Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Book review: A Thousand Mornings

Book review: A Thousand Mornings
The Penguin Press, New York, 2012
82 pages

Mary Oliver does it again with A Thousand Mornings, a short collection of poetry that offers her signature realism and wholesome, literal evocation of her tasteful and spectacularly insightful reactions to the world around her, and around us.

The reader is never in doubt about what she’s saying—obscurity is not her thing, and disjointed word play and annoying sentence fragments are not her thing. I take instruction from Mary Oliver every time I read her work.

There is calm, quiet joy in her words. She invites the reader to respect stillness. Here’s an excerpt from “Today”

“…But I’m taking the day off.
Quiet as a feather.
I hardly move though really I’m traveling
a terrific distance.

Stillness. One of the doors
into the temple.”

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

“I don’t remember the title….”

Sometimes you need more than a little help from your friendly librarian….

Don’t hesitate to ask.

Or just start looking at the blue books, and pick one you like.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Book review: Lafayette: Lessons in Leadership from the Idealist General

Book review: Lafayette: Lessons in Leadership from the Idealist General
by Marc Leepson (b.1945) 
Palgrave Macmillan, New York 2011
202 pages

I’m a first-time reader of Lafayette biographies, so I’ll acknowledge that Leepson entertains by re-stating the obvious: Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier de la Fayette was a national, military, political and, indeed, a paternal hero to millions in America and France during the American and (several) French revolutions. 

There is no doubt that, despite the fact that he was one of the richest French nobles of his time, he was publicly and privately dedicated to republican government and a social/economic order that was far more egalitarian than the monarchical and aristocratic structures that prevailed.

Was Lafayette a great man? Leepson, like many of his biographers, says yes. Lafayette was a courageous battlefield leader, he was an enlightened manorial lord who enhanced the lives of his peasants, and he was both outspoken and fearless, repeatedly, in literally dangerous political situations for a couple decades in Revolutionary and Napoleonic France. Leepson amply demonstrates these lifelong characteristics of the man Americans called “our Marquis.”

I feel obliged to call attention to some countervailing factors that Leepson fully describes but does not adequately interpret.

Lafayette put his money where his mouth was. He repeatedly used his great personal wealth to pay and outfit the troops he commanded, when government funds and supplies ran low. I suggest a case could be made that the Marquis, almost uniquely among American commanders, paid for his military success in the Revolutionary War. Throughout the war, the options and operations of colonial commanders were significantly hindered by short funds and short supplies. If Lafayette had not been able to pay, feed, clothe and arm his troops with his personal resources, could he have been as winning a general as he was? I suspect the answer is “No.”

Some biographers refer to Lafayette as the “victor” at Yorktown in 1781. Leepson says that Lafayette’s campaigning in Virginia in the spring and summer of 1781 “led to the victory at Yorktown.” Lafayette was not the only American general at Yorktown, and he wasn’t the only French general. Lafayette did use his small force to isolate Cornwallis in Yorktown, but he had to wait until Washington, Rochambeau and others arrived with sufficient forces before he participated in the final assaults.

In France he repeatedly declined to step up to the plate and take executive leadership, during the revolutionary and Napoleonic convulsions, when the French people and the contentious military/political factions would have handed the throne or the presidency of France to him on a velvet pillow. The Marquis repeatedly risked his life to defuse explosive situations by his personal, courageous intervention. However, Leepson fastidiously details Lafayette’s repeated reluctance to take the final step and take control when, arguably, he could have stabilized dangerous situations, and forestalled or prevented catastrophic consequences, by doing so. Lafayette wasn’t responsible for the violence, but, time after time, he left a void that was unfortunately filled by lesser men.

Was Lafayette a great man? Yes. A successful general? Yes. Was he a really lucky guy? Yes. Did he and his reputation benefit immensely from great wealth and fortuitous circumstance? Yes. Did he live up to his potential in serving France and the French nation? Maybe not.

A final note: for my taste, neither Leepson nor Gen. Wesley Clark (in his Foreword) lives up to the promise of sifting “lessons in leadership” from Lafayette’s battlefield and political exploits, or his largely exemplary personal character. I think the fact is that almost all of the notable events in Lafayette’s public and private lift were as much circumstantial as anything else. Certainly, in the worst of times during the French Revolutions, when he could have demonstrated compelling leadership for the lasting benefit of his countrymen and nation, Lafayette came up short.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016

Friday, January 15, 2016

Book review: The End of Greatness

Book review: The End of Greatness: Why American Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President
Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2014
280 pages

First things first: Miller’s title sets him up for failure. It defies even the murkiest conception of common sense to argue that Americans don’t want a great president. I hazard the guess that it’s impossible to define “great president” in a way that would satisfy most readers.

More substantially, The End of Greatness isn’t a worthwhile read for me because, right up front, Miller acknowledges his endorsement of the "Great Man" theory of historical understanding that was championed initially in the 1840s by the Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle. The theory is often cited but it has only quite diminished standing today, as most historians and informed thinkers believe that durable circumstances and the complex dynamics of human interaction have much more impact than "Great Men" on our lives and on history as it unfolds. So, Miller gets started on the wrong foot, and his arguments can’t overcome the narrowness of his analysis.

“Where are the giants of old, the transformers who changed the world and left great legacies?” Where are the leaders who “will author some incomparable, unparalleled, and ennobling achievement at home or on the world stage, an achievement likely to be seen or remembered as great or transformational?” Miller cites rebellions and revolutions as “crucibles for emerging leaders.”

He can’t escape defining “greatness” and offers: “defined generally as incomparable and unparalleled achievement that is nation- or even world-altering.” A couple pages later he digs the hole deeper when he equates greatness with military, political, economic and “soft” power. Incredibly, Miller declares “Greatness in the presidency may be rare, but it is both real and measurable,” and he temptingly alludes to “traces of greatness” in several contemporary presidents, while arguing “Greatness in the presidency is too rare to be relevant in our modern times.”

Miller makes it official on page 10: Lincoln was one of the great presidents. Lincoln once dismissed another man’s argument by saying “it won’t scour,” as 19th century farmers said that a plow “won’t scour” when it failed to easily let the clods slide off the plowshare.
I think Miller’s thesis won’t scour. He mistakenly asserts that a few great leaders should get much of the credit for history’s “transformations.” He frames his arguments with words that can’t be acceptably, explicitly defined on the grand historical scale that he uses: what is and what isn’t, specifically and unarguably, a “great legacy”? a “transformation”? an “unparalleled achievement”? a “trace of greatness”?

Miller relies on great big categories and a deceptive positive spin to discuss a little idea, and to make a gratuitous point that really can’t be proved or disproved.(1)

Full disclosure: I didn’t read the whole book. The Introduction stopped me cold.

(1) Aaron David Miller, The End of Greatness (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 4-14.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Book review: The Climate Casino

Book review: The Climate Casino: Risk, Uncertainty, and Economics for a Warming World
Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 2013
378 pages

I think Prof. Nordhaus has given us a remarkable achievement: a solid, sobering, stimulating, scientific, scary book on human-caused global climate change, that leaves no room for doubt about the prospect that climate change deniers are going to sweat more, like the rest of us, in coming decades. 

This is not a book about Apocalypse. If anything, the Sterling Professor of Economics at Yale University writes with an even temper and drily matter-of-fact language that is a teensy bit annoying, given the massively dangerous, initial impacts of climate change and global warming that are already unavoidable.

I think the principal value of The Climate Casino is that Nordhaus lays out the economic (cost/benefit) framework of policy considerations and possible remedial steps that the nations of the world, and mankind, can take to deal with the fact that we’re putting too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

In simplest terms, he says there are many things we can do to mitigate global warming….some are more costly than others and some are very expensive….some folks and some companies and some countries will have to pay more of the costs than others.

I was surprised to read his conclusion that humans can likely survive the initial moderate impacts of global climate change/warming without substantial social and economic disruption, if we start seriously working on it now—there is a big pricetag, but we can tolerate it.

(I mention, for the record, that Nordhaus carefully discusses the unpredictable, and more than trivially possible, catastrophic “tipping points” in climate disruption that might occur regardless of what we do or don’t do—think Dennis Quaid and “The Day After Tomorrow”).

We’re going to have to stop using coal around the world, or figure out how to burn it cleanly. And more generally, we’re going to have to figure out how to require companies and individuals to pay the true cost of burning fossil fuels, that is, the present and future cost of the damage those fuels cause to our environment and to our grandchildren’s prospects for survival.

It was remotely heartening to read Nordhaus’ estimate that we have a reasonable chance of dealing with global warming if we get the ball rolling now, and make sure everyone pays the price.

This is the only planet our grandchildren will have to live on. We must do the right thing for them.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.