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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 ..

Book Review

Moral Combat: A Flawed and Snarky Assessment of the Second World War

March 28th 2011

Book Covers - moral combat

Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II. Michael Burleigh. HarperCollins. 2011. 672 pages.

There's probably nobody alive today who knows more about the rise and fall of the Third Reich than Michael Burleigh. His 2001 book The Third Reich was a landmark history, one notable in describing Nazism as a kind of religious experience. In the years since, he has explored similar currents in the history of other regimes and among terrorists. In his new book, he returns to his original grounding in the Second World War, and widens his scope beyond Germany, and indeed beyond Europe.

Much of Moral Combat is fascinating. Burleigh is particularly good at teasing out the nuances and dilemmas in the choices of people forced to dwell in collaborationist states like France and Denmark. And his regrettably brief chapter on resistance fighters -- regrettable because it leaves one wanting more, but also, as Burleigh makes clear, because such people were lamentably rare -- is superb.

But for all scope and unquestioned value, this is a flawed and distended book. And one whose vices seem to grow out of editorial arrogance.

The biggest, and immediately apparent, problem is the lack of a conceptual infrastructure through which to guide a reader through Burleigh's 500+ page narrative. He's clear at the outset that this is not meant to be a work of philosophy, and that the volume is meant to offer a moral map, not a moral compass. Fine. But how about at least offering a working definition of the word "moral?" How does he understand its relationship to religion or ethics? Is there a distinction to be made between individual or collective morality? Given the different value systems between Eastern and Western societies, does morality transcend cultures? Without such coordinates, it's easy to get lost, even when the map is richly detailed as this one is. Read more ..

Film Review

Howl: Excellent Portrayal of a Controversial Poet

March 28th 2011

Film - Howl

Howl. Director: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman. Starring: James Franco, Jon Hamm, David Strathairn, Bob Balaban, Jeff Daniels. Length: 85 mins.  

In 1955 at the age of 29, Allen Ginsberg, famed poet of the Beat Generation, wrote his first and most famous published poem: Howl. This film by the same name is an exploration of the poem, its creation and the controversy surrounding it.

The story is told in a series of black-and-white and color layers which weave together in an attempt to breathe life into the poem. The first layer is a portrayal of Ginsberg in his first public reading of Howl. The poem itself is made up of a series of images which are revealed in an animated interpretation. Throughout the film we are also treated to Ginsberg giving an interview about Howl, about his poetry and about his life and the influences surrounding the creation of Howl. The interview is peppered with old photographs and portrayals of episodes of Ginsberg’s life. The final layer is the obscenity trial regarding the poem’s publication.

All these layers come together in an exegesis of the poem. Howl is an intensely personal work, one which Ginsberg had not expected to publish and which, as he says, he would definitely not want his father to read. It is saturated with images of and references to events in his own life: his friends, his homosexuality, his mother’s mental illness and his own time in an asylum. And it is written in such a way that it can be difficult for the casual reader to access. Read more ..

Book Review

The Public and Its Possibilities: Malaise, Triumphs and Tragedies in the American City

March 28th 2011

Book Covers - Public and its possibilities

The Public and Its Possibilities: Triumphs and Tragedies in the American City. John D. Fairfield. Temple University Press. 2010.

John Fairfield is concerned about the health of the American body politic and the state of our national conversation.  His new book, The Public and Its Possibilities: Triumphs and Tragedies in the American City (Temple University Press, 2010) aims to improve both, offering a synthesis of the secondary literature on the idea of the public in American life.  An urban historian and director of the Institute for Politics and Public Life at Cincinnati’s Xavier University, Fairfield’s subtitle suggests that the American city is the hero of this story, but in fact it serves simply as scene-setting for the battles he describes.

The source of our public malaise, argues Fairfield, is in American liberalism itself.  In celebrating the majesty of the human individual and making personal liberty its primary concern, liberalism forgets that the elevation of the individual can only occur within a culture that recognizes the reciprocal responsibilities that connect citizen and society.  Failing to replenish the cultural resources which sustain it, liberal society starves itself.  We eat our own seed corn.

Fairfield’s strategy is to bring the historian’s resources to bear on this failure of vision, retrieving traditions of cooperative action on behalf of public good from the American past in order to “rekindle our political imagination.”  His goal is to redirect American efforts toward “the great unfinished tasks of American civilization . . . the construction of an economy and a culture that complement our civic aspirations.” Read more ..

Film Story

The Lightbulb Conspiracy—Why Consumer Products Don’t Last

March 21st 2011

Book Covers - Lightbulb #2

There once was a time when consumer goods were built to last. Then, in the 1920s, a group of businessmen realized that the longer their product lasted, the less money they made, thus ‘Planned Obsolescence’ was born, and manufacturers have been engineering products to fail ever since.

Cosima Dannoritzer’s documentary The Light Bulb Conspiracy beautifully separates fact from myth as it charts the rise and evolution of Planned Obsolescence from the early 20th century up to the present, and looks at its impact on our current society. The sight of thousands of tons of electronic equipment dumped in Ghana, Africa, in what used to be a natural reserve—which is now completely destroyed and polluted, is a harrowing reminder of the dark side of the consumer society.

What makes this film fascinating is that it goes beyond the environmental frame to tackle a much more fundamental aspect of the issue—the economic logic behind Planned Obsolescence. As an advertising magazine warned in 1928, “an article that refuses to wear out is a tragedy for business.” With examples ranging from light bulbs to nylon stockings, from cars to iPods and inkjet printers, the film deftly explores how Planned Obsolescence has become the basis for economic growth with a highly crafted combination of investigative research and rare archive footage. Read more ..

Film Review

Even the Rain: Juxtaposed Visions of Religion in South America's Water Wars

March 21st 2011

Film - Also the Rain

Even the Rain (Tambien la Lluvia). Director: Iciar Bollain. Starring Gael Garcia Bernal. Screenplay: Ken Loah and Scott Paul Laverty. Length: 103 minutes.

This was Spain’s nominee for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film in 2010. It was written by longtime collaborators Ken Loach and Paul Laverty. It was directed by actress turned director, Iciar Bollain.

Probably, the film is best described as three films in one. The first story is the making of a film in Bolivia about Columbus, his reports to Ferdinand and Isabella, his attitude towards the Indians, benign at first, but the greed for gold led to exploitation and Indian retaliation. The proposed film is based on the life and pro-Indian work of the historic Dominican friar Bartolomeo De las Casas and the crusading priest Montesinos. The culmination is the burning of a number of Indians fixed to crosses. These sequences are interspersed throughout the film.

The second story is the production personnel story, the idealism of the young director, Sebastian (Gael Garcia Bernal in a better role than in recent Hollywood comedies), inspired by Las Casas and Montesinos, wanting to condemn the Conquistador version of imposed Christianity and to show the more Gospel humanity of the Dominican friar. Luis Tosar appears as producer, Costa, pragmatic, a wheeler-dealer who is alert to trouble, aiming to forestall it. Read more ..

Book Review

The Dark Side of China’s March Towards Industrialization

March 21st 2011

Book Covers - billion chinese

When a Billion Chinese Jump. Jonathan Watts. Scribner, 2010. 448 pages.

The odd title of this book by the Asia environment correspondent for The GuardianWhen a Billion Chinese Jump—comes from a warning he heard as a child. If everyone in China jumped at the same time, he was told, the shock would knock the earth off its axis and kill everyone on the planet. You don’t have to read too far into the book before you realize that the world’s second largest economy may be killing all of us in its head-long dash to modernize with scant regard for our planet.

Jonathan Watts argues that Chinese have so deep a cultural prejudice against nature that even the central government’s efforts to protect and improve the environment are ignored.

The book is more a travelogue than a scientific tome. Watts peels the onion of environmental degradation as he journeys across China, from the village in Yunnan (which supposedly is Shangri-la in the novel “The Lost Horizon”) to the more developed and industrialized cities of the coast, to its hinterland, coal fields in Shaanxi, and Inner Mongolia and the encroaching desert. He relates the environmental catastrophe through the voices of environmental activists, scientists, government officials and disenfranchised victims suffering disease and indignity. Read more ..

Confronting the Farhud

The Struggle for Memory of the Farhud

March 21st 2011

Islamic Topics - al-Husayni and Hitler

Since the vicious massacre in Iraq known as the Farhud—the Pogrom of 1941 in Baghdad following the Sack of Basra on 7–8 May, 1941, many scholars among the Jews who left Iraq had been trying, largely in vain, to keep it alive in the Jewish collective memory. The Jewish Holocaust is widely believed to be confined to European Jewry only, and it overshadows all other calamities of WWII outside Europe.

In the Arab World, most of all in Iraq, a conspiracy of silence was carefully maintained against the successive massacres committed against Jews since the Farhud of 1941 and the Arab defeat in 1948 War. In Iraq the conspiracy started immediately before the blood of the innocent victims dried, when army and police officers roved the streets of Baghdad, warning the Jews not to testify against the murderers and looters. Even the official report on the massacre was not published until 1958.Later, a few articles were published in Hebrew and English by well-known historians such as Dr. Haim Cohen of the Hebrew University in 1966 and Prof. Elie Kedourie of London University in 1970. These researches drew the attention of very few scholars. Read more ..

Film Review

Route Irish: the Road from the Insanity of War

March 21st 2011

Book Covers - Route Irish (movie)

Route Irish. Directed by Ken Womack. Screenwriter: Paul Laverty. Starring: Mark Womack, Andrea Lowe, and John Bishop. Length: 109 mins.

Route Irish is the latest work by director Ken Loach and is an intricately plotted thriller about the privatization of warfare in Iraq. The film deals with the human cost of the  commercialization of the war in Iraq in a story of an ex-soldier trying to uncover the circumstances of his best friend's death.

Fergus and Frankie met on the first day of school and the pair stayed close as they both joined the British military. When Fergus leaves the SAS and lands a lucrative job with a private security firm in Baghdad, he persuades Frankie to join him. By 2007 when the film begins, Fergus is back home in Wales and and learns that Frankie has been killed on Route Irish running between Baghdad's airport and the city's Green Zone.

Enraged and highly suspicious of the official explanation of events, Fergus begins his own investigation with the help of Frankie's widow. This is one of Loach's most accessible films to date. And it is one of his darkest. Read more ..

Book Review

Religion in America as Bridge—and Barrier

March 14th 2011

Book Covers - American Grace

Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell. American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. Simon & Schuster, 2010. 688pp.

Harvard University political scientist Robert D. Putnam’s 2000 book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community was one of those books—like David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (1950) or Daniel Bell’s The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976)—that captured a zeitgeist. Its key concept of “social capital,” and the thesis that it was in gradual decline, has defined academic discourse across a series of disciplines for over a decade now. Though it may now be a little dated (my students routinely argue, to my mind unconvincingly, that social networking is in effect a new and effective form of social capital), it will continue to serve as an artifact of turn-of-this-century American life.

Putnam’s next two books, co-edited anthologies, deepened the inquiry into the issues he explored in Bowling Alone. But now he has teamed up with Notre Dame political scientist David E. Campbell to produce American Grace, a comprehensive look at the contemporary landscape of religion in U.S. life. Written in collaboration with other researchers, and based on two large-scale surveys in 2006 and 2007, it will likely serve as a widely cited landmark study for decades to come.


Book Review

The Civil War: A Concise History, at Last

March 14th 2011

Book Covers - Civil War Concise History

The Civil War: A Concise History. Louis Masur. Oxford University Press. 2011. 160 pages.

The Civil War is not a topic that inspires brevity. For a generation now, the standard one-volume work, James McPherson's magisterial Battle Cry of Freedom, clocks in at close to 900 pages (to McPherson's great credit, it reads faster than its length suggests). It's a measure of the marketplace that a forthcoming new edition of popular historian James L. Stokesbury's Short History of the Civil War is listed at 384 pages -- huge by non-Harry Potter standards. A decade ago, Reid Mitchell managed to cover the war in under 200, taking a thematic approach (and carrying an extortionate $26 current paperback price). The last few times I've taught a Civil War course, I've relied on the now-classic Ken Burns documentary as my primary narrative "text," packing a panoply of primary and secondary sources around it. Yet I've never regarded this as an entirely satisfactory arrangement for a number of reasons, not the least of which, interestingly enough, is a sense of video fatigue on the part of students.

So it's with a sense of real relief that I breezed my way through Louis Masur's svelte narrative, which manages to cover all the major bases in under 100 pages. This is important because, again, there is so much to talk about when the subject is the Civil War, and yet having discussions is difficult without some kind of factual framework as a touchstone for the rich political, cultural, social, economic, and military dimensions of the conflict, among others. The war is so much more than the Battle of Antietam, but without a concise account of what happened on September 17, 1862, all kinds of other things, from U.S. foreign policy to Abraham Lincoln's extraordinary political skills, will remain murky. Read more ..

Film Review

Rango: A Refreshing Animated Satire by Academy Award nominees

March 14th 2011

Film - Rango

Rango. Starring: Johnny Depp. Produced by: Industrial Light & Magic, Blind Wink, GK Films and Nickelodeon. Length: 107 minutes. 

While March may not be the sunniest of months in terms of weather, it is definitely looking brighter for movie lovers. In March's first weekend of cinematic offerings we get Rango, the latest made-for-adults-but-enjoyable-for-children animated film, which is thankfully neither a Pixar or DreamWorks production. While Pixar films are always pleasant, they have lost a bit of the cutting edge originality that made them so successful. DreamWorks long since sold their soul to the god of sequel franchising when they opted for quantity versus quality and a blanket approach to their animation design.

Rango is a breath of fresh air in the stalemate of Hollywood animation, not only in terms of production value but also with its superior screenplay thanks to John Logan. How many DreamWorks films are written by Academy Award nominees? While the term "original spoof" seems to be an oxymoron, Rango finds a way to be creative and refreshing while putting film buffs in satiric heaven with its hundreds of in-jokes. Even my fellow theater nerds will appreciate its updated Greek chorus and loving portrayal of thespians. No, not the kind that are illegal in 5 states; an apology to all the parents who will have to explain that line per Harry Dean Stanton's character to their kids at home. Read more ..

Film Review

True Grit: Lacking a Moral Compass

March 7th 2011

Film - True Grit _ Pic

One scene from the 1969 version of True Grit, directed by the journeyman Henry Hathaway, that is interestingly altered in the new remake by the Brothers Coen comes when John Wayne as federal marshal Reuben, "Rooster," Cogburn — who is played in the remake by Jeff Bridges — is giving his employer and protégé, Mattie Ross (Kim Darby), a résumé of his life since his disreputable service with Quantrill’s Raiders in the Civil War. He tells her without any sense of shame of having robbed both a Federal payroll and a bank in New Mexico. The story is somewhat abbreviated from the version given in the novel but is substantially the same, as is Rooster’s denial that what he had done in the two cases was the same as theft. "I needed a road stake and there it was," he says. "I never robbed no citizen, taken a man’s watch." Read more ..

Book Review

Missouri’s Clemens becomes California’s Twain

March 7th 2011

Book Covers - Twain Bio Lighting Out

Roy Morris, Jr. Lighting Out for the Territory: How Samuel Clemens Headed West and Became Mark Twain. Simon & Schuster, 2010. 304 pp.

Most of us understand Mark Twain as a Western writer—whether “West” is defined in terms of his Missouri provenance (certainly the frontier at the time of his birth in 1835) or his crucial sojourn in the mining camps of Nevada and saloons of San Francisco. Twain chronicled this phase of his life in Roughing It (1872), a rollicking account that remains readable almost a century and a half later. But given the heft of that book, its avowedly questionable reliability, and the relatively thin biographical record of this period relative to the rest of Twain’s life, there is a lacuna that popular historian Roy Morris, Jr. has filled in this brief, entertaining volume, just issued in paperback as part of Simon & Schuster’s shrewdly packaged “America Collection.”

As one might expect, Roughing It, which chronicles the six years following Twain’s departure for Nevada in 1861, remains the core of Lighting Out for the Territory, whose title alludes to the end of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). But Morris deftly packs a lot of context around it. This includes other Twain writings, like his letters, autobiography, and newspaper reportage, as well as accounts, both contemporary to his time and contemporary to ours, of people who had similar experiences as he did or who have their own angles of vision on the stories he tells (like irritated rivals at competing publications). Morris quotes liberally from Twain himself—the humor continues to leap of the page and make you laugh—as well as provides analysis of his deadpan lecture style and the narrative strategy of his short story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” Twain’s first big literary hit. Read more ..

Book Review

Shining Still: Christmas Eve, 1941

March 7th 2011

Book Covers - In the Dark Streets

David McCullough. In the Dark Streets Shineth: A 1941 Christmas Eve Story. Shadow Mountain, 2010. 56pp+DVD.

Much was written about the state of Anglo-American relations last fall. The leaked diplomatic cables—dating from January 2009 to June 2010 and including commentaries sent to Washington from American diplomats overseas—caused a mixture of personal offense and political humiliation in the UK after Wikileaks laid bare what U.S. officials truly thought about the so-called special relationship.

Although predicted to have been a “bombshell” leak, an American assessment of Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s personality and his prospects of winning the general election is as unimportant as the secret discussions on the return of the Lockerbie bomber to Libya are. The same can be said for the diplomatic wrangling pertaining to Gary McKinnon. Rejecting an appeal by Brown to try the computer hacker in London puts little strain on transatlantic relations; criticism of British operations in Afghanistan—rightly described as “devastating” —clearly does, however.

The same even goes for President Obama’s criticism of David Cameron. Describing the then-leader of the opposition as a “lightweight” pales into insignificance when compared with the damaging cable that reveals Obama has “no feelings for Europe” and prefers to “look East rather than West” to build relationships. Read more ..

The Edge of Art

Picasso’s Private Collection Draws Virginia Crowds

March 7th 2011

Art Topics - picasso show on the road

"This is Picasso’s personal collection," says Alex Nyerges, director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. "During his lifetime he kept all of the things he loved the best, thousands upon thousands of works of art. When his estate was being settled, the Musee Picasso was created." Works by Pablo Picasso, one of the most important artists of the modern era, have been touring the globe while their home in Paris is renovated. They recently arrived at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which is located in the state capital of Richmond.

There are nearly 200 works in the exhibition, spanning 71 years of Picasso's lengthy career from 1901 to 1972, the year before his death. Read more ..

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