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review 2020-05-03 07:04
Review: Has China Won? by Kishore Mahbubani
Has China Won?: The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy - Kishore Mahbubani

***Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Thank you NetGalley and Public Affairs!***


I stopped reading this book about 150 pages in, roughly halfway. I make an effort to not put down a book less than halfway through in order to be fair. Sometimes things start to look up after a rocky beginning. To be clear, I did not put this book away because it was poorly written. Indeed, it was excellently written. But I felt like the author has gotten it wrong when it came to his starting thesis. And unfortunately, if your starting thesis is incorrect, then some or all of your conclusions probably will be too.


The author has a very big bias in favor of China. This was evident throughout the Introduction when he basically said that China is the victim of cultural misunderstanding and that America was mostly afraid of powerful “yellow” people (his words, not mine) and mistakenly thinks that all Communism is the same as the Soviet Union was. But I carried on in spite of this obvious bias because the next two chapters were about the biggest mistakes so far that each of the world superpowers has made. I thought, maybe here is where we get a more evenhanded approach.


Unfortunately we did not. According to the author, China’s biggest mistake is that it gives too much power to local governments and Beijing is largely powerless to control them. For example, the author mentions that businesses are very wary of working in China because they feel that China takes advantage of them and threatens them with access to the Chinese market if they don’t comply to outrageous. His example is a business that states they had a contract with a Chinese company that they would utilize their services for a set number of years and then buy the company outright for X price at the end of that period. When that date came the company refused to sell. The business petitioned to the courts in Beijing and were told “well pay them more money then and buy the business”. The author attributes this to a lack of centralized leadership. That is blatantly false and biased. That is called extortion. If the courts had said “Sorry, this is an issue with the local jurisdiction” that would prove the author’s point. But they acted like a mob enforcer “Pay more money, then they’ll sell.” The author gives this kind of leniency to the Chinese government over and over again.


And still, I continued. I thought that perhaps when the author was describing the largest mistake by America that we would see the same leniency. We did not. The author spends the entire chapter demonizing President Trump and demonizing businesses for blaming it on American war culture. And then throwing in some demonization of America’s lack of social justice for good measure. Americans just want to believe that all Communism is bad, so that’s why we demonize China. Again, this is a flawed premise. The Chinese Communist Party is bad. They have upwards of 1.5 million people imprisoned in labor camps, another half million in re-education centers. Stories abound from survivors of these camps of the rampant abuse and rape that goes on. Defectors from the CCP are executed silently and immediately, potentially thousands of people per year. The CCP has  launched genocidal massacres on Tibetans, Buddhists, Christians and Muslims within the past decade. Don’t try and blow that particular sunshine about good Communism up my behind, thanks all the same!


In the end, this author thinks China is a great place and America is inherently racist with a psycho for a President. To me, that indicates that all conclusions that he draws will be flawed. So while the author asks a lot of interesting questions, the answers will likely be unsatisfying.

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review 2020-05-02 22:35
The role of the military in America's history
For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States from 1607 to 2012 - William B. Feis,Peter Maslowski,Allan R. Millett
I had read the first edition of Allan Millett and Peter Maslowski's book back when I was in college. While I can't remember what my impression was of it back then, I proceeded through the next three decades of my life without feeling the need to revisit it. Recently, however, I had cause to revisit it, and I'm glad I did.
Now in a third edition, Millett and Maslowski have been joined as co-authors by William Feis, a specialist in the Civil War era. For the most part, little changed beyond additional coverage of American military history up to 2014 and the elimination of the very useful bibliography from the first edition (supposedly it was moved online, but the link provided in the book is dead). Yet rereading it I came to appreciate just how excellent of a job they did in covering the military over the centuries of the nation's existence. It's especially impressive considering their scope: while most military histories are happy to confine themselves to accounts of campaigns and commanders, the authors have provided an extraordinarily well-rounded account that addresses policymaking, military-civil relations, and the development of military theory. In this respect their book is not just a military history in terms of an account of America's wars, but of the role of the military throughout the nation's history.
By the time I reached the end of the book, I had a newfound appreciation for the authors' achievement. While not without its flaws — leaving out the bibliography proved a mistake, while the two chapters on the Vietnam War are overdue to be consolidated into a single one — it is an impressive book that remains the single best work for anyone interested in learning about America's military and how it shaped the country it built and defended.
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review 2020-04-22 22:47
Old Man River by Paul Schneider
Old Man River: The Mississippi River in North American History - Paul Schneider

This is a quirky mix of historical anecdotes with a bit of the author’s personal travels, endearing if not particularly cohesive. The geographical scope is quite broad, encompassing areas of the Mississippi River basin quite removed from the river itself (40% of the U.S. is in the Mississippi basin, though the points Schneider writes about are either along the river or east of it). Early sections cover the river basin’s geological history, and then move into Native American history mostly via archaeology, and the section on colonial explorations and warfare is extensive; we’re more than halfway through the book before the United States as a country is born. Because the book is not long and the time period covered is, the author seems to just tell us the stories that suit his fancy, which produce an interesting mix. The portions dealing with Native American history have been done better in, for instance, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, though on the other hand I think this is the most in-depth treatment of the French colonial/exploratory presence in the future U.S. that I’ve ever seen, which speaks to their treatment in most histories as no more than nebulous antagonists off in the woods somewhere.

My favorite part was the 60-page “Life on the Mississippi” segment set between the Revolution and Civil War, covering boat travel up and down the river both before and after the introduction of steamboats, and also river pirates and the like. The Civil War section seems disproportionately long at around 40 pages, and was less interesting to me, and then the book wraps up with a couple of chapters on the extensive dams and other artificial changes made to the river since and their environmental impacts. Long story short, alterations to make the river easier to navigate and reduce yearly flooding also reduce the sediment settling at the mouth of the river to the point that Louisiana is losing a huge amount of land area every year, while major floods are even more frequent and destructive.

There are interspersed chapters about the author’s various travels on and around the river, which are not particularly eventful but are clearly meaningful to him, and add some emotional dimension to the book. Also, on one trip he takes his teenaged son and they run along the top of a train stopped by the side of the river, which makes him a super cool dad.

Overall, this book is kind of scattershot – the author is pretty clearly just relating whatever historical anecdotes are most interesting to him, without making any attempts at being comprehensive, and it would be easy to nitpick what’s included and what’s not. However, it’s pretty well-written and as light supplemental history and travel reading it’s perfectly fine.

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review 2020-04-03 22:11
The Newcomers by Helen Thorpe
The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom - Helen Thorpe

Helen Thorpe is an excellent writer of journalistic nonfiction, and always picks great topics for books, which is why I’ve read all of them. Unfortunately, the quality of her books seems to me inversely proportional to how much she features herself in them, and The Newcomers falls on the wrong end of that scale. But this book has an even more basic problem, in which Thorpe appears to have committed herself early to a particular premise and clung to it even as it proved increasingly infeasible and even inappropriate.

The premise is that Thorpe spent a year embedded in a Colorado high school classroom in which non-English-speaking students newly arrived in the U.S. learn the fundamentals of the language. Most of these students are refugees, hailing from various war-torn parts of the globe, from the Middle East to Africa, Southeast Asia to Central America. Teacher Eddie Williams generously agreed to host her, and Thorpe shows up eagerly to class, hoping to write about the lives of these kids and the circumstances that led them to flee their homelands.

And here’s where the problems start. First, Thorpe was determined to write a book about a group of people, who, by definition, don’t speak her language, and she doesn’t speak theirs. Second, those people are traumatized, confused teenagers, with traumatized or missing parents who understand life in the U.S. no better than their children do. Gradually the book turns into Thorpe pumping for information on the personal lives of people who don’t actually want to share. Even the teacher, her entry point, doesn’t want to go there, which doesn’t stop her from highlighting more than once that he refused to talk about the circumstances of his having a child outside wedlock. (Good grief, it’s the 21st century. This is probably the least interesting thing about him.)

Okay, she can do without the teacher’s inner life. But the students are no more forthcoming, and no wonder. Throughout the book, numerous older students and interpreters, former refugees themselves, advise Thorpe against prying into the kids’ lives: they’re new, they’re traumatized, they’re not ready to discuss their worst experiences with anyone – let alone, one presumes, the general public. But instead of changing the plan and focusing the book on people who were ready, she substitutes by speculating about the kids’ inner lives, or by recounting mundane classroom activities as if they were freighted with deeper meaning than seems evident to me. She notes that when Jakleen, an Iraqi girl who is one of the book’s more prominent characters, started and then stopped wearing a hijab, “I was not sure how to interpret this statement, and she never cared to enlighten me”; when Jakleen stops talking to a boy, it’s “for reasons that remained unclear.” When Methusella, a Congolese boy also prominently featured, makes a collage in group therapy, it’s “one of the few times [he] had revealed himself all year.”

He only actually revealed himself to the school therapist, but she hastened to pass on details of his work’s symbolism to the author, in one of many moments that made me question this story both in terms of consent and storytelling. All but one of the kids agreed to “participate” in her project (perhaps feeling it would have been rude or pointless to refuse, when she was in their classroom every day regardless), but none of them ever tell their stories fully, the way the subjects of Thorpe’s previous books did, leaving their experiences rather opaque. Which means the book loses out on including any more depth than what Thorpe was able to glean by following the teenagers around for awhile, and that most likely all this speculation about their emotions and histories was published without their first having the opportunity to withdraw consent. I’m sure many worthwhile nonfiction books have made their subjects uncomfortable, but it’s one thing to do that to an informed adult, another to an underage refugee with limited English proficiency.

And then there’s just so much of Thorpe in this book. She seems determined to convince readers how important her friendship is to these kids, and to the two families – Jakleen’s and Methusella’s – to whom she becomes a regular visitor. Unfortunately in her interactions with the teens she comes across as stiff and hopelessly middle-aged, and the focus on her own reactions takes away from informing the reader. For instance, when Methusella’s father endeavors to explain the situation in the DRC to her, she writes, “Then we got into an alphabet soup of armed groups . . . I got lost somewhere in the middle, amid the acronyms and all the tribal stuff. I could not absorb all the details, but I came away with the notion of a jumble of allegiances and betrayals, mixed with a lot of weaponry.” Look, lady, I don’t care about your experience of learning about Congolese history. This is supposed to be a book about the refugees, not your memoir.

All that said, this book did engage me. It’s accessible and, especially as we get to know the families, the kids and their parents are very easy to empathize with. I enjoyed spending time with them and wanted the best for all of them. While there’s a ton of fiction and memoirs out there about refugee experiences, there’s much less popular nonfiction, so it’s a great idea for a book. And I learned a bit about the refugee resettlement process from it. The contrast between the Congolese family, which quickly seems to thrive in the U.S., and the Iraqi girls and their widowed mother, all of whom struggle quite a bit, is interesting and vivid. Thorpe’s brief trip to the DRC and meetings with Methusella’s friends and relatives there was a nice touch. But I suspect Thorpe would have produced a far better book if she’d regrouped and written about people willing and able to fully engage in the process, and kept herself out of it.

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text 2020-03-25 22:34
Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson
Benjamin Franklin: An American Life - Walter Isaacson

My apologies to the unknown library patron whom I forced to return this book so that I could check it out, right before the libraries shut down indefinitely. If I'd known, you could have kept it.

First, this book is long and surprisingly dull for a popular biography. Second, as of page 92, where I finally decided to quit, there was remarkably little historical detail - it focuses in on the biographical aspects to the point that it's almost divorced from history, unusual for a biography of someone who lived more than 200 years ago. Third, it is chock-full of repetitive adoration of Franklin: barely a page passes without our being told that he was pragmatic and that whatever he's doing at the moment illustrates his pragmatic character. Or earnest, canny, frugal, etc. etc. This is especially jarring given that much of the behavior described isn't actually admirable: driving another newspaper editor out of business to clear the field to launch his own paper; writing anonymous letters to his own paper criticizing his competitors and praising himself, including for his restraint in not criticizing his competitors; allowing his wife to be openly nasty to his son, her stepson; and publishing a piece a few weeks after his marriage about how wives need to serve their husbands in everything and "deny yourself the trivial satisfaction of your own will," among many similarly unfortunate exhortations. Isaacson treats all this material uncritically, and I don't have much use for biographies that can't take an honest and balanced look at their subject, however widely loved that person might be. But Isaacson seems too enamored of Franklin's self-improvement schemes, all discussed in great detail, to do so.

At any rate, there are plenty of Franklin biographies out there and I can't say I have much use for this one. If only the library would take it back!

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