Oct 22, 2011

Two interesting book reviews

From the NYT:

Although Mr. Isaacson is not analytical about his subject’s volatile personality (the word “obnoxious” figures in the book frequently), he raises the question of whether feelings of abandonment in childhood made him fanatically controlling and manipulative as an adult. Fortunately, that glib question stays unanswered.
Mr. Jobs, who founded Apple with Stephen Wozniak and Ronald Wayne in 1976, began his career as a seemingly contradictory blend of hippie truth seeker and tech-savvy hothead.
“His Zen awareness was not accompanied by an excess of calm, peace of mind or interpersonal mellowness,” Mr. Isaacson says. “He could stun an unsuspecting victim with an emotional towel-snap, perfectly aimed,” he also writes. But Mr. Jobs valued simplicity, utility and beauty in ways that would shape his creative imagination. And the book maintains that those goals would not have been achievable in the great parade of Apple creations without that mean streak.
Years from now, the research trip to a jelly bean factory to study potential colors for the iMac case will not seem as silly as it might now. 
The book, published last month by Harvard University Press, has already been called a monumental biography of Deng and the most comprehensive survey to date of China’s spectacular but rocky road to economic reform.
Some reviews, however, have accused Mr. Vogel of devoting too little space to Deng’s iron-fisted rule, including his 1989 decision to allow the military to use deadly force against demonstrators in Tiananmen Square.
The result is an exhaustive, 876-page study of Deng’s life that includes his multiple falls from power and his final comeback, when he assumed the top position in 1978; the book offers new details into how Deng pushed aside Mao’s chosen successor, Hua Guofeng. 
Mr. Vogel compresses the first 65 years of Deng’s life into 30 pages, offering a sweeping overview of his journey from being the son of a small landlord in Sichuan to his transformation into a Communist revolutionary living in France and Russia, and then on to his role as military commander and, later, Mao’s vice premier. 
Deng loosened state controls over the lives of ordinary people, opened the door for Chinese to study overseas and, Mr. Vogel explains, he retreated from Maoist doctrine and Communism without ever really saying so. He lured foreign investors to China and tapped outside expertise to jump-start a largely moribund economy, setting the stage for China’s three-decade-long economic boom.
Mr. Vogel also writes about Deng’s darker periods, like his role in the “antirightist campaign” during the 1950s, which harshly targeted scientists and intellectuals and set the stage for the Great Leap Forward, which led to mass starvation.
The political scientist Richard Baum, a professor emeritus at University of California, Los Angeles, said the book offered an enormous amount of new material about Deng’s leadership and internal power struggles in China during the ’70s. But he also said that those achievements were mildly diminished by sections that read like “an uncritical paean to Deng’s character.” 
“Who in the 20th century had more influence on more people?” he asked. “He took 300 million people out of poverty. They’d been trying to do it in China for 150 years, and they couldn’t. And he did it.” 

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