Detailed summation of fascinating events, heavily weighted with academic presentation and requisite hair-splitting.

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A MOST AMAZING SCENE OF WONDERS

ELECTRICITY AND ENLIGHTENMENT IN EARLY AMERICA

A studied consideration of revelations in electrical phenomena in 18th-century America as a cultural counterpart to the Enlightenment in Europe.

Delbourgo (History, Philosophy of Science/McGill Univ.) offers in-depth accounts of early American experiments to determine the nature of electricity—Benjamin Franklin, of course, front and center—characterized by the use of the experimenters’ own bodies as a principal instrument in the process. Needless to say, the tendency of American “electricians” (as those investigating the new phenomena were known on both sides of the Atlantic) to expose themselves and occasional willing volunteers to shocks of indeterminate and largely uncontrollable size makes for some of the most hair-raising records in the history of science. With powerful static charges from the newly discovered Leyden Jar (the prototypical battery) and storm-generated lightning itself as prime sources, injuries and, at times, deaths, were inevitable. But the author is swayed by scholarly intent from fully exploiting or dramatizing these events, being more drawn to examining the results as a collective epistemological experience that won reluctant acceptance for “colonial” science by its “metropolitan” counterpart in Europe in a persistently inflexible hierarchy. The book is still engrossing if read primarily as homage to Franklin and successors like Dr. T. Cole and Elisha Perkins. Franklin’s humility in simply reporting experimental results without posturing or postulating was a key factor in the acknowledgement by Europe that Americans were indeed partners in capturing lightning in a bottle. (Franklin’s concept of positive and negative charges, with a circulating “fluid” constantly seeking equilibrium was, however, on the money at a time when Europeans had little or no clue.) And in a perfect paradigm for the eternal conflict between religion and advancing sciences, the Puritan church initially condemned Franklin’s invention of a successful lightning rod as a blasphemous impediment to the deliverance of Divine retribution.

Detailed summation of fascinating events, heavily weighted with academic presentation and requisite hair-splitting.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2006

ISBN: 0-674-02299-8

Page Count: 378

Publisher: Harvard Univ.

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2006

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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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A welcome addition to the literature on immigration told by an author who understands the issue like few others.

THE UNDOCUMENTED AMERICANS

The debut book from “one of the first undocumented immigrants to graduate from Harvard.”

In addition to delivering memorable portraits of undocumented immigrants residing precariously on Staten Island and in Miami, Cleveland, Flint, and New Haven, Cornejo Villavicencio, now enrolled in the American Studies doctorate program at Yale, shares her own Ecuadorian family story (she came to the U.S. at age 5) and her anger at the exploitation of hardworking immigrants in the U.S. Because the author fully comprehends the perils of undocumented immigrants speaking to journalist, she wisely built trust slowly with her subjects. Her own undocumented status helped the cause, as did her Spanish fluency. Still, she protects those who talked to her by changing their names and other personal information. Consequently, readers must trust implicitly that the author doesn’t invent or embellish. But as she notes, “this book is not a traditional nonfiction book….I took notes by hand during interviews and after the book was finished, I destroyed those notes.” Recounting her travels to the sites where undocumented women, men, and children struggle to live above the poverty line, she reports her findings in compelling, often heart-wrenching vignettes. Cornejo Villavicencio clearly shows how employers often cheat day laborers out of hard-earned wages, and policymakers and law enforcement agents exist primarily to harm rather than assist immigrants who look and speak differently. Often, cruelty arrives not only in economic terms, but also via verbal slurs and even violence. Throughout the narrative, the author explores her own psychological struggles, including her relationships with her parents, who are considered “illegal” in the nation where they have worked hard and tried to become model residents. In some of the most deeply revealing passages, Cornejo Villavicencio chronicles her struggles reconciling her desire to help undocumented children with the knowledge that she does not want "kids of my own." Ultimately, the author’s candor about herself removes worries about the credibility of her stories.

A welcome addition to the literature on immigration told by an author who understands the issue like few others.

Pub Date: May 19, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-399-59268-3

Page Count: 208

Publisher: One World/Random House

Review Posted Online: Jan. 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2020

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