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Friday, June 20, 2014

The Education of Henry Adams; Burning Angel.; Jack Kennedy, Elusive Hero; The Price of Inequality: How today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future; and Dirt.

Henry Adams.  The Education of Henry Adams.  1907 ©1918 ©1938    This book gathered dust on my bookshelves for 60 years.  Now I have finally listened to an audio version.  Adams had 100 copies of this memoire printed for his friends in 1907.  When it was published posthumously in 1918 it won the Pulitzer Prize and went on to be named by the Modern Library as the top English-language nonfiction book of the twentieth century.  That sentiment may have been a bit premature.  I thoroughly enjoyed the earlier chapters where he reminisces about his family and his own adventures from the Civil War to the turn of the century.  He knew everyone and had an opinion about everyone and everything.  He never mentions his wife, Marian Hooper Adams AKA Clover, even when he talks about the Adams Memorial, designed by sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens and architect Stanford White for her grave site in Rock Creek Cemetery.  The only employment he mentions is some work as a journalist and his seven years teaching Medieval History at Harvard.  I was sort of wondering how he afforded his extensive travels all over the world and a house on Lafayette Square in Washington until I reminded myself that he published 35 works during a long career as man of letters.  Like most everyone else he lost a good part of his fortune in the Panic of 1893, but fortunately he was well connected with the bankers who usually are able to protect themselves and their choice clients no matter what happens to the rest of us, or, as he says, “the banks allowed some of the mice to escape with the rats.”  I never did quite figure out what he meant by “education.”  There are many nuggets, which make this an interesting read, even if you tire of his false modesty and constant self-deprecation.  During the Civil War he notes that in England, where he was serving as a clerk for his father, the American Minister, there was constant talk of Lincoln and Seward’s “cruelty and brutality.”  Adams bought a Raphael drawing – his description of his trip to the British Museum to try to have it authenticated is a little gem.  His two great friends in adult life were Clarence King, a geologist and surveyor, whom Adams met in Estes Park, Colorado in 1871, and John Hay, who finished his career as Secretary of State under McKinley and Roosevelt.  King is a fascinating character, and if there isn’t a current biography of him, someone should write one.  Of Hay, Adams says that he solved all of our international relations problems and that peace should reign in the US and Europe for perhaps a century.   Adams died before Gavrilo Princip set off WW I.  Like so many people of his time, Adams was an anti-Semite and anti-Catholic.  He mentions that senator Cameron of Pennsylvania thought that only Pennsylvanians were white and goes on to explain that inferior peoples like Slavs, Italians and Irish are not included in “white.”  Adams seems to agree.  Adams did not spare the rich, except J.P. Morgan, from his criticisms.  Of industrialists he said:  “Most of them have nothing to tell, but are forces as dumb as their dynamos, absorbed in the development or economy of power.  They…will control society without appeal, as (they) control… its stokers and pit men.”  In his last chapters he mulls over progress in science and the arts.  It may have been brilliant at the time but I didn’t get a lot out of it.  Perhaps he was prophetic when he said that just as a teacher of 1800 would have little to tell a man of 1900, so a teacher of 1900 would probably have little to tell someone a century later.  June 2014


James Lee Burke, Burning Angel.  ©℗1995   Robicheaux 8.  If you haven’t read any of the Robicheaux mysteries, I suggest you not start with this one.  Get to know the lay of the land first.  In an author’s note Burke says that he usually starts with a myth of some sort and lets the story develop from it.  In this case it’s an avenging angel.  All of the usual characters are there and the usual conspiracy involving some family with old money.  This time it’s plans for a recycling facility that will burn transformers and poison the local environment.  The company has already been kicked out of several other states and is keeping its plans for New Iberia Parish secret with the help of some hired killers.  Robicheaux loses his job for a while but soon he’s back on the force partnered with Helen Swallow.  As I read along I felt like there was nothing new, but I was just enjoying being back with Robicheaux, a sort of self indulgence with no literary or artistic purpose – just pure enjoyment.  June 2014
Chris Matthews.   Jack Kennedy, Elusive Hero.  ©2011   Chris Matthews mentions his book often when discussing politics and with good reason, because there is much for us all to learn about politics from the Kennedys.  I think I was familiar with almost everything in the book, but it was nice to review the action.  I was particularly struck by JFK’s real heroism in the South Pacific, by his constant battles with illness, by his innovative approach to campaigning and by his self centered personality.  Seeing Jackie on TV, I never really took to her, but after reading this I can really appreciate what she went through trying to live with JFK.  As Matthews presents it, it’s hard to overestimate the importance of JFK’s role in dealing with Khrushchev over Berlin and Cuba.  I did not know that the Kennedys remained close to Joe McCarthy, even after his censure.  June 2014
Joseph E. Stiglitz.  The Price of Inequality:  How today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future.  ©2012   I just watched an RFF (Resources for the Future) video featuring the author.  He’s a board member, and I didn’t realize he was going to talk about his book, but he did at great length.  Apparently the book is as important to him as it is to me.  As I listened to the video, I realized I had made a mistake checking out the audio version instead of a print copy.  About all I had to say when I was finished was that everyone should read this book to understand what inequality is and what it is doing to our country.  Fortunately the video filled in some of the blanks and I took notes as he went along.  Until about 200 years ago we spent all of our time on subsistence.  By 1970 developed economies were experiencing a productivity dividend and decisions had to be made on whether this would be spent for more leisure or more consumption.  The Europeans chose leisure and we chose consumption.  Unfortunately consumption is worse for the environment and eventually we are going to have to follow the European lead.  From there he went on the results of inequality.  In the US life expectancy is falling among the poor as we become the most unequal developed country and the one with the least opportunity for upward mobility.  He notes that if the “trickle down” theory were actually working, we’d all be well off.  But it’s not; the rich are getting richer and the rest are running in place or falling further behind.  He spent some time talking about the effects of pollution on the poor.  A child exposed to pollution while still in the womb will have lower birth weight and do less well than his peers through his whole life and the same will be true for his children.  We all talk about equal access to quality education, but it’s more than that.  He went on to mention four points:  (1)  Small interventions can have large effects.  For example, provision of more efficient cook stoves  in poor countries for environmental reasons can have secondary effects that may be even more beneficial: better health from not living with smoking fires and relief for women from the burdensome job of collecting wood for those fires.  (2)  Multiple equilibriums are possible.  What that means is that there is more than one model for a workable economy and distribution within an economy.  (3)  Private ownership is only one of many ways to handle land policy and to manage limited resources.  Consider the problem of the commons.  In England the commons were enclosed to save them from overuse and to use them for more efficient production.  The result was growing inequality.  In fact many of the commons were well managed by the tight knit communities that used them.  In many cases, after enclosure, the people starved or moved away.  (4)  Inequality is also an efficiency issue.  There is a high cost to society if pollution or poverty retards the potential of any member of that society.  He concluded by saying that the presumption that the market will solve all problems just isn’t working.  In general markets are inefficient, even absent the externalities which they tend to ignore.  He added that macroeconomics has failed to take account of externalities.  In the Q & A session he was asked for specific policy recommendations.  He said we should read the last chapter of his book.  I plan to reread it myself.  June 2014


Stuart Woods.  Dirt.  ©1996  I thought I saw a promising mystery developing here, but by disk two, I concluded this novel was simply a vehicle for describing sexual encounters, and I quit.  June 2014

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