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Posts Tagged ‘book reviews’


Thomas Jefferson image, courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Image collection.

Thomas Jefferson image, courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Image collection. link

This post is long overdue.  I am currently reading about Teddy Roosevelt, almost a century beyond Thomas Jefferson in my quest to read about each U.S. President.  I had hoped to write about each President, but at this rate, I may be dead before I get to Obama!  Anyway, without further ado….

Joseph Ellis’ American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson left me puzzled about one of the most revered leaders of the revolutionary era.  Jefferson is an enigma, a complex amalgam of the best and the worst of American characteristics, a man to both revere and despise.

Known as he “the Sage of Monticello” and “the Apostle of Democracy”, Thomas Jefferson gets no shortage of encomium. Politicos of all stripes love to quote Jefferson, rallying the illustrious founder from his long dirt nap in support of or opposition to the cause du jour.  His face is on Mt. Rushmore, and he has his own monument in Washington.  Cities, counties, streets, highways, schools, particle accelerators, and even swimming pools are named in honor of the third president. But I think the most fitting tribute to Mr. Jefferson is his portrait on the face of the two dollar bill.

The Jefferson two dollar bill is legal tender, for all practical uses as good as George Washington’s greenback dollar. But we rarely see two dollar bills. Once I get one in my wallet, I’m torn. Should I hold on to it for its rarity, or try to get rid of it as fast as I can, because it is so…weird?  And so it is with Mr. Jefferson, people either love him or hate him.

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An image of John Adams from the collection of the New York Public Library.

John Adams, from the collection of the New York Public Library

If you haven’t heard from me on this site in a while, it is not because I haven’t been reading about the Presidents!  I started writing this post after reading McCullough’s “John Adams” in January.  Alas, many, many things prevented me from completing this post until now.  Enjoy!

Poor John Adams! Reading David McCullough‘s remarkable John Adams, you feel a little sorry for the guy. He was a hard-working, diligent public servant, a man of humble beginnings and humble means. Frugal, industrious, and dutifully loving towards his soul-mate Abigail, he really had few faults as a man. Yet, he never seemed to  measure up in the eyes of the public.

He served as a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congress, esteemed by his peers for his eloquence in the cause of liberty.  He risked his life crossing the Atlantic to serve as an ambassador in France. On his second trip to France aboard the Sensible, the ship sprung a leak.  Passengers and crew worked hand pumps night and day to keep the ill-fated vessel afloat as it limped to port in Spain. Undaunted by this detour, Adams and his entourage scaled the Pyrenees in winter by mule train.  After a thousand mile journey, they arrived in Paris late, but unharmed. To say that this goes above and beyond the normal call of duty seriously understates his commitment to service.

In Paris, Benjamin Franklin, the famous and flamboyant American diplomat, ostracized Adams.  At that time, Franklin was a somewhat doddering old man well past his prime. If his fractious relationship with Franklin hurt him, his pain was soothed by his growing friendship and affection for Thomas Jefferson.  The two forged a life-long bond that would eventually be torn asunder over politics, but in their older years rekindled via a series of remarkable letters between the two founders.  Adams went on to secure financial backing for the American cause from the Dutch government and financiers in Holland, bolstering the war effort financially.

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Hairdresser of Harare Cover

The Hairdresser of Harare by Tendai Huchu, Cover

There are few rewards for blogging.  I often joke that this blog is the least read blog in the blog-o-sphere;  usually, my daily site visitor count numbers in the single digits, if I get any visitors at all.  With so few visitors, I rarely get a comment, and certainly no one has ever given me a dollar or a dime to reward my efforts.

Thus it came as a pleasant surprise when an author, Tendai Huchu, noticed my blog and offered to send me a copy of his book The Hairdresser of Harare for review.  I replied that if he is expecting a boost in sales based on my reputation as an opinion maker, he is sadly mistaken.  Nevertheless, I gladly accepted his kind offer and subsequently read his book, sent to me as a Kindle-ready electronic copy.

Huchu’s tale takes place in Harare, Zimbabwe.  The non-profit I work for has an office in Harare, I wanted to get a  sense, albeit through the lens of fiction, of what city’s zeitgeist.  The story’ protagonist, Vimbai, is a skilled stylist in an up-and-coming hair salon in Harare, run by a Mrs. Khumalo.   One day, a smartly-dressed, young man with  a “well proportioned boyish physique, pleasing to the eye,” arrives at the salon in search of a job.  In a flash of chutzpah and bravado, the stranger confidently re-styles the hair of one of Vimbai’s best clients, proving that his skills aren’t just an egotistical, over-confident bluff.  Instead, his self-assurance is genuine, built on true talent and competence.   Vimbai, conscious of her own skill, takes pride in her value to Khumalo.  This usurper’s bold actions shock and humiliate Vimbai, challenging her claim to being the best hairdresser in Harare.

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Cover, Indigo by Catherine McKinley

Cover, Indigo by Catherine McKinley

Catherine McKinley’s “Indigo: In Search of the Color That Seduced the Worldis advertised as the story of the rich cultural history of the color indigo, long sought after as the color of royalty and distinction. Instead, the book is a tiring travelogue with an indigo obsessed academic on a shopping trip through Africa.  The exploration of the history, culture, ritual, and romance of indigo is shallow; instead, I winced reading about this young academic trying to bargain for bundles of cloth she didn’t really need, trying her best to live up to the American stereotype of cultural voyeurism with colonial aspirations.

Indigo is not the first book about color that I have read.  Victoria Finlay‘s “Color: Travels Through The Paint Box is a superb book about color, both as travel writing and as a remarkably informative examination of dyes, history, and chemistry of color.  And Simon Garfield‘s “Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World” takes readers on a historical journey to mid-nineteenth century Britain, where coal, color, and chemistry coalesced in William Perkin’s laboratory to create a color that revolutionized our very concept of color.

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The Devil in the White City


Cover, the Devil in the White City by Erik Larsen

Cover, the Devil in the White City by Erik Larsen

The Devil in White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larsen is a remarkable tale, the story of two parallel universes unfolding beside each other  –  one a world of architectural innovators building a fantasy land on the shores of Lake Michigan, the other a macabre world of a Victorian era serial killer and his house of horrors.   These two worlds collided at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, as Daniel Burnham’s Utopian White City attracted hundreds of thousands of people to the Windy City, and into the waiting trap set by Herman Webster Mudgett, alias  H. H. Holmes, failed doctor, quack pharmacist, con artist, and serial killer.

Larsen weaves the Utopian and dystopian worlds together in alternating chapters, pulling readers into the unfolding drama of a psychopath’s plot in one chapter, then telling the optimistic tale of America’s leading architects joining forces to create Chicago’s grand exhibition in the next.  At the time, Chicago still reeled from the devastating 1871 fire that destroyed much of the city, and left 90,000 people homeless.  The city was known more for its slaughterhouses than its cultural amenities. Chicago was decidedly a second class city according to elite New York opinion makers, and their opinions increasingly mattered in Washington D.C., where money and power come together to set the course of the nation.

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Cover image, High Wire Act by Caroline van Hasselt

Cover image, High Wire Act by Caroline van Hasselt

A year and a half ago, a relative who remains a true believer in the cocktail hour was purchasing a gift for me on Amazon. Without a link to my wish list, he simply searched for my name on Amazon.   Of course, you could do this for anyone’s name and Amazon, being interested in selling you something, will show you a few items you can buy.  If you were looking for something for your cousin Joe Grisham, Amazon would be happy to show you all the books  that have flowed from John Grisham’s prolific pen.  Of course, the search results would have nothing to do with your cousin’s wish list, but after a few gimlets, what’s the difference?

And that is how I received High Wire Act: Ted Rogers and the Empire That Debt Built by Caroline van Hasselt for Christmas.  Note the last name, and you’ll understand how this result came up.  It is a non-fiction , my favorite genre, and it is a vaguely “techie” book about the communications industry, so it wasn’t a totally unreasonable choice for a gift.  But it was never on my wish list, despite said relative’s protestations to the contrary.
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Cover Image, Pushing the Limits by Henry Petroski

Cover, Pushing the Limits by Henry Petroski

I am a loyal fan of Henry Petroski , author and Duke professor of civil engineering.  His books are a hard sell to anyone who isn’t interested in engineering and technology, though.  My wife, when she wants to embarrass me in public, points out that I’ve actually read an entire book about the pencil.  Yet, Petroski’s book about the pencil transformed my perspective of the mundane wooden writing implement, illustrating how even in simple forms the principles of engineering are at work. To paint a broad picture of Petroski’s work, he places engineering and technology principles in a historical context, returning again and again to one overriding principle: failure is the mother of invention.  Almost Darwinian in practice, we see this idea at work in the greatest buildings and bridges, and the most ordinary clutter on our desks. From paperclips to Pei, the same engineering drive to overcome and learn from failure is clear, and, moreover, neglecting to learn from failure can have disastrous consequences.

The old cliché is that necessity is the mother of invention, and I don’t believe Petroski wouldn’t argue with that point.   Instead, he pushes the question further back, and examines the roots of necessity.  Often, the urgency implied by the word necessity comes about through failure: a bridge falls down, and it is necessary to build a sturdier bridge; a pencil point breaks or causes illegible smudges, necessitating the search for a better pencil; or a stack of papers falls to the floor, requiring a better way to hold a stack of papers together.  Petroski has examined these topics in clear prose that brings together modern engineering knowledge with a historical perspective.

In Pushing the Limits, Petroski examines a corollary to his principle of failure, namely the tendency for engineers to build structures and devices that edge toward the limits of failure.  The book, a collection of essays from American Scientist magazine, is thematically tied together by this idea.  In each essay, Petroski shows that is not enough for an engineer to build another bridge, just like the last one.  Instead, an engineer with a creative spark will push to build a bigger bridge, but with less material, or to build a novel  building, like none seen before.  In so doing, engineers make their mark, redefining the state of the art in their field with each new project.  But, in so doing engineers put their credibility at risk.  A novel approach to solving an engineering problem may hold great promise, but also may hold unforeseen risks, hidden flaws that may go undetected and lead to failure.  Read on…

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