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I made an all-too-hasty promise at the start of 2010 to list my reading and comment on the books as I made my way through the year. I failed, in large part, because my book tour (110 cities in 90 days) put me behind on my own reading and way behind on writing about it. While I did a little bit better in 2011, this year I’ll attempt to get my notes on books I’ve read done in a more timely fashion.
So here’s what I’ve knocked out so far, starting with the book I finished most recently and working back to 2010.
The noted historian of the turbulent decades before the Civil War has written a short yet vivid history of the event that kept the nation together for one last decade, the Compromise of 1850 that inadvertently bought time for the North to grow in population and war-making capacity, thereby making victory for the South unlikely when conflict came. The central figure is, of course, Henry Clay, whose love of the country led him to conceive the compromise and but whose rhetorical talents and extraordinary legislative skills could not get the measure approved. It was Stephen Douglas, then a young Senator from Illinois, who took Clay’s handiwork, broke it apart, and passed each piece of it, thereby capping Clay’s career and adding to Clay’s reputation as “The Great Compromiser.”
57 The Artist, the Philosopher, and the Warrior: The Intersecting Lives of Da Vinci, Machiavelli, and Borgia and the World They Shaped
This interesting volume focuses on the final years of the 15th and the opening years of the 16th century as a troubled Italy is wracked by conflict. City state fights city state, French and Spanish armies rampage across the countryside at will, and Pope Alexander VI plots to have his family – the Borgias – take possession of the peninsula.
Thrown together in this time of conflict, intrigue and danger are three figures. The artist – Leonardo da Vinci – is not only a painter, but also a gifted military engineer whose talents are useful to Italy’s rulers or would-be rulers. The philosopher is a second tier Florentine civil servant – Niccolo Machiavelli – who seeks to understand the laws that govern politics and the acts of governing. The warrior is the charismatic son of a pope who would establish his family’s dominance over much of the Italian people – Cesar Borgia – who draws on the talents of the engineer and then courts, bullies, ignores and charms the philosopher. He is the dominant figure in this tale: the lives and work of both Machiavelli and da Vinci are profoundly affected by their relationships with Borgia before his death in combat at age 31.
The book repeats incidents and descriptions: this is annoying and detracts from what is otherwise a fine read.
The noted MIT historian had written a deeply informed and tensely packed volume about what happened after “the miracle in Philadelphia” that produced the Constitution. Patiently and methodically, Professor Maier charts the path of the Constitution through thirteen state ratification conventions where delegates (mostly) carefully and (often) raucously considered the document’s fate and, with it, the fate of the American experiment.
This story is full of twists and turns, of strong opinions and piercing arguments, and of leaders of deep conviction on both sides of the controversy trying to find the strategy that would swing their state’s convention into their column. In the end, the practical politicians called Federalists who supported the Constitution’s passage found different strategies in different states to achieve the same end: ratification of the new charter by the requisite nine states and the creation thereby of the United States of America.
One of the most powerful steps the Federalists took was to admit the validity of their opponents’ argument that the Constitution was in need of improvement through amendment, though not before ratification, as the Constitution’s critics argued but after. Amazingly enough, the Federalists then actually amended the Constitution, passing through a Congress they overwhelmingly dominated twelve amendments, ten of which were then approved by the required number of states. It was nearly ninety years later that these amendments came to be called “The Bill of Rights.”
Professor Maier has dug deep into the original documents, mining letters, convention journals, and newspapers for a rich and rewarding read. Not an easy book, but a great one.
Facing an economy in decline, a bleak job market and a runaway deficit that threatens their future, the 2012 election is more consequential for young voters than ever before. Mr. La Mastra's guide is a great tool to help these young adults educate themselves on the issues, mobilize, and get involved. I read an advance copy but it's available for pre-order now. Release date is March 15.
I met Professor Barry Strauss during a visit to Cornell University. I'd earlier picked up his THE BATTLE OF SALAMIS and enjoyed it, as I also enjoyed meeting this renowned professor of history and the classics.
Now he’s written a riveting, fast-paced, penetrating volume around three powerful war leaders – Alexander the Great, Hannibal and Caesar, men who still stand astride our imaginations centuries after they lived, led, fought, and ruled.
While other classicists draw on ancient philosophers for lessons on the life well lived, Strauss looks to men of action and determination for lessons on leadership and strategy.
Strauss traces ten attributes of success he sees in the lives of these warriors and examines how these qualities affected their decisions and actions, their success and their failure.
Unlike many academics, Strauss is a fine writer, with a strong, punchy style and a great sense of pacing. This makes MASTERS OF COMMAND a great read, packed with terrific insights, and one of those books you just can’t put down.
I read an advance copy: it’s to be published in May 2012. Pre-order it.
While working away on a more serious book, I ran across this in an airport newsstand. Having read Khoury’s previous novels, I knew I’d have to spend the weekend neglecting serious history for silly adventure with FBI Agent Sean Reilly, his nearly forgotten love interest, his current flame, a vengeful FBI high official, and a mad Mexican drug lord. Okay, I admit it: not very high-minded, but a fun, quick read. I promise to be better with my next book.
My good friend Frank Lavin (former Under Secretary for International Trade at the U.S. Department of Commerce and previously U.S. Ambassador to Singapore) sent me a copy of his new book, EXPORT NOW: FIVE KEYS TO ENTERING NEW MARKETS, co-authored with Peter S. Cohan. It’s a little different from what you might typically find on my reading list but as I’ve traveled around giving speeches to trade associations, I’ve met owners of small and medium-sized businesses navigating the global economy and grappling with the challenges of entering into export markets. For that reason, Frank’s subject matter piqued my interest.
As Lavin and Cohan point out, entry into foreign markets is easier than ever—for both you and competitors. So if you embrace a stagnant business model, you risk losing market share to foreign competition, even if you’re not export oriented. In providing a clear, concise guide for export success, the authors’ draw on over thirty years of experience helping thousands of SMEs. This is a must-read for any business owner looking to realize growth potential by developing an export strategy.
This is another fine book from the University of Kansas series on presidential election. Mr. Cole identifies the seeds of this struggle in the contentious outcome of the four way struggle for the White House in 1824, which left supporters of the defeated Andrew Jackson decrying a supposed "corrupt bargain" between John Q. Adams, who finished in second place but became the eventual winner when the race was tossed into the House of Representatives when Jackson failed to get a majority in the Electoral College, and Henry Clay, the third place finisher.
Cole argues the 1828 election is not simply significant because it gave birth to the Democratic Party, but because it produced a new political system based on parties -- Whig as well as Democratic. He charts the actions and approaches of all the major players on both sides of this contest in a particularly illuminating fashion and shows how the election played out by examining in details the back-and-forth in some of the critical battleground states in that election.
For fans of the era's history and politics, expect a few shots at the people whose books you've read and enjoyed. Check the footnotes: there's not only a political war going on in this volume. There's also an interesting debate among historians and political scientists raging just below the surface.
I enjoyed Professor Greenblatt’s last book, WILL IN THE WORLD: HOW SHAKESPEARE BECAME SHAKESPEARE enormously but his latest volume, not so much. THE SWERVE is part an historical detective story, part philosophical inquiry, and part celebration of the modern secular culture, with Man shorn of his mistaken beliefs in a God who cares about him and the world and stripped of illusions about the immortality of the soul and eternals truths. Greenblatt traces the beginning of this epic transformation to the rediscovery is 1417 by a papal secretary and book hunter from Florence named Poggio Bracciolini of the Epicurean poet Lucretius’ poem “One the Nature of Things,” written in the century before Christ. Lucretius, he writes, life and the reality in which we exist are accidents, “the soul dies…there is no afterlife…all organized religions are superstitious delusions…religions are invariably cruel…the highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain,” all of which (the impression is left that) Greenblatt applauds.
49 Devil's Gate
Into every string of serious books a little, well, a little low brow must fall. I admit I’m a sucker for all things Cussler and this is a juicy, quick-to-read, fun tale of exotic weapons, a stark raving mad African dictator and how the world is saved from destruction by Kurt Austin and Joe Zavala, but without some very close calls, an alluring Russian spy and enough near-drownings to induce paranoia around water.