A solid and, yes, concise look at the railroad’s past, with a rousing call at the end for a new and improved rail system to...

THE GREAT RAILROAD REVOLUTION

THE HISTORY OF TRAINS IN AMERICA

Popular historian Wolmar (Engines of War: How Wars Were Won & Lost on the Railways, 2010) charts the sometimes haphazard, sometimes avaricious, sometimes puzzling history of America’s railroads.

“I realize that it is somewhat cheeky of me, a Brit, to try to write a concise history of American railroads,” he writes early on. Cheeky, perhaps, but as he also writes, an outsider’s perspective on what has been seen as a consummately American adventure can be helpful—particularly since world history isn’t without comparable ventures, such as the building of railroads across Siberia and Africa. Yet, as Wolmar rightly notes, the railroads played a key role in uniting the United States, even if one of the signal moments of railroad history wasn’t quite all it was cracked up to be. That is, the building of the transcontinental line, as commemorated by the driving of a golden spike in Utah in 1869, was a symbolic gesture of sorts; it wasn’t until a bridge was built over the Missouri River three years later that a person could truly travel across the continent without leaving the rails. Further, “there never has been a single railroad company stretching from East Coast to West.” All of this does nothing to diminish the accomplishment of introducing the new technology of the railroad and extending it over thousands of miles in the space of just three decades, work carried out by millions of man-hours of hard labor but planned out and capitalized on by men whose names are bywords today, such as Carnegie, Mellon and Stanford. Wolmar acknowledges the “corruption, cheating, purloining of government funds, reckless building practices, and astonishing greed” that went into the making of the transcontinental system, but his purpose is less political than historian Richard White’s sweeping condemnation of the robber barons of yore in Railroaded (2011). Wolmar, it seems, has no purpose other than crafting a critical but admiring study of a triumph of engineering, and in this he has succeeded.

A solid and, yes, concise look at the railroad’s past, with a rousing call at the end for a new and improved rail system to carry the nation forward.

Pub Date: Sept. 25, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-61039-179-5

Page Count: 448

Publisher: PublicAffairs

Review Posted Online: Aug. 22, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2012

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The value of this book is the context it provides, in a style aimed at a concerned citizenry rather than fellow academics,...

HOW DEMOCRACIES DIE

A provocative analysis of the parallels between Donald Trump’s ascent and the fall of other democracies.

Following the last presidential election, Levitsky (Transforming Labor-Based Parties in Latin America, 2003, etc.) and Ziblatt (Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy, 2017, etc.), both professors of government at Harvard, wrote an op-ed column titled, “Is Donald Trump a Threat to Democracy?” The answer here is a resounding yes, though, as in that column, the authors underscore their belief that the crisis extends well beyond the power won by an outsider whom they consider a demagogue and a liar. “Donald Trump may have accelerated the process, but he didn’t cause it,” they write of the politics-as-warfare mentality. “The weakening of our democratic norms is rooted in extreme partisan polarization—one that extends beyond policy differences into an existential conflict over race and culture.” The authors fault the Republican establishment for failing to stand up to Trump, even if that meant electing his opponent, and they seem almost wistfully nostalgic for the days when power brokers in smoke-filled rooms kept candidacies restricted to a club whose members knew how to play by the rules. Those supporting the candidacy of Bernie Sanders might take as much issue with their prescriptions as Trump followers will. However, the comparisons they draw to how democratic populism paved the way toward tyranny in Peru, Venezuela, Chile, and elsewhere are chilling. Among the warning signs they highlight are the Republican Senate’s refusal to consider Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee as well as Trump’s demonization of political opponents, minorities, and the media. As disturbing as they find the dismantling of Democratic safeguards, Levitsky and Ziblatt suggest that “a broad opposition coalition would have important benefits,” though such a coalition would strike some as a move to the center, a return to politics as usual, and even a pragmatic betrayal of principles.

The value of this book is the context it provides, in a style aimed at a concerned citizenry rather than fellow academics, rather than in the consensus it is not likely to build.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5247-6293-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 13, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2017

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This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

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BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME

NOTES ON THE FIRST 150 YEARS IN AMERICA

The powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future.

Atlantic senior writer Coates (The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, 2008) offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son’s life. “I am wounded,” he writes. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” Coates grew up in the tough neighborhood of West Baltimore, beaten into obedience by his father. “I was a capable boy, intelligent and well-liked,” he remembers, “but powerfully afraid.” His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated. Howard, he writes, “had always been one of the most critical gathering posts for black people.” He calls it The Mecca, and its faculty and his fellow students expanded his horizons, helping him to understand “that the black world was its own thing, more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white.” Coates refers repeatedly to whites’ insistence on their exclusive racial identity; he realizes now “that nothing so essentialist as race” divides people, but rather “the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” After he married, the author’s world widened again in New York, and later in Paris, where he finally felt extricated from white America’s exploitative, consumerist dreams. He came to understand that “race” does not fully explain “the breach between the world and me,” yet race exerts a crucial force, and young blacks like his son are vulnerable and endangered by “majoritarian bandits.” Coates desperately wants his son to be able to live “apart from fear—even apart from me.”

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

Pub Date: July 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9354-7

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

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