Science uses the terms "idiotic", "stupid", and "Your reasoning is faulty and your science is wrong".) 

At several points Blum's text reads like the "arguments" of today's anti-vaccine zealots. That is not a compliment.

Blum really shows her colors in a rather bad afterword. Here she tries to connect Saint Harvey Wiley to global warming, the Trump Administration, the heartbreak of psoriasis, etc. (Okay, I made that last one up.) This is not only off-putting; it shouldn't be necessary. If Blum had written her book better, she could have--should have--trusted her readers to make the connections for themselves. Instead, the addendum just looks like more frothing and propaganda.

A pretty good book covering some related topics (among many others) is Doris Kearns Goodwin's The Bully Pulpit.