The War That Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan (Non-fiction)

I was surprised at how much I loved this book. I’m a fiction reader and get easily bored (or horrified) by drawn out descriptions of battles, strategies, and political maneuvers. This book was fantastic because it focused on the “why.” The eponymous war (World War I) is literally the epilogue of this book. The first 600+ pages is on what happened in the 30+ years before that made the war possible … though not inevitable.

That is what really fascinated me about the story. MacMillan brings out the details of the individuals involved, the context of the time, the recent events, and the crises averted, to show that so many small things — had they gone just a little differently — might have averted the war that cost 8.5 million lives, with 8 million others missing, and 21 million wounded. Her style is ideal — every detail relevant, a cohesive structure that brings elements to light at the right time and a narrative style that brings the details together to make a coherent story. And no rambling! I don’t know why, but so many non-fiction writers seem to ramble endlessly!

In many places, the book read like a giant game of Risk. Large empires — some new (e.g. Germany had just unified in 1871), some dying (e.g. the Ottoman empire), some struggling to maintain the status quo (e.g. Austria Hungary) — each vying for status in the International community (largely by bickering over colonies and building up impressive militaries) while simultaneously dealing with internal strife in the form of nationalist movements from conquered peoples and new socialist / workers parties demanding rights. Philosophically, social Darwinism concepts had been introduced. Conrad, Austria Hungary’s chief of staff had the core belief (as did many others) that “existence was about struggle and that nations rose and fell depending on their ability to adapt.” MacMillan presents in-depth and well-documented character studies of all the players from the volatile and unpredictable Kaiser Wilhelm II, to his cousins, Britain’s Edward VII and the weak and unprepared Tsar Nicholas II (and his wife Alexandra — “a will of iron linked to not much brain and no knowledge”) to the spartan Franz Joseph of Austria Hungary as well as a panoply of prime ministers, ambassadors, military personnel and socialist leaders.

But my favorite line of all: “Finally…we should never underestimate the part played in human affairs by mistakes, muddles, or simply poor timing.”

As I read I kept having what I call my Gone With the Wind moments — I knew what was going to happen but I somehow kept hoping it would work out differently. With only verified quotes and actual events as material, MacMillan manages to convey the absolute desperation of many as the world drew closer and closer to war and the slow unraveling of the Concert of Europe. The description of this was chilling — rail and telegraph lines were cut, bank reserves were frozen, currency exchange stopped, trade stopped. “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our life.” (attributed to Sir Edward Grey, Britain Foreign Secretary in 1914). Although written in 2013 (pre-Trump), she often draws unnerving parallels between the situations in 1914 and those of our current time.

Some advice for reading — if you’re like me and find 600 pages of dense history overwhelming and off putting — read one chapter at a time and take as long as you like. The contents are so memorable that you can pick it up days later and not have forgotten a thing.

The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis (Non Fiction)

Fascinating book about the birth of the field now known as Behavioral Economics. Part biography, part history, part research summary, this is the story both of the evolution of a friendship and collaboration as well as the melding of two previously disconnected fields: Economics and Psychology.

After their first meeting around 1968, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman were rarely apart. The decades long tight collaboration that resulted produced a stunning number of key insights and seminal papers on the psychology of Judgement and Decision Making. The primary idea: there is systematic bias in the way people make decisions. Their work was responsible for the fall of the concept of the “rational man.”

They studied the cognitive basis for common human errors and elaborated on a set of heuristics (simple rules) and cognitive biases that subconsciously influenced the way people formed judgements or made decisions. Many of the resulting concepts — such as Anchoring, Framing, Hindsight, and the Halo Effect — have become household terms. Their “Prospect Theory,” created in 1979 and developed in 1992, was a “psychologically more accurate” description of how people made decisions, replacing the previously accepted Utility Theory which claimed that people made decisions by rationally calculating the utility (or value) of all potential outcomes. Applications of this work are widespread, ranging across medicine (evidence based medicine), sports, finance, and military uses.

Some of the heuristics:
• Representativeness heuristic: the decision making shortcut that determines probability based on how well the subject is representative of a stereotype.
• Availability heuristic: the mental shortcut that makes decisions based on examples that come immediately to mind.
• Anchoring and adjustment heuristic: the influence of a previously suggested reference point (the anchor) on a person’s assessment of probability.
• Simulation heuristic: the shortcut for determining an event based on how easy it is to imagine – or “the power of unrealized possibilities to contaminate people’s minds.”

Some of the biases
• Recency bias: Decision making based on the relative ease of remembering something that happened recently rather than long ago.
• Vividness bias: bias based on the ease with which an option can be recalled.
• Hindsight bias: the tendency of people to overestimate their ability to have predicted an outcome that they could not have possibly predicted.
• Present bias: The tendency of people to undervalue future with respect to present.

The structure of the book follows the story of the two men. Though the closest of friends and collaborators until the last few years of Tversky’s life, their personalities and background were quite different. While both Israeli, Amos came from an aggressive Zionist family, while Danny and his family escaped from Nazi Europe; Danny was an appeaser, Amos a bully; Amos loved theory while Danny liked practical application of psychology, “Amos was built to fight, Danny was built to survive.” The book includes captivating detail about their backgrounds and interactions, and the process by which the work took flight and captured the interest of researchers and practitioners around the world.

The journalistic style of the story makes the personal bits easy to remember, with the research results a little harder to grasp in its entirety. The narrative jumps around a bit and the down side of watching a theory evolve (and not necessarily in a linear order) is that it can be harder to comprehend the whole. I found reading the Wikipedia articles on Kahneman and Tversky helped supplement my understanding of the actual work.

Some great quotes:
Asked if their work was related to AI, Amos said: “We study natural stupidity instead of Artificial Intelligence.”

In response to evolutionary psychology proponents Amos said, “The mind was more like a coping mechanism than it was a perfectly designed tool.”

On “Creeping determinism,” Amos says: “He who sees the past as surprise-free is bound to have a future full of surprises.”

“Economics was meant to be the study of an aspect of human nature, but it had ceased to pay attention to human nature.”

“Theories for Amos were like mental pockets or briefcases, places to put the ideas you wanted to keep.”

Spies of No Country by Matti Friedman

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Algonquin Books through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The book will be published on March 5, 2019.
This is the story of Israel’s 1948 War of Independence told from the perspective of four spies from Israel’s “Arab Section” — a precursor of what would eventually become Mossad. Although the book includes a lot of background about the Middle East and the War itself, it is primarily a personal account of the experiences — both internal and external — of the spies.

The spies were Jewish men of Arab descent who wanted to be pioneers in the new, experimental (Zionist, socialist, and paradisical) country. Instead they were asked to “live like an Arab” — far from family and friends and amidst people with completely antithetical views (such as “Death to all Jews”). They were given false Arab / Muslim identities and sent out to gather intelligence and sometimes engage in sabotage. When they were finally able to come back to Israel two years later, it was to a completely different place — the reality of the country was a stark contrast to the ideal which they had held. Drawn from interviews, personal writings, and historical reports, the book did a good job of detailing the time and place as well as the attitudes and activities of the spies and those upon whom they spied.

The writing is uneven with an irregular structure resulting from the mashing together of personal accounts, historical documentation, and the author’s occasionally inserted opinions. A little more synthesis and coherence would have been very welcome. However, I did learn a great deal and appreciated the way the many details brought the time and place to life for me.

While I’ve known the rough history of Israel for a long time, I had either forgotten or never had known many of the specifics that I picked up from the book. At the time Israel declared independence in May 1948, 90% of its Jews were European — and looked down on the “black” Jews of Middle Eastern descent. The creation of Israel was a solution to a European, not Middle Eastern, problem. The declaration of Independence caused a massive influx of Jews from the surrounding Middle Eastern countries — not because they were enamored with the idea of a Jewish state but because they were fleeing a sudden and drastic increase in persecution in their home countries. As an example, according to the book Baghdad was 1/3 Jewish prior to 1948 (pretty much 0% now). So the solution to a European problem resulted in a much more widespread and amplified problem for the same target population in the broader Middle East.

Middle Eastern history is long and complicated and this book did not dissuade me from my largely pro-Israel stance. However, it certainly gave me a deeper comprehension of the experiences of the every-day people of the time on both sides of the fluid borders.

The Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

A chilling history of the “Osage Reign of Terror” in which a large number of wealthy Indians from the Osage tribe were killed over a period of several years, possibly even decades, in the early 1900s. The thoroughly researched story includes the background and social context of the killings, the investigators, and the individual politicians, bankers, and relatives involved in the case. Additionally, the launch of the FBI and some fascinating detail on the evolution of detection and law enforcement techniques.

For me, this is the best kind of non-fiction — told with clarity, drawn from original sources, not over-dramatized (a plain retelling of the events was dramatic enough), and told linearly such that no hindsight colored our perceptions of the players or events as they unfolded.

While it’s hard to be unaware of the gross injustices perpetrated on the Native Americans in this country since the arrival of the European settlers, the humiliating details of how the Bureau of Indian Affairs systematically dehumanized Native Americans and left them subject to institutionalized theft, mismanagement, and even murder was newly shocking. The Osage tribe was more susceptible than most as they were unfortunate enough to have chosen “worthless” land that ended up being oil rich — making them multi-millionaires and therefore prime targets.

A big part of the story is the attitude of most of the non-Indians. As one prominent member of the Osage tribe said during the trial of a set of conspirators to multiple murders, “It is a question in my mind whether this jury is considering a murder case or not. The question for them to decide is whether a white man killing an Osage is murder — or merely cruelty to animals.”

In some ways this reads like a good murder mystery, but as is the case with all non-fiction, there is never the complete closure you get with a good novel. While several of the perpetrators were caught, tried, and sentenced, it is clear that the number of murders was far greater than originally expected … and most of the perpetrators got away scot-free.

Extremely well-written — highly recommended.

Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin

I love Doris Kearns Goodwin — she is an amazing writer. She gets to the heart of any subject and draws you in. In this book — quite appropriate for our times — she profiles four American presidents whose strong leadership skills were critical in helping the country make it through a “turbulent” time. This includes: Lincoln and the Civil War (Transformational Leadership); Theodore Roosevelt dealing with the 1902 coal miners strike (Crisis Management); FDR bringing the country out of the Depression (Turnaround Leadership); and Lyndon Johnson and Civil Rights Legislation (Visionary Leadership).

She poses and tries to answer the big questions: “Are leaders born or made? Where does ambition come from? How does adversity affect the growth of leadership? Do the times make the leader or does the leader shape the times? How can a leader infuse a sense of purpose and meaning into people’s lives? What is the difference between power, title, and leadership? Is leadership possible without a purpose larger than personal ambition?” How could you not be hooked?

The book is divided into three parts: Ambition and the Recognition of Leadership; Adversity and Growth; The Leader and the Times: How they Led. She looks at each man through the lens of leadership qualities and how they are attained, developed, and used: intelligence, energy empathy, skill at dealing with people, verbal and written gifts.

Although she has written about each of these men at length in previous books (which I’ve read), I was spellbound by this new curation of the facts. Each president faced horribly difficult challenges for the country and in each case their approach brought about a (positive in my opinion) shift in thinking. Lincoln brought together a cabinet of his competitors, valuing competency and other opinions over agreement and consensus; Teddy Roosevelt with his “Square Deal” championed the concept of a president being the steward of the people, rather than the servant of Congress; FDR brought regulation to industries — particularly the banking industry — to help prevent the kind of wholesale loss that led to the Depression; and my favorite — Lyndon Johnson (not an orator by any means) making the speech championing civil rights saying “There is no issue of States rights or national rights. There is only the issue of human rights.”

Definitely worth reading.

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

Writing: 5 Topic coverage: 5
Thank you to Simon & Schuster and NetGalley for an early review copy of The Library Book by Susan Orleans, which will publish October 16, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.

Ostensibly the story of the massive 1986 fire that brought the Los Angeles Central Library to its knees, this book is so much more. With captivating prose, Susan Orleans tells the broader story — many meticulously researched threads exploring the fire itself, the arson investigation, the mechanics of book restoration, the building architecture, and the history of the L.A. library and of libraries in general. Sprinkled throughout are biographical vignettes of the players: librarians and Library Directors, volunteers who came in droves to help with the book rescue, firefighters, arson investigators, security chiefs and the hapless man accused of setting the fire. Each chapter starts with the catalog records of three to four relevant books and proceeds to delve into one of the threads in a little more depth.

The story is a very personal one for the author as well — her love of books and libraries shines through brightly. One (short) chapter covered the emotional trials involved with her actually trying to burn a book in order to experience the physical process.

Some tidbits:

• In Senegal a polite way of saying someone has died is to say that his or her library has burned.
• The shipping department moving books between branches: “It is as if the city has a bloodstream flowing through it, oxygenated by books.”
• “A library is a good place to soften solitude; a place where you feel part of a conversation that has gone on for hundreds and hundreds of years even when you’re alone.”
• A particularly impressive map collection — “it was one more piece of the bigger puzzle the library is always seeking to assemble — the looping, unending story of who we are”

Normally not a big non-fiction reader, I was absolutely unable to set it down and polished it off in a couple of days. Great for fans of Mary Roach.