Friday, October 19, 2012

The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken by Terry Teachout published by HarperCollinsPublishers

The purpose of a biography should be to show the good, the bad and the ugly sides of its subject, to allow you, the reader, an opportunity to make your own decision about the person. Terry Teachout has done that in The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken. This is a four star effort.

I had come across the name H.L. Mencken on occasion over the years. Recently in reading a couple of US histories covering the early part of the twentieth century his name played a prominent role as a very popular social commentator. He pricked my interest.

Mencken was a successful newspaper reporter, syndicated columnist, writer and editor. He and George Jean Nathan created and edited two highly successful and influential “American Culture” (my phrase) magazines The Smart Set and The American Mercury. Mencken dated movie stars, helped start the careers of Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis, pilloried presidents, coined the phrase “bible belt” and wrote over 10,000,000 words (a word count that Mr. Teachout accepts.)

Mencken had the solutions to the world's problems even thought he seldom left his hometown of Baltimore for any length of time. He was full of himself, which is understandable since Americans clamored to know what he thought about anything and everything so that they could think so too.

Mr. Teachout extensively uses Mencken's own words to illustrate and tell Mencken's story. It is an interesting story.

George W. Parker

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Private Empire, ExxonMobil and American Power by Steve Coll, The Penguin Press

This is a four star book, even though I wish the author had followed a central time line in detailing the last twenty + years of Exxon history. Mr. Cole chose to silo the various story lines so that their complexity would be easier to follow, but I think with overlapping time lines we would have gotten an even better feel for the complexity of Exxon's worldwide businesses.

The book opens with Exxon's penultimate disaster, the Exxon Valdez, and closes with BP's Deepwater Horizon, bookending a time frame in history when ExxonMobil make record profits, stonewalled the world on global warming, defined the US Government repeatedly, and exemplified the spirit of the great American corporation.

Mr. Cole, a two time Pulitzer Prize winner, does a masterful job of balancing the many sides of Exxon's business story and the people involved. He presents world wide examples of how the company juggles production area human rights/politicians/environmental concerns, US politicians and activists, and international politicians and activists, all in order to make a very respectful American profit for its stockholders.

You come away from the book with respect for the company but also wondering if the profit motive is always the best motive.

Here is a link to some of the questions the book posed to me.

George W Parker