Students of the Gilded Age and its unraveling will value this survey.



A vigorously told history of the transcontinental railroad barons and the commercial and transportation empires they forged.

Los Angeles Times columnist and reporter Hiltzik opens with a westward-bound Scotsman named Robert Louis Stevenson, not yet famous for his adventure tales, who took careful note of the emigrants aboard an early Union Pacific line and the contempt with which the railroad workers treated them. The great empire-builders among the railroad entrepreneurs—Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jay Gould, and J. Pierpont Morgan among them—“formed a continuum that for more than four decades…transformed America’s railroads from a patchwork of short lines waging constant self-destructive war with one another into a titanic enterprise that could justly be considered America’s first big business.” They also helped transform the U.S. into a continent-spanning, and then international, power. Few were models of ethical capitalism; as Hiltzik notes, Gould in particular was “a master of financial chicanery,” but at least he was an unostentatious and retiring sort, whereas others were flagrant in buying judges and politicians. The worse the capitalists became, the greater the strength of labor activism arrayed against them. However, as the author observes, “the desire to counter the policies of the tycoons was hamstrung by the absence of instruments to do so”—until the crusading labor leader Eugene V. Debs came along. No matter, for the very White House was in the railroad owners’ pockets—the attorney general in Grover Cleveland’s Cabinet, who spent years as an executive with different railroad corporations, was paid more on the side by them than in salary by the federal treasury—until Theodore Roosevelt began his vigorous work on antitrust reforms. The story will be well known to readers versed in late-19th-century American history, but the rest will benefit from Hiltzik’s clear exposition of key episodes and players.

Students of the Gilded Age and its unraveling will value this survey. (27 b/w photos; 6 maps)

Pub Date: Aug. 11, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-544-77031-7

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: May 13, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2020

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.


The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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A top-notch political memoir and serious exercise in practical politics for every reader.

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In the first volume of his presidential memoir, Obama recounts the hard path to the White House.

In this long, often surprisingly candid narrative, Obama depicts a callow youth spent playing basketball and “getting loaded,” his early reading of difficult authors serving as a way to impress coed classmates. (“As a strategy for picking up girls, my pseudo-intellectualism proved mostly worthless,” he admits.) Yet seriousness did come to him in time and, with it, the conviction that America could live up to its stated aspirations. His early political role as an Illinois state senator, itself an unlikely victory, was not big enough to contain Obama’s early ambition, nor was his term as U.S. Senator. Only the presidency would do, a path he painstakingly carved out, vote by vote and speech by careful speech. As he writes, “By nature I’m a deliberate speaker, which, by the standards of presidential candidates, helped keep my gaffe quotient relatively low.” The author speaks freely about the many obstacles of the race—not just the question of race and racism itself, but also the rise, with “potent disruptor” Sarah Palin, of a know-nothingism that would manifest itself in an obdurate, ideologically driven Republican legislature. Not to mention the meddlings of Donald Trump, who turns up in this volume for his idiotic “birther” campaign while simultaneously fishing for a contract to build “a beautiful ballroom” on the White House lawn. A born moderate, Obama allows that he might not have been ideological enough in the face of Mitch McConnell, whose primary concern was then “clawing [his] way back to power.” Indeed, one of the most compelling aspects of the book, as smoothly written as his previous books, is Obama’s cleareyed scene-setting for how the political landscape would become so fractured—surely a topic he’ll expand on in the next volume.

A top-notch political memoir and serious exercise in practical politics for every reader.

Pub Date: Nov. 17, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5247-6316-9

Page Count: 768

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 16, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2020

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