Category Archives: Book review

If We Were Gods, Would We Be Happy?

My latest article published on Impakter:

If We Were Gods by Adam Karni Cohen, published by The Endeavour Press, July 2017 Book Review and Interview 

When I started reading If We Were Gods, I was wondering how Adam Karni Cohen, the author of this remarkable and bizarre love story-cum-family saga, could ever pull off the heavy referencing to the ancient world of Greek and Roman mythology. I was ready to be bored and expecting to classify this debut novel as yet another pretentious failure from an aspiring writer.

I was wrong, of course. This is the work of a master story-teller. Don’t be put off by the Roman gods roaming around in this book, they are not a bore or a waste of time. There’s nothing academic or pretentious about them. The gods you encounter here don’t slow down the storytelling, what they do is add a new dimension to it, refreshing and amplifying a common tale in our times. A love story between two university students from different countries and different cultures, in this case, Italy and the UK. We have Claudio Collina, son of a Verona industrialist, who came to study engineering in the UK and Jennifer who is an English med student. Claudio is a pivotal character, loaded with an intellectual baggage shaped by ancient Rome, he is the one living the ancient myths.  He befriends Chris, another British med student, and soon this becomes a “classic” love triangle.

Adam Karni Cohen took literally the classic element in this love triangle and elevated it to the main theme of his novel – thus turning it into something entirely new.

You don’t need to know anything about the triangle of love between Vulcan (the god of fire), Venus (his wife) and Mars (her lover) to enjoy the book. And as you read on, you discover that the author has woven more than a love story, this is the saga of two families, one in England, the other in Italy, and it spans decades and generations, as the story turns on Jennifer’s children, Anna, eighteen and her brother Sam, fourteen.

Sam is a particularly endearing character who, to alleviate the boredom of a summer vacation, plays at being a “detective”. He delves deep into his mother’s personal papers and there are times you feel like telling him to stop. But his relentless curiosity moves the plot forward and you come to enjoy the way the author delicately draws this teenage boy, with all his flaws, misguided ambitions and yearning to be loved.

This is an ambitious novel, finely structured and with multiple points of views. Remarkably, one key character central to the plot is one we never meet but only hear about: Claudio’s father, Federico Collina, who sounds like a ruthless startup entrepreneur (not an entirely lovable character but very real).  He has an outsize effect on his children, Claudio and Melissa, shaping their destinies.

If this all sounds complicated, it isn’t. The author pulls it off brilliantly, aided by a real talent for both story-telling and mastery of language. The reader is drawn in, the pace is relentless, this is a page-turner and a deep plunge into the human condition.

After reading it, I wanted to talk to the author and he kindly agreed to answer my questions.

Question: Literary agent Donald Maass wrote in his famous guidebook “the Breakout Novel” that a “truly BIG book is a perfect blend of inspired premise, larger-than-life characters, high-stakes story, deeply-felt themes, vivid setting and much more”. Your book checks all the boxes. Can you tell me how you came to your “inspired premise” and “larger-than-life characters” – in other words, why the mythology, why Claudio?

To read his answers on Impakter, click here.

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Filed under Book review, interviews, Literature, Uncategorized

The American Dream is Dead, Long Live the American Dream!

My latest article on Impakter that I wanted to share with you:

THE AMERICAN DREAM IS DEAD, LONG LIVE THE AMERICAN DREAM!

BOOK REVIEWS: REQUIEM FOR THE AMERICAN DREAM: THE 10 PRINCIPLES OF CONCENTRATION OF WEALTH AND POWERBY NOAM CHOMSKY, PUBLISHED BY SEVEN STORIES PRESS (MARCH 2017); THE VANISHING MIDDLE CLASS: PREJUDICE AND POWER IN A DUAL ECONOMY BY PETER TEMIN, PUBLISHED BY MIT PRESS (MARCH 2017)

In a raft of bestselling books this year, our thinking elite has announced the demise of the middle class and the “American Dream”. At the heart of that “dream” is the idea that every generation, through hard work, would come out better off than the previous one. Of course, the 2008 Great Recession put a serious dent in the notion and Occupy Wall Street in 2011 pointed the finger at income inequality (it’s the One Percent!). In 2014, French economist Thomas Piketty’s magnum opus, Capital in the 21st Century, provided definitive scientific confirmation to every man’s perception that middle class income had been stagnant for decades, that the ultrarich was getting richer at the expense of everyone else.

Two important books from MIT luminaries addressing this issue came out in the same month (March 2017): Noam Chomsky’s Requiem for the American Dream and Peter Temin’s The Vanishing Middle Class. They both caused waves, loudly proclaiming that the American Dream is dead.

But can we really declare the American Dream dead? Both authors make suggestions though perhaps neither offer definitive solutions. That might require something more than a new set of policies and some people are beginning to talk about it. Recently New York Times journalist David Brooks suggested in an Op-Ed that “Trump is not just a parenthesis.” He is “the farcical culmination of a lot of dying old orders — demographic, political, even moral — and what comes after will be a reaction against rather than a continuing from.”

A lot of “dying orders” and one of them is the American Dream. It is essentially what kept the lights on in the “city on the hill”, the beacon that famously attracted the tired, poor and huddled masses to America – to paraphrase the American poet Emma Lazarus.

REQUIEM FOR THE AMERICAN DREAM

At the outset, it is striking how different Noam Chomsky’s Requiem is from all the other books he has written. It is far more accessible than the academic fare he has accustomed us to. Chomsky has taught at MIT for fifty years and he is one of America’s foremost thinkers, the most famous voice of dissent on the left. He is also an innovative linguist, credited with revolutionizing the field and as a political philosopher, the author of several seminal books, notably 9/11: Was There an Alternative?   considered the most influential post 9/11 book both at home and abroad.

The reason for Requiem’s greater accessibility probably derives from the fact that it is, bottom line, a movie tie-in. Based on the documentary of the same name released in April 2015, it encapsulates and builds on the main ideas presented in the film.

To read the rest, including about Peter Temin’s book and a possible solution suggested by Courtney E.Martin in a famous TED talk, click here 

Enjoy! These books are seriously good summer reading…

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Filed under Book review, Economics, non-fiction, politics, Sociology, Uncategorized

The People vs. the Elite? Democracy is the Loser

Yet another one of my articles just published on Impakter. Here’s the opening: 

BOOK REVIEW: THE RETREAT OF WESTERN LIBERALISM BY EDWARD LUCE, PUBLISHED BY LITTLE BROWN (JUNE 2017)

In his latest book, The Retreat of Western Liberalism, Edward Luce argues that with the rise of populism, Western liberalism is facing its gravest crisis since World War II. And without a deliberate effort on the part of the governing “elite”, it may be impossible to save it.

An Oxford-trained journalist and currently the Financial Times columnist in Washington and author of several bestselling books, Luce has made a solid reputation for successfully predicting the future, anticipating in his 2012 bestseller, the rise of middle class resentment and fight over immigration that led to Brexit and Trump’s victory.

In this book, with his deep knowledge of History and keen observing eye, he zeroes in what is ailing our society: At the heart of the crisis, the people pitted against the elite. That part of the middle class left behind by globalization – now fast becoming a large, vociferous mass of angry people –  rising against the experts. As he put it:

“Here then is the crux of the West’s crisis: our societies are split between the will of the people and the rule of the experts – the tyranny of the majority versus the club of self-serving insiders; Britain versus Brussels; West Virginia versus Washington. It follows that the election of Trump, and Britain’s exit from Europe, is a reassertion of the popular will.” (p. 120)

The Enemy is Within

“This time,” writes Luce, “we have conjured up the enemy from within. At home and abroad, America’s best liberal traditions are under assault from its own president. We have put arsonists in charge of the fire brigade.”

As we all know, that was just the beginning in the US and UK. Abroad, populism has already made giant steps, starting in Russia where despite the hopes raised by the fall of the Wall of Berlin, democracy was still-born and Putin gained absolute power, increasingly unopposed.

Luce reminds us that liberal, democratic forms of government are recent, they arose some two hundred years ago, and they are notoriously fragile. There are numerous historical precedents for setbacks and relapses into autocracy. Two dozen democracies have failed since 2000 and we now find such “illiberal democracies” everywhere, in Orban’s Hungary, Erdogan’s Turkey, and Duterte’s Philippines.

This growing tension between the people and the experts could end up killing Western liberalism (and democracy) or at least, as the title of Luce’s book implies, cause a serious “retreat”:

“Europe and America’s populist right wants to turn the clock back to the days when men were men and the West ruled. It is prepared to sacrifice the gains of globalization – and risk conflict with China – to protect jobs that have already vanished.” (p. 67)

Conflict with China? That possibility is explored in Chapter 3 aptly titled “Fallout”. Populist trends all point in that direction – “fear is the currency of autocrats” as Luce says.  Add irascible, narcissistic Trump to the mix, and what you get is (inter alia) war with China.

Luce estimates it could very well happen in 2020 and he makes the case that the man who is likely to stop this conflict is… Putin.

Really, Putin-the-peace-maker? It sounds over-the-top and crazy but, alas, probably it is not.

IN THE PHOTO: PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN OF RUSSIA. PHOTO CREDIT: CNN

To drive the point home, Luce draws a striking parallel between the world today and the world in 1914, noting that the “decades preceding the First World War marked a peak of globalization that the world economy only regained in the 1990s”.

To read the rest on Impakter, click here.

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Filed under Book review, non-fiction, politics, Uncategorized

How to Revive the American Dream: The Reeves Solution

My latest article on Impakter, here is the beginning:

HOW TO REVIVE THE AMERICAN DREAM: A CLASS DISPUTE

Book ReviewThe Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do about It by Richard V. Reeves published by Brookings Institution Press, June 2017

Take the top 20 percent of the American population and remove from it the One Percent, the ultra-rich. What do you get? A new class, roughly the “top” of the middle class, that is changing the way America consumes, thinks, and votes.

That, in a nutshell, is the argument made by several highly respected social scientists, starting with Tyler Cowen, who was the first out with his book, The Complacent Class in February 2017. Unsurprisingly, it was an instant bestseller, he is a respected economist with a popular blog. Next out in May was Elizabeth Currid-Halkett’s excellent, Veblen-inspired The Sum of Small things (reviewed on Impakter), followed in June by two more notable books, Richard Reeves’ Dream Hoarders  and Edward Luce’s The Retreat of Western Liberalism – though the latter has a broader scope, analyzing not just the upper middle class, but the whole system.

When it comes to describing this new class, details are different in each book, but what is remarkable is that all four authors are of one voice to condemn this new class.

For Edward Luce, an Oxford-educated journalist, this new class is “tone deaf” to the demands of the rest of the middle class, particularly the “white trash” left behind by globalization.  For Tyler Cowen, it is “complacent” and static, ensconced in self-contentment, unaware of a coming revolution. For Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, it is “pernicious” in wanting (and achieving) self-perpetuation. Richard Reeves agrees with her and views it as incredibly self-centered, “leaving everyone else in the dust”.

I’d like to spend some time here reviewing Reeves’ book because it is the most propositional of the lot, suggesting how, with some simple political measures, the “American Dream”, now badly damaged, could be restored and made to work for the whole of society.

American Dream PHOTO CREDIT: FLICKR – ADRIAN

The Social Impact of Income Inequality

The centerpiece of Reeves’ argument is this:

“Postsecondary education in particular has become an “inequality machine.” As more ordinary people have earned college degrees, upper middle-class families have simply upped the ante. Postgraduate qualifications are now the key to maintaining upper middle-class status. The upper middle class gains most of its status not by exploiting others but by exploiting its own skills.”

He sees this process as resulting in class stratification. The danger is that it “may blunt market dynamism by reducing the upward flow of talent and leaving human capital underutilized among the less fortunate.”

To read the rest, click here. I hope you enjoy the review, let me know how you like it, this is a book I highly recommend, well written, highly readable and with an important message!

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Filed under Book review, politics, Sociology, Uncategorized

A New Class is Born

Here’s my latest article on Impakter. A must read for anyone concerned with what is happening to the middle class in America! It’s changing, and changing fast and in unexpected ways…

Book Review: The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, published by Princeton University Press (May 2017)

Have you ever wondered why in an America replete with 13,000 Starbucks stores, small bars serving totally unknown, unbranded coffees can survive, and even thrive though the coffee they sell may be more expensive?

These are “single origin specialty coffees”, like the ones served by the Intelligentsia coffee company that practices “direct trade”, working with farmers in Guatemala and elsewhere, removing the middleman:

IN THE PHOTO: DIRECT TRADE PRACTICE, LOCAL FARMERS BECOME PARTNERS. SOURCE: INTELLIGENTSIA COFFEE.COM

As explained on their website, the company adheres to sustainable farming and environmental practices and, at the same time, is committed to “paying above FairTrade prices for truly outstanding coffee”. The point is “responsible stewardship of the land and a sustainable business model” for the farmers whom they view as “partners”.

Also, to deliver quality coffee, special rapid roasting machines are used, including some of the last highly prized Gothot Ideal machines that date back to the 1940s and 1950s – they were produced by a German manufacturing firm founded in 1880.

Intelligentsia started off with a coffee shop in Chicago in 1995, and now they are present in four more cities, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Atlanta. (In the photo: Logan Square Coffee Bar, in Chicago, one of Intelligentsia’s locations. Source: IntelligentsiaCoffee.com)

It is one of the many fascinating cases reported in Elizabeth Currid-Halkett’s latest book, The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class. Do read it this summer, it will change forever the way you view the American middle class. And it will give you a glimpse of what is ahead.

This is not the work of a neophyte. She is a Columbia University graduate and currently a professor at the University of Southern California (USC) where she holds the James Irvine Chair in Urban and Regional Planning and is professor of public policy at the Price School. Most recently she has contributed to a paper co-curated by USC and the World Economic Forum (WEF) on consumption patterns of the rising global middle class – more on this later.

The Sum of Small Things is her third major book after a couple of well-received works focused on art, high fashion and celebrities, and it is remarkable on two scores: the importance of the theme addressed – the rise of a new elite class in America – and the ground-breaking methodology used. The academic community was quick to take note, notably Tyler Cowen, author of The Complacent Class and Richard A. Easterlin, of Easterlin paradox fame (the idea that there is a disconnect between economic growth and happiness).

This is a book that manages to pull together a huge amount of data, for the first time mining American consumption data (the Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Survey) that is usually ignored by researchers because of its complexity. The book draws conclusions that are both insightful and yet highly readable. The trick was to separate the “boring stuff” – all those statistical analyses that occupy a huge part of the book – from the chapters presenting the findings. Those chapters are given pride of place upfront; they are written in elegant English and filled with interesting anecdotes and observations that enliven the discourse and brings it home.

Many people will recognize themselves in this portrait of a new elite in America, that the author has aptly named “the aspirational class”.

In fact, among Amazon customers reviewing this book, several have said exactly that. One reader who defined herself as a “doctor and Mom” noted with surprise: “Our obsession with what our kids eat, their education and music lessons and the breastfeeding felt like a complete insight into my life! I live in Manhattan and we are dealing with the same issues and pressures as the moms in California.” Another wryly remarked, “As a reluctant member of the very class the author describes, I’ve been conscious of the quirky spending characteristics of my hipster cohort in all the places where I’ve lived as an adult (Brooklyn, Washington DC, and LA naturally) but never had an organizing theory for what I was witnessing. The author articulates these principles beautifully, and backs them up with interesting data. Despite its scientific rigor, this is a quick, fun and accessible read.”

It is indeed fun and accessible, which, considering the hefty subject matter, is a feat in itself. The last time a similar effort was made to analyze a rising new class in America was over hundred years ago: It was a stiff treatise written in wooden English yet it was replete with arresting descriptions of the habits of the new rich. And that is what salvaged it from oblivion. Today, it is best remembered for coining a couple of unforgettable terms, “conspicuous leisure” and “conspicuous consumption”.

I am speaking of course of the Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), the magnum opus of social critic and economist Thorstein Veblen. His book defined the Gilded Age, and gave a theoretical framework to those lampooning the “robber barons”.

 IN THE PHOTO: “THE BOSSES OF THE SENATE”, 1889 LITHOGRAPH FIRST PUBLISHED IN PUCK. CARTOONIST JOSEPH KEPPLER DEPICTS THEM AS GIANT MONEYBAGS REPRESENTING THE NATION’S FINANCIAL TRUSTS AND MONOPOLIES, THE COPPER TRUST, STANDARD OIL ETC. SOURCE WIKIMEDIA

Likewise, Currid-Halkett’s book aims to define our age, as the title of the first chapter suggests: “The Twenty-first Century ‘Leisure’ Class”. She uses Veblen’s concepts as her starting point and makes some illuminating comments, for example, pointing out that with industrialization and mass production, conspicuous consumption “goes mainstream” and became a defining feature of the middle class in its heyday, in the 1950s and 1960s.


To find out more, read the rest on Impakter, click here.

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The Soft Power of American Philanthropy

Impakter magazine just published another one of my articles and I’m happy to share it with you – it’s a book review, great read, highly recommended! Here’s the start of my review:

THE REAL ROLE OF THE NEW MEGA-DONORS: SHAPING THE SOCIAL AGENDA

BOOK REVIEW: THE GIVERS BY DAVID CALLAHAN, PUBLISHED BY KNOPF (APRIL 2017) 352 PAGES

Is philanthropy good or bad for society?

With the global explosion of philanthropy, the new forms of giving and volunteering, and the rise of social entrepreneurship and impact investing, the issue is more pressing than ever. Nowadays, the soft power of mega-donors has grown so much that in many areas it has displaced governments – even very large ones like the Federal government.

Philanthropists address critical social problems, they move in where public funds have failed (or are weak). Ultimately, they set the social agenda, not only in the United States but around the world.

Yet, unlike democratic governments and politicians that must face voters, mega-donors are accountable to no one. Their own private views, beliefs and ideologies end up shaping society. They decide what diseases to battle, what kind of schools are needed, what social policies to promote, what research and what artistic trends should be supported.

Is this a fair system in a democracy where all citizens should have a say?

That question is increasingly asked, including in David Callahan’s latest book I am reviewing here. Yet this is not the first time philanthropy arouses suspicion in America. When Rockefeller launched his foundation a hundred years ago, many politicians doubted his good will. As it turned out, the Rockefeller Foundation had a profound impact on the human condition when breakthroughs in the agricultural research programs it had financed in Mexico and India, initiated respectively in 1941 and 1956, laid the foundation for the “green revolution”, so-called because it changed food production for the better, particularly in Asia, helping to solve the recurrent horror of devastating famines.

IN THE PHOTO: FARMER STANDING IN HIS CORN FIELD IN ANDHRA PRADESH, INDIA IN 1957 AFTER SCIENTISTS SUCCESSFULLY DEVELOPED HYBRID GRAINS THAT COULD RESIST DISEASE AND INSECTS. PHOTO CREDIT: THE ROCKEFELLER FOUNDATION

Nevertheless, in spite of the successes, countless books and articles continue raising questions, particularly over the past ten years, starting with Philanthrocapitalism: How the Rich Can Save the World, the work of the Economist’s Matthew Bishop and Michael Green. Published in 2008, based on interviews with mega-donors like Bill Gates, it was perhaps the first modern compilation of what philanthropists living today are really up to. Another milestone was reached last year with Philanthropy in Democratic Societies, edited by Stanford political scientist Rob Reich who sees charitable foundations as an “institutional oddity” in a democracy and is concerned that foundations, in spite of their usefulness in supporting innovation – what Warren Buffett famously termed “society’s risk capital” –  may be the “voice of plutocracy”.

Among the notable essays in that book, a theory of “disruptive philanthropy” developed by Aaron Horvath and Walter W. Powell, two Stanford sociologists, stood out. Based on the observation that philanthropy often competes with government instead of collaborating with it, it raises deep ethical questions. As Horvath and Powell explained to The Atlantic: “Disruptive philanthropy seeks to shape civic values in the image of funders’ interests and, in lieu of soliciting public input, seeks to influence or change public opinion and demand.”

A classic (and controversial) example that often comes up in this connection is charter schools promoted, inter alia, by the Broad and Gates Foundations. Not everyone agrees that they are an improvement over the existing public education system.

David Callahan’s new book The Givers – Wealth, Power and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age is the latest arrival on the scene and adds to the debate – philanthropy vs. democracy – carrying it forward with considerable new and updated material. Callahan has done his research for years, he has met many people in the industry, he has uncovered hard-to-find facts about the “opaque” world of philanthropy and the website he has been running, Inside Philanthropy, has been a major source of information ever since it was launched in 2014.

With all this data in hand, Callahan takes us for a roller-coaster ride through the current philanthropy landscape, showing us how living mega-donors wield more power than ever before. And, he warns us, their influence is likely to grow unimpeded as a result of growing income inequality, a trend first magisterially documented by Thomas Piketty in his now famous Capital in the 21st Century.

In short, and to use Callahan’s words, “in many ways, today’s new philanthropy is exciting and inspiring. In other ways, it’s scary and feels profoundly undemocratic.”

WHY TODAY’S NEW PHILANTHROPY IS EXCITING

The book starts off by bringing home two stunning truths about our time that, Callahan argues, amount to a paradigm shift:

The rest on Impakter, click here.

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How to Stop Climate Change and Reverse Global Warming

My latest article on Impakter, hope you enjoy it. I tackle here what I consider the key issue of our time and these are great books, a must read, the authors make a truly convincing case: Thanks to people like them and their work, we should not despair, all is not lost in the fight against climate change….

BOOK REVIEWS:  CLIMATE OF HOPE: HOW CITIES, BUSINESSES, AND CITIZENS CAN SAVE THE PLANET BY MICHAEL BLOOMBERG  (AUTHOR), CARL POPE  (AUTHOR) PUBLISHED BY ST MARTIN’S PRESS (APRIL 2017) 272 PAGES;

DRAWDOWN: THE MOST COMPREHENSIVE PLAN EVER PROPOSED TO REVERSE GLOBAL WARMING BY PAUL HAWKEN  (AUTHOR, EDITOR), TOM STEYER (FOREWORD) PENGUIN BOOKS (APRIL 2017) 240 PAGES; ADDITIONAL INFORMATION ON PROJECT DRAWDOWN’S WEBSITE

Two books published this year on the same day (April 18) and on the same subject, climate change. Two books that could change our lives, our children’s lives and how we view the challenge of climate change.

Two books that make reversing global warming look like it’s within reach. At last.

So far, we’ve heard too much doom and gloom. And we still do, as attested by a recent Op-Ed from environmental activist Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org.  Published on the New York Times last month, it has a scary title: The Planet Can’t Stand This Presidency, with a subtitle that doubles down on the message: “Trump is in charge at a critical moment for keeping climate change in check. We may never recover.” And the opening sentence is a scary reminder that coal pollution kills.

But it’s time to try a different approach. Let’s be positive: Global warming can be arrested, and better still, we may be able to reverse it. It will require a lot of effort and goodwill, but it can be done. And it won’t be costly, on the contrary, it will jump start a new age of prosperity and well being.

Both books tell us how to do it and their starting point is the same: The evidence is in, it really can be done. Thanks to them, we can start to entertain a rosy vision of our future, and that’s amazing. Furthermore, the two books are complementary and re-enforce each other, even though they are radically different in structure and the stories they tell.

A Hopeful Message on the Climate, from Michael Bloomberg and Carl Pope

The way forward suggested in Climate of Hope, co-written by  Michael Bloomberg and Carl Pope, may surprise a lot of people. It certainly surprised me, I hadn’t realized the extent to which cities play a major role in the climate change drama.

The other surprise is to see two completely different persons working as co-authors, an endeavor that requires deep understanding and mutual respect. Bloomberg is a billionaire, Carl Pope an environmentalist.

To read the rest and find out about Paul Hawken’s work and the role of Patricia Scotland, click here.

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Filed under Book review, climate change, non-fiction, politics