Monthly Archives: December 2013

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty’: Finally! A Book That Tells It Like It Is

  • Reviewed by David M. Kinchen 
BOOK REVIEW: 'Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty': Finally! A Book That Tells It Like It Is

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” — Lord Acton (1834-1902)
Economists Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson don’t know if the first part of Lord Acton’s famous quote — about power tending to corrupt — is 100 percent, take-it-to-the-bank true, but they state unequivocally in “Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty” (Crown Business quality paperback, 544 pages, maps, photo insert, notes, index, $17.00) that the second part — about  absolute power corrupting absolutely — is true.

And, from my reading of this groundbreaking book that’s a must-read for anyone who wants to understand how the world really  works — I have a feeling they would agree with the third — often omitted — part of the quote about great men being bad.

That part of the Acton quote reminded me — a quotation geek — of one attributed to Balzac: “Behind every great fortune is a crime.” In that form  it was used by Mario Puzo as an epigraph to his 1969 novel, “The Godfather.” In my research of this famous quote,   I found that Balzac actually said something similar in “Pere Goriot” — but the simplified quote expresses Balzac’s feeling on wealth.

Take Robert Mugabe — please! — dictator of Zimbabwe since 1980 — cited by the authors as the leader of perhaps the most failed of all nations, with an astounding 94 percent unemployment rate. Against all odds, Mugabe managed in 2000 to win the national lottery, with a prize of Z$100,000! Zimbabwe, formerly Southern Rhodesia, is the subject of many pages in the book, and its failure as a functioning nation is contrasted by Acemoglu and Robinson with what they call sub-Saharan Africa’s most successful post-independent nation, Botswana, formerly the British colony of Bechuanaland.

In a book that can be understood, with careful reading, by non-economists, Acemoglu and Robinson attempt to answer the age-old question “Why are some nations rich and others poor, divided by wealth and poverty, health and sickness, food and famine?”Other writers have cited a nation’s  culture, its climate, its geography or perhaps ignorance of what the right polices are.

No! say the authors:  None of these factors is either definitive or destiny. Otherwise, how can you explain why Botswana has become one of the fastest growing countries in the world, while other African nations, such as Zimbabwe, the Congo, and Sierra Leone, are mired in poverty and violence.

Acemoglu and Robinson  show that it is man-made political and economic institutions that underlie economic success (or lack of it).

Korea, to take just one of their fascinating examples, is a remarkably homogeneous nation, yet the people of North Korea are among the poorest on earth while their brothers and sisters in South Korea — with the same language and cuture — are among the richest.

The people in the southern part of the Korean peninsula created a society that created incentives, rewarded innovation, and allowed everyone to participate in economic opportunities. The economic success thus spurred was sustained because the government became accountable and responsive to citizens and the great mass of people. Sadly, the people of the north have endured decades of famine, political repression, and very different economic institutions—with no end in sight. The differences between the Koreas is due to the politics that created these completely different institutional trajectories.”Why Nations Fail” is based on fifteen years of original research that led Acemoglu and Robinson to round up extraordinary historical evidence from the Roman Empire, the Mayan city-states, medieval Venice, the Soviet Union, Latin America, England, Europe, the United States, and Africa to build a new theory of political economy with great relevance for the big questions of today, including:

> China has built an authoritarian growth machine. Will it continue to grow at such high speed and overwhelm the West?

> Are America’s best days behind it? Are we moving from a virtuous circle in which efforts by elites to aggrandize power are resisted to a vicious one that enriches and empowers a small minority?

> What is the most effective way to help move billions of people from the rut of poverty to prosperity? More philanthropy from the wealthy nations of the West? Or learning the hard-won lessons of Acemoglu and Robinson’s breakthrough ideas on the interplay between inclusive political and economic institutions?Employing historical examples such as England’s Glorious Revolution, Napoleon’s invasion of Germany and the destruction of the walls of Frankfurt’s Judengasse — Jewish Ghetto — and why despotic nations like Austria-Hungary and czarist Russia decided to build few railroads to keep their people down on the farm and away from the cities, the authors present a convincing — to me, at least — case for the success or failure of nations.

If you read only one book about economics and the success of some nations and the failure of others, “Why Nations Fail” should be that book. Don’t take my word for it: “Why Nations Fail” has been praised to the skies by such noted writers as Steven Levitt, co-author of the best-selling “Freakonomics” and Jared Diamond, author of the acclaimed “Guns, Germs, and Steel.”

About the Authors

DARON ACEMOGLU is the Killian Professor of Economics at MIT. In 2005 he received the John Bates Clark Medal awarded to economists under forty judged to have made the most significant contribution to economic thought and knowledge.JAMES A. ROBINSON, a political scientist and an economist, is the David Florence Professor of Government at Harvard University. A world-renowned expert on Latin America and Africa, he has worked in Botswana, Mauritius, Sierra Leone, and South Africa.

Website: www.whynationsfail.com

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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Elizabeth of York’: Engrossing Portrayal of Henry VIII’s Mother: A Key Figure in the Creation of the Tudor Dynasty

  • Reviewed by David M. Kinchen 

If I have one criticism of Tudor histories and biographies, it’s that they’re too Henry VIII and Elizabeth I  centric. There must be other Tudors to write about.

BOOK REVIEW: 'Elizabeth of York': Engrossing Portrayal of Henry VIII's Mother: A Key Figure in the Creation of the Tudor Dynasty

Of course there are,  and renowned English historical biographer Alison Weir ably accomplishes this goal with “Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World” (Ballantine Books, 608 pages, notes, genealogical table, color and black and white illustrations, appendixes, index, $30.00) a detailed — at times almost too detailed — biography of Elizabeth of York (1466-1503), wife and queen consort of the first Tudor king, Henry VII (1457-1509), mother of Henry VIII and grandmother of Elizabeth I. (The copyright page has her being born in 1465, but she was born Feb. 11, 1466, the first child of King Edward IV, and died on her 37th birthday, Feb. 11, 1503).

The fabled ancient Chinese curse about living in interesting times applies in spades to Elizabeth, a woman Weir clearly likes and admires.

As the first child of King Edward IV, Elizabeth of York was celebrated almost as much as a male heir (England in the 15th Century wasn’t ready for a ruling queen — a queen regnant —  like her granddaughter Elizabeth became almost a century later, in 1558). Elizabeth of York  was raised with all the expensive trappings of royalty and enjoyed them to the end of her life — even when she couldn’t afford them.

About  my comment above about being too detailed: Weir lists just about every purchase for goods and services Elizabeth of York made, as well as purchases by her family — in money amounts of the time and present-day equivalents in English pounds.

We even learn of her bedsteads, what they cost and the origin of the phrase “sleep tight”: Bedsteads had ropes supporting the mattress instead of a platform or box spring like we have today. The ropes would loosen, causing the mattress to sag in the middle. It was the job of a bedchamber servant to tighten the supporting ropes, hence the phrase “sleep tight.” I like details like that!

When Elizabeth’s father, King Edward IV, died in 1483, England entered into the final phase of an ongoing civil war known as the Wars of the Roses, between the forces of two rival branches of the royal House of Plantagenet: the House of Lancaster, the red rose, and the House of York, the white rose. The “wars” had been going on for almost 30 years before the death of Edward IV, as the rival houses jousted for control of the throne.

Elizabeth’s ordeal began in earnest with the death of her father, the seizure of the throne by her uncle, who became Richard III and the imprisonment in the Tower of London and probable murder of her young brothers, Edward V and Richard, Duke of York — the famed “Princes in the Tower.”

More calamities follow, with Elizabeth and her siblings being declared bastards, even though there were no irregularities in the marriage of Edward IV and Elizabeth Wydeville (also spelled Woodville).

It gets even crazier: As his wife, Anne Neville, lay dying, Richard III sought to marry his niece, presumably to cement his claim to the throne. Weir explores this aspect of a country in turmoil, as well as Elizabeth’s support of exiled pretender to the throne Henry Tudor, who later became her husband, King Henry VII.

The forces of Henry Tudor defeated Richard III in the Battle of Bosworth, Aug. 22, 1485. Richard was killed in battle (Henry Tudor, not a warrior, delegated the fighting to experts). The phrase “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse,” was created for Richard to say by Shakespeare in his play “Richard III.”

Everybody expected the newly crowned Henry VII to immediately marry Elizabeth of York, a move that would increase the popularity of the king and strengthen his relatively weak claim to the throne, but he delayed the marriage to show that he didn’t need her to strengthen his claim to the throne.

The marriage officially ended the Wars of the Roses, but it didn’t end  a succession of claimants to the throne, including most famously that of Perkin Warbeck. Henry and his mother Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond,  also distrusted the Wydevilles, Elizabeth’s maternal relatives, a powerful and ambitious family. But Weir argues that Elizabeth and her mother-in-law were friends, contrary to the claims of other historians.  Elizabeth’s death after giving birth to her last child, Katherine, resulted in widespread and genuine grief in the kingdom. Katherine died shortly after.

In “Elizabeth of York” Weir once again demonstrates that she is an outstanding portrayer of the Tudor era, giving us a fully realized biography of a remarkable woman.

 

Alison Weir

Alison Weir

 

About the Author

Alison Weir, born in London in 1951,  is the New York Times bestselling author of several historical biographies, including Mary Boleyn, The Lady in the Tower, Mistress of the Monarchy, Henry VIII, Eleanor of Aquitaine, The Life of Elizabeth I, and The Six Wives of Henry VIII, and the novels A Dangerous Inheritance, Captive Queen, The Lady Elizabeth, and Innocent Traitor. She lives in Surrey, England, with her husband.

Her websites: http://www.alisonweir.org.uk  and www.alisonweirtours.com

Publisher’s website: www.ballantinebooks.com

BOOK REVIEW: ‘A Big Fat Crisis’: Dr. Deborah A. Cohen Says It’s Not Your Fault — Entirely — If You’re Fat

  • Reviewed by David M. Kinchen 

Most books on the nation’s obesity crisis — which affects more than 150 million Americans, almost half the nation’s population — blame the individual for pigging out. Or they blame fast food restaurants like the ubiquitous McDonald’s for “super-sizing” portions and our bellies and posteriors.

BOOK REVIEW: 'A Big Fat Crisis': Dr. Deborah A.  Cohen Says It's Not Your Fault -- Entirely -- If You're Fat

 

Call it the “Spurlock Syndrome” for Morgan Spurlock’s documentary on obesity. McDonald’s was in the crosshairs in the West Virginia native’s 2004 film “Super Size Me.” (You can watch it at: http://www.hulu.com/watch/63283).

Deborah A. Cohen, M.D. in her groundbreaking “A Big Fat Crisis: The Hidden Forces Behind the Obesity Epidemic — And How We Can End It” (Nation Books, 272 pages, $26.99) argues that the obesity epidemic is the product of two forces:

(1) Immutable aspects of human nature, namely the fundamental limits of self-control, the lazy decision-making of the brains non-cognitive system, and the automatic and unconscious way that we are hard-wired to eat; and

(2) A completely transformed food environment: all of the food-related elements of our surroundings, including food stores and restaurants, prices, portion sizes, the types of food available to us, and food marketing and advertising.

I have problems with many of Dr. Cohen’s positions, including her flat out statement that “Diets don’t work.” I’ll explain my own experience with losing weight — almost 30 pounds since May 2013 — later in this review; meanwhile, I’ll present Dr. Cohen’s arguments as fully — and as sympathetically — as I can. I’m doing this because I agree with so many of her positions.

To arrive at the above two forces behind the obesity epidemic, Dr. Cohen used her own research at the RAND Corporation, as well as the latest insights from behavioral economics, psychology, cognitive science, and the social sciences to demonstrate to her satisfaction that we as a nation must take action to standardize food portion sizes, limit impulse marketing of candy and other foods that make us fat and run counter advertising like that on tobacco products and alcohol with warning labels on junk food.

These are among the many suggestions Dr. Cohen makes in her argument that it’s not your fault that you’re fat — it’s those darn candy displays at the checkout counter at your pharmacy. She argues that willpower can only take us so far, that advertising, among other forces, makes it much too easy to access the kinds of low nutrition, high calorie junk food that leads inevitably to obesity. To this I would argue that life is a series of decisions, that you can decide if you want to smoke or drink or pig out, that you are not a robot lacking willpower.

In Chapter 8, beginning on Page 109, Dr. Cohen writes how laws against open sewage and waste in the streets and yards of England reduced epidemics of cholera and typhoid in the crowded industrial cities of the early 1800s. This is a fascinating and educational chapter, but I think it’s a big leap to link sanitary regulations to legislating against junk food, the way outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg did in New York City.

Or maybe not: Warning labels on cigarettes have greatly reduced smoking and pregnant women tend to avoid alcohol because of labels.

In Chapter 13 — the book’s conclusion — Dr. Cohen discusses (Pages 197-198)  New York City’s “Children Can’t Fly” campaign.

She writes how, In the hot days of the summer of 1972, the New York City Health Department investigated an unusually high incidence of deaths among toddlers who fell out of tenement windows.

Just as wide-body people — the kind we see waddling around in TV programs about obesity — are blamed for their condition,  mothers and caregivers were blamed for not being alert, not properly supervising children, or simply neglecting naturally curious toddlers and adventurous young children who leaned out of apartment windows, or crawled onto fire escape stairwells to try to cool off. If you’ve visited NYC in the summer, you know what it’s like in a place where the majority of people are renters.

After an investigation, the health department launched a campaign, “Children Can’t Fly” and offered free window guards to families in tenement buildings. The next summer, there were no falls from buildings that had the new window guards.

Dr. Cohen argues that this story from 40 years ago is an apt analogy for the problem and the solution to the obesity epidemic. Just as children are born curious and may wander to an open window even if (or because) we tell them to stay away so too all of us were born with the capacity and inclination to eat more than we need.

In a world where there is too much food, Dr. Cohen argues that — currently — we have no constraints that limit our natural tendencies to automatically eat what is readily available.

Sections of the book that deal with our couch potato lifestyle I can agree with wholeheartedly. Dr. Cohen explores the importance of exercise — even if it means just getting up and walking around, as I do periodically after a computer session (I’m doing it right now…hold that thought)….OK, I just came back from the patio, where it will be another beautiful late December day in south Texas, with temps in the 70s. It felt good. Dr. Cohen wants exercise breaks for cubicle dwellers especially, since much of our work-life these days is of the sedentary kind.

Modifying urban design is another way to reduce obesity, Dr. Cohen argues. On Pages 172-173, she cites a study she conducted with her RAND colleague Roland Sturm on the impact of urban sprawl. The study revealed that people who live in places like Atlanta, where the average person drives four to five miles to a supermarket, have more health problems — including obesity — than people in San Antonio and Pittsburgh, where it is much easier to walk to a supermarket.

In another RAND study examining the expansion of the light-rail transit system in Charlotte, N.C., researchers found that light rail users increased their physical activity and reduced their risk of obesity.

In a trip to Portland, Oregon a few years ago, I found this to be true: Portland has an excellent transit system, with light rail tied in with buses. I didn’t need a car to get around and I noticed that Portlanders tend to be less obese than people living in cities that lack decent public transportation. I live in a small city in Texas, but if I had to pick a city to live in, Portland would be high on my list.

Now about that statement from Dr. Cohen that dieting doesn’t work, we jump to Page 180 and following pages, where she makes her points. This is in Chapter 12, “In the Meantime: What Individuals Can Do.”

Maybe what I did to drop from 247 pounds in May 2013 to a relatively svelte 219 (svelte given my large frame 6-1 body; my goal is about 200, but I seem to be stuck on 219, so maybe that’s my ideal weight)  wasn’t technically dieting. Maybe I changed my lifestyle, but not so much. I still need to exercise more, but I’ve continued my practice of not parking close to stores, choosing instead to walk more. My portions are smaller and I’ve mostly eliminated pasta and bread. No more cheese, either (and I love cheese, especially a good grilled cheese sandwich).

As I said at the beginning, Dr. Deborah A. Cohen has written a groundbreaking book on obesity. It should be read by everybody.

 

Dr. Deborah A. Cohen

Dr. Deborah A. Cohen

 

About the Author

Deborah A. Cohen, MD, is a senior natural scientist at the RAND Corporation. Santa Monica, CA. Cohen received her BA at Yale University, MPH in epidemiology from the UCLA School of Public Health, and her MD from the School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania. She has served on several advisory panels for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and was a Fulbright Senior Scholar in Brazil. She lives in Santa Monica, California.

Publisher’s website: www.nationbooks.org

BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Third Coast’: Detail-Rich Account of How Much of the Post WWII American Dream — and Nightmare — Was Created in Chicago

  • Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
The American way of life  in the postwar world was a product of Chicago. From the steel in its new Miesian skyscrapers to its stacks of golden crispy McDonald’s French Fries. The city was navigating the transformation of the cultural ideal of the common man into a national mass market strategy. — Thomas Dyja, “The Third Coast”, Page 336
 BOOK REVIEW: 'The Third Coast': Detail-Rich Account of How Much of the Post WWII American Dream -- and Nightmare -- Was Created in Chicago

That statement by Thomas Dyja in his enthralling  book “The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream” (The Penguin Press, 544 pages, maps, glossy photo inserts, notes, index, $29.95) sounds a little overdrawn, but native Chicagoan Dyja provides more than enough information to make his point — in an exceedingly entertaining book.

I was attracted to the book — as I am to all books about Chicago — in part because it was where I moved in the summer of 1961 after graduating with a B.A. in English from Northern Illinois University, in DeKalb,  about 50 miles west of the Loop,  and began my first real job. It wasn’t in journalism — that came in January 1966 when I joined the staff of a daily  newspaper in nearby Hammond, IN — but I was the small town boy in the mecca of the Midwest and it was marvelous — paradise, even.

My one-bedroom apartment on Grant Place in Lincoln Park cost me  all of $75 a month — very affordable on my $5,200 a year salary — and it was a short walk to  a place I fell in love with on first sight, Old Town at Wells Street and North Avenue, home of the Old Town School of Folk Music, Second City and many other attractions. The first two institutions are covered in the cultural section of “The Third Coast.”

Dyja describes — to pick just one example —  how rock  ‘n’ roll was born in the Chess Record studios with Chuck Berry recording “Maybellene.” According to Dyja’s account (page  293) Leonard Chess changed the name of Berry’s song from “Ida Red” to “Maybellene” , pointing to a bottle of  Maybelline mascara that a secretary had left on the studio’s piano.

“It has to have three syllables”, Leonard yelled (he liked to yell, usually laced with a rich variety of profanities) , and with this pronouncement, rock ‘n’ roll was born in 1955. (The song title’s spelling was changed to avoid a copyright infringement suit from the cosmetics maker).

The book abounds with details like this — something that appeals to my  inner trivia geek .

Dyja notes that Leonard and Phil Chess were white men who made their money from black artists; but he adds that they — contrary to some other accounts –treated Berry, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and other blacks the same way they treated white artists. The brothers Chess were in it for the money, but so were the artists, including Berry, who earned  a living as a carpenter in his father’s contracting business (Page 290-291) and vowed never to pick up a hammer after he traveled  to Chicago from St. Louis.

If you’re a fan of “Saturday Night Live” or “The Colbert Report” you’ll learn — if you don’t already know it — the connection with those two shows with Chicago’s groundbreaking Second City improv theater, which grew out of earlier efforts like the Compass Theatre. Dyja describes the birth of Chicago improv — which led to other theatrical efforts that made the city such an important theater center — in considerable detail. Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Alan Arkin, Shelley Berman, Barbara Harris and the parents of Ben Stiller — Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara — all got their start in Chicago.

Television innovations that we take for granted  were born in the city by the lake: The first host of NBC’s “Today” show was Dave Garroway, a fixture in the Chicago School of Television on NBC-owned WNBQ before he moved to the Big Apple, broadcasting from the Merchandise Mart, along with Burr Tillstrom and Fran Allison of “Kukla Fran and Ollie” and Louis “Studs” Terkel’s “Stud’s Place.” The latter show was an inspiration for the TV sitcom “Cheers”  — just as Dyja says the station’s “Vic and Sade” was a “kind of great uncle” to Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion.”

I pride myself on my knowledge of Chicago (hometown of both my mother and father) but I was surprised at some of the details that Tom Dyja unearthed and placed on display in this book, which is enhanced because of its listing of sources and a wonderful bibliography. By the way, here’s a link to my 2012 review of a book about Chicago in 1919, “City of Scoundrels”:  www.huntingtonnews.net/41759

New York City-based NBC used Chicago — at the end of the coaxial cable — as a source of low cost programming, Dyja explains, noting that before jet air travel supplanted trains nearly every coast-to-coast trip included a Chicago stop. This flow of people made  made it America’s central clearinghouse, laboratory, and factory.

At the same time that the atom was being split at the University of Chicago — which gets a great deal of coverage in “The Third Coast” — the city provided a new home for the Bauhaus of Dessau, Germany, which was detested by the new Nazi regime. Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Lazlo Moholy-Nagy and others found a welcoming home in the city that created the steel-framed skyscraper and was the home of Louis Sullivan, Dankmar Adler, Frank Lloyd Wright, Daniel Burnham, John Root and many more.

Moholy-Nagy, a multi-talented Hungarian artist,  found a patron in Container Corporation of America owner Walter Paepcke, who later bought the old mining town of Aspen, Colorado and started the Aspen Institute. Moholy’s Institute of Design thrived and was later folded into the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), whose South Side campus featured buildings designed by Mies.

This expansion of IIT affected the city’s African-American community, at that time concentrated in Bronzeville, where the disastrous experiment of high-rise public housing like the Robert Taylor Homes led to many of the problems affecting present-day Chicago.

Racial divisions were particularly highlighted with riots when blacks moved into formerly white, predominantly ethnic neighborhoods, Dyja points out. The maps at the front of the book are particularly useful to those unfamiliar with Chicago’s geography — and helped this former Northsider comprehend what was going on in White Sox territory.

The election of Richard J. Daley as mayor in 1955 — he was supported by legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson — let to more construction that changed the skyline of the Loop. It was also the time of white migration to the suburbs and violent protests by whites against  African-Americans arriving in their formerly all-white enclaves.

Dyja covers the city’s rich literary scene extremely well, with his accounts of novelist Nelson Algren (“The Man With the Golden Arm,” “Walk on the Wild Site”) and his French mistress Simone de Beauvoir; Gwendolyn Brooks and many others. His account of how Hugh Hefner changed the face of magazine publishing is one of the best I’ve seen.

Thomas Dyja

Thomas Dyja
Photo by Art Shay

“The Third Coast” is mandatory reading for anyone who wants to understand Chicago — and, by extension  the creation of post WWII urban America. On top of that, it’s supremely readable. An unbeatable combination.

About the Author

Thomas Dyja is the author of three novels and two works of nonfiction. A native of Chicago’s Northwest Side, he was once called “a real Chicago boy” by Studs Terkel. He now lives in New York City. His website: www.thomasdyja.com

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Three War Stories’: David Mamet Uses War to Parse Human Behavior

  • Reviewed by David M. Kinchen 
BOOK REVIEW: 'Three War Stories': David Mamet Uses War to Parse Human Behavior

David Mamet’s “Three War Stories” (Argo Navis Author Services,  also available in eBook format, Kindle, $6.99,  240 pages, trade paperback, $17.00) explores human behavior in three novellas, “The Redwing,” “Notes on Plains Warfare” and “The Handle and the Hold.”

It’s a good thing Mamet fans — and I’m one, big time, especially of his plays and films — never know what to expect from the Chicago native, because “Three War Stories” delivers the unexpected. Mamet, like Stephen Crane (“The Red Badge of Courage”) before him writes convincingly about combat although he never experienced it — unless the bare knuckle variety of the world of Hollywood and Broadway counts!

In “The Redwing” — the title refers to a ship the narrator served on, as far as I can determine, a ship of the British Navy — the unnamed narrator,  a 19th Century Secret Service naval officer turned prisoner, then novelist and finally memoirist recounts his own transformations during the course of his service and imprisonment. It’s written in the style of the classic navy novels of the period — think C.S. Forester of the “Horatio Hornblower” novels or Patrick O’Brian or Herman Melville. I’m leaning heavily toward Melville, because the novella draws on elements on display in Melville’s “Billy Budd” and “Typee”. If you’re accustomed to the author’s rapid-fire “Mamet Speak,”  “The Redwing” may be a chore to read, but it’s worth it.

Also employing a narrator near the end of his life writing about his wartime experiences, “Notes on Plains Warfare” has a Union officer who served in the Civil War, now fighting in the post-Civil War Indian wars, comparing and contrasting the behavior of the Indian warriors he clearly admires with that of their antagonists. Like “The Redwing,” “Notes on Plains Warfare” explores religion, psychology and philosophy in the form of a memoir.”The Handle and the Hold” takes place in 1948, on the eve of Israel’s declaration of independence, with two American Jewish World War II veterans, Nicky Greenstein and Sam Black, working to steal a war surplus bomber aircraft and fly it loaded with arms to British mandate  Palestine. Not being the gambling expert Mamet is (beautifully on display in his 1987 movie “House of Games” — his directorial debut — starring Joe Mantegna and Mamet’s former wife Lindsay Crouse) I had to look up the definition of the terms used for the title. The “handle” is the total amount of all coins played through a slot machine. The “hold” (also called “win”) is the amount the casino held as profit.

The shortest of the three novellas, “The Handle and the Hold” crackles with “Mamet Speak” as Nicky and Sam work to evade government officials who oppose their arms smuggling plan.
“Three War Stories” is Mamet’s first self-published book. For more about self-publishing services like Argo Navis: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/17/business/media/david-mamet-and-other-big-authors-choose-to-self-publish.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.

For a critical look at Mamet by a Los Angeles Times staffer: http://articles.latimes.com/2013/mar/29/entertainment/la-et-cm-david-mamet-notebook-20130331

David Mamet

David Mamet

About the Author

David Mamet, born in Chicago in 1947,  is a stage and film director as well as the author of numerous acclaimed plays, books, and screenplays. His play “Glengarry Glen Ross” won a Pulitzer Prize, and his screenplays for “The Verdict” and “Wag the Dog” were nominated for Academy Awards. Earlier this year HBO aired his movie about Phil Spector, starring Al Pacino and Helen Mirren. It was written and directed by Mamet (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phil_Spector_(film).  He lives in Santa Monica, California. And yes, younger readers might recognize his name from the HBO series “Girls” which features Zosia Mamet, his actress daughter with Lindsay Crouse.

SPARK’: Lincoln Electric Distributes Christmas Bonuses

  • By David M. Kinchen 

David M. Kinchen Note: In 2011 I reviewed Frank Koller’s book “Spark”, which explored Lincoln Electric of Cleveland, OH — and other companies with no-layoff policies.

Below this note, I’m reprinting my review of “Spark.” Today, Friday, Dec. 13, 2013, I received the following email from Koller:

“You know of my long-standing interest in Lincoln Electric’s decades-long no-layoff track record in the North American economy. The annual profit-sharing bonus ceremony was held today in the firm’s Cleveland cafeteria. Here are the details:

80  =     uninterrupted years of paying an employee bonus  (i.e. profitable every year since 1934.)

$33,029  =    average 2013 bonus per U.S.  employee (roughly 3,000) 

$81,366 =     average 2013 total earnings per U.S. employee    (= wages-or-salary + bonus)

$100.7 
million  =     total pre-tax profit shared with employees … largest bonus pool ever     

0 =   number of layoffs in 2013       (65 years 
without any layoffs)

  AND ….           Lincoln remains #1 in the global marketplace (LECO: Nasdaq, currently at an all-time high)

” These figures once again provide convincing and reassuring evidence that it is possible to run a very profitable, very large, technologically superior multinational business based in North America while honoring your obligations to employees, customers, investors and society at large. This need not be a zero-sum game, a delusion embraced by far too many, especially in the past few years.

“Lincoln Electric has roughly 3,000  employees  in the US, 264 in Canada and 7,500 more around the world.

“The firm remains in 2013, as it has since the 1930s, the dominant player in the global electric welding industry and yet, it refuses to lay off its employees in tough times.       The Guaranteed  Continuous Employment Policy  remains unbroken since at least 1948.       That’s 65 years!   (The no-layoff track record may in fact go as far back as 1925.)     No one has been laid off for lack of work through the Great Depression, wars and now the Great Recession.
 

Happy Holidays  and all the best for 2014.Frank Koller
FRANK KOLLER     see   www.frankkoller.com for information about SPARK the book, the Author and upcoming appearances
* Wall Street Journal: “Striking … against the backdrop of the layoff mania that has claimed more than eight million American jobs since late 2007.”

* Harvard Business Review: “A fascinating depiction of a rare human resource practice in a company with a long and hearty track record—food for thought for the rest of us.”
* Princeton University: “2010 List of Best Books on Labor Economics and Industrial Management.”
* Globe and Mail (Canada): “Engrossing … inspiring … useful public policy.”
* MIT/Sloan’s Tom Kochan: “Timely, well-researched and well-written.”
* Richard Freeman, Harvard: “A remarkable story of the better side of American capitalism.”
* MotleyFool.com: “Excellent Book … a remarkable true story.”
BOOK REVIEW: ‘Spark’ Explores Lincoln Electric Co., Other American Companies with No-Layoff Policies

  • 'SPARK': Lincoln Electric Distributes Christmas Bonuses
  • Sunday, August 14, 2011 – 17:47

REVIEWED BY DAVID M. KINCHEN 

The trouble with normal is it always gets worse — Bruce Cockburn, Canadian folk/rock guitarist and singer-songwriter, from his 1981 song “The Trouble with Normal”
Canadian author Frank Koller quotes his countryman  in “Spark” (PublicAffairs paperback, 272 pages, $15.95) in his extended examination of Cleveland, OH-based Lincoln Electric Co. and other companies with no-layoff policies.

“Normal” in American corporate practice is to lay off workers when times get tough, as they have been for the last three or more years. My own profession, journalism, has seen unprecedented layoffs at such major newspapers as The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times  (where I worked from 1976 to 1990), the Chicago Tribune,  and many other newspapers.

Since 1948, Lincoln Electric Co., the world leader and innovator in arc welding equipment and supplies, has adhered to a policy of not laying off permanent workers (those with three or more years of service)  during slow periods and recessions. Instead, as Koller describes in this page-turning economic thriller — it thrilled me to see humane policies from a publicly traded corporation — the company reduces its bonuses, cuts hours and even cuts the salaries of top management. In the current “great recession,” Lincoln Electric has resorted to buyouts for highly compensated employees — many of them at or near retirement age.
Workers at Lincoln Electric even spruce up the grimy Cleveland area plants during slow periods. Everybody enters the plant from the same door and there are no special parking spots for the management. Everybody eats in a spartan cafeteria that reminded one former employee of those in “correctional facilities.” The company doesn’t even pay for medical coverage for its employees, although it requires them to have health insurance. With typical annual shop floor salaries north of $90,000, Lincoln Electric reasons that employees can afford the premiums. Just before Christmas, Lincoln Electric distributes annual bonuses that can exceed the yearly wages of most employees.

The book’s long subtitle — “How Old-Fashioned Values Drive a Twenty-First Century Corporation: Lessons from Lincoln Electric’s Unique Guaranteed Employment Program” — distinguishes the company, founded in 1895 by John C. Lincoln with an investment of $200 to make electric motors and later run for many decades by his brother James F. Lincoln — who instituted its guaranteed employment plan — from its “normal” former neighbors. Companies near Lincoln Electric in Euclid — TRW, Addressograph-Multigraph, Chase Brass, GM’s Fisher Body — are out of business or relocated to other countries, but Lincoln Electric soldiers on in Euclid with its not-so-“normal” employment policy.

Koller interviewed more than 60 Lincoln Electric employees, including management, to find out how a guaranteed employment program works. His legwork included interviewing multigenerational families who’ve worked at Lincoln Electric, including a husband-wife team. He also looks at the company’s business model, the subject of  best-selling case studies by Harvard Business School and many other business schools around the world. (For a summary of the 1975 case study by HBS professor Norman Berg and his co-author Norman Fast, click: http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/4949.html). The 1975 study has sold in excess of 275,000 copies, making it a best-seller in anybody’s language!

It should be emphasized is that Lincoln Electric is not just a small company in Rust-Belt Cleveland. It’s a global concern, with 39 manufacturing locations in 20 countries, including Koller’s Canada. Among the  operations, manufacturing alliances and joint ventures in those countries are plants in such low-cost producers as China and India. Lincoln Electric is truly a company upon which the sun never sets, with distributors and sales offices covering more than 160 countries.

Chances are pretty good that if you look at an auto body shop, a repair garage, a farmer’s workshop or a do-it-yourselfer’s shop, you’ll find a Lincoln Electric arc welder in the workplace. The company’s most popular portable welder was even featured in John Hughes’s  hit movie “Home Alone!”

While factories across the Midwest shutter their doors, Lincoln Electric has thrived for more than a century. In addition to being profitable and technologically innovative, through good times and bad, the company has fulfilled its unique promise of “guaranteed continuous employment.” Workers are viewed as assets—not liabilities. Through flexible hours and job assignments, as well as a merit-based bonus system, Lincoln Electric’s employment policies have proven healthy for the company’s bottom line its employees and its shareholders.

In “Spark” Koller examines how this unusual and profitable Fortune 1000 multinational company challenges the conventional wisdom shaping modern management’s view of the workplace. Through insightful storytelling and extensive interviews with executives, workers, and leading business thinkers, Koller uses the Lincoln Electric example to illustrate how job security can inspire powerful growth and prosperity in our communities, which in our hollowed-out manufacturing base is especially relevant.

Unfortunately for America’s workers, the Lincoln Model is heavily studied, but not put in practice by many companies. Koller takes us to two companies, Xilink in California, and Hypertherm, in New Hampshire, that have tried guaranteed employment. Following a change in CEO’s, Xilink abandoned the policy, reverting to  the “normal” layoff practice of its Silicon Valley comperes. Hypertherm, which makes equipment that cuts rather than welds metal, continues to practice a no-layoff policy for employees that have been at the company for a stated period, like Lincoln Electric. Koller also mentions Southwest Airlines, founded in 1971 and based in Dallas, TX, that adheres to the policy.

One thing that struck me as hypocritical among the academic critics of guaranteed employment that Koller interviewed was the almost universal opposition to it. Coming from academics who enjoy tenure, this stands out as hypocrisy of the highest order.(for comments by Koller on Harvard Business School and the Lincoln Electric case studies, click: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/frank-koller/did-anyone-at-harvard-bus_b_568373.html).

Frank Koller

Frank Koller

About the Author 
Frank Koller covers the workplace for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Over a 27-year career with CBC, he has worked and lived around the world as a foreign correspondent, including seven years in the United States. He holds a Master’s Degree in Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He lives in Ottawa. His website and blog: www.frankkoller.com.

Reviewer’s note: Here are the complete lyrics for “The Trouble With Normal” by Bruce Cockburn (pronounced Coburn). He’s a prolific writer and for some reason I’d never heard of him! I’ve followed the careers of Canadians Leonard Cohen, Gordon Lightfoot and Ian and Sylvia, Anne Murray, etc.,   but was not aware of Cockburn:


Strikes across the frontier and strikes for higher wage
Planet lurches to the right as ideologies engage
Suddenly it’s repression, moratorium on rights
What did they think the politics of panic would invite?
Person in the street shrugs — “Security comes first”
But the trouble with normal is it always gets worse

Callous men in business costume speak computerese
Play pinball with the Third World trying to keep it on its knees
Their single crop starvation plans put sugar in your tea
And the local Third World’s kept on reservations you don’t see
“It’ll all go back to normal if we put our nation first”
But the trouble with normal is it always gets worse

Fashionable fascism dominates the scene
When ends don’t meet it’s easier to justify the means
Tenants get the dregs and landlords get the cream
As the grinding devolution of the democratic dream
Brings us men in gas masks dancing while the shells burst
The trouble with normal is it always gets worse 

* * *   Publisher’s website: www.publicaffairsbooks.com

BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Eternal Wonder’: Pearl Buck’s Last Novel Manuscript Discovered in Texas Storage Unit

  • Reviewed by David M. Kinchen Acclaimed novelist Pearl S. Buck was the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1938 for her body of work. She had previously won the Pulitzer Prize for her most famous novel, “The Good Earth,” published in 1931 and a bestseller that year and in 1932 and made into a movie in 1937.
BOOK REVIEW: 'The Eternal Wonder': Pearl Buck's Last Novel Manuscript Discovered in Texas Storage Unit

Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker was born on June 26, 1892 in Hillsboro, West Virginia to missionary parents on home leave from China. She spent many years in turbulent China, returning the States for her undergraduate  and master’s degrees. Buck was a prolific writer, but the discovery of her final book, “The Eternal Wonder” (Open Road Media, quality paperback, 304 pages, also available as an eBook, $16.99) sounds like an incident from a novel; the manuscript was discovered in 2012 — almost 40 years after her death in 1973 — in a storage unit in Fort Worth, Texas. Link to the NPR story on the discovery:  http://www.npr.org/2013/05/25/186318860/a-lost-and-found-wonder-pearl-s-bucks-final-novel

Fans of Pearl Buck will immediately detect many of the themes she wrote about in novels and nonfiction books in this coming-of-age tale of a child prodigy, Randolph (Rann) Colfax, born to an Ohio professor and his wife. Rann displays his love of reading and delight in “The Eternal Wonder” of the world as a toddler. He also discovers the wonders of the female of the species at an early age, and experiences a sexual awakening with an older (she’s in her 30s) English widow named Lady Mary. But the love of his life is a Chinese-Caucasian woman named Stephanie Kung whom he met during his stay in Paris.

Stephanie lives with her Chinese father, who sells Asian art and artifacts — but only to people who meet his exacting standards of taste. Lacking an heir to carry on his name, Kung tries to convince two unwilling people — Rann and Stephanie — to marry. I won’t reveal the reason why Stephanie Kung doesn’t want to marry a man she clearly loves — it’s a spoiler.

Rann Colfax’s experiences reminded me of those of the central figures in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (minus the aging- in-reverse McGuffin) and Winston Groom’s “Forrest Gump” — both turned into movies.

Rann experiences literary fame and its fallout after writing a best-selling book about Korea, following his service in the Army. This undoubtedly reflects the instant fame experienced by Buck after the publication of “The Good Earth.” At the time Buck was married to her publisher, Richard Walsh, and the description of what happens to Rann Colfax obviously draws upon what happened to Buck, especially how she deals with the news media.

Buck was well known in humanitarian circles for seeking justice for mixed-race — particularly Asian-Caucasian — children. This is reflected in her wonderful portrayal of Stephanie Kung, whose American mother deserted her when she was six years old.

If you haven’t read any Pearl Buck novels in a long time — or ever — “The Eternal Wonder” will be an excellent introduction to the much honored writer.

Pearl S. Buck

Pearl S. Buck

About the Author

Pearl S. Buck (1892–1973) was a bestselling and Nobel Prize–winning author. Her classic novel The Good Earth (1931) was awarded a Pulitzer Prize and William Dean Howells Medal. Born in Hillsboro, West Virginia, Buck was the daughter of missionaries and spent much of the first half of her life in China, where many of her books are set. In 1934, civil unrest in China forced Buck back to the United States. Throughout her life she worked in support of civil and women’s rights, and established Welcome House, the first international, interracial adoption agency. In addition to her highly acclaimed novels, Buck wrote two memoirs and biographies of both of her parents. For her body of work, Buck received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938, the first American woman to have done so. She died in Vermont.

Publisher’s website: http://www.openroadmedia.com

 

CD REVIEW: Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Releases All-Sibelius Album Featuring Symphony No. 6 in D Minor, Symphony No. 7 in C Major and Tone Poem ‘Tapiola’

  • By David M. Kinchen 
CD REVIEW: Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Releases All-Sibelius Album Featuring Symphony No. 6 in D Minor, Symphony No. 7 in C Major and Tone Poem 'Tapiola'

Fans of the great Finnish composer Jean Sibelius have reason to rejoice this holiday season with the Grammy®Award-winning Atlanta Symphony Orchestra releasing its fourth recording on its record label, ASO Media. Distributed by Naxos of America, this all-Sibelius release features Music Director Robert Spano leading the Orchestra in Symphony No. 6 in D minor, Symphony No. 7 in C Major, and the tone poem Tapiola. The digital release became available for download on iTunes, November 5. The physical compact disc release became available beginning Tuesday, November 19.

The ASO Media label is one of the many legacies of Mr. Spano’s 13-year tenure with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and the production team includes long-time Atlanta Symphony Orchestra collaborators Elaine Martone and Michael Bishop.

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra released the first recording on ASO Media in February 2011. The premiere ASO Media recording featured Music Director Robert Spano leading the Orchestra in Jennifer Higdon’s new concerto, On A Wire, featuring eighth blackbird. Ms. Higdon is an Atlanta School of Composers member and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer. Michael Gandolfi’s new choral work, QED: Engaging Richard Feynman, featuring the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus was also featured. Both works were commissioned by the Atlanta Symphony and given world-premiere performances in June 2010 at Atlanta Symphony Hall.

Two additional ASO Media recordings with Mr. Spano and the Orchestra were released in 2011: the June 2011 release features the Atlanta Symphony’s commission of Atlanta School of Composers member Christopher Theofanidis’s Symphony and Peter Lieberson’s Neruda Songs; the October 2011release — an all-Rachmaninov recording — features Garrick Ohlsson playing Piano Concerto No. 3, and also includesSymphonic Dances.

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and its recordings have won 27 GRAMMY® Awards.

About the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Music Director Robert Spano, currently in his 13th season as music director of the Atlanta Symphony

Orchestra, is recognized internationally as one of the most imaginative conductors today… (more)

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO), currently in its 69th season, is one of America’s leading orchestras. It performs great music, presents leading artists, educates and engages music lovers. The ASO serves as the cornerstone for artistic development and music education in the southeast. It performs more than 200 concerts each year for a combined audience of more than a half million in a full schedule of performances. It also reaches more than 67,000 students and underserved members of the community through its education and community outreach programs… (more)

About Naxos of America

Headquartered in Franklin, Tennessee, a suburb of Nashville, Naxos of America is the #1 independent classical music distributor in the U.S. and Canada. Specializing in state-of-the-art distribution, marketing and promotion, Naxos of America distributes nearly 35,000 titles on CD and DVD to traditional brick and mortar retail, as well as offering a comprehensive suite of services tailored to consumer direct fulfillment. Naxos of America is also the largest digital distributor of independent classical music, supplying a catalog of over 30,000 albums to hundreds of digital download and mobile outlets worldwide. Naxos of America offers marketing, e-marketing, publicity, e-publicity, physical and digital e-commerce services, licensing opportunities, streaming services, sales and customer service for all new releases and active catalog titles of Naxos Records and more than 150 distributed labels.

ASO Media: 

Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 6 in D minor (1923), Symphony No. 7 in C Major (1924), and Tapiola (1926)

Robert Spano,  Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

CD: ASO1004 US SRP $18.99

For more on Jean Sibelius, 1865-1957: www.classical.net/music/comp.lst/sibelius.php

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Ten Lords A-Leaping’: Intrigue and Murder at a Stately English Country Home Charity Event

 

  • Reviewed by David M. Kinchen 

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me. 12 Drummers Drumming 11 Pipers Piping 10 Lords-a-Leaping Ladies Dancing Maids-a-Milking Swans-a-Swimming Geese-a-Laying Gold Rings Colly Birds French Hens  Turtle Doves And a Partridge in a Pear Tree. — Traditional English Christmas song

The lords in C.C. Benison’s “Ten Lords A-Leaping” (Delacorte Press, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, 512 pages, $25.00) literally leap from a skydiving aircraft at the stately home of Eggescomb Park in England’s Devonshire, the famous West Country county known for Dartmoor and Bodmin Heath — and also the home county of Benison’s Father Tom Christmas, vicar of St. Nicholas Church in nearby Thornford Regis.

 

BOOK REVIEW: 'Ten Lords A-Leaping': Intrigue and Murder at a Stately English Country Home Charity Event

 

This is a Christmas novel, but not the kind most readers think of, since the action in “Ten Lords A-Leaping” takes place in August. The lords are just that, members of the aristocracy, ten skydiving earls, marquesses, viscounts,  etc. who perform for charity — in this case to benefit the building fund of Father Tom’s church. 

My first exposure to Benison’s series was   “Twelve Drummers Drumming”   which I reviewed in October 2011… link: http://www.huntingtonnews.net/12132. I missed “Eleven Pipers Piping” which was published in 2012. With this series, Benison has breathed new life into the classic murder and intrigue at an English country house genre.

Father Tom’s 40th birthday is a few days away and he decides to skydive with the ten lords. A magician before he received the call, Tom Christmas is open to new things, including jumping out of a perfectly good airplane flying out of the Plymouth airport. He lands more or less safely, spraining  his right ankle, but the tension between two of the leaping lords is obvious to other divers and spectators on terra firma.

 

Location of Devon (in red) on Map of England

Location of Devon (in red) on Map of England

 

The tension between the two lords involved in the mid-air punch-up —  Oliver, the 7th Marquess of Morborne, and his brother-in-law Hector, the 10th Earl of Fairhaven — is just the latest manifestation of what  really began a generation ago, when a marquess divorced his first spouse to marry his brother’s wife, fathering in his two marriages a viper’s nest of arrogant young aristocrats. 

  Both Oliver, a flamboyant musical entrepreneur and the owner of London’s trendiest club, and Hector land safely, but death lurks on the grounds of the estate, which, like many in England, is a tourist attraction. (In 1979 I visited one such house, Longleat House in Wiltshire, near Bath, which has a labyrinth or hedge maze like that of the fictional Egglescomb Park).   Father Tom  — he’d rather people not call him “Father Christmas” — discovers  Lord Morborne’s lifeless body near the labyrinth. Rumors of bigamy, art forgeries, and upstairs/downstairs intrigue fly. So do whispers of unvicarly behavior between Tom and Oliver’s beautiful half-sister, Lady Lucinda. On hand to investigate are plainclothes C.I.D. officers Bliss and Blessing, from Totnes, who also appeared in the two previous novels. 
  
Particularly delightful, to me at least, was the friendship between Tom’s 10-year-old daughter, Miranda, and Maximilian Strickland, the son of Hector and Georgina, the countess of Fairhaven. Max channels his inner Sherlock Holmes, who investigated the mysterious deaths on Dartmoor in “The Hound of the Baskervilles”, and Miranda has her own French haunted house books to entertain her. 

The relationships in this novel are such that a cast of characters is needed — and one is provided by the author, along with an Allan-fforde-Beckett family tree. 

Benison, the pen name of Canadian writer Doug Whiteway, ties up loose ends from the previous Father Tom Christmas novels, and provides background information about the still unsolved murder of Tom’s wife when they lived in Bristol. We’re also treated to a one-woman Greek chorus in the form of letters to her mum from Madrun Prowse, Tom’s housekeeper. 

Readers of “Ten Lords A-Leaping” and the two previous novels  can look forward with delight to more novels that carry on the theme of the traditional song. 

Doug Whiteway, AKA C.C. Benison

Doug Whiteway, AKA C.C. Benison

About the Author
C.C. Benison is the pen name of Doug Whiteway, a native of Winnipeg, Canada, and was educated at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, and at Carleton University, in Ottawa. He has worked as a writer and editor for newspapers and magazines, as a book editor, and as a contributor to nonfiction books. He started writing mystery fiction in the 1990s with “Death At Buckingham Palace”, which was published by Bantam Books in 1996. Since then, with gaps in between to work on other projects, he has published three Tom Christmas novels.

Publisher’s website: www.bantamdell.com.