The Month in Books - June 2009

At the start of 2009, I set a goal to read 30,000 pages by year's end. I am measuring progress in pages, rather than titles, to avoid last year's bias toward shorter books. Here's what I read in June:

  1. The Glorious Cause - Robert Middlekauff (review)
  2. Home - Marilynne Robinson (review)
  3. Seeing - Jose Saramago (review)
  4. The Palace of Dreams - Ismail Kadare (review)
  5. Death with Interruptions - Jose Saramago (review)
  6. Corelli's Mandolin - Louis de Bernieres (review)
  7. Alexander Hamilton - Ron Chernow (review)

Pages Read: 2,926
Year-to-Date: 17,244

Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres

bernieres_corellis.jpgIt was with some surprise that I learned Louis de Bernières was a native of Britain, born in London and inheriting his family name from a French Huguenot ancestor. Between the name and the exotic locales of his books (only his most recent book features any scenes set in Britain), I had figured him to be at least a continental. As it turns out, de Bernières' international exposure simply started a bit later in life:

After four disastrous months in the British army, he left for a village in Colombia, where he worked as a teacher in the morning and a cowboy in the afternoon. He returned to England, where he was employed as a mechanic, a landscape gardener, and a groundsman at a mental hospital.

de Bernières is the author of seven books, of which the most famous is undoubtedly his 1994 novel, Corelli's Mandolin. Unfortunately, most people are more likely to be familiar with the 2001 film adaptation of the book starring Nicholas Cage and Penelope Cruz, which was a terrible movie that did absolutely no justice to the text that inspired it. Like was done to Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient (albeit in a far superior fashion in that case), the novel was largely reduced to a love story for cinematic purposes. As I said in my review of Ondaatje's novel, I normally will not read a book if I have already seen the movie, unless the movie was so good that I wanted to experience the story more fully.

That was, of course, not the case with Corelli's Mandolin. Instead, strangely enough, I was swayed by the overwhelmingly positive reviews the book has received on These customer reviews are not always a good measure, particularly when dealing with a book that people were drawn to because it won a recent award or was assigned in a class. But for a fifteen year old literary novel to have nearly 400 reviews, and to achieve such a high overall rating, is rather noteworthy.

And it is a good thing I took note, because this is an extraordinary novel. And one of the things that makes it so extraordinary is the complex layer of narratives comprised of fluctuating perspectives and forms. All of which was done away with in the reductionist screenplay adaptation. The book opens with an almost folk-story vignette of rural life on the Greek island of Cephalonia, as the local doctor (a medical autodidact) examines an earache in a half-deaf neighbor:

Dr Iannis tilted the old man's head and peered into the ear. With his long matchstick he pressed aside the undergrowth of stiff grey hairs embellished with flakes of exfoliated scurf. There was something spherical within. He scraped its surface to remove the hard brown cankerous coating of wax, and beheld a pea. It was undoubtedly a pea; it was light green, its surface was slightly wrinkled, and there could not be any doubt in the matter. 'Have you ever stuck anything down your ear?' he demanded.

The evocative details featured in this distasteful episode are one of de Bernières' hallmarks, and he puts this skill to good use in passages of the book both more and less pleasant than the opening pages. In addition to Dr Iannis, the early chapters feature a monologue from Mussolini, the village strongman (Velisarios) hitting a local fisherman (Mandras) with a cannon he fired while holding in the air, and the first of several chapters written by "L'Omosessuale," Carlo Piero Guercio, a young Italian man who has joined the army for a most unusual reason:

I knew that in the Army there would be those that I could love, albeit never touch. I would find someone to love, and I would be ennobled by this love. I would not desert him in battle, he would make me an inspired hero. I would have someone to impress, someone whose admiration would give me that which I cannot give myself; esteem, and honour I would dare to die for him, and if I died I would know that I was dross which some inscrutable alchemy had transmuted into gold.

Of all the problems with the film, the greatest disservice it does to the book is the diminution of Carlo's character. It is his love stories, first with Francisco, and then with Corelli, that are perhaps the more moving romances of the book, if only because they are undiminished despite being utterly one-sided and unspoken. It is his military service alongside Francisco, in the ill-fated Italian invasion of Greece, that brings the most horrific battle scenes in the book. In the meantime, Dr. Iannis' daughter, Pelagia, has become engaged to Mandras, the young fisherman who was brought to her father's home for care after being wounded by Velisarios' cannon. He too goes off to war, and returns a greatly changed man, eventually becoming a member of a militant Greek Communist faction that is focused more on hoarding weapons to stage a civil insurrection after the war then resisting the fascists during it.

Corelli himself does not appear until more than one hundred pages into the book, when Cephalonia is occupied by Italian troops after their German allies came to their rescue, the Greeks having handily repulsed the Italian invaders. Housed with Dr. Iannis and his daughter, Corelli's budding romance with Pelagia is certainly a wonderful part of the book. But this is also a novel about the effects war has on reluctant combatants, like Mandras and Carlo, reluctant occupiers, like Corelli, and the reluctantly occupied, like the residents of Cephalonia. And the madness of political extremism whatever its form, from the bloodthirsty fascism of the Nazis to the ruthlessness of Mandras and his ELAS comrades. And the toll that time takes on one's hopes and dreams. And so much else.

Death With Interruptions by Jose Saramago

saramago_death.jpgJosé Saramago has made quite a career for himself with fanciful parables involving a sudden irregularity in the normal workings of life. Saramago uses these occurrences as a foil by which to study some facet of cultural or political norms, often seeking to expose the flaws, weaknesses, and hypocrisies of modern society. Blindness involved an epidemic of countrywide sightlessness. Seeing (reviewed here) featured an election in which the vast majority of ballets cast are blank. His most recently translated novel, Death With Interruptions, is premised on the cessation of one of life's two supposed guarantees, and I don't mean taxes:

The following day, no one died. This fact, being absolutely contrary to life's rules, provoked enormous and, in the circumstances, perfectly justifiable anxiety in people's minds, for we have only to consider that in the entire forty volumes of universal history there is no mention, not even one exemplary case, of such a phenomenon ever having occurred, for a whole day to go by, with its generous allowance of twenty-four hours, diurnal and nocturnal, matutinal and vespertine, without one death from an illness, a fatal fall, or a successful suicide, not one, not a single one.

The first half of the book explores the country's reaction to this suspension of mortality. It is not, to be clear, a suspension of aging. And those who were on death's doorstep, the infirm, the comatose, do not recover from their wounds or illnesses; instead they are caught in a sort of stasis, hovering just this side of the afterlife. And as the aging process has not slowed, this would seem to be the eventual fate of all the country's residents. Thus the immediate reaction of joy at the seeming surrender of death is quickly replaced by quite a bit of anxiety. Saramago targets several groups in particular, notably the insurance companies, the undertakers, the hospitals, and especially the organized church, which realizes that "without death there can be no resurrection" and thus little need for a church.

Before long families are taking their near-death relatives across the country's borders, where death is still maintaining her regularly scheduled activities. When these foreign neighbors take umbrage at this practice, the country stations militia along the border to prevent further crossings, giving rise to a underground criminal enterprise engaged in the circumvention of death's interruption. Eventually, after several months, death sends a letter, notifying the country that shortly she will be back in business. On that day, death catches up with the more than 60,000 people whose demise had been postponed. But then another seven days go by without any further mortal departures:

The week-long pause, during which no one died and which, initially, created the illusion that nothing had, in fact, changed, came about simply because of the new rules governing the relationship between death and mortals, namely that everyone would receive prior warning that they still had a week to live until, shall we say, payment was due, a week in which to sort out their affairs, make a will, pay their back taxes and say goodbye to their family and to their closest friends. In theory, this seemed like a good idea, but practice would soon show that it was not.

Indeed, rather than use the remaining time allotted to tie up loose ends, the more common path is one of hedonistic excess, giving Saramago another opportunity to let loose against the failings of modern man. This transition in death's modus operandi also brings a transition into the second half of the book, which features death herself as the protagonist of sorts. She does not capitalize her name, to distinguish herself from the Death. She is, after all, just one of many deaths, with responsibility only over the human citizens in this particular country. And it is one particular citizen who is causing her trouble. The problem has to do with that little purple envelope she sends, the one that notifies each individual of their impending death. For one man, the envelope keeps getting returned to its sender. She tries again, and it returns once more. So death decides to make a personal visit to this man, to observe him surreptitiously in his home. She discovers he is a cellist in an orchestra, becomes somewhat infatuated with him, and decides to take human form and make contact with him:

The man didn't know her, but she knew him, she had spent a whole night in the same room as him, she had heard him play and, whether you like it or not, such things forge bonds, establish a certain rapport, mark the beginnings of a relationship, and to announce to him bluntly, You're going to die, you have a week in which to sell your cello and find another owner for your dog, would be a brutal act unworthy of the pretty woman she has become. No, she had a different plan.

The carrying-out of death's plan, which takes up the remainder of the novel, is certainly the better section of the book. The first half, with its focus on society's reaction to the suspension of death, is dull and small-minded and heavy-handed. Saramago takes a subject as weighty as death and uses it to silly effect, taking aim at such easy targets as morticians and nursing homes. But even the better half of the book is difficult to discern. Lovely as death's seduction of the cellist is, it is not at all clear what Saramago intends by the liaison. As one reviewer said, "Maybe this is just Saramago growing old. Writing novels is hard work. Or maybe even this committed novelist has thrown up his hands at modern life."

The Palace of Dreams by Ismail Kadare

kadare_palace.jpgIt is surely coincidence that in the past week, amidst the election turmoil in Iran, I have read two books in some part devoted to the perils of oppressive government. Yesterday I discussed José Saramago's Seeing, which explores the reaction of a right-wing government to the massive casting of blank ballots by the country's voters. The underlying presumption of the senior government officials is a distrust of the populace, and a belief that some mischievous conspiracy must be at work.

A similar sense abounds in The Palace of Dreams, a 1981 novel by Albanian author Ismail Kadare. The book was banned by Albanian authorities upon its publication, and in 1990 Kadare sought asylum in France to avoid being used as a tool of the country's communist regime.

The novel depicts the ultimate extension of government intrusion into the private lives of its citizens, via the workings of a mysterious institution: the Tabir Sarrail, the Palace of Dreams. It is here that the empire collects, sorts, and analyzes the dreams of its citizens, the subconscious of the nation, in an attempt to foresee important upcoming events. The story follows Mark-Alem, a young member of the powerful Quprili family, as he begins employment at the Tabir Sarrail. His very entrance into the vast building is imbued with Kafka-esque disorientation:

The corridor on the first floor was long and dark, with dozens of doors opening off it, tall and unnumbered. He counted ten and stopped outside the eleventh. He'd have liked to make sure it really was the office of the person he was looking for before he knocked, but the corridor was empty and there was no one to ask. He drew a deep breath, stretched out his hand, and gave a gentle tap. But no voice could be heard from within. He looked first to his right, then to his left, and knocked again, more loudly this time. Still no answer. He knocked a third time and, still hearing nothing, tried the door. Strangely enough it opened easily. He was terrified, and made as if to close it again. He even put out his hand to clutch back as it creaked open wider still on its hinges. Then he noticed the room was empty. He hesitated. Should he go in?

He does go in, and after a tense meeting with the director-general, Mark-Alem is given a plum initial assignment in Selection. This is where the thousands of dreams that are gathered from the reaches of the empire are sorted into those worthy of being forwarded to Interpretation, and those worthy of the dustbin:

He'd put aside forty or so dreams that he judged to be devoid of interest. Most of them seemed to have their origin in everyday worries, while others looked as if they were hoaxes. But he wasn't quire sure; he'd better read them again. As a matter of fact he'd already read each of them two or three times; but he still didn't trust his own judgment. The head of the section had told him that when in doubt about a dream he should put a big question mark against it and pass it on to the next sorter. But he'd already done this quite often. In fact, he'd rejected hardly any dreams as useless, and if he didn't keep back the present batch his boss might think he was afraid to take risks and unloaded everything on his colleagues. But he was supposed to be a sorter, employed to make choices, not to shift the responsibility off onto others.

Even as Mark-Alem is wracked with doubt about his abilities and his purpose in working at the Tabir Sarrail, he is making steady progress up the ranks, quickly finding himself promoted to Interpretation. Despite his progress, he fails to recognize the significance of a dream that crosses his desk several times and ultimately has tremendous consequences for he and the Quprili family.

This slender book is reminiscent of Orwell, Kafka, and others who explore the oppression of the individual under a totalitarian regime, and the dream-like qualities that suffuse life in those circumstances. There are several passages, particularly when Mark-Alem finds himself in the hallways of the Tabir Surrail, that are almost unbearably claustrophobic. This is frightening, powerful novel.

June Classical CD Purchases

After the bevy of classical music purchases I made in April, I had planned to wait until my return from Kuwait this fall to buy any more. But the week before last I saw that Amazon was running a sale on some Living Stereo series discs, and I had to snag a few.


I mean, how could I resist? Beethoven, Chopin, Dvorak, et al played by Rubinstein, Heifetz, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra led by Fritz Reiner? At less than $8 per disc, these were bargains, and the Living Stereo series now compromises a hefty chunk of my collection. I rounded out this month's haul with a used copy of the inexplicably out-of-print collection of four major violin concertos as performed by the incomparable Arthur Grumiaux.

Seeing by Jose Saramago

saramago_seeing.jpgIn his 1995 novel, Blindness, José Saramago depicts a mysterious epidemic of sightlessness in a large, unidentified city, and the unraveling of society and government that follows. Much of the action follows the wife of an ophthalmologist who is solely exempted from the affliction, and the struggles of her and the small band of folks she is able to protect from the chaos that ensues. In 2004, Saramago published a sequel of sorts to his acclaimed novel. Set in the same city, Seeing opens four years after the epidemic, which remains a forbidden topic of discussion. The story begins with a parliamentary election, in which a morning of terrible weather threatens turnout:

However long the presiding officer and his colleagues took to scrutinize documents, a queue never formed, there were, at most, at any one time, three or four people waiting, and three or four people, try as they might, can never make a queue worthy of the name. I was quite right, commented the representative of the p.i.t.m. [part of the middle], the abstention rate will be enormous, massive, there'll be no possible agreement on the result after this, the only solution will be to hold the elections again...

The representative was correct, but not for the reason he stated. As so often happens in Saramago's novels, there is a sudden and curious turn of events:

[A]t four o'clock in the afternoon, an hour which is neither late nor early, neither fish nor fowl, those voters who had, until then, remained in the quiet of their homes, apparently blithely ignoring the election altogether, started to come out onto the streets...and all of them, absolutely all of them, the healthy and inform, the former on foot, the latter in wheelchairs, on stretchers, in ambulances, headed straight for their respective polling stations like rivers which know no other course than that which flows to the sea.

Even more remarkable than the abrupt outpouring of voters is the outcome of their votes:

It was gone midnight when the counting finished. The number of valid votes did not quite reach twenty-five percent, with the party on the right winning thirteen percent, the party in the middle nine percent and the party on the left two and a half percent. There were very few spoiled ballots and very few abstentions. All the others, more than seventy percent of the total votes cast, were blank.

This mass casting of blank votes is viewed by the reigning government (led by the Party of the Right) as spurious, despite the fact that casting a blank vote is a legitimate option under the country's elections laws. Several days later a re-vote is held, and the percentage of blank votes cast is even higher: 83%. The government, again, views the results as invalid.

The remainder of the book is basically divided into two parts. The first follows the machinations of the president, prime minister, and cabinet officers as they scheme to respond to what they view as a veritable rebellion by the voters, ultimately moving the government out of the capital and effectively sealing off the city with a military siege. With few exceptions, they display an utter distaste for the people they have been chosen to govern. Their motivating assumption is that the cause of the trouble is some conspiracy or defect in the people rather than the government, a none too subtle expression of Saramago's views regarding ruling elites. It is a particularly potent message considering recent events in Iran.

The focus shifts midway through as the government sends a small police team into the city to investigate a curious letter they received from a citizen, claiming that there was a woman who did not go blind during the epidemic four years before. Otherwise without any leads as to the cause of the current political crisis, the interior minister gains approval to interview the letter writer and explore his claims. A police superintendent leads the three-person team into the besieged capital. The woman, of course, is the protagonist from Blindness, now a suspect because her immunity to blindness is as inexplicable to the government officials as the mass casting of blank votes. They presume there must be some connection between these unknowns. The unknown, after all, is the most dangerous thing to an incumbent government elected based on the old, usual patterns of behavior.

While displaying Saramago's usual talent for prose, Seeing lacks a good deal of the bite of its sightless predecessor. The commentary on government and society is a bit obvious, and the cabinet officials and the meetings they hold sometimes descend into caricature, a danger implicit in allegory but avoided by Saramago at his best. And while plot is never the point with Saramago, the story told in Seeing lacks the drama and the tension that made Blindness such a well-rounded work of fiction, and the ending may disappoint those who've made it through both books.

Home by Marilynne Robinson

robinson_home.jpgFans of Marilynne Robinson's 1980 novel, Housekeeping, had to wait twenty-four years for the author's second novel. But what a book that was! Gilead, which richly deserved its Pulitzer Prize, is an exceptional rumination on family, faith, and mortality, and is the best fiction I have read in the past several years. Thus you can imagine my excitement when I heard that we would not have to wait another couple decades for Robinson's third novel. Instead, Home was scheduled for publication in the fall of 2008, after a mere four year interval. Even better, the plot summaries indicated the narrative would return to the city of Gilead, Iowa, and feature many of the same characters.

The dustjacket asserts that Home is an "entirely independent" work. I understand the urge to make this claim, as sequels are unlikely to attract those who did not read the first book. But I think it is misleading. While there is nothing in Home that strictly requires a prior reading of Gilead, the narrative is going to appear quite different to those who have read that book. How could it not? Gilead is a fictional autobiography, an effort by the dying Reverend John Ames to leave something behind for his young son, whose childhood will be largely fatherless once Ames' failing heart gives out. Much of the dramatic tension in that book is provided by the return of Jack Boughton, the son of Ames' best friend, fellow clergyman Robert Boughton (and Ames' namesake). Jack's departure twenty years earlier was under tumultuous circumstances, and his two decade absence was a source of continuing heartache for his father. Ames was understandably suspicious on his friend's behalf when Jack re-entered their lives, and the tensions posed by this situation challenge many of Ames' long-held convictions.

The narrative in Home covers much of the same ground, but this time from within the Boughton household. Jack's younger sister, Glory, has returned home to care for her ailing father, and to hide from the failures in her own life:

"Home to stay, Glory! Yes" her father said, and her heart sank. He attempted a twinkle of joy at this thought, but his eyes were damp with commiseration. "To stay for a while this time! " he amended, and took her bag from her, first shifting his cane to his weaker hand. Dear God, she thought, dear God in heaven. So began and ended all her prayers these days, which were really cries of amazement. How could her father be so frail?

Glory, of course, has mixed feelings about the possible return of her brother. As the youngest child, she was a witness to the tragic circumstances under which Jack left twenty years earlier, as well as the effect it had on her parents. She knows how much pain Jack's absence has caused her father, but recognizes that his homecoming is as likely to reignite and deepen this suffering as it is to alleviate it. Thus she waits with bated breath as her father opens a letter from Jack, the first contact in many years:

She thought he might be waiting for her to leave the room, and yet she was afraid to leave. He might be disappointed, or the note might really be from Jack, but upsetting somehow, written from a ward for the chronically vexatious, the terminally remiss. From jail, for heaven's sake. He had better have a good reason for rousing these overwhelming emotions in his father. He had better have a good excuse or exposing the old man to the possibility of inexpressible disappointment. Even if he was dead.

I find it difficult to view this book as "entirely independent" of Gilead. I think it actually quite important to have read that book first. What Gilead depicts, via Reverend Ames, is a life that is fundamentally at peace with itself. Ames' character is marked by a humble confidence grounded in his faith. There are tensions, and doubts, and challenges, but they do not overthrow Ames' core of spirituality, and his narration shows it. Home, by contrast, is riddled with anxiety. Jack is in large part defined by his lack of faith, by the lonely restlessness that this causes in such a religious home, by the distance this puts between Jack and his family, especially his father. For Jack, moments of comfort and certainty are the rare exception. He is the perpetual outsider, largely unable to cope with the stresses of life. And the stresses of Jack's adult life are significant, as readers of Gilead understand by the end of that book (another reason Home will read so differently for those unfamiliar with the earlier work):

He realized he did not please his father, did not know how to please his father. He would probably have liked to believe he had done something wrong so that he could at least orient himself a little, but she had told him a terrible thing, that he had done nothing to offend, that his father had found fault with him anyway, only because he was old and sad now, not the father he thought he had come home to.

One reason I consider Gilead to be such an exceptional novel is that spirituality is an exceptionally difficult concept to satisfactorily integrate into modern fiction, yet Robinson does so with extraordinary force. In Home, she has similar success with Jack's existential discomfort, yet it feels like a less singular accomplishment. The roster of great existential novels is, after all, much deeper. Still, Home is in many ways the necessary complement to its predecessor. Just as a prior reading of Gilead is essential to a proper understanding of Home, spending several hundred pages inside the Boughton home will alter the way readers of Gilead view that masterpiece. For the better.

The Glorious Cause by Robert Middlekauff

middlekauff_glorious.jpgOne difficulty for any historian tackling the American Revolution is determining the chronological scope of the story they seek to tell. By different measures, the start of the Revolution can be traced to the Albany Congress, the aftermath of the French-Indian War, the Stamp Act crisis, the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, the start of the Continental Congress, or the shots fired at Lexington and Concord. Likewise, the close of the Revolution can be dated to Cornwallis' surrender at Yorktown, the Treaty of Paris, or the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.

Even once the historian has determined the chronological limits of his study, he still must decide how expansive or narrow a view to take of those tumultuous years. Some authors, like Gordon Wood or Bernard Bailyn, focus particularly on political ideology and process. Others look at the economics of the time, or cultural or religious issues. There was a war, after all, so military historians get in on the action as well. John Ferling had so much to say that he devoted separate volumes to the political and the military aspects of the era.

Robert Middlekauff did not have that choice. His assignment was to write one volume that covered the broadest Revolutionary timeline commonly accepted, stretching from 1763 until 1789, and address everything from the political and military to the economic, social, and religious. And all in one volume. This was, after all, the first book published in the star-crossed Oxford History of the United States, with its commitment to providing the definitive account for a general audience in a series of volumes, each covering several decades of American history.

Middlekauff's contribution shows all the many strengths, as well as the weaknesses, of this approach. The Glorious Cause, as an entry in the Oxford series, should be able to serve as a single volume history of the period, covering the various historical disciplines, and yet be accessible to a general audience. At this lofty, difficult task, the book largely succeeds. While venturing boldly into political theory, battle plans, economic interests, and religious motivations, and at no point does Middlekauff step too deeply into academic esoterica.

And yet while Middlekauff's text does not presume its readers have deep prior awareness of the era, it has plenty to offer those who do. I have read more than a dozen books covering the Revolutionary period, including John Ferling's superb A Leap in the Dark (review here), so I came to Middlekauff's book with a decent base of knowledge. I found especially informative his coverage of two influences that were not much discussed in other books I have read. The first is the religious history of the colonies:

Although Americans entered the revolt against Britain in several ways, their religion proved important in all of them, important even to the lukewarm and the indifferent. It did because, more than anything else in America, religion shaped culture. And different as the colonies were, they possessed a common culture - values, ideals, a way of looking at and responding to the world - which held them together in the crisis of upheaval and war... beneath the surface their similarities were even more striking - a governance so dominated by laymen as to constitute a congregational democracy, a clergy much weaker than its European analogue, and a religious life marked by attenuated liturgies and an emphasis on individual experience.

On the other side of the Atlanta, Middlekauff provides a fascinating outline of English politics in the latter half of the 17th century:

George III was twenty-two when he ascended the throne in 1760. For the next few years he clung to his prejudices and to Bute with a tenacity that reflected his and Bute's miscomprehension of the political world. He would reform their world, he thought, and make virtue his real consort. Factional politics, which were of course based on interest, not ideology, revolted him - and he would somehow change them. If this dream soon disappeared in disappointment, the king's rigidity did not, and though he learned to play the game - at times with remarkable skill - his early mistakes and his attachment to Bute bred a suspicion in Parliament that introduced a dozen years of instability to his government.

Indeed, the book's strongest sections all occur during the lead-up to the war, exploring the diverse motivating forces in both Britain and the colonies, and the mechanisms by which these forces rapidly shifted the focus of the debate from the scope of Parliament's power to the very legitimacy of that institution vis-a-vis America. Middlekauff also offers a very capable account of the military aspects of the conflict, including not just the blow-by-blow details of the battles, but looking behind-the-scenes at the more mundane (yet equally important) aspects of war: manpower, supply, transportation.

The military account occupies the middle section of the book, from the start of hostilities to the entrance of the French, with a pair of chapters ("Inside the campaigns" and "Outside the campaigns") respectively dedicated to an intricate look at the daily life of soldiers and civilians during wartime, followed by Yorktown and the Treaty of Paris. In order to keep this narrative flowing, however, Middlekauff chose to delay a thorough discussion of the evolution of the political debates until after the close of his military chapters. Thus Middlekauff's discussion of the Articles of Confederation, written in 1777 and ratified in 1781, is awkwardly placed after the war's end in 1783. And after hundreds of pages of military history, Middlekauff compresses into just 80 pages the entire political upheaval of the 1780s, ending in the ratification of the Constitution.

Considering that other titles intended for the Oxford series were apparently rejected for being too narrowly focused (on economics, for instance), it is reasonable to wonder whether Middlekauff intended to write a military history, or to end his narrative in 1783, but felt compelled to tack on some discussion of the Constitution to pad the political history and bring the chronology to 1789. What he provides is adequate, but seems disconnected to the rest of the text and certainly not as thorough as his analysis of the first two decades after 1763. If one is strictly limited to a single volume on the Revolution, The Glorious Cause is a perfectly good choice. But outside of the constraints of a college syllabus, why limit one's reading on this fascinating era to just one book?

Risotto Mantecato with Balsamic Vinegar

risotto_mantecato.jpgOne of my wife and my favorite restaurants here in Atlanta is an Italian place called Sotto Sotto, located on Highland Avenue near Little Five Points. Amongst our favorite things about the restaurant, in addition to the romantic atmosphere, is the bevy of vegetarian options to choose from. Even better is that the kitchen will prepare "first course" size portions, so we can actually order two different dishes without feeling like gluttons.

Thus Sotto Sotto was the first place I tried risotto, and their Risotto Mantecato quickly became one of my standbys. While I certainly can't replicate the experience of dining at out a nice restaurant, I thought I might at least see if I could master the dish itself, with this recipe (which I've converted from grams and oz. to cups):

1 cup Carnaroli or Arborio rice
3 tbsp butter
1/2 onion
1/2 cup white wine
3 cups vegetable broth
1/3 cup Parmesan cheese
1 tsp vinegar

Cut onion into thin slices, place them in a small bowl, sprinkle with balsamic vinegar, and leave them to soak for 10 minutes. Strain the onions and put them into a pan with half of the butter over medium heat. Once the onions are brown, add the rice. Let the rice simmer for a minute, then steam with white wine. Begin adding the vegetable broth one cup at a time, waiting for the liquid to soak in and evaporate before adding the next cup, stirring constantly. Once all the broth has evaporated, turn the heat off, add the Parmesan cheese, the remaining butter, and a splash of balsamic vinegar. Let it rest for a few minutes and serve.

This recipe was easy to follow, and did not take much in the way of skill. Rather it is an exercise in diligence, with the constant stirring as cup after cup of vegetable broth is poured and then soaked up by the rice. It turned out extremely well, nearly as good as the restaurant. Like at Sotto Sotto, this dish has a very strong flavor, best served as either an appetizer or a side dish, or at least with some good bread.

The Smartest Guys in the Room by Bethany McLean & Peter Elkind

mclean_smartest.jpgAs sordid a tale of ego and excess as the RJR Nabisco buyout appears in Barbarians at the Gate (review here), at least there does not seem to have been anything illegal going on. Unethical, perhaps. Greedy, undoubtedly. The battle of megalomaniacs is what makes the saga so interesting twenty years later. But at the end of the day RJR and Nabisco still exist (though in decidedly different forms), they still have employees, and their shareholders were not left completely out in the woods.

None of this can be said for Enron, which essentially spontaneously combusted via bankruptcy in late 2001, and managed to take venerable Big Five accounting firm Arthur Andersen along with it into the oblivion of business history. The story of Enron's "amazing rise and scandalous fall" has been the subject of several books, including Kurt Eichenwald's Conspiracy of Fools. First on the scene were a pair of Fortune writers, Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind; McLean had reported on Enron for the magazine and had been amongst the first journalists to turn a more critical eye toward the company, as early as March 2001 (still years after folks should have noticed what a boondoggle it was). They published The Smartest Guys in the Room in October 2003, less than two years after the company went bankrupt. Two years later the book was made into a documentary by the same name.

The story begins near the end, with the January 2002 suicide of Cliff Baxter, a senior Enron executive who had resigned the previous May. He had also been one of the closest friends of former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling, who was still making the case that Enron was a victim, not a villain, in the recent turmoil:

More than anyone else, Skilling had come to personify the Enron scandal. Part of it was his audacious refusal, in the face of a dozen separate investigations, to run for cover. Alone among Enron's top executives summoned before a circuslike series of congressional hearings, Skilling had ignored his lawyers' advice to take the Fifth and defiantly spoke his piece. The legislators were convinced that Skilling had abruptly resigned as CEO of the company--just four months before Enron went belly up--because he knew the game was over. But Skilling wouldn't have any of it... "Enron was a great company," Skilling repeatedly declared. And indeed that's how it seemed almost until the moment it filed the largest bankruptcy claim in U.S. history.

The Smartest Guys in the Room is not just the story of Enron's fall. Rather, it takes the long journey all the way from the start, with a young Kenneth Lay cutting his teeth in the natural gas business, finally rising to the top of Houston Natural Gas in 1984. Convinced that deregulation of the natural gas industry was imminent, "Lay operated on one theory: get big fast." Fortune shined upon him in the figure of InterNorth, an Omaha-based pipeline company that offered to purchase Lay's company. Lay and his negotiation team obliged, "letting" InterNorth buy Houston Natural Gas, with a couple catches: they would have to pay a 50% premium on the current stock price, and Lay would have to take over the combined company within 18 months. Not a bad deal for Lay, though it got even better when Lay bullied the InterNorth CEO out almost immediately, with the help of consultants from McKinsey (including a young man named Jeff Skilling). Slowly but surely, Lay began to purge the InterNorth faction, install his own men, and even come up with a new name for the company:

After four months of research, the New York consulting firm Lay had hired had settled on Enteron in time for the merged business's first annual meeting, in the spring of 1986. But then the Wall Street Journal reported that Enteron was a term for the alimentary canal (the digestive tract), turning the name into a laughingstock. Though it meant reprinting 75,000 covers that had already been printed for the new annual report, the board convened an emergency meeting and went with a runner-up on the list: Enron.

Of course, it would only be 15 years before the name Enron itself became a laughingstock. As McLean and Elkind trace the rise of Enron, we see the entrance of major players like Skilling, Rebecca Mark (who ascends to lead the disastrous international division before resigning in disgrace... with $80M in cashed-in stock options), and financial "wizard" Andrew Fastow. Several themes quickly emerge: Enron executives think they are smarter than everyone else, believe they are entitled to live off the company's expense accounts, and have virtually no idea how to run a successful business. Take Mark's international division for example:

What one former international executive calls the "fatal flaw" in the business was the compensation structure. Developers got bonuses on a project-by-project basis. The developers would calculate the present value of all the expected future cash flow from a project. This was also the model the banks used to lend money. When the project reached financial close--that is, when the banks lent money but before a single pipe was laid or foundation was poured--they were paid.

No wonder the developers were so eager to move on to the next deal; they had no financial incentive to follow through on the one they'd just completed... It was crazy.. under this new pay arrangement, the only thing that matter was making the deal happen. The more deals Enron International did, and the bigger they were, the richer the developers got. The system encouraged international executives to gamble without risk. The deeper problem, one that emerged in later years, was that no one was held responsible for the operation of a project, yet it was the operation that produced the real money.

Yet preposterous as this was, it was not illegal. It was simply the sort of unbelievably bad decision-making that would normally scare off Wall Street and drive a company into bankruptcy. And yet Enron was just hitting its stride, and had years of double-digit growth ahead of it (McLean and Elkind have to sheepishly admit that Fortune named Enron the most innovative company six years in a row). How did that happen? It turns out that Skilling, incompetent though he might be at, you know, producing anything of value, was a master at manipulating Wall Street. He understood that financial analysts thrived on a company's financial data, its accounting. So that's where the growth and profits had to be. On paper:

Invariably, as the quarter drew to a close, Enron's top executives would realize they were going to fall short of the number they'd promised Wall Street. At most companies, when this happens, the CEO and chief financial officer make an announcement ahead of time, warning analysts and investors that they're going to miss their number. In other words, the reality of the business drives the process of dealing with Wall Street. Not at Enron. Enron's reality began and ended with hitting the target. And so, when the the realization took place that the company was falling short, its executives undertook a desperate scramble to fill the holes in the company's earnings. At Enron, that's what they called earnings shortfalls--"holes."

At first, a lot of the holes could be filled by accelerating deals, often conceding major negotiating points simply to get the papers signed before the quarter ended. But the bad business decisions kept adding up, and the holes kept getting begin. And thus the reliance on the number crunchers increased, until Enron was leaning "heavily on mark-to-market accounting to help reach its earning goals." In its simplest terms, the way Enron used this accounting method was so to immediately book on paper all of the earnings it expected to earn from a deal as soon as the deal was signed. Thus a 10-year deal projected to be worth $40M per year signed in 2001 could be counted as $400M in earnings in 2001 rather than as the money actually flowed in. The obvious problem is that such projections could be, and at Enron were, heavily manipulated; rosier projections equals bigger earnings. This would be somewhat alleviated if Enron had treated its anticipated losses in the same way, booking anticipated losses immediately even if the losses would not be realized all at once. But Enron never did that. Projected earnings were booked immediately, anticipates losses ignored forever:

At the end of each quarter, for example, Enron was supposed to write off its dead deals. To review what needed to be booked, [Enron Chief Accounting Officer Richard] Causey met individually with the heads of the origination groups. At one meeting, an executive recalled, Causey kept coming back to a dead deal and asking: Was it possible the deal was still alive?

Finally the executive took the hint--and the deal was declared undead. Enron deferred the hit for another quarter. "You did it once, it smelled bad," says the executive. "You did it again, it didn't smell as bad."

Causey is now in federal prison for securities fraud. But even his valiant efforts could only go on for so long before financial analysts noticed that things were not adding up. Of course, they would only notice if all this accounting were taking place on Enron's corporate balance sheet. And this is where Andy Fastow really shined:

[I]f it's impossible to mark the moment Enron crossed the line, it's not hard at all to know who led the way. That was Andrew Fastow, the company's chief financial officer... Fastow became Enron's Wizard of Oz, creating a giant illusion of steady and increasing prosperity. Fastow and his team were the financial masterminds, helping Enron bridge the gap between the reality of its business and the picture Skilling and Lay wanted to present to the world. He and his group created off-balance-sheet vehicles, complex financing structures, and deals so bewildering that few people can understand them even now. Fastow's fiefdom, called Global Finance, was, as Churchill said about the Soviet Union, a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma that was Enron's string of successively higher earnings.

Of course, eventually the whole thing unraveled. Many of Fastow's financial maneuvers were premised on the constant rise of Enron's stock price. As soon as a few short sellers and journalists started poking around in early 2001, and the stock prices stagnated and then dropped, it was mere months before the whole scheme collapsed. And with that collapse went thousands of jobs and tens of billions of dollars in vanished investments.

With good reason, McLean and Elkind end their narrative with the bankruptcy filing. At the time of the book's publication, the first wave of indictments had already been handed down to the likes of Lay and Fastow, but the authors had no way of knowing how these relatively novel prosecutions would turn out. It was months later that Fastow decided to enter his guilty plea and cooperate against his former colleagues in exchange for leniency for himself and his wife. Lay's trial would not take place until early 2006, when he and co-defendant Skilling would both be convicted of most of the numerous counts of conspiracy, false statements, securities fraud and insider trading lodged against them. Lay would die before his sentencing hearing, thus requiring the judge to vacate the convictions. Skilling was sentenced to more than 24 years and a $45M fine, but earlier this year the 5th Circuit ordered a new sentencing hearing while upholding the convictions. He's still looking at a likely double-digit term of confinement. Ironically, Fastow, probably the most personally culpable for the house of cards that came tumbling down in late 2001, was so cooperative that prosecutors lobbied the judge on his behalf; he'll be released in December 2011. Funny how those things work out.

It is also interesting to note the many parallel forces there were enabling the Enron scheme ten years ago and then the credit and subprime mortgage structure whose collapse rocked the markets last year. McLean and Elkind devote an entire chapter, titled "Everybody Loves Enron," to all the external forces that knowingly or negligently conspired to assist Enron's undeserved rise. Most obviously, the accountants were in on it. The banks and financial analysts were too busy getting rich off consulting fees to risk asking any questions about what in the world Enron actually did ("There was simply too much investment-banking business at stake not to have a screaming buy on the stock... the Chinese Wall had long since broken down, and during the bull market, analysts became increasingly instrumental in helping their firms land banking business.") The credit agencies' hands were dirty too:

[I]nstead of acting as the ultimate watchdog, the credit analysts unwittingly served the opposite purpose: they gave all the other market participants a false sense of security. Stock analysts and investors alike took solace in the fact that the credit analysts gave Enron an investment-grade rating... Thus did the responsibility to truly analyze Enron land nowhere. And thus the stock continued its climb.

Sounds awfully familiar, doesn't it? This too would almost be funny, if it was not so infuriatingly sad.

Old-Fashioned Rum-Raisin Cookies

rum_raisin.jpgSunday's oatmeal lacie misstep was sufficiently frustrating that it took not one, but two further baking endeavors before I felt redeemed that afternoon. After taking the second batch of fudgy macadamia cookies out of the oven, I flipped through the Betty Crocker Cookie Book looking for something without chocolate. Hard as it is for me to understand, there are apparently those out there who simply do not like chocolate, and I try to accommodate their tastes when possible. After flipping past a series of whole wheat cookies (which may put to the test my stated goal of baking every recipe in the book), my search was rewarded with a recipe for rum-raisin cookies.

1 cup raisins
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup rum
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 egg
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt

Any recipe involving rum is okay in my book. Some would say that a bit of rum extract mixed with water will suffice. I say if you have a chance to pour rum into a mixing bowl, take it. While either light or dark rum will work, I think the richness of a dark rum is better suited for most baking needs. I've been loyal to Myers's Dark since my first attempt at tiramisu; it also worked well in last year's eggnog bread.

Heat the raisins, water and rum until boiling in a small saucepan, then reduce the heat and simmer uncovered 30 minutes, or until all the liquid has evaporated. Let them cool for 30 minutes.

Preheat your oven to 375F. Cream the sugar and butter together, and then stir in the egg. Add the flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt, and stir until blended. Stir in the raisins last.

Using a cookie scoop to ensure the cookies have a uniform size (which ensures uniform baking), place the dough on baking sheets lined with parchment paper. Bake for 9 to 11 minutes (9 for darker baking sheets, 11 for light ones), then cool on wire racks.

This is the first time I have made cookies with raisins but not oatmeal, and I was pleasantly surprised by the results. Simmering the raisins in rum and water gave them a rich flavor, and left them so tender as to almost melt in the mouth. I think raisins are still best when accompanied by oatmeal and brown sugar; perhaps a rum-raisin oatmeal cookie is in order.

One Week in New York City, Part II


In our first two days in NYC, we had already seen more than enough to justify the trip. And we still had five days to go! Monday morning, after another outstanding breakfast at Penelope, we ventured toward Union Square. I decided I had to at least visit The Strand, after placing online orders with them for the past six years without ever setting foot in the store. On the way we walked through Gramercy, and visited two of my wife's favorite NYC stores (this was not her first time in the city), ABC Home and Fishs Eddy. Then, since it was a Monday, we had the fortune of stumbling into the Union Square Greenmarket, where we downed a bottle of fresh apple cider before moving on to the main event.

The Strand was... overwhelming. I did not really come to buy, but if I had I would not have known where to start. I can hardly believe I am saying this, but there were just too many books. I am glad we visited, it was great to see, but I think I will stick to their website from now on.

NYC-6.jpgWe had greatly enjoyed our walk through Greenwich Village on our tour, so we decided to spend the afternoon walking back through those streets and visiting all the cute shops we had seen. We also stopped for lunch at what immediately become our favorite New York pizzeria, Bleecker Street Pizza. Now this is what thin pizza is supposed to taste like! It was hot, delicious, and the crust was sufficiently crisp that when you held it in the air, it stayed in the air. No drooping, sagging, or sliding to be found. Top notch stuff.

But that was not the last of the eating that afternoon. Oh no. Because Greenwich Village is also home to the Magnolia Bakery. Fortunately we got there about ten minutes before a big tour group, so there was not much of a line for us to get our cupcakes, which were very tasty and which we enjoyed from the benches just outside the adorable Bleecker Street playground.

But wait, there's more! The final piece to the Monday afternoon food bonanza was a dish I am ashamed to admit I had never tried before: falafel. That's right, vegetarian though I may be, I had never tasted the Middle Eastern delight that is fried chickpeas. Short of actually visiting the Levant, New York City was probably the best place to start. And start I did, at a tiny hole-in-the-wall spot called Taim, owned and operated by Israeli immigrants. Fried to order, crispy but not greasy, served in a whole-wheat pita with hummus and Jerusalem salad, this was one of the most revelatory food experiences of my life. Not only did we return to Taim just a couple days later, as soon as we returned to Atlanta I found the closest falafel source (Olive Bistro) and a few days ago I actually cooked falafel at home (the patties fell apart a bit in the oil, but they still tasted great).

The only black mark on this otherwise fantastic day, and really the only misstep of the entire trip, was our visit to Broadway that night. We saw The Phantom of the Opera, which now claims the mantle of longest-running show on Broadway. Well, I for one do not know why. I thought it was terrible; it was boring, incoherent, maudlin. I think I bought the tickets because it was one of the few Broadway shows open on Monday, but we would have been better off saving the money and going to a movie.

Tuesday morning we decided to take a break from Penelope, as I had other plans. We woke up early and headed to Grand Central Terminal. Though there's not much to do there, other than catch a train, it was still a site worth seeing. And after that, we walked up 3rd Avenue for my first real NYC bagel experience, at Ess-a-Bagel. I placed my standard bagel order: plain cream cheese on a plain bagel and butter on an everything, and it was exquisite. This is what real bagels taste like! Stomachs full, we moved on to St. Patrick's Cathedral before making our way to the Top of the Rock, where we treated to the most extraordinary views of the city. In every major city, people seem to go to the top of the wrong structure. In Paris, if you go to the top of the Eiffel Tower, you can not see the Eiffel Tower! Go to the top of Montparnasse instead. Likewise, in NYC, do not go to the top of the Empire State Building for sightseeing, go to the top of Rockefeller Center.

That night we saw Billy Elliot, which will likely be crowned best musical at the Tony's on Sunday night. And it will certainly deserve it. This was a movie that we very much liked, and the musical takes it a step beyond. The sets were exceptional, the choreography even better, the performances by the children superb, and though no single song stuck in my head, the music by Elton John was wonderful and integral to the show's success. Though a sentimental favorite (see below) gets my pick for favorite show of the week, I can certainly say I thought Billy Elliot was the best production we saw.


Wednesday was a bit of a lazy day for us, walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, wandering through shops in SoHo, returning to the Village for falafel, and squeezing in a couple hours at the MoMa before it closed. But that was all just a prelude to the show I was most excited about, the new revival of Hair. My love of Hair traces back to a two-part episode of Head of the Class in which the students perform the musical. In high school I had a CD of the soundtrack that I listened to constantly, especially as I drove to Salt Lake City in the afternoons to intern at the ACLU of Utah. As my wife can attest to after sitting next to me through the show, I know all the words to every song. Seeing it in person was an experience to treasure.

Thursday morning we decided we needed bagels one more time. As we were headed to the Met, it was not out of the way to hit H&H Midtown Bagels East, which is rightly regarded by many as the best bagel shop in the city. My wife certainly thought so. I am glad we carb-loaded, because we were on our feet most of the day at the Met. Without taking anything away from the British Museum, this is one awesome place. In fact, we spent so much time with the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians, the Arms & Armor, and the Modern Art (hey, that is what they have on the first floor), that I did not even get to the second floor.

NYC-7.jpgOur last NYC dinner was enjoyed at a lovely Indian restaurant called Dawat, and for our last show we saw the revival of Guys and Dolls. It was, we think, the only show we saw that was not sold out. It was very cute, and as Gilmore Girls addicts we were sure to enjoy anything with Lauren Graham. But Oliver Platt's performance was rather stiff and the show has just not aged well. It was pretty tame stuff; as my wife pointed out, there's a reason it is produced in high schools across the country.

With a half-day to spend on Friday, we had one last breakfast at Penelope before we decided to venture out to Battery Park and see if we could get on a ferry to Ellis Island. The lines were not too bad, so we made the trip. The ferry docks first at Liberty Island, and we got some great photos of Lady Liberty because my wife was smart enough to ask which side of the boat the statue would be on as we approached (it's on the right). We did not have a lot of time to spend at Ellis Island before we headed back to Manhattan, but it was enough to take the Park Service tour and then wander a bit through the exhibits. There is a lot of history packed into not a lot of space on that island.

Unfortunately, we saved our biggest adventure for last. Based on the ease of the cab ride into the city, we figured budgeting an hour to get back to JFK would be plenty. So with a 4:40 flight, our plan was to get back to the hotel at 2:30 with a cab waiting. Well, we did get back to the hotel at 2:30, and there was a cab waiting. But when we told our cab driver we had a 4:40 flight out of JFK, he did not seem very confident that we would make it. And he was almost right. The traffic was awful. It was breathtaking, and this is coming from someone who grew up in Chicago, has driven the San Diego-Los Angeles circuit a number of times, and has lived in Atlanta for the past four years. This was something else.

But our cab driver knew we were in a hurry, and he was completely mentally unstable, so a combination of daredevil maneuvers and side street navigation got us to JFK at about 3:45. There was just enough time for us to check our bags, make it to the gate, and go home. Lots of excitement, which made the arrival in our home and the sleep in our own bed that night all the more pleasant. It was a wonderful trip. I do not see myself ever living in a city as crowded and busy as New York, but I certainly plan to return.


Fudgy Macadamia Cookies


As I mentioned on Sunday, my ongoing effort to bake the Betty Crocker Cookie Book from front to back hit a snag with some oatmeal lacies that simply could not be pried off the cookie sheet without crumbling. Failures in the kitchen are always frustrating, but the best way to overcome them is with an immediate success. So l took stock of my pantry and ventured into another recipe from the book:

1 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 oz. unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled
1 egg
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup chopped macadamia nuts

Preheat your oven to 350F. Cream the sugar and butter together, and then stir in the vanilla, chocolate, and eggs. Add the flour, baking powder, and salt, and stir until blended. Stir in the macadamia nuts.

Using a cookie scoop to ensure the cookies have a uniform size (which ensures uniform baking), place the dough on baking sheets lined with parchment paper. Bake for 9 to 11 minutes (9 for darker baking sheets, 11 for light ones), cool on the baking sheet for 2 minutes, then remove to wire racks.

As the name of this recipe indicates, these cookies have a slightly dense, chewy consistency. My wife's first reaction was to compare them to little brownie bites, which I'd say is pretty accurate, and it is a flavor well-matched by the subtle sweetness of the macadamia nuts.

One Week in New York City, Part I


Though I lived in Boston for four years, have been to Paris on four separate occasions, and have traveled as far abroad as Japan and Poland, until the 8th of May, 2009, I had never been to New York City. For the past several years, my wife and I have tried to take at least one week-long vacation, despite the difficulty of meshing the schedules of two practicing attorneys (one of whom deploys back and forth to the Middle East). In 2005 we took our honeymoon to Jamaica. The year after it was the Bahamas, then England/Scotland, and last year we revisited by old college haunts with a week Boston.

NYC-1.jpgWhen we started planning our 2009 trip back in January, the prices for foreign travel were atmospheric. It was going to cost nearly $3000 just for the airfare to get us to and from France. Suddenly NYC, which always seemed so expensive before, looked like a bargain. Airfare for two was under $400, and we got to spend the rest on a nice hotel and, most importantly, Broadway. Though I am a recent convert to the joys of musical theater (we saw Mary Poppins in London, and Wicked in Chicago and Atlanta), Broadway was probably the NYC attraction about which I was most excited.

Sitting in Kuwait in January, planning the trip, I went a little crazy. I figured that if we were spending six nights in NYC, that was six nights we could spend on Broadway. Sure, the tickets ended up costing as much as our hotel room, but so what? If you're going to do New York, do it right, right? And we actually got quite a deal on the hotel through Expedia, staying in a deluxe queen at the Hotel Chandler in Murray Hill, which got excellent reviews on TripAdvisor (my one-stop for finding hotel reviews).

Our itinerary had us taking a mid-morning flight on Saturday into JFK, staying six nights until Friday, then flying back late Friday afternoon. That gave us the following weekend to relax and recover before heading back to work. It is just too much of a shock to the system sometimes to get back from a vacation on Sunday night and have to return to the office the very next morning. Saturday's flight was very smooth, and the cab ride from JFK, while not cheap, was extremely fast. We got from the airport to our hotel in no more than 20-25 minutes (which gave us a warped sense of how long the return trip would take; more on that later). After checking our bags at the hotel, we decided to wander a bit before our 3pm check-in. We made our way over to Broadway and walked toward Times Square, stopping for some mediocre pizza at a tourist-trap along the way. We knew Times Square was not the place to find great food, but we were just that hungry. Times Square, in the daylight, was mostly just crowded. It was not until we returned later that night for our first Broadway show that I got a real sense of just what an experience that place can be.

NYC-2.jpgWe had made reservations for dinner that night, but last minute we found out there was going to be an investors' tasting at the restaurant one of our law school friends has been working on. We put in some money last year, and though the project has been almost interminably delayed, it sure looked good when we saw it. We then hopped up the subway and headed for the Marquis Theatre to see Allison Janney in Dolly Parton's 9 to 5. I think the New York Post review summed it up well:

The star can barely sing or dance, the composer's never written for Broadway before -- and the whole thing's based on a 1980 film some think is outdated.

But since we're talking about Allison Janney, Dolly Parton and "9 to 5," what could have been lethal problems turn out to be assets in this goofily entertaining show.

We certainly had fun; I kept whispering to my wife, "That's the Allison Janney!" We walked home humming the theme song and got a good night's sleep before our big day. Months before, after visiting TripAdvisor to research a hotel, I saw that the #1-rated Thing to Do was a walking tour from a company called Real New York Tours. We love walking tours, but don't much like traveling in crowds of tourists, so the notion of a 6-hour private walking tour for $200 was a revelation. I e-mailed the proprietor, Luke Miller, and he signed us up for a private tour.

To fuel our engines for the day ahead, we had breakfast at a local restaurant I had found online called Penelope. Located on the corner of Lexington and 30th, just a couple blocks from our hotel, this became our go-to breakfast place. We loved it, going back at least twice (three times?) before the trip was over. Everything we ordered was delicious, but I'll highlight the "Penny Egg Sandwich," consisting of scrambled eggs with american cheese & pesto on a croissant or english muffin, plus fake sausage or bacon (or the real thing for the carnivores). Well-fueled, we returned to our hotel, where lo and behold, at 10am on Sunday morning, Luke walked into the lobby of our hotel and we were off.


I could try and describe everything we saw during the six hours we spent with Luke, but it's easier just to cut and paste the tour description from his website:

From the pastoral serenity of Central Park to the gritty back streets of Chinatown, this tour covers it all. The Big Apple Tour is for people that truly want the full perspective of all New York City has to offer. We'll explore the history, architecture and pop culture of many diverse neighborhoods.

Sites include: Times Square, Central Park, The Dakota, Strawberry Fields, Greenwich Village, Washington Square Park, Soho, Little Italy, Chinatown, South Street Seaport, Brooklyn Bridge, Wall Street, Ground Zero, and Saint Paul's Chapel.

NYC-12.jpgAnd aside from Times Square, which we'd already seen, and Ground Zero and St. Paul's, which we were a bit hesitant to visit, we really did cover all that ground. We stopped in the Village for pizza at Luke's favorite place, Joe's Pizza, of Spider-Man 2 fame. Very good pizza. The highlights for me were Greenwich Village and the intersection between Little Italy and Chinatown. As Luke took us down Mulberry Street, he told us that when we we turned on to Mott, it would be like walking in to Beijing. As the photo above indicates, he was right. All you could see or hear was Mandarin. Other than the overwhelming scent from the fishmongers, it was awesome. Of particular interest were the hidden tunnels that were apparently dug as part of the Chinese gang wars, but now house some of the shadiest businesses I've ever seen (including a dentist... an underground dentist!)

After getting some great views of the Brooklyn Bridge from the South Street Seaport and visiting Wall Street, Luke dropped us off at the City Hall subway and we said our goodbyes (until next time, Luke!) I can echo all the great things written about the tour on TripAdvisor, and highly recommend it for anyone visiting the city. We got back to our hotel with just enough time to rest for a few minutes before we grabbed a quick meal at Trattoria Trecolori (which defied the standard warning against Theatre District food) before heading to the Richard Rodgers Theatre for In the Heights. I very much enjoyed the show, which won best musical and best original score at the 2008 Tony's. My wife, on the other hand, loved it. I think it was her favorite of the six we saw, and the soundtrack CD is on its way to us from Amazon.

I'll have more on the rest of our week in NYC on Thursday.

Barbarians at the Gate by Bryan Burrough & John Helyar

burrough_barbarians.jpgIt is not uncommon to see great works of fiction reprinted in anniversary editions celebrating either the date of publication or the centennial birthday of the author. See, for instance, the "50th Anniversary Editions" of On the Road and Lord of the Flies, or the "Steinbeck Centennial Collection." It is something else entirely, though, to see a hardcover anniversary reprint of a nonfiction title issued decades after the book's original publication. And with good reason: most nonfiction does not age well. Usually either the subject matter is no longer topical, or the underlying research has been surpassed by more recent scholarship.

Thus it is worth noticing when a nonfiction book does get the anniversary treatment. A title like The Joy of Cooking, which recently celebrated its 75th anniversary, is somewhat exempt from the obsolescence of most nonfiction titles, not that this diminishes the enduring popularity of that book. However, it is hard to think of a genre more prone to near-immediate outmoding than business current events. Just think, Charles Morris book on last year's credit crisis actually had to be retitled from The Trillion Dollar Meltdown to The Two Trillion Dollar Meltdown when it came out in paperback, as it was so quickly overcome by events.

That is a long way of saying that Barbarians at the Gates has a decent case behind its cover's claim to being the "Best Business Story of Our Time," based solely on the fact that it was republished in hardcover last year to mark the 20th anniversary of the leveraged buyout of RJR Nabisco. As the authors state:

When we wrote Barbarians at the Gate in 1989, it was a book about current events; now it's history. Some books age better than others. We'd like to think Barbarians has aged well. The book is still used in major business schools to teach any number of topics, from ethics to investment banking. In 1993 it was made into a movie on HBO. In 2002, fourteen years after its heyday, the RJR fight was dramatized once again in a documentary film on the History Channel.

I think there are several reasons for the book's lasting success. First, and most unfortunately, the subject matter has remained frighteningly topical. Sure, the details of the RJR Nabisco battle are no longer in the news, but the book's tales of conference room machismo and high-dollar financial manipulations have been seen again and again in the years since (perhaps most spectacularly in the saga of Enron, on which I will say more in my upcoming review of The Smartest Guys in the Room).

Second, though the book was written just a year or so after the events it describes, there is little chance of better research coming along; the authors, both reporters at The Wall Street Journal at the time, snagged in-depth interviews with seemingly every key player in the saga, providing a vivid behind-the-scenes perspective. They were able to reconstruct pivotal conversations based on the accounts of multiple participants, just like a fly on the wall. Finally and fundamentally, this is just a uniquely fascinating story with larger-than-life characters, and the authors tell it fabulously. They successfully meshed their thorough research with a suspenseful narrative normally reserved for works of fiction:

It was the night before the company's regular October board meeting, normally an occasion for the directors to dine informally with their chief executive, Ross Johnson, and get an update on corporate affairs delivered in Johnson's unique freewheeling style. But tonight the atmosphere was markedly different. Johnson had called every director and urged him or her to attend the dinner, which wasn't usually mandatory. Only a few knew what loomed before them; the others could only guess.

This board meeting, in which Johnson would propose to lead a leveraged buyout of the company he headed, is depicted in the book's opening chapter, though it takes nearly two hundred pages for the narrative to catch up. Johnson is at the heart of the story; leveraged buyouts, after all, normally depended on the cooperation of management in assisting the investment group in cutting costs, spinning off unprofitable businesses, and thus generating the huge profits expected from an LBO. Johnson's story is extraordinary on its own, depicting the Canadian businessman's late bloom and then meteoric rise, twice merging the smaller company he led (first Standard Brands, then Nabisco) into a larger company and then rising to the head of the combined operation.

But once the LBO gets rolling, Johnson largely loses control of the situation, with the arrival on the scene of Henry Kravis. Kravis, the self-proclaimed master of LBOs, did not like the notion that the largest LBO in history would take place without him. The majority of the book depicts the fight between Kravis' group and the management group to win the board's approval of their offer. This battle features all the worst of what American business has to offer: uncontrolled ambition, greed, preposterously immense egos:

While Cohen and Kravis glared over their coffee cups, Johnson decided to take matters into his own hands. He simply had to know if the Kravis bid was real and, if so , what it means for his management group. Johnson was nothing if not a quick read: He could tell Cohen was less than enthusiastic about sharing the deal of his life with Kravis. Both times Cohen and Kravis had spoken they had gotten into spit fights. Maybe it made sense to try some kind of partnership with Kravis. The only way to find out for sure, he reasoned, was to meet with Kravis himself.

But the time for handling such matters one-on-one had passed, and soon the story is one of rooms filled with bankers and lawyers, alternately negotiating the smallest details in a press release or coming up with financial projections to justify another couple billion dollars in their offer. In the end, of course, Kravis won. At least in the short term; by the late 1990s his firm divested its holding "with humble returns." Johnson, on the other hand, had resigned as CEO shortly after his group lost the bidding, walking away with a golden parachute worth $53 million. Still, as the authors point out in their new foreword, that "once-outrageous" amount seems practically "parsimonious" in light of the sums taken by today's CEOs, who can pull that much down in a yearly bonus. Or the amounts earned (read: stolen) by the folks at Enron. But more on them later in the week.

India by John Keay

keay_india.jpgOf the world's great ancient civilizations, the one about which I have been most ignorant is surely India. While I have read several books on Greece and Rome and listened to Teaching Company courses on China, Egypt, and the Near East, my exposure to Indian history has been more or less limited to repeated viewings of Richard Attenborough's biopic, Gandhi. In an effort to correct this, I purchased India, John Keay's one-volume history of the subcontinent from pre-history to present, though it has taken me several years to finally get around to reading it.

In the first lines of the introduction, Keay establishes that one reason for the difficulty in exploring ancient Indian history is the "poverty of available sources," which make "one of the world's longest histories also one of its more patchy." Keay describes the breakthroughs in recent decades, particularly in archaeology and linguistics, that have provided a fuller outline of early Indian civilization. Nevertheless, the several chapters which explore the Harappan and Vedic cultures and so-called "Epic India" remain rather speculative. Further, though the archaeological and linguistic analyses may be the best available, Keay's presentation is rather tedious. Along with the inherent difficulty in comprehending these geographically and chronologically distant civilizations, this makes for a sluggish beginning.

Truth be told, Keay's narrative is flat throughout the book. Things pick up a bit once the chronology comes "Out of the Myth-Smoke" with the Magadha and Maurya empires. With the rise of Buddhism and its accompanying source texts, as well as greater contact with the West (most notably Alexander the Great's incursion to the edges of India in the late 4th-century BC), the people, places, and dates of ancient India become more readily ascertainable:

In 1837, following years of conjecture and study by numerous other 'Orientalists', James Prinsep, the assay-master at the British mint in Calcutta, made what remains the single most important discovery in the unraveling of India's ancient history. From inscriptions in an unknown script found on the sotne railings of the great Buddhist stupa at Sanchi, he managed to identify two letters of the alphabet... Armed with his insight into the likely language, plus much of the alphabet, Prinsep proceeded to make the first ever translations from the neat 'pin-man' script now known as Ashoka Brahmi... Henceforth called Edicts, rather than Commandments, the inscriptions clearly announced themselves as the directives of a single sovereign. 'Thus speaks Devanampiya Piyadassi' was how most began.'

And thus historians began to piece together the history of Ashoka, most successful of the Mauryan emperors and regarded today as one of India's greatest rulers. The story of Ashoka and his successors is one of the best sections of the book, but it does not last. Unfortunately, in the era of the Middle Kingdoms, filling the 1500 years between the Mauryans and the rise of the Mughals, I spent much of the time just trying to identify the different regions of India that Keay was referring to as he muscled through the dozens of kingdoms and dynasties that competed for power.

Keay has a bad habit of alternating the use of a region's historical name with the name of a modern Indian political subdivision, adding to the confusion since neither of these is familiar to most Western readers. There are a decent number of maps, but I still found myself constantly trying to discern where the events being described were occurring, and more than once found myself on the entirely wrong side of the continent. Perhaps I am asking too much, and it is my ignorance rather than any defect in the book that is the cause of such difficulty. But I'm not so sure. The book does, after all, purport to be an authoritative one-volume history of the subcontinent. If there is inadequate time spent explaining and identifying the geographic regions up front, I think that is a valid basis for criticism.

Keay's treatment of India in the second millennium A.D. is nothing if not thorough. He traces in detail the rise and fall of dozens of regional and national governments, from the sultans of Delhi to the great Mughal Empire straight through the British Raj to independence and partition.

The dynamic of the Mughal political economy was as much about troops as money. Military leaders financed their activities by engaging in entrepreneurial ventures, and entrepreneurs secured their investments by supporting military venture.s Thus, even before war broke out with the French in the 1740s, the English Company, through its employees, was already indirectly involved in the hire and maintenance of troops by neighboring zamindars and revenue collectors... Most were recruited locally, many being from the Indo-Portuguese community. But Indian troops, known as 'peons' or 'sepoys (sipahis, soldiers), were also hired, there being a ready pool of professional soldiers - Marathas, Deccanis, Afghans, rajputs, Baksaris (from Awadh) - which Mughal rule had left stranded, and often unpaid, throughout the subcontinent. The existence of this market in troops, like that of the market in offices and revenue farms, positively invited European participation.

As India emerges under the Mughals as both a player and an object on the international scene, it is easier to understand the context of the history Keay is describing. Overall, Keay's book is a frustrating, rewarding endeavor. I spent much of the book moderately confused, and it took several weeks to struggle through, but at the end I felt substantially more familiar with the subject matter. Perhaps this is the inevitable nature of a one-volume text on the Indian subcontinent, which has seen more than its share of sweeping religious, military, and political turmoil in its four millennia of human civilization.