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Jeffery Steele (Taipei, Taiwan)

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Warren G. Harding: The American Presidents Series: The 29th President, 1921-1923
Warren G. Harding: The American Presidents Series: The 29th President, 1921-1923
by John W. Dean
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 18.18
33 used & new from CDN$ 11.19

5.0 out of 5 stars Saves Harding from the Ash Heap of American Presidents, Feb. 8 2004
John Dean has achieved the considerable feat of rescuing the reputation of a man who is generally considered one of the worst presidents in U.S. history. He does this by drawing the reader's attention to what made Harding one of the most popular American presidents during his lifetime: a speedy and significant economic recovery, a major international arms reduction agreement, and, perhaps most importantly, a reduction in divisiveness from his predecessor's final two years in office.
Not long after Warren Harding's death in August, 1923, public and critical opinion toward his presidency began a precipitous decline. Several scandals - some of which had already emerged during his presidency and some of which would only come out after his death - began to symbolize his regime. Harding's presidential papers, which could have helped remove some of the black marks towards his administration, were withheld from public view, allowing fictionalized and grossly unhistorical accounts of his presidency to stand as the only available record.
Harding's fundamental decency, his good political instincts, and his high regard for public service were lost in the one-sided reckoning of his presidency. Even in the selection of his cabinet and other personnel, Harding was far better than is now widely assumed. While several scandals arose among his cabinet and staff (none of which implicated the president himself), Harding made several outstanding and notable selections to his cabinet and to the Supreme Court: Andrew Mellon as Treasury Secretary, Herbert Hoover as head of the Department of Commerce, William Howard Taft as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court are some examples.
Harding was not a five-star president, and this biography does not make the case he was. This is a five-star book about the man and his presidency that makes the case they deserve far better recognition than they have received. John Dean shows there was far more to Harding and his presidency than smoke-filled poker rooms, womanizing, and political scandals and corruption that have come to symbolize his administration.

Masters of Enterprise: Giants of American Business from John Jacob Astor and J.P. Morgan to Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey
Masters of Enterprise: Giants of American Business from John Jacob Astor and J.P. Morgan to Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey
24 used & new from CDN$ 0.04

3.0 out of 5 stars Sketches of Great American Entrepreneurs, Jan. 13 2004
These brief portraits of great American businessmen and women are well written. Brands does a creditable job laying out the basics of each of their lives and presenting it in a highly readable fashion. His purpose is to show the historical development of how Americans have made money in a country where the making of wealth has became almost a divine calling.
Brands' selection of business giants could have been better. He seems to have picked his membership more for their diversity as people than for their masterful entrepreneurial skills. Why include Berry Gordy, but not Warren Buffett? Brands' choices obviously skew his presentation of U.S. business history, making it seem more diverse than it really has been.

James K. Polk: The American Presidents Series: The 11th President, 1845-1849
James K. Polk: The American Presidents Series: The 11th President, 1845-1849
by John Seigenthaler
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 18.18
33 used & new from CDN$ 14.75

4.0 out of 5 stars The Most Accomplished President You Never Heard of, Jan. 13 2004
James K. Polk promised to do four things as president: Lower tariffs; reinstitute an independent treasury; acquire Oregon from the British; acquire California from Mexico. He did all four. He also promised -- and again delivered on that promise - to serve only one term as president. Shortly after retiring from the presidency, Polk died. The knowledge of his deeds seems to have barely outlived him.
Why has Polk's record been so little studied when compared to the recognition given other accomplished presidents? John Seigenthaler believes that it is in part due to the man's character. He was cold and distant from everyone but his wife; he had no hero-worshippers or sycophants who could burnish his reputation after his death; he left no distinct image of himself that captured the public's imagination. He simply did what he said he was going to do and then he left the stage.
Polk's rise to the presidency was fortuitous. A sickly boy, who at seventeen had life-threatening surgery that probably left him sterile, Polk was a good university student who went into the law and then into politics. From the beginning of his political career, he was a Democrat with strong ties to Andrew Jackson, ties which would serve him well when his political career later took a turn for the worse.
Seigenthaler, a native Tennessean, is at his best when describing the relationship between the two Tennesseans, Polk and Jackson. At first, Polk was no one's choice for the Presidency in 1948. He had failed in his last two elections. But through his connection to Jackson, careful maneuvering, and the careless errors of the frontrunners, Polk emerged as the winner. Surprisingly, once elected, he acted as if he was his own man, taking little consideration of the views of men (including Jackson) who helped elect him.
I knew of Polk's reputation and some of his accomplishments before this book, but I had never read a biography of the man. This is a good introduction - it's well-written and long enough to hit on all the highlights of Polk's life without committing yourself to a full biography.

Beast In The Garden
Beast In The Garden
by David Baron
Edition: Hardcover
45 used & new from CDN$ 0.43

5.0 out of 5 stars The Remaking of Nature, Jan. 12 2004
This review is from: Beast In The Garden (Hardcover)
David Baron has written a superb book on what is likely to be a growing problem in the United States for some time to come. While the main story is about an increasing number of close encounters with mountain lions that culminates in a fatal attack on a teenager in the greater Boulder, Colorado area, the implications behind how it all began are far more wide-ranging. Ultimately, this book is about how Americans are reordering their relationship with nature and don't even realize it.
Baron tells the story well. Even though you know where the book is headed, you are still gripped by the narrative; you still hope the fatal ending Baron has already told you about in the beginning of the book might still be averted. The author also weaves several historical and biological asides into the story that smartly explain it. The significance of mountain lion attacks on dogs, for example, is made far more ominous because Baron has told the reader of the mountain lion's previous relationship with wolves.
The author has his prejudices, but it's hard not to agree with him after reading the book. He strongly believes that nature's relationship with man must be managed. He convinces the reader that whatever we call the environmental policies that helped animals like the mountain lion return to Boulder (and elsewhere in the U.S.) in the 1980s, it is not a return to an original state of nature as it existed before white settlers so much as it is a whole new world. And that new world has its own rules that are different from those in the past. Not understanding that will force us to learn some painful lessons.

The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush
The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush
by David Frum
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 31.96
49 used & new from CDN$ 0.21

4.0 out of 5 stars An Insider's Oblique Look at Bush, Jan. 12 2004
David Frum's book on George Bush should be considered an insider's account and it is advertised as such on the front cover. Frum served in the Bush White House as a speech writer for over a year, including the few critical months after 9-11. But part of the appeal of this book is the author's emotional distance from Bush and his willingness to criticize the president over certain issues.
Contrary to one reviewer's comment, there is no hero-worshipping in this book. Frum finds Bush has many faults: he is uncurious and therefore ill-informed, dogmatic and impatient. His presidency was headed nowhere prior to 9-11. There were several passages in this book I could imagine Bush would have been none too pleased to read, if he had the curiosity and time to read the book at all.
But Frum is not a former insider trying to get back at the Bush for some wrong he perceives the president did to him. Most readers will think better of Bush after reading this book. While Frum does not consider Bush a great president, the author believes Bush's moral character fits well with waging the war on terror. He is not a great man, but he is the right man.

The Four Pillars of Investing: Lessons for Building a Winning  Portfolio
The Four Pillars of Investing: Lessons for Building a Winning Portfolio
by William Bernstein
Edition: Hardcover
21 used & new from CDN$ 1.40

5.0 out of 5 stars The Best Investing Book I've Read, Jan. 3 2004
I began seriously investing in stocks and bonds about three years ago. Since that time, I've read perhaps a dozen books on investing. This is my favorite. It has all the elements a beginning investor needs: clear explanations of basic investing concepts; lucid and entertaining prose; a brief history of the market to illustrate for the reader both the manias and extreme pessimism that have sometimes gripped it; and, most importantly, numerous cautionary tales about the industry that helps beginners make their investment choices.
Bernstein identifies four pillars for building a portfolio: theory, history, psychology and the business. The pillar of theory is about the conceptual framework of investing. This potentially could have been a very difficult section, but Bernstein makes it very readable even though he introduces a couple of ideas he claims most brokers are not familiar with. The second pillar of history is about how markets in the West have behaved in the past. Bernstein argues this history is important to remember so that investors develop reasonable expectations for what their investment will do and recognize both the warning signs of an overheated market or the symptoms of a depressed one.
The third pillar of psychology helps the reader to combat the usual mistakes beginning investors make: excessive trading, following hot stocks and funds, high fees, overconfidence, etc. Bernstein says the investor must learn to emotionally detach him- or herself from the investing crowd while still keeping a healthy respect for all he doesn't know. The fourth pillar of business emphasizes that those who provide investment services for you are often your worst enemy to getting a decent return on your money
This is a great book, but not a perfect one. I wish Bernstein had explained some things more fully - especially in the first section of the book on theory. But what he does explain, he explains well enough to catapult the reader to the next level of understanding, should he or she choose to go there. Some critics of the book might argue that Bernstein says nothing new. This is true. But the effectiveness of the book is in the way it is presented and how it is written. I recently read John Bogle's book "Common Sense on Mutual Funds". It is a superb book, and has many (but not all) of the same points as "The Four Pillars of Investing". But it fails to engage the reader as well as this book does.

Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land
Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land
by Patrick French
Edition: Hardcover
18 used & new from CDN$ 2.74

4.0 out of 5 stars Finding a Lost Land, Dec 31 2003
Near the beginning of this book, while describing the inordinate amount of media and celebrity attention Tibet has received in recent years, Patrick French writes a funny line that I think captures the essence of why he wrote this part history/part travelogue/part memoir: "[The attention] made me recall the days when you had to say 'Lhasa, the capital of Tibet,' in the same way you might say, 'Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso.'"
Tibet was once a place of remoteness to Westerners; today, it seems all too familiar to them, at least superficially. Its spiritual leader, its religion, and even some of its fashions are now widely recognized by many Europeans and Americans. Celebrities seem to fall hard for its causes. As a long-time advocate for Tibet, French, in some ways, assisted in this process and his book is something of a reassessment in how he looks at the place that is at once so familiar to many, yet remains widely misunderstood.
"Tibet, Tibet" is ostensibly about French's return to the Himalayan land to rediscover the place and people that have fascinated him since his teenage years. But along with personal observations made while traveling, he mixes in a good deal of Tibetan history, interviews with both prominent and unknown Tibetans, and, of course, large sections on the country that has dominated Tibet for most of the modern era: China. French writes in a discursive style, occasionally returning to subjects he has already covered to further elaborate on them.
The author is a man approaching middle-age who is revising his youthful views on Tibet and making the inevitable mental compromises that the young do not make. But this is not an angry repudiation or even mournful elegy of his former views; this is a mature work. While his love for Tibet and its people are still obvious, French now seems to realize that many of the causes he once advocated are so far removed from the reality that Tibetans must deal with everyday that those causes have become unhelpful to them.
This is not to say that French seeks to downplay what has happened to the Tibetans. His descriptions of what the Chinese (as well as the British and Americans) have done to Tibet are about as subtle as a punch to the stomach. But he now knows that the destinies of Tibet and China are tied together, and that it no longer makes sense to speak of a "Free Tibet" without speaking of a "Free China".

Made In Texas: Geogre W. Bush And The Southern Takeover Of American Politics
Made In Texas: Geogre W. Bush And The Southern Takeover Of American Politics
by Michael Lind
Edition: Hardcover
36 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

2.0 out of 5 stars New Deal Chic, Dec 26 2003
"Made in Texas" seeks to explain George W Bush by describing the social, economic and cultural milieu of the region in Texas where the president grew up. It's an unorthodox approach since many people assume - especially the president's critics - that Bush's Texas roots are a put-on. It's well-known, for example, that his father, George H.W. Bush, had a flexible idea of where he called home; the Bush family is from New England stock; and even the president himself was born in Connecticut. But to Lind, George W Bush is very much a son of Texas and it is this premise that "Made in Texas" works from.
The book starts off well. Lind is at home describing Texas and its history. (It's possible, however, that I only found this part of the book the most interesting because I know the least about it.) He argues that Texas has two political camps: a modernizing side typified by men like LBJ, Sam Rayburn, and Ross Perot and a conservative side typified by men like Pappy "Pass the Biscuits" O'Daniel, Coke Stevenson, and George W Bush. The modernizers have their roots in the American Midwest and in the Scandinavian and German ethnicity of some Texans. The conservatives' roots are in the Deep South and the Scots-Irish ethnicity of many Texans' descendents.
Lind says that until FDR and the New Deal, the conservative side dominated Texas politics. Only with the large government spending projects of the 30s was their stranglehold on Texas loosened. Since the 1970s, however, the Texas conservatives have been winning back the ground they lost during the previous four decades. Many people think of LBJ as a southerner, but Lind argues that Bush is far more representative of the southern roots of Texas than LBJ was. Up to this point, I found the book interesting. While Lind generalizes a good deal about Texas and ethnicity, generalizations - if accurate - are useful and indeed necessary to understanding any culture and society.
But when Lind turns to other subjects, his book begins to disintegrate. He obviously has little knowledge of economics - there are so many elementary mistakes in the book that it would take an entire review just to point them all out. At one point Lind even suggests higher wages *cause* higher productivity. He also writes "One need not be a Jeffersonian agrarian to recognize that the big city and middle-class society are usually incompatible." In this light, he advocates big government projects - similar in spirit to the work projects of the New Deal --to seed the South and Midwest regions and attract people back from the coastal cities to the interior.
This is pure silliness - a complicated and wrong-headed approach to a large but fairly straightforward problem (growing income disparities between groups of Americans because of fewer good job opportunities for blue-collar workers). First, large cities are not incompatible with a large and secure middle class. One could argue the exact opposite in fact. Second, Lind wrongly identifies globalization as the cause of the problem when most economists agree that it is but a small part of the problem. Third, he fails to think through the economic implications of his grand policy proposal and instead spends most of his time dealing with environmental objections to it.
After dealing with economics, Lind turns to religion. Where he was simply wrong in his economic prescriptions, he is positively hostile in describing the religious impulses of a good portion of his fellow Americans. George Bush's thoughts on religion are dealt with in a perfunctory and risible way. Lind plainly thinks that if you take your religion seriously, you are a bit nuts. He drags up every already well-covered anecdote to show that your average religious southerner is about as civilized as a Neanderthal. (As hostile as Lind is to the religious Christians, it should be mentioned that he is nearly off the charts in his attitudes towards Jews. Given Lind's fascination with ethnicity and social determination, one could probably make a good go as to why this is so by using Lind's own methods.)
Michael Lind is in many ways a fascinating writer. I consider his book "Vietnam" one of the finest and most unusual interpretations of that war I've ever read. Lind tries to avoid the standard answers to the standard questions we often hear in U.S. political discourse. He also manages the rare trick of being a powerfully direct writer who is still able to make a sophisticated argument. But he overreaches his talents here and this book is clearly an emotional one rather than a well-thought out argument.

Roaring Nineties
Roaring Nineties
by Joseph E Stiglitz
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 24.57
29 used & new from CDN$ 1.00

2.0 out of 5 stars A Political Tract that Seeks to Revitalize Liberalism, Dec 22 2003
This review is from: Roaring Nineties (Hardcover)
If you buy this book because you're looking to read something along the lines of Paul Krugman's early popular work, you will be disappointed. There is little economic analysis here, even of the popular variety that Krugman once excelled at. Instead, "The Roaring Nineties" is little more than a political tract that seeks to convince its readers, by morally haranguing them, that European-style market capitalism should be the model for the U.S. economy.
Stiglitz does this by revisiting the economic history of the 1990s - some of which he helped to make as a member of the Council of Economic Advisers from 1993 to 1997 - and tearing it apart. His main targets are "free market ideologues", but it's clear that the actions of members of his own team (the Clinton administration - including Mickey Kantor, Robert Rubin, and President Clinton himself) distress him the most. While Stiglitz is often polite towards these men, occasionally saying nice things about what they accomplished during the nineties, he's also clearly disappointed with their lack of vision.
Stiglitz's primary concern throughout the entire book is that Americans put too much faith in free markets, but he focuses on deregulation, globalization, and corporate favoritism (questionable accounting practices and tax breaks, etc.). While his book is suppose to be about the 1990s, he has plenty to say about George W. Bush and none of it is kind. Stiglitz ends his book by calling for a new Democratic Idealism that rescues Americans from the worst aspects of the free market.
As a Nobel Prize winner in economics, Stiglitz almost certainly can back up what he says about the 1990s economy. But he doesn't. This is critical. There is a good deal of heat here, but not much light. And what starts as a book on the 1990s economy, ends up trashing Bush for all kinds of reasons- several of which have nothing to do with economics (including pulling out of a strategic arms treaty and shunning the International Criminal Court, for example). Stiglitz's politics are not for me, but I bought the book because I'm willing to read different points of views so long as I learn something from them. Krugman's early popular work (such as "Peddling Prosperity") was valuable to me in that regard. But Joseph Stiglitz is no Paul Krugman.

Coercing Virtue: The Worldwide Rule of Judges
Coercing Virtue: The Worldwide Rule of Judges
by Robert H. Bork
Edition: Hardcover
22 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Topic, but a little Thin, Dec 20 2003
On what basis does the U.S. Supreme Court decide the constitutionality of laws on abortion, homosexuality, religion, and other cultural issues? It should come as no surprise to most readers that Robert Bork - probably the most famous rejected nominee to the Supreme Court in modern times - thinks there is no basis, and that most of what is proclaimed constitutional or unconstitutional in these areas is simply made up depending on the current predilections of the justices. What might come as a surprise to some readers, however, is Bork's claim that this American legal activism, through the mechanism of judicial review, is being internationalized to a stunning degree.
While Bork says this judicial activism can now be found from Australia to Scandinavia, he looks at just three case studies outside the U.S. - international courts (which are primarily European in outlook and location, and represent the vanguard in the internationalization of law), Canada, and Israel. What he describes, however, seems to be less the result of a direct influence of U.S. courts than a syndrome to be found in similarly educated people in the Western world.
Canada, for example, in setting up its Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982, wanted to avoid what Bork calls "judicial imperialism" by providing some democratic controls on judicial review. It appears not to have worked as Canada's courts have challenged the intent of key provisions in the Charter with their own judgments. While Canada's judges are still less activist and absolutist in their thinking than their American counterparts, the trend is clear.
The most interesting case study in book is Israel. According to Bork, the Jewish State's Supreme Court is easily the most powerful among democratic nations. It has "gained the power to choose its own members, wrested control of the attorney general from the executive branch, set aside legislation and executive action when there were disagreements about policy, altered the meaning of enacted law, forbidden government action at certain times, ordered government action at other times, and claimed and exercised the authority to override national defense measures." (Page 111) Surprisingly, this judicial activism is highly popular in Israel and vigorously defended by the elites.
The sections on International and U.S. courts were less interesting to me, mainly because I was already familiar with the general arguments made in them. In my opinion, Bork should have done more research on other case studies (Germany? Australia?) to support his claims. This book is only 139 pages long and has just four case studies, two of which (the U.S. and international courts) are well-covered elsewhere. This thinness is the worst aspect of the book -- it feels rushed and abbreviated. An interesting and important topic like this deserves a fuller treatment.

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