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Film Review

Third Star: A Meditation on Friendship and Terminal Illness

June 8th 2011

Film - Third star

Third Star. Director: Hattie Dalton. Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, JJ Feild, Tom Burke, Adam Robertson, Hugh Bonneville. Length: 92 mins.

The road trip movie, in its various guises, has been done so many times that to give it a new twist is no mean feat. The ‘what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas’ mantra has been adapted and used to cover up all manner of sins, but none quite like the denouement of Third Star. The plot is fairly plateaued – unlike the Pembrokeshire scenery that hosts the action – until its conclusion, which places a prism in front of the fairly linear story that leads up to it and distorts the images of all of the characters.

The fact that Third Star tells the story of 29-year-old terminal cancer patient, James (Benedict Cumberbatch) says all there is to say about the prevailing tone of the film. His three close friends agree to take him on a camping trip to his favorite place, the beautiful Barafundle Bay on the Welsh coast. The expedition brings the usual revelations, arguments, reconciliations, mishaps and comedy that sustain the momentum of any such film. The four leads fill the roles well and there is a real investment in their group dynamic as well their individual stories by the end of the film. Read more ..


Book Tours

Edwin Black Featured Speaker at Limmud-Oz Conference in Australia

June 4th 2011

Contributors / Staff - Edwin Black

Renowned investigative journalist and author Edwin Black, as part of his intercontinental lecture tour, is scholar-in-residence in Australia where he is updating his audiences on his latest books and research. As a featured speaker at Limmud-Oz, a festival to be held in Sydney June 11-13, over the Queen’s birthday holiday, Black will discuss oil and diplomacy over the last one hundred years and its impact on peace and security for Israel and the broader Mideast. Black is also expected to speak on the roiling issue of BDS, the anti-Israel Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanction movement. The BDS coalition of left-wing Jewish groups and Arab economic jihadis, traces its direct roots to the aggressive adoption of Hitler's anti-Jewish boycott by Arabs in Palestine during the Holocaust.

The Limmud-Oz festival is a unique, community-wide event that celebrates Jewish learning and creativity. Program Director Michael Misrachi is confident that this year’s conference offers “something for everyone,” with up to 12 sessions going at any one time. Participants can choose from a diverse program that includes film, theatre, cooking, art, politics, history, spirituality and more.

On the opening night international panel discussion scheduled for Saturday, June 11, Black will speak on the topic "Who is a Friend of Israel?" The much anticipated panel of international figures is expected to confront the BDS issue head on, with Black giving the historical perspective as it applies to today's Arab Spring.

The panel will be followed by three sessions on Sunday, June 12, plus an afternoon book signing session that comes after a lecture touching on his research into America’s contribution to eugenic racism and the Holocaust, and another on oil, petropolitics, and the Middle East. Wrapping up his participation in Limmud-Oz, Black will present his findings on his latest bestseller, “The Farhud: Roots of the Arab-Nazi Alliance in the Holocaust.” His final address in Australia, "Ethics and Computing: From IBM's Role in the Holocaust to Wikileaks and Social Media," is based in part on his book IBM and the Holocaust. That talk will replicate one he gave in Melbourne at Monash University sponsored by a coalition of computer societies. Read more ..


Book Review

The Central Park Five: A Feral Media Hypes a Rape and the Wilding of New York City

June 4th 2011

Book Covers - Central Park 5 redux

The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding. Sarah Burns. Knopf . 2011. 256 pages.

New York City in the 1980s, the time period for Sarah Burns’ engrossing The Central Park Five, was suffering from a level of poverty unseen in years, legions of men and women wandering the streets, a plague of drugs, prostitution, petty and major crimes, and deteriorating public venues, all of which added to the frustrations of its citizens and politicians. It all seemed to come to a head on April 20, 1989 when a 28-year-old white women was found alive but mauled and raped in Central Park, her skull shattered, most of her blood having poured out onto the ground.

The victim of this abhorrent and despicable crime was Patricia Ellen Meili, known to her friends and family as Trisha, a Yale business school graduate and employee at Salomon Brothers’ investment house. The night before she had set out for a nightly run in the park, a thoughtless practice her concerned family had warned her against. As Burns reports, her rape “was by no means an isolated one…Twenty eight other first-degree rapes or attempted rapes were reported in NYC that same week,” most of the victims were black, Hispanic or Asian women, including a black woman raped and thrown off a roof by two young black men. Still, as Burns reminds us, none of the minority women received anywhere the attention as the Central Park attack because white-run media and its readers and viewers were drawn primarily to white victims.

It all began the evening of the 20th of April when a group of black and Hispanic teenage boys began gathering at one of the park’s entrances, apparently intent on “wilding”-- jargon for going wild at others’ expense. One was 16, the youngest only 13. Once inside the park, that vast, much-cherished recreational area for all New Yorkers, they began attacking any runners and bikers they ran across. One white male jogger was beaten so badly that a cop who saw him after the attack said it was as if he had been “dunked in a bucket of blood.” Read more ..


Book Review

Stories I Only Tell My Friends: Rob Lowe's Brushes with Sex Tapes, Star Wars, and Al-Qaeda

June 4th 2011

Book Covers - Stories I only tell my friends 2

Stories I Only Tell My Friends. Rob Lowe. Henry Holt publishers. 2011. 320 pages.

Rob Lowe is Forrest Gump with a brain.

Lowe's new memoir, the cleverly titled Stories I Only Tell My Friends, pretty much does what you expect a book of this kind to do: drop lots of names. You read it to hear about people like Tom Cruise, Emilio Estevez, Demi Moore, and various other members of the "Brat Pack" (so dubbed in a 1985 New York magazine profile) who briefly dominated Hollywood in the early 1980s. And you do indeed get stories about youthful excess, backstage romances, and the like. And since Lowe was a star of the hit NBC series The West Wing, you know at the outset that he's going to end up a Friend of Bill and visit President Clinton at the White House. If you're a big Rob Lowe fan, this will be sufficient to buy the book.

What's really surprising, though, are how many other brushes with fame Lowe has had in his lifetime, in contexts that are totally unexpected. Like the amusing story where Cary Grant gives him soap on a rope. Or the one involving a failed audition by Janet Jackson. Or his adolescent visit to a San Fernando Valley chop shop, where he witnessed the shooting of Star Wars scenes involving the Millennium Falcon and Death Star (George Lucas & Co. needed lots of cheap space). Long before he he had achieved any fame himself, Lowe found himself tugging on George McGovern's coat in the 1972 presidential campaign.

Other stories are more grave. Lowe had a well-publicized romance with Princess Stephanie of Monaco, but less well known is the assassination of the security man who escorted him to and from the palace. Lowe had a brief but intense acquaintanceship with John F. Kennedy, Jr. on the eve of his death. And he also had a chilling intersection with the terrorists involved in 9/11. Even for a celebrity who you would expect to meet lots of people, the volume and variety of his contacts are uncanny. Read more ..


Film Review

Cave of Forgotten Dreams: An Experience of the Humanity and Mystery of Pre-Historic Peoples

June 4th 2011

Film - cave of forgotten dreams

In December 1994, three French explorers examining the cliffs along the Ardèche River found air vents which they thought might be evidence of an as-yet-undiscovered cave. They found a small gap and descended into a network of chambers covered in scintillating calcite encrustations, but the breathtaking natural beauty was only the first discovery. They soon realised that they were not the cave's first human visitors. Thousands of years ago, before the mouth of the cave collapsed in a landslide, prehistoric man left his mark by covering the walls with paintings of animals, now long extinct. Chauvet cave (named after one of the explorers) is now thought to contain some of the oldest prehistoric paintings yet known to archaeologists – dating back about 30,000 years.

When the cave was discovered, archaeologists already had experience of the destructive effects of visitors on cave paintings at Lascaux (also in France) and at Altamira in Spain. The paintings had been preserved for thousands of years because of the specific environment maintained in the caves, and the introduction of people, with their heat and their breath, disrupted this delicate balance. For this reason, Chauvet cave has never been open to the general public, and only small numbers of scientists and archaeologists have been allowed inside. This film, therefore, shows us a place which we could never hope to visit in person (though there are plans to build a scale replica for visitors), and this film crew were the very first permitted inside the cave. In a way, Werner Herzog is performing a public service by allowing us access to a site which is so important to our understanding of the human past. Read more ..


Film Review

Pirates of the Caribbean, On Stranger Tides: Give it a Rest, Capt'n Jack

June 4th 2011

Film - Pirates of theCaribbean 4

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Director : Rob Marshall. Starring: Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Geoffrey Rush, Ian McShane. Length: 136 mins. 

I'll be honest, I wasn't expecting much from Pirates 4. I mean what could they possibly squeeze out of a Disneyland attraction that's been ridden one too many times already? Oh yeah, that's right, sorry, I forgot... money. I regret having to take such a cynical view but it is the sad reality. The Pirates franchise stopped being about entertaining the audience as soon as the end credits of the first film rolled. They should have left it there. Captain Jack should have been allowed to sail into the sunset on the Black Pearl and the studios could have been content with having uncovered a rare treasure in the action adventure genre.

That's the trouble with rare treasures. Because they're new and exciting, and rare, everyone wants a piece. And because everyone wants a piece, it has to be distributed in increasingly stingy and unsustaining amounts. As a result, by the time the opening credits of On Stranger Tides sailed by, the story and the familiar characters that drag it miserably to its inevitable finish, had long since begun to wear thin and now seemed a bit inadequate and, dare we say it, at times rather useless. As Bilbo said to Gandalf when he fancied a well earned rest from hobbitting, “I feel thin. Liked butter scraped over too much bread. I need a holiday. A very long holiday.”

More than once during On Stranger Tides I was wishing Captain Jack had followed old Bilbo's example and retired his cheeky smile and irreverent mumblings and just found a beach somewhere... “yo ho ho and a bottle of rum” and all that. But literally within two minutes of the opening sequence I was practically mouthing along to Jack and Gibb's not so witty and predictable banter, unable to stop thinking about just how clean they both looked for a couple of filthy pirates and how rehearsed and “actory” it all felt. An obligatory swig of a token character prop here, a laboured encore of the same old dialogue there. Come on lads, you’re better than that! Read more ..


Film Review

There Be Dragons: A Recognizable Portrait of Heroism and Piety

May 29th 2011

Film - There Be Dragon

There Be Dragons: Directed by Roland Joffe. Starring Charlie Cox, Wes Bentley, Olga Kurylenko, Rodrigo Santoro. Length: 100 mins.

Some people will like There Be Dragons by Roland Joffe (The Killing Fields, The Mission) because it is something of a throwback to the Hollywood epics of old in which a (usually) tragic romance is set against the background of real world-historical events like wars and revolutions. The individuals’ experience of these events, as in Gone With the Wind or David Lean’s Dr. Zhivago is supposed to cast dry historical narrative in a new and more thrillingly human light. As an example of this kind of movie, however, I think Mr. Joffe’s film is less than completely successful. What I liked about it was that it was a different kind of throwback: to a time when Hollywood, if only out of its own self-interest in trying to attract an audience largely made up of Christian believers, had to be at least respectful to religion and sometimes produced movies that were themselves quasi-iconic aids to Christian devotion.

Xavier Beauvois’s Of Gods and Men is that kind of movie, but it owes little or nothing to Hollywood. Mr. Joffe’s picture, by contrast, is Hollywood through and through, and that’s its weakness. Half of it is about St. Josemaría Escrivá (Charlie Cox), the founder of Opus Dei, but his story, set against the background of the Spanish Civil War, has to compete with that of a fictional rivalry with his childhood friend, Manolo (Wes Bentley). We learn of Manolo’s joining the Republican side as an agent of the fascists, of his unrequited passion for a Beautiful Hungarian Communist (Olga Kurylenko), of the BHC’s spurning him for love of the Communist leader, Oriol (Rodrigo Santoro), of Manolo’s crises of conscience with regard to (a) the BHC and his rival and (b) his ex-friend, the priest — and, as if all this weren’t enough, of the dying Manolo’s complicated relationship nearly 50 years later with his son, Robert (Dougray Scott), who happens to be writing a biography of Josemaría Escrivá and is only now discovering his father’s relationship with his subject. Read more ..


Book Review

To End All Wars: A Story of War that Haunts and Illuminates

May 25th 2011

Book Covers - To end all wars

To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918. Adam Hochschild. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2011. 404 pages.

Adam Hochschild’s haunting yet illuminating assessment of World War I (mainly concentrating on Great Britain) is a welcome addition to the vast historical and literary output literature of that pointless war. But it is different. By no means a detailed if conventional history of battles and strategies and politicians, it is, firstly, a powerful condemnation of a war that should never have been fought. The battle at Passchendaele (officially, the Third Battle of Ypres) cost the lives of at least 300,000 men. Hochschild rightly calls it “a blatant, needless massacre initiated by generals with a near-criminal disregard for the conditions men faced.’ In northern Italy, German and Austrian armies at Caporetto caused more than 500,000 Italian casualties -- dead, wounded or captured. On the eastern front the Russian armies, its generals and government corrupt and incompetent, were effectively defeated a year or so after the Romanovs entered the war.

What makes To End All Wars so original (mirroring to some extent Paul Fussell’s splendid 1975 book The Great War and Modern Memory) is that Hochschild also eloquently tells the story of courageous and principled Britons and to a lesser degree the French Socialist antiwar leader Jean Jaures, who opposed the war and even refused to serve in its ranks. Though he praises the great anti- war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen (a combat lieutenant whose parents were told of his death in France the day the Armistice was signed) it also looks sympathetically at those who chose to volunteer or accept conscription “for whom the magnetic attraction of combat, or at least the belief that it was patriotic and necessary, proved so much stronger than human revulsion at mass death or any perception that, win or lose, this was a war that would change the world for the worse.” Read more ..


Film Review

Win-Win: Middle-class quiet desperation, and Moral Earnestness

May 25th 2011

Film - Win Win

Win Win. Director: Thomas McCarthy.  Starring: Paul Giamatti,  Amy Ryan, Alex Shaffer, Jeffrey Tambor. Length: 106 minutes.

An example of the violation of the law of Chekhov’s gun that I mentioned in a recent review — that is, the rule that, "if in Act I you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act" — occurs in Thomas McCarthy’s enjoyable Win Win. In an early scene we see the hero, Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) tinkering with a symbolic boiler in his New Jersey lawyer’s office. Mike’s legal practice isn’t doing too well, and neither is the boiler. Of the latter we are told that it very well might explode unless it is fixed — and that there is not enough money to fix it. If that’s not an invitation to the boiler to explode at some strategic point later in the film, I don’t know what is. But to Mr. McCarthy the boiler, its symbolic work done, has no further interest and is heard from no more. Any subsequent explosions will be only of the metaphorical kind.

Admittedly, it’s a small point, but it’s a flaw in the movie’s construction, as is its waste of the great Jeffrey Tambor as Stephen Vigman, Mike’s associate and his assistant wrestling coach who more or less drops out of the movie half-way through, having been given nothing of importance to do hitherto. The time spent on Mike’s much less interesting friend Terry (Bobby Cannavale) and his failed marriage also seems to me to be wasted, as it adds little or nothing to the movie’s two main stories. One of these is about Mike’s conscience and the breach of professional ethics he commits to save his business, and the other is about a young runaway named Kyle (Alex Shaffer) who transforms the fortunes of his wrestling team. Read more ..


Book Tours

Investigative Author Edwin Black Lectures in Australia on Holocaust and Petropolitics

May 19th 2011

Contributors / Staff - Edwin Black

Edwin Black, investigative journalist and prize-winning author, will give numerous lectures and talks during an extended book tour and month-long scholar-in-residence program in Australia. Black, who makes hundreds of appearances each year, was brought to Australia by The Shalom Institute, which is associated with the University of New South Wales. The author will conduct two four-week courses: "Oil, Petropolitics, and the Middle East" and "Collaborations with the Nazis." Both courses emerge from two of Black's intersecting portfolios: oil and genocide. Each subscription-only session is two hours long.

The Shalom Institute courses emerge from research done for Black's numerous bestselling books. The latest two volumes are The Farhud: Roots of the Arab-Nazi Alliance in the Holocaust, which has been lauded by critics such as Middle East expert Walid Phares as "meticulously researched and documented," and British Petroleum and the Redline Agreement, the research for which was lauded by The Middle East Quarterly as "gripping."

Black's most famous work is IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation. The international bestseller, a million copies in print in 14 languages, chronicles how IBM knowing co-planned and co-organized with the Hitler regime all six phases of the Holocaust: identification, exclusion, confiscation, ghettoization, deportation and extermination. The book received the two highest awards of the American Society of Journalists and Authors: best book of the year, and best investigative article of the year for an adaptation, "Final Solutions—IBM in Auschwitz."

His other editions, such as War Against the Weak, Banking on Baghdad, Nazi Nexus, The Plan and Internal Combustion have been lauded for setting a new standard for journalistic excellence and historical research. The Jerusalem Post proclaimed his first work, The Transfer Agreement, as "historical journalism at its best." Read more ..


Book Review

The Master Switch is like a Killer App

May 18th 2011

Book Covers - Master switch

The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires. Tim Wu. Alfred Knopf. 2010.

If The Master Switch was a piece of software, it would be a killer app: not exactly original, and relatively narrow in function, but terrifically practical and elegant. A bit like an iPad, in fact, though one closer to the spirit of Steven Wozniak than as executed by Steven Jobs. (Remember Woz? The author would not be surprised if you don’t.) And therein lies the heart of its haunting argument about the way the future of communications will likely be found in the past.

The story Tim Wu tells in this book is a cyclical one. It begins when someone – an Alexander Graham Bell in telephony, a Thomas Edison in film, a Philo Farnsworth in television – emerges at the vanguard of a disruptive new technology, in the Joseph Schumpeter sense of creative destruction. Taken alone, that technology itself is insufficient; it needs an imperial-minded entrepreneur, like Alexander Vail of AT&T or David Sarnoff of RCA, to build a viable legal, political and economic infrastructure for it, and who then go on to dominate it, whether by vertical integration or the creation of a government-sanctioned cartel.

These dominant players then fend off subsequent challenges, including those posed by genuinely better mousetraps in the form of new technologies like FM radio, cable television, or the Internet. But eventually the Old Guard gets felled, sometimes by opponents it failed to see coming, and sometimes by quirky historical circumstances: who would have figured that Richard Nixon would be the patron saint of cable TV? Read more ..


Book Review

The Rights of the People: How Our Search for Safety Invades Our Liberties

May 18th 2011

Book Covers - Rights of the people

The Rights of the People: How Our Search for Safety Invades Our Liberties. David K. Shipler. Alfred Knopf. 2011.

David Shipler won a Pulitzer Prize for The Working Poor, an exemplary work that explored largely overlooked Americans having a hard time making ends meet. Now Shipler, a former reporter and foreign correspondent for the New York Times, turns his attention to the momentous impact September 11th and the resulting “War on Terror” has had on our personal freedoms. Shipler is hardly alone in warning about the many invasions of privacy we’ve seen since the attack and the problems it creates but Benjamin Franklin’s justly famous hoary words put it best: “Those who desire to give up freedom in order to gain security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.” The central question he and other contemporary critics ask – but do not answer –who can?—is whether our need to prevent another 9/11 justifies what we do in the name of security.

Fittingly, the book opens with The Bill of Rights, which has been repeatedly disregarded throughout our history during periods of stress, both real and presumed. Our past is filled with shameful examples, from John Adams’ Sedition Act, Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, Woodrow Wilson’s Espionage Act, FDR’s incarceration of Japanese Americans, Joe McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover, court rulings in defense of slavery, the theft of Native American lands and other outrages.

His meticulous and admirable reportage takes us initially into the treacherous, impoverished neighborhoods of nighttime Washington and to police precincts where cops are told to maintain the law while coping with demanding situations. Shipler’s dramatic descriptions of the fruitless, even absurd efforts to curb the drug trade in the nation’s capital is strengthened by his willingness to spend lots of time with local residents. About the police he writes, “Aggressive investigation is legitimate but it creates two hazards, the danger of error in a particular case and the danger to the country’s larger culture of liberty.” Then, in an abrupt transition, he moves on to the larger world of warrantless wiretaps, searches and detainments without any findings of guilt. Read more ..


Book Review

The Constitution Goes to College: Five Ideas that Shaped American Higher Education

May 18th 2011

Book Covers - Constitution goes to College

The Constitution Goes to College: Five Constitutional Ideas that Have Shaped the American University. Rodney A. Smolla. New York University Press. 2011. 232 pages.

Critics and defenders of American higher education often employ the stereotype of the university as “ivory tower.” But to a greater extent than is often recognized by its critics or admitted by its defenders, the American university is very much implicated, embedded, and nested in American society. That is the point of Rodney A. Smolla’s fine book, which with admirable clarity and subtlety tracks the linkages between ideas based in the Constitution and the ongoing evolution of the American university.

Smolla, currently president of Furman University and formerly dean of the law schools at Washington and Lee University and the University of Richmond, begins by asserting that “there is scarcely any constitutional question that arises in the United States that does not devolve, sooner or later, into a campus question.” Surveying the contested terrain of the contemporary campus, from academic freedom (for faculty, students, and institutions), to affirmative action, to the rights of religious groups on campus, and more, it is hard to disagree. All such issues, according to Smolla, involve at least one of “five fundamental tensions” that have influenced American higher education: “(1) the debate over whether we have a ‘living Constitution’; (2) the division between the public and private spheres; (3) the distinction between ‘rights’ and ‘privileges’; (4) the notion of ‘ordered liberty’; and (5) competing conceptions of equality.” Campus religious groups that seek to exclude nonbelievers, for instance, place religious and associational rights in conflict; affirmative action raises questions of “process equality” versus “outcome equality.” Read more ..


Authors on the Road

Best-Selling Author and Investigative Journalist Edwin Black in Las Vegas on Nazi-Arab Collusion in the Holocaust

May 9th 2011

Contributors / Staff - Edwin Black

Sponsored by Jewish Community Center of Southern Nevada and The Jewish Federation of Las Vegas, renowned author and investigative journalist Edwin Black will speak in Las Vegas about his newest book The Farhud: Roots of the Arab-Nazi Alliance in the Holocaust. He will lecture at the Jewish Community Center on May 10 at 7 pm.

Lauded by critics such as Middle East expert Walid Phares as "meticulously researched and documented," The Farhud chronicles the robust axis between Arabs and Nazis, on and off the battlefield, during the Holocaust. What the book documents is "a legacy of hate" by Arabs against Jews combined with the Nazi lust for oil that brought Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler into common cause with the Muslim Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and other Arab leaders.

“Farhud,” a word in Arabic that signifies violent dispossession, is used to describe the horrific events of 1941 in Baghdad when Iraqi Nazi mobs murdered and raped the Jewish community, seizing their property and wiping out their millennial presence in the country.

The stated goal at the time was to exterminate Jews not only in Palestine and in the Middle East but also in Europe. Eventually, the shoulder-to-shoulder battlefield alliance of Nazis, Muslims and Arabs during World War II also created the Muslim-Catholic murder regime in Croatia known as the Ustasha, perhaps the most heinous killers of the Holocaust, according to Black. Of his latest work, Black wrote, “This is a book I wish that I didn’t have to write.” Read more ..


Book Review

The Dogs of War in 1861 May Portend an Ominous Future

May 9th 2011

Book Covers - The Dogs of War

The Dogs of War: 1861. Emory Thomas. Oxford University Press. 2011. 128 pages.

Emory Thomas is the éminence grise of Confederate history, A veteran military biographer, he is best known for his 1979 book The Confederate Nation, which remains the standard history of the subject (and has just been republished). In The Dogs of War: 1861, Thomas zeroes in on a specific moment of the Civil War -- the three month period between Fort Sumter and the First Battle of Bull Run, April to July of that year -- to emphasize the confusion and ignorance that shaped the mutual perceptions of North and South, which stumbled into a conflict of a scale and an outcome virtually no one imagined.

But that's not really the principal value, or even intent, of this little book. Instead, Thomas takes a moment whose outlines will be familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of the war and instead uses it as a case study for what might be termed empirical epistemology. To paraphrase William Goldman's famous maxim of the film business, nobody knew anything, even those who were presumed to know, then and since. That included politicians, the professional military, and rank and file volunteers -- who were volunteers to a great extent precisely because they didn't know what they were getting into.

This maxim extends to the respective presidents of the two belligerents. Though this is a point that's been made before, Thomas usefully emphasizes that Abraham Lincoln greatly overestimated Southern Unionism, perhaps because as a man who was born in the South and married and a Southerner, he overestimated his familiarity with the region and his belief that ordinary non-members of the elite would think like he did. Lincoln carried this conviction, which shaped his approach to Reconstruction, to the grave. As Thomas notes, it would ultimately be vindicated, but proved inadequate to the demands of the moment in 1861. Read more ..


Book Review

Work Obstacles: Overcome, Circumvent, Leverage

May 9th 2011

Book Covers - workarounds that work

Workarounds That Work: How to Conquer Anything That Stands in Your Way at Work. Russell Bishop. McGraw-Hill, 2010. 256 pages.

Most of us look for shortcuts, “macros,” or workarounds as a matter of course. “Adaptive behaviors,” as the psychologists call ’em, are natural human processes we develop due to physical, intellectual or emotional limitations. Shortcuts, “tricks,” mnemonic devices and the rest are popular because they work.

But the author really isn’t referring to those things here. In fact, Bishop’s rap is more along the lines of an analysis of systems to facilitate effective collaboration, then proposing ways to implement them. Yes, to some extent you could call them workarounds, but really, his methods involve the judicious use of logic, common sense, psychology and flattery, as needed.

If you’re working with another group that seems to ignore your deadlines and issues, for example, instead of confronting them and asking what the !@#$% the problem is, Bishop decrees that you proactively try to turn things around and ask how you and your group are screwing up their lives and not the opposite. Invariably, he writes, you will find plenty of things that you can either eliminate or modify on your end. Having done that, you and your group can then focus on those anomalies and attempt to solve some of the issues affecting their end of things. Other impediments to progress like culture clash, power plays, organizational stratification, rules and more are covered by Bishop. In turn, he provides anecdotes of—and antidotes to—the obstructions. Read more ..


Book Review

Becoming Americans in Paris: Two-Way Cultural Exchange that Defined a Century

May 8th 2011

Book Covers - Becoming Americans

Becoming Americans in Paris: Transatlantic Politics and Culture between the World Wars. Brooke L. Blower. Oxford University Press. 2011. 368 pages.

A flâneur’s lament, Charles Baudelaire’s “The Swan” takes stock of the modernization crusade by Baron Haussmann: “Old Paris is no more (the form of a city / Changes more quickly, alas! than the human heart).” Baudelaire would not live to witness World War I, which left the city’s population dotted with wounded veterans and mourning widows. After the war, as the French came to terms with their profound human loss and the newfound strength of the United States, Parisians continued to worry about the shifting urban landscape. In particular, the exploding population of American expatriates gave Parisians cause for concern, as the city adapted its businesses and cultural sites to attract the almighty dollar.

Historians have already devoted countless pages to the Parisian expatriate community, including studies of its African American musicians and its writers jaded by the war. Brooke L. Blower, in Becoming Americans in Paris, attempts to reveal the political and cultural exchanges between Americans and their often-reluctant Parisian hosts, placing the expatriate experience in a transnational perspective. Rather than reiterate depictions of the carefree American community promoted by expatriate writers of the period, Blower highlights its politicized interactions with the French. Blower argues that interwar Paris became a central location for the creation of American political culture and modern American identity. Exchanges in the capital occurred on a two-way street of cultural and political influence, in which the presence of Americans swayed the political discourse of the French, and in which the cultural and political conflicts Americans witnessed shaped their own identity in turn. Read more ..


Book Excerpt

Imam Says America and Israel Behind the 9/11 Attacks

May 2nd 2011

Book Covers - Terrorist next door

Next Door: How the Government is Deceiving You About the Islamist Threat. Erick Stakelbeck. Regnery Publishing. 2011. 256 pages.

(The following is an exclusive excerpt from Erick Stakelbeck's new book, available here

Speaking of incitement, it doesn’t get much more blatant than what went down in Washington, D.C., over Labor Day weekend 2010. That was when an annual Islamo/leftist freak show known as the “al-Quds Day” rally came to town, featuring a rogue’s gallery of Jew-hating conspiracy theorists protesting Israel’s claim to the city of Jerusalem. Leading the pack was Abolfazl Bahram Nahidian, imam of the Manassas mosque in northern Virginia, which is located near the site of the legendary Battle of Bull Run.

That may sound like an odd fit on the surface, but Nahidian quickly showed at the al-Quds event that when it came to “bull,” he had few peers. At the rally, Nahidian claimed the 9/11 attacks were “not done by Muslims. It is done by the plot of the Zionists in order to justify, to occupy, the land of the Muslims such as Afghanistan, such as Iraq, such as Pakistan, now moving on to the rest of the areas. [The Zionists] plot and they scheme and no doubt God is plotting and scheming against them too!” Read more ..


Book Review

1939: Countdown to War: The Price of Honor and Dealing with Hitler

May 2nd 2011

Book Covers - 1939: Countdown to war

1939: Countdown to War. Richard Overy. Viking Press. 2010. 176 pages.

This slender volume by Richard Overy, professor of history at King’s College, London, and author of The Twilight Years: Why the Allies Won is an unflinching and gripping account of the tense ten days before Germany invaded Poland and the British and French then chose to honor its controversial obligation to defend Poland.

In his 2008 book Churchill, Hitler and the Unnecessary War: How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World, Pat Buchanan described the guarantee to Poland made by Britain and France as a huge blunder that only then made war unavoidable. In this he was correct but there were significant circumstances that prompted the British and French to negotiate the guarantee.

Specifically, what Neville Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier, the British and French leaders did at Munich and later, when they guaranteed Poland’s security, was to try to prevent another war so soon after the carnage of WWI. More than all else, the prime minister and the premier reflected the will of their populations who clearly wanted peace. At one point, an overwhelming majority of Britons backed Chamberlain’s efforts. The same it seems was true in France and Germany. A French writer, Jacques Bardoux, commented in his memoir that "here, as in Berlin, the cheering crowds of 1914 were absent." The same absence of excessive nationalism was evident in other European countries. Read more ..


Book Review

Crazy U: A Perfect Book on Getting Your Kid into College

May 2nd 2011

Book Covers - Crazy U

Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College. Andrew Ferguson. Simon & Shuster. 2011. 240 pages. 

Journalist Andrew Ferguson, senior editor at the Weekly Standard and author of Land of Lincoln, has written a perfect book: it makes you laugh and makes you think. His two-year “crash course” ends with his son entering college, but getting there is both all and none of the fun.

Ferguson’s tale is a case study of “college mania,” an affliction of the upper-middle class that, he admits, is a ritual born of affluence that he and his family are lucky to have. At the same time, the frenzied scramble to get into a selective college seems utterly irrational, not to mention absurd, sadistic, masochistic, and exhausting. As an anthropological “participant/observer,” Ferguson strikes just the right wry, skeptical, often hilarious, notes.

Like many contemporary parents who believe that “our children’s future is too important to be left to our children,” Ferguson jumps into the process early in his son’s junior year of high school, only to be informed by “Kat” Cohen, a high-priced college search consultant ($40,000 for the “platinum package”) that he’s a “baaaaad daaaaad” for not getting started years earlier. Read more ..


Film Review

War in Wintertime--Too Much Sentimentality Detracts from True Terror of its Story

May 2nd 2011

Film - Oorlogswinter

War in Wintertime. Director: Martin Koolhoven. Starring Martin Lakemeier, Raymond Thiry, Jamie Campbell Bower. Length: 103 mins.

Winter in Wartime (Oorlogswinter) by the Dutch director Martin Koolhoven is really less about either winter or wartime than it is about boyhood and its end — about which the movie’s sentimentality rather takes away, I find, from its potentially more interesting and exciting tale of intrigue and danger, set in Holland during the last winter of the Second World War. Growing up, hard as it sometimes is to believe these days, happens to nearly everybody and so is inherently less interesting than the exciting stuff that happens only to the extraordinary among us. I think Mr. Koolhoven gets things slightly backwards by concentrating, emotionally, a little too much on the development of his hero, a Dutch boy of 15 or so called Michiel (Martijn Lakemeier), while allowing the more exciting and suspenseful events accompanying the war’s sudden intrusion into his family life and the suspenseful question of who is loyal and who is collaborating with the Germans to languish a bit. The gain in added pathos by making a story about love, loyalty and betrayal happen to an adolescent does not make up for what is lost by turning away, to that extent, from the love, loyalty and betrayal themselves. Read more ..


Edge on History

Online Archive Preserves Images from Christian Missions in Africa, Asia

May 2nd 2011

Africa Topics - Missionary's Pic of Africans

An ambitious Internet project is bringing to light forgotten images from Africa, Asia, and other parts of the world during the period when missionaries were active. The International Mission Photography Archive contains more than 60,000 historic photographs that show cultural interaction—through missionaries—with the West. In some cases, the pictures provide surprising insights.

Sociologist Jon Miller coordinates the project and says that in many communities, missionaries took more pictures than anyone else. “They were the ones who were permanently anchored in communities rather than just in administrative centers,” he said. “They were the ones who were itinerating around and so they had much better contact. They were only rivaled by the merchants, who moved around as much as they did, but were not nearly as interested in documenting and covering their movements.” Read more ..


Book Review

Loyalty: The Vexing Virtue that Permits Slippery Conduct

May 2nd 2011

Book Covers - Loyalty book

Loyalty: The Vexing Virtue. Eric Felten. Simon & Schuster. 2011. 320 pages.

The title is wonderfully concise: Loyalty is indeed a vexing virtue. In this intriguing and elegantly written book, Wall Street Journal writer Eric Felten explores an idea which is difficult to reject in the abstract, but which is almost always proves devilish in the details. Using illustrations that that span Greek tragedies to the distasteful deeds of Tiger Woods, Felten wears his learning lightly and yet always instructively in this little gem of a book that is cleverly jacketed in true blue, with gold lettering and an icon of a dog.

Felten, who champions loyalty, focuses on two core problems with it. As we all understand, any positive virtue -- prudence, piety, or any other, cardinal or otherwise -- has its downsides. What is perhaps peculiar to loyalty is its capacity to enable other vices. The same solidarity among soldiers that wins wars also permits atrocities; the trust we place in princes engenders arrogance that leads to tyranny. Loyalty is an essential lubricant for the social contract, but it also permits the most slippery of conduct.

But what's really rough about loyalty, Felten says, is that even in those cases where it is most justified -- very often because it's justified -- loyalty inevitably leads to conflict. It's easy to fight for God and Country; all too often, it's God or Country. Read more ..


Book Review

Promise and Peril: America at the Dawn of a Global Age

April 25th 2011

Book Covers - Promise and Peril

Promise and Peril: America at the Dawn of a Global Age. Christopher McKnight Nichols. Harvard. 2011.

"My dear Rick, when will you realize that in this world today, isolationism is no longer a practical policy?" Sydney Greenstreet asks Humphrey Bogart in a classic moment from Casablanca (1942). Ever since Pearl Harbor, "isolationist" has been a virtual canard in American life, a term that tars its target (NATO skeptics, Vietnam War skeptics, free market globalization skeptics, et. al.) with the odor of the Nazi apologist. In this important new book, Christopher McKnight Nichols invites a broad reconsideration of the concept by tracing its origins back to the debates over U.S. imperialism at the end of the 19th century and its surprising continuities -- and surprising bedfellows -- over the next-half century.

In brief, Nichols makes a compelling case for thinking about isolationism in a way comparable to that of Michael Kazin's discussion of populism in his 1995 book The Populist Persuasion. (Perhaps not surprisingly, Kazin provides a blurb for Promise and Peril.) Just as the core of populism is located in an anti-elitist sentiment, broadly construed, isolationism rests on a core aversion to avoid overseas conflict. But like populism, isolationism defies easy ideological pigeonholing: depending on the circumstances, it has been claimed by both Right and Left -- sometimes simultaneously. Some isolationist advocates were avowed nationalists for whom unilateral action, including military action, was paramount. Others were passionate pacifists who saw it in humanitarian terms. The concept had commercial, military, and cultural connotations that could overlap or diverge. Recognizing this fact both leads to an at least partial rehabilitation of isolationism, even as it demands precision in grasping and invoking it. Read more ..


Book Review

Is an MBA Even Necessary These Days?

April 25th 2011

Book Covers - Personal MBA

The Personal MBA: Master the Art of Business. Josh Kaufman. Portfolio/Penguin. 416 pages.

No disrespect intended to any person or institution, but is an MBA really necessary? Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak never got theirs and many, many other successful business people (and book reviewers) lack that degree and seem none the worse for it.

In his new book, author and consultant Josh Kaufman not only explains the reasons he chose not to pursue his MBA, but does a rather masterful job of eviscerating the program in general and, more specifically, the reasons people seek it and why they needn’t and shouldn’t; in his not-so-humble opinion: Money.

Spending around $250,000 or more, says Kaufman, to get an MBA from a top business school is a lousy investment and completely unnecessary. In fact, the whole biz school deal is essentially a money-making enterprise for educational institutions who profit mightily from teaching mostly ancient, arcane, academic approaches to business that track very little with the actual world and the ways it really operates. Further, says Kaufman, there’s no assurance that the instructors are qualified beyond possessing the skills required to teach (if that) and are usually bereft of the experience and achievements that would confirm the efficacy of their instruction. Read more ..

Book Review

The Siege of Washington: 12 Days that Shook America

April 25th 2011

Book Covers - Siege of Washington

The Siege of Washington: The Untold Story of the Twelve Days that Shook the Union. John Lockwood and Charles Lockwood. Oxford. 2011.

Historians like to remind us that collective memory is a process of remembrance and forgetting. In the case of contemporary Civil War historiography, there is a growing recognition that historians themselves have lost sight of something important in recent decades: the depth and power of Northern unionism. Much of the work of the last half-century has focused on American racism (cause in its own right in the case of the Confederacy, fact of life in the case of the Union), or impersonal structural forces like capitalism, whether industrial or slave-based, in the coming of the conflict. And the major social changes of the sixties -- that's the 1960s, not the 1860s -- have placed great emphasis on the role of individual struggles and collective oppression of important demographic segments of the population.

Amid these legitimate and useful avenues of scholarship, it is sometimes hard for students of the war to imagine, much less remember, that millions of Americans had a deep and abiding commitment to the idea of a constitutional republic, one for which hundreds of thousands proved willing to risk their lives. Books like Joan Waugh's recent biography of Ulysses S. Grant, Gary Gallagher's newly published The Union War and Adam Goodheart's recent 1861: The Civil War Awakening have reconnected with these currents. In an indirect but powerful way, so do brothers John and Charles Lockwood in The Siege of Washington. Read more ..


Film Review

In a Better World: One of the Best Three Films in the Last Three Years

April 25th 2011

Film - In a better world

In a Better World. Director: Susanna Bier. Starring: Ulrich Thomsen, William Jøhnk Nielsen, Mikael Persbrandt, Markus Rygaard, Simon Maagaard Holm.

In the last three months, I have seen three movies better than anything seen in the previous three years — better than anything since 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days in 2008. One is Mike Leigh’s Another Year reviewed here in February. The second is Xavier Beauvois’s Of Gods and Men, reviewed here in March. This month, the hat trick comes with In a Better World — the Danish title is Hævnen — by Susanna Bier, the brilliant auteur of Open Hearts (2002) After the Wedding (2006) and Things We Lost in the Fire (2007). Her latest film won the Oscar as Best Foreign Film at this year’s Academy Awards and, as sometimes happens with foreign language films, actually deserved it.

In a Better World begins with a scene set in Africa: a woman who has been cut with machete is brought to a tent hospital in semi-desert savannah where Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), the Swedish doctor who runs the hospital, is told how the local "Big Man" — obviously some kind of warlord — amuses himself by betting with his henchmen, whenever he sees a pregnant woman, as to the child’s sex. Once the bets are laid, he cuts her open to see who wins.

Then, at a funeral in Denmark, Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen) a boy of 11 or 12, reads a story in English, a fable about a nightingale. His mother has died of cancer, and he is obviously deeply affected by her death. Equally obviously, he is not on good terms with his father, Claus (Ulrich Thomsen). "You don’t have to keep saying stuff, dad" he says in response to his father’s attempt to talk to him about his bereavement. Read more ..


Film Review

The Conspirator: New Film by Robert Redford Sheds Light on Lincoln's Assassination

April 18th 2011

Film - The conspirator

The Conspirator. Director: Robert Redford; Cinematography: Newton Thomas Sigel. Screenplay: John Solomon; Starring Robin Wright, James McAvoy, Tom Wilkinson; Length: 123 mins.

Most Americans know that U.S. President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. But they probably don’t know that Booth was part of a complex conspiracy. Booth was hunted down and shot by authorities 12 days after the assassination. Four alleged conspirators were executed and another four were sentenced to prison. Now, a new film directed by Robert Redford sheds light on one of the most significant events in U.S. history. On April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln is shot while watching a play at the Ford’s Theater in Washington. He dies a short while later, and the U.S. is thrown into chaos.

The assassin was John Wilkes Booth, an American stage actor. While most people believe Booth acted alone, there were actually eight others involved in a conspiracy targeting not only the president, but also the vice president and the secretary of state. Booth was caught and killed shortly after his escape. One of the conspirators got away but the rest were arrested and given prison sentences. Read more ..


Book Review

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother: A Remarkably Bad Book

April 18th 2011

Book Covers - Tiger Mother

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Amy Chua. Penguin Press. 2011. 256 pages.

As a teacher and book reviewer, it's my default setting to try to find something positive to say about any writing I assess. Partly this is a matter of simple decency; partly it's an acknowledgment that writing is hard work for just about everybody. And partly it's a matter of credibility: any criticism I may offer of another's work should be rooted in a sense of fairness. But this strategy is not without psychic cost. I worry, as do most people whose job it is to assess the performance of others, about whether my standards are high enough, both in terms of praise having value and maintaining my own sense of self-respect as to what constitutes success.

It is in that context that I say Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is a remarkably bad book. It's clarifying to encounter such a thoughtlessly written and cynically published work, and useful to explain why.

Tiger Mother is a hybrid, straddling the memoir and self-help genres. The latter is boldly stated at the outset: "A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids," Chua says in her first sentence. "They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it's like inside the family, and whether they could do it too. Well, I can tell them, because I've done it." Read more ..


Edge of Art

New Exhibit Offers a Slice of the Glory that was Roman Pompeii

April 18th 2011

Art Topics - Pompeii exhibit

Two thousand years ago, on the west coast of what is now Italy, the Roman seaport of Pompeii was thriving. Twenty thousand people farmed and traded in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. They made beautiful objects, worshipped their gods, and enjoyed wine from grapes grown in the fertile volcanic soil. But on a single day in 79 AD, all of that came to an end.

An exhibit at Discovery Times Square in New York presents more than 250 objects found at Pompeii and the nearby resort town of Herculaneum. They include mosaics, sculptures, frescoes, glass and pottery as well as fishhooks, a gladiator’s helmet, and women’s cosmetic items. There is even a loaf of bread that looks freshly-baked, although it’s hard as stone. The perfect preservation of these items seems unlikely, to say the least. Read more ..


Film Review

Jane Eyre--Much Lost in the Re-Telling of a Classic

April 18th 2011

Film - Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre. Director: Cary Fukunaga; Cinematography: Adriano Goldman; Screenplay: Moira Buffini; Starring: Judi Dench, Mia Wasikowska. Length: 90 mins.

Movies, we sometimes have to remind ourselves, are a pre-eminently visual medium, and this always means that there are certain things they can do better than others. These things come into sharper focus when someone tries to translate a work of literary fiction into cinematic terms — as someone has tried to do with Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre more than twenty times since the procedure became possible a century or so ago. The latest to try is Cary Fukunaga (Sin Nombre), working from a script by Moira Buffini. The two of them, together with director of photography Adriano Goldman, have created a strikingly beautiful film. The question remains, however, as to whether or not it is visual beauty that is wanted when it comes to Jane Eyre, whose eponymous heroine is unambiguously described as "plain," so we must suppose, for a reason.

I have read some critics who have tried to make the case for the literal plainness of Mr. Fukunaga’s Jane, who is Mia Wasikowska (The Kids are All Right), but I don’t believe that any unbiased observer will be persuaded. Miss Wasikowska is small and boyish of figure — she would do very well for one of those Shakespearean heroines who dress up as boys — but she is very far from being plain. On the contrary, she is as beautiful as the magnificent Peak District landscapes of Derbyshire that Charlotte Brontë herself apparently wished to substitute for the less picturesque moors of her native West Yorkshire and that Mr. Goldman lays on with glorious excess, one after another, in between a series of warm and evocative candle- and hearth-lit interiors. Even at her most downtrodden and miserable, this is a Jane that you can’t take your eyes off. Read more ..


Book Review

New Afghanistan Volume Challenges the Narrative

April 11th 2011

Book Covers - Afghanistan: how the west lost its way

Afghanistan: How the West Lost Its Way. Tim Bird and Alex Marshall. Yale University Press. 2011. 304 pages.

For a long time, Afghanistan was considered to be ‘the good war’ among western pundits and intellectuals, a noble crusade against Islamic extremism which the Bush administration neglected in favor of the illegal invasion of Iraq. Slowly but surely, as the corruption of the Karzai government was exposed, as U.S.-NATO bombings repeatedly struck at civilian targets, and as the Taliban gained strength in the countryside, this image began to shift and choruses of dissent began to emerge.

Tim Bird and Alex Marshall’s book Afghanistan: How the West Lost Its Way is the latest to challenge triumphalist narratives about the war being promoted in Washington. The authors, a lecturer at the Joint Services Command and Staff College at King’s College in London and a lecturer in war studies at the University of Glasgow, argue that the U.S.-NATO coalition squandered a small window of opportunity after the ouster of the Taliban to engage in effective state-building actions capable of solidifying the new order. Shifts in subsequent military strategy consequently proved futile in containing the Taliban. The Western powers worsened the situation as a result of their lack of clear strategy and ideological commitment to neo-liberal economic paradigms which have contributed to declining living standards for the majority of the population. Read more ..


Book Review

Rawhide Down: The Almost-Assassination of a President

April 11th 2011

Book Covers - Rawhid Down

Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan. Del Quentin Wilber. Holt. 2011. 320 pages.

Thirty years ago, an assassin almost killed Ronald Reagan at the very dawn of what proved to be a long and decisive presidency. We now know that Reagan was more seriously injured than most people believed at the time, and there has also been speculation that the trauma of the experience proved more lasting than realized. In Rawhide Down -- the title refers to President Reagan's Secret Service nickname -- Washington Post reporter Del Quentin Wilber sidesteps such broader analysis and renders a highly detailed, yet remarkably fast-paced, account of March 30, 1981. The book unfolds with the liquidity of a good novel, while at the same time providing a useful slice of social history in terms of matters like traumatic medical care, law enforcement, and the granular dimensions of everyday life for extraordinary people like presidents of the United States.

Though this is presumably a piece of objective reportage, the book is played in a key of quiet heroism. That goes for the Secret Service agents, in particular Jerry Parr, an important source of the book and one who saved Reagan's life twice, first by throwing him into his limousine so that a bullet ended up in the president's chest rather than his head, and then by making the critical decision to direct the limo to the George Washington University hospital, where timely care made the difference between life and death. Wilber also reconstructs the actions and thinking of Reagan's doctors and nurses, who are portrayed as dedicated professionals with passionate feelings they nevertheless kept under control. We also get sympathetic portraits of the three other victims that day: Washington DC policeman Thomas K. Delahanty, Secret Service Agent Tim McCarthy, and White House Press Secretary Jim Brady, the most seriously injured of the four and in whose name President Clinton signed a control bill in 1993. Read more ..


Book Review

Celluloid Activist Tell Painful History

April 11th 2011

Book Covers - Celluloid activist

Celluloid Activist: The Life and Times of Vito Russo. Michael Schiavi. University of Wisconsin Press. 2011. 320 pages.

When Vito Russo died on November 1, 1990, after a long and torturously painful battle against AIDS, the author of the best-selling The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies was one of America’s best-known gay activists and certainly its most famous radical queer. Yet he was only 41 years old when he left us.

Months before, Vito was afforded an all-too-brief respite from the hospital where he spent most of his final year just in time for New York City’s 20th Gay Pride March. His leg swollen to twice its normal size and with Kaposi’s Sarcoma invading his lungs, Vito— one of the extraordinarily courageous souls who’d mobilized the city’s first Pride demonstration, when he helped carry the Gay Activists Alliance’s (GAA) large banner — was unable to march this time. He watched his last Pride from the third-floor balcony of Larry Kramer’s Fifth Avenue apartment.

On that day, as Michael Schiavi recounts in his important new book Celluloid Activist: The Life and Times of Vito Russo, as the Pride March passed under Kramer’s balcony, “from the street hoards of black-shirted ACT UP members spied their favorite uncle above. Screams of ‘Vito! Vito! Vito! We love you! We love you! We love you!’ rose to greet him. Mustering his strength, Vito stood and ‘waved like Evita’ to his multitude of fans. Larry turned to him and whispered, ‘These are our children.’ That evening, in homage to Gay Pride, the Empire State Building was illuminated in lavender for the first time.” Read more ..


Energy vs Environment

Ecuador Leaves Oil Riches in Ground to Save Ecosystem

April 11th 2011

Latin American Topics - Ecuador pipeline

Ecuador’s decision to forego potentially lucrative oil drilling in the Amazon forest in order to protect a biologically rich and fragile ecosystem is the focus of two documentaries at the Washington Environmental Film Festival.

The decision represents a huge sacrifice for a small South American country which earns half its export revenues from oil.

In 2007, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa boldly halted operations at one of the country’s most promising wells. That amounts to 25 percent of Ecuador’s known oil reserves, which works out to about 846 million barrels of crude. The oil sits below Yasuni National Park, one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet. Read more ..


Book Review

Joe DiMaggio: The Long Vigil Answers Where Has He Gone

April 4th 2011

Book Covers - Joe Dimaggio

Joe DiMaggio: The Long Vigil. Jerome Charyn. Yale University Press. 2011. 192 pages.

With apologies to songwriter Paul Simon, it appears that Jolting Joe DiMaggio has never gone away. As we approach the seventieth anniversary of DiMaggio’s phenomenal fifty-six game hitting streak, the Yankee Clipper is on the cover of Sports Illustrated (And the cover jinx seems unlikely to be applicable in this case.), and the streak is the subject of a new book by sportswriter Kostya Kennedy. In addition, novelist Jerome Charyn attempts to rehabilitate DiMaggio’s reputation in a new biography for the Yale University Press Icons of America series edited by Mark Crispin Miller. In this brief interpretive book, Charyn relies upon personal observations and secondary sources to craft his portrait of a complex and proud athlete.

Charyn challenges Richard Ben Cramer’s 2001 DiMaggio biography, The Hero’s Life, for focusing too narrowly upon the Yankee Clipper’s off the field reputation for mean-spiritedness and miserly behavior. Instead, Charyn perceives DiMaggio as a more tragic figure who was most comfortable when patrolling center field in Yankee Stadium. After his playing days, DiMaggio did allow himself to be somewhat manipulated by investors in the lucrative baseball memorabilia business, but Charyn prefers to focus his attention upon DiMaggio’s commitment to Marilyn Monroe even after the failure of their short lived marriage. Writing of the long vigil after DiMaggio’s playing career ended in 1951, Charyn concludes, “His greatness has less to do with statistics than with his devotion to baseball, or to anything else he cared about. He had purity and a natural grace that few others had.” Read more ..


Book Review

A Balanced Approach to the Splintering of Black America

April 4th 2011

Book Covers - Disintegration

Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America. Eugene Robinson. Doubleday. 2010. 272 pages.

By now, virtually every U.S. history textbook features African-American history in the mainstream of its narrative. The names and events are familiar, even iconic: the 20th century features Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, and Marcus Garvey, followed by Thurgood Marshall and the Brown decision, Martin Luther King and civil disobedience, Malcolm X and black separatism, Stokely Carmichael and Black Power. Once past the drama of the ‘60s, however, the narrative often loses momentum and focus, and the ongoing African-American story is blurred or even omitted.

Meanwhile, media commentary on contemporary racial issues usually pays attention only to dramatic incidents, to which commentators respond with flamboyant rhetoric. When African-American scholar Henry Louis Gates was arrested in his home by a white police officer, pessimists declared loudly that this proved that “nothing has changed.” When Barack Obama was elected president, optimists declared equally loudly that this proved, in effect, “everything has changed.”

Eugene Robinson, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Washington “Post,” aims to move beyond the rhetoric and paint a comprehensive, nuanced portrait of the condition of Black America today. His aim is straight and true. Based on careful reading of census data, demographers’ surveys, journalistic and historical sources, and his own family’s experience, Robinson’s book is clear, engaging, thoughtful, and persuasive, a brief yet thorough update on what has happened in and to Black America, for better and worse, in the past 40 years. Read more ..


Film Review

Animal Kingdom: Australian Gothic Tale of Family Crimes and Misdemeanors

April 4th 2011

Film - Animal Kingdom

Animal Kingdom. Director: David Michod. Starring: James Frecheville, Joel Edgerton, Ben Mendelsohn, Guy Pearce, Jacki Weaver. Length: 113 mins.  


Our appetite for watching unhappy families continues to be fed, and what family can be unhappier than the crime family? Indeed the crime family troupe as a source of drama has been a source of inspiration to Hollywood classics, like The Godfather's Corleones, and the British small-screen, Shameless's Maguires. From Australia comes a weighty addition to the genre, a suspenseful thriller called Animal Kingdom. Fascinatingly, the family that most resemble the one in the film is not any crime syndicate, but that of the English Catholic classic Brideshead Revisited, the Marchmains, an observation to be more fully explained after the plot. Read more ..


Film Review

Cedar Rapids: A Modern and Amusing Midwest Candide

April 4th 2011

Film - Cedar Rapids

Cedar Rapids. Director: Miguel Arteta. Screenplay: Phil Johnston. Starring: Anne Heche, Ed Helms, Sigourney Weaver.

What I take to be the bottom line of Cedar Rapids, directed by Miguel Arteta (Chuck and Buck, The Good Girl) to a screenplay by Phil Johnston, is pronounced by Bree (Alia Shawkat), a juvenile prostitute who figures only marginally in what is otherwise the story of a small-town insurance salesman, Tim Lippe (Ed Helms), on his first visit (age approximately 35) to the big city. The big city is the eponymous metropolis (pop. 128,000) in Iowa.

We know already that Tim must be shorn of his improbable innocence and instructed in the ways of the world without — for the sake of the audience’s sympathy — simply becoming cynical or corrupt. As a predictable part of this process he drinks and takes recreational drugs for the first time, has adulterous sexual relations with a colleague and is beaten up by a thug (Rob Corddry) during a wild and dangerous party at the home of Bree’s Uncle Ken (Seth Morris). To the sadder but wiser Tim, then, Bree says: "We’re all just selling something: "f***s, drugs, insurance."

One sees the point of course. As part of Tim’s introduction to the world outside Brown Valley, Wisconsin, he must learn, as the rest of us have already learned and as they learned in Hollywood a long time before everyone else did, not to be judgmental. Even back in Brown Valley, old Tim has made a pretty good start on learning this lesson by carrying on an affair with his remarkably well-preserved seventh grade teacher, a divorcée named Macy (Sigourney Weaver), to whom he now considers himself in consequence to be "pre-engaged." Read more ..


Book Review

The Columbia History of the Vietnam War: A Taste for Perpetual Warfare

March 28th 2011

Book Covers - Columbia History of Vietnam War

The Columbia History of the Vietnam War. David L. Anderson, editor. Columbia University Press, 2011. 488 pages.

In April 2000, nearly twenty thousand Vietnamese citizens gathered in Ho Chi Minh City –once known as Saigon—to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their victory over the American invaders and the creation of their relatively stable country. Since the end of the war American and Vietnamese officials have resumed normal relations, and exchanged visits to promote business ventures and tourism. “Business with an Asian Flair: New Service to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam” reads a full-page New Yorker advertisement placed by Delta airlines.

Looking back at the still highly politicized Vietnam War debate, sixteen historians, eminent scholars of the war at home and abroad, have drawn on recent scholarship for their conclusions about that calamitous conflict. The result is a brilliant collective exposition of what happened and why. Editor David L. Anderson, Professor of History at California State University, Monterey, and former president of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, explains: “The assumption behind this work is that many of the historical themes in the study of the Vietnam War have contemporary relevance” (my italics).

Do they! We need only consider our nation’s historical and unceasing addiction to war and military intervention and the abysmal failure to hold powerful decision-makers accountable for all those wars and the many deaths they incurred. When the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC, was dedicated and thus became a sacred shrine to the dead in a war that should never have been fought, no one in authority who had dreamed up the bloodletting had ever been held accountable, thereby insuring that few if any future lessons would be learned. Read more ..



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