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Book Review

Syria--The Cycle of Wishful Thinking

May 26th 2008

Unknown - The Truth About Syria
The Truth About Syria

The Truth About Syria. Barry Rubin. Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. 304 pages.


The age of illusions is over,” the historian Walter Laqueur wrote recently, referring to the illusions the West continues to entertain about the confrontation with radical Islam. Needless to say, Laqueur did not mean that we in the West no longer have any illusions on this subject; those still abound. He meant, rather, that we can no longer afford to harbor them and that the time has come to shed them. Yet human beings have great difficulty in freeing themselves from illusions—even quite dangerous ones—as long as they offer comfort and provide peace of mind. The best place to start the freeing process is by heeding those who are willing to tell us disturbing truths. Barry Rubin, the distinguished scholar of the Middle East, falls into this tiny minority. His brilliant and provocative new book, The Truth about Syria, not only challenges the illusions of those naturally inclined to prefer lovely daydream over harsh reality; it also challenges the illusions of those in the West who, by their own definition, are hard-nosed realists and wily pragmatists.

Consider the case of the Iraq Study Group and its recommendation that the United States engage Syria in an attempt to bring stability and peace to post-Saddam Iraq. The authors of the report included James Baker and Lawrence Eagleburger, each of whom had served as Secretary of State during the administration of George H.W. Bush. Both are generally known for being tough pragmatists, the kind of men one bets would be good poker players even among the toughest competitors in the game. Indeed, the members of the Study Group might be said to represent our contemporary version of the famous “wise men” who guided us through the Cold War with signal success; and if we were still in the midst of the Cold War, we could perhaps sleep more easily at night knowing that the fate of the West was in such shrewd and prudent hands. But today the challenge is radically different. We are not confronting another great superpower in the poker-like game called the balance of power, and even our wisest wise men have yet to grasp that they are currently playing a game about whose rules they have no clue. Read more ..

Book Review

Conservatives Happier Than Liberals

May 19th 2008

Logo - Gross National Happiness
Gross National Happiness

Gross National Happiness: Why Happiness Matters for America--And How We Can Get More of It. Arthur C. Brooks. Basic Books. 277 pages. 

Conservatives are happier than liberals, according to a new book by Arthur C. Brooks entitled, "Gross National Happiness: Why Happiness Matters to America and How We Can Get More of It.”

"You find that all the way back to the early 1970s, as long as we've been keeping data on the subject, conservatives have consistently shown greater life satisfaction than liberals," say Brooks.

In one study, people who identified themselves as conservative were nearly twice as likely to say they were very happy as people who said they are liberal.

In contrast, Brooks says, "Liberals are less likely to be optimistic about the future, and they're more likely to say they feel like a failure." The question is, why?

About half the reason conservatives are happier than liberals is that they are more likely to attend a house of worship or be married. Such people tend to be happier anyway.

How each group see things accounts for the rest of the difference, says Brooks. “Conservatives have a more optimistic, hopeful worldview," he says.

Conservatives are not happier because they have more money. In fact, they are not necessarily better off financially than liberals.

Moreover, money doesn't necessarily make us happier, says Brooks, who is a Louis A. Bantle professor of business and government policy at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and Whitman School of Management. Read more ..

Musical Edge

Conductor Victor Vener Bucks the Trend by Escaping "Dark Ages"

April 28th 2008

Headshot - Victor Vener
Conductor Victor Vener

Victor Vener, the conductor and chief force behind the California Philharmonic, which he founded more than a decade ago, makes music in a way that isn’t particularly trendy. He just conducted the complete Bach "Brandenburgs," then turned his attentions to lighter faire on warm Saturday evenings at the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden and Sunday nights at Disney Hall beginning in June. Instead of playing the likes of Bach and Shostakovich, there will be Gershwin, Copeland, Broadway tunes and movie music.

Whatever the music, he prefers it has melody. He has no desire to force aleotoric, tone rows or excessive dissonance down anyone’s throat. He has no desire to make his audiences squirm by being forced to listen to unlistenable music of the type favored by academics and foundations and, until recently, the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

He knows that those who are snobby about their classical music don't like to show they might not know everything. But that doesn’t stop him from speaking to the audience about the music before he plays it, especially in this day and age when maybe more people than ever listen to classical music but they also know nothing about it.


Film Review

Everything is Personal

April 7th 2008

Everything is Personal
Everything is Personal

Rabin-Peres: Everything is Personal. Israel 2007. Directed by Arik Henig. 64 min, in Hebrew with English subtitles.

Near the end of this Israeli documentary, two confidants of Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin neatly sum up the nearly five-decades of competition and tepid – at best – final reconciliation between the historic leaders. One refers to Rabin and Peres as the Jewish state’s “yin and yang,” the other as a long-time bickering couple who finally decide to stay married.

The bitter rivalry of these two men to both head the Labor Party and the nation was indeed intensely personal. As but one example, Rabin’s stinging 1979 autobiography was woven with attacks on Peres. (The Hebrew version is much more indicting than the English one.) Then there was Peres’ harsh verbal lashing of Rabin during an open party speech (Rabin is shown chuckling with confidantes.)

Even during the last day of Rabin’s life, which ended the night of Nov. 5, 1995, as three bullets from Yigal Amir’s pistol slammed into his body, longtime Labor activist Giora Eini spent hours shuttling between the homes of the two leaders to mediate matters; Rabin and Peres evidently could not discuss the issues face-to-face.


Book Review

A Penetrating Insight into Who Murdered Israel's Moderate Arabs

March 30th 2008

Army of Shadows
Army of Shadows

Hillel Cohen (translated by Haim Watzman). Army of Shadows. 2008, University of California Press. 344 pages.

This is a book I purchased because I was tempted by its cover photograph of a Jew visiting an Arab village in 1940, even as I was repelled by the word "collaboration" in its subtitle.

The Jew—the jacket description calls him a "settler"—wearing a Western suit, is sitting slightly higher than the Arab, who is traditionally dressed and wearing a keffiyeh. The Arab has his hand on the visitor's knee. He looks warily at the camera as his guest, whom we see in profile, speaks.

In Army of Shadows - Palestinian Collaboration with Zionism, 1917–1948, Hillel Cohen of the Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem tells the absorbing story of the Palestinian Arabs who sought accommodation with the Zionist movement. This book answers the question: Where are the Palestinian moderates?

For more than 90 years, Arab radicals have been at war not only with with Zionism, but simultaneously with any Arab voice—Christian, Muslim, Druse or Beduin—advocating moderation and coexistence with the Zionist enterprise. So, where are the moderates?

Answer: They are dead—hacked up with axes, riddled with bullets, slaughtered with knives and exploded by bombs. That's where the Arab moderates are. This book chronicles their story from the start of the British Mandate until the War of Independence. Read more ..

Film Review

Reflections of Silver, Beneath the Rain

March 12th 2008

"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"

"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" ("Le Scaphandre et le Papillon"), France 2007. Directed by Julian Schnabel, from a screenplay by Ronald Harwood, based on the book by Jean-Dominique Bauby. Miramax/Pathe Renn, 112 minutes, in French with English subtitles.

American reviews of "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" ("Le Scaphandre et le Papillon"), and of the autobiographical book by Jean-Dominique Bauby on which it is based, have called the story "amazing" and "a triumph of the human spirit." I can’t agree.

These bland clichés and the flabby thinking behind them only insult director Julian Schnabel’s fully realized portrait of Bauby, editor of French "Elle," earthy and intellectual and greedy of life, "a family man and a free spirit" and "a stranger to failure" whose sudden stroke at age 43 left him entombed in his own body, a victim of the rare "locked-in syndrome." On Sunday, Schnabel ("Basquiat," "Before Night Falls") won a Golden Globe for his technically dazzling and meticulously paced direction, and "Diving Bell" was named best foreign film.

The original French lyrics of chansonnier Charles Trenet’s "La Mer" that frame the opening and closing credits set the mood in a way their peppy English translation ("Somewhere Beyond the Sea") never could. "Reflets d’argent ... des reflets changeants, sous la pluie." "Silver reflections, changing reflections, underneath the rain" describes equally well the shifting, drowning, hall-of-mirrors effects of Janusz Kaminski’s brilliant cinematography, and the shattering and slow rearranging of Bauby’s world it depicts.


Book Review

Superman Book Offers Cautionary Tales

March 3rd 2008

Superman book cover

Jake Rossen. Superman vs. Hollywood: How Fiendish Producers, Devious Directors and Warring Writers Grounded an American Icon. February 2008, Chicago Review Press. 393 pages.

You would think that making a Superman movie would be the easiest thing in the world to do. As a business decision, it's a no-brainer. The template has already been created. Just cast and shoot. There have already been successful radio and TV shows, serials, cartoons and comic books—published continuously for the past 70 years. But the degree of intrigue, incompetence, misfortune and other problems that have plagued the character and his interpreters over the years is astounding. And it continues to the present day.

But how can a business—in this case the film business—screw up something that seems like a natural? This is Superman, after all, the prototypical, archetypal superhero. Second, third and fifth-stringers like Blade, Swamp Thing, Constantine, The Crow, Elektra, The Mask, Hellboy and others have been the subjects of popular flicks. A-listers such as Batman, X-Men and Spider-Man are into their second or third go-rounds. In the meantime, after a tortuous development process, the sequel to the recent, relatively successful Superman Returns movie has yet to begin pre-production.

Originally for a cover story in the hyperbolic, testosterone-drenched fanzine Wizard, writer Jake Rossen recounted the history of the character's big and small screen presence. In expanding his piece into a book, Rossen presents a panoramic view of the business and creative processes and their vicissitudes. For example, when slacker-film director Kevin Smith turned in a fairly straightforward and appealing script, Jon Peters, the Warner Brothers producer responsible for the property's development, decided that no less than Sean Penn would be the perfect actor to play ''The Man of Steel.'' Of course, that bizarre notion went nowhere. Read more ..

After the Holocaust

Dreaded Book on Deaths of Polish Jews Enters Second Print Run in Poland

February 4th 2008

World Citizens - Jan Gross via JTA
Jan Gross

Bookstores in Poland are restocking copies of a book on Polish anti-Semitism after World War II as a prosecutor investigates whether it violates a law prohibiting ``slander against the nation.''

The book, ``Fear. Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz'' by Princeton University professor Jan Tomasz Gross, sold out days after the first 25,000 volumes were published. A second print run of 20,000 is being sent to bookstores from today.

"We sold so many copies of the book, and so quickly we had a big gap in supplies,'' Monika Marianowicz, a spokeswoman for Empik Media & Fashion SA, that sells books in stores throughout Poland, said by phone today.
Gross's book, which blames the murder of hundreds of Jews after World War II on Polish anti-Semitism and greed, has been criticized by academics, the Catholic Church and ordinary Poles.

"This book is a pack of lies,'' said Lech Raczynski, a 64- year-old agricultural engineer from Kielce, where a 1946 pogrom took place in which more than 40 Jews were murdered. ``It's obvious that the Jews did it -- it was a purge by the communist leaders, who were all Jews, against the others. Poland isn't an anti-Semitic country at all.'' Read more ..

Author's Own Story

Why Take the Risk?

February 4th 2008

Ben Carson book
Gifted Hands

Many people would describe my youth and upbringing as being “at risk.”  But my whole life has involved a series of risks.  Since success in life really depends upon identifying and appropriately reacting to the risks in our lives, I thought it would be a wonderful endeavor to analyze my life in terms of the risks and to generalize on how to evaluate risks in our lives, and determine which risks are worth taking and which are not worth worrying about. 

This is a vitally important topic because there are many people in our society who never achieve anything in life because they are afraid to take risks.  There are other people who never achieve anything in life because they take too many of the wrong risks.  In this book, we are able to explore how we get in contact with our own value system which helps us to be able to determine which risks are appropriate for each of us.  It should be noted that the answer will not be the same for each person. 

I grew up as the product of a single parent home with a mother who had only a third grade education in the inner cities of Detroit and Boston with dire poverty, rampant violence, terrible grades, poor self-esteem, and a horrendous temper.  You can see why some would consider me to be an “at risk” youth.  Even though my mother only had a third grade education, she was wise enough to recognize that my life was going nowhere fast, as was that of my brother.  She observed the people that she worked for as a domestic and also observed that they were very successful and, therefore, attempted to apply the principles she saw at work in their lives to our lives.  That was certainly a risk for her because it involved drastically reducing our outside play time and increasing our inside study time as well as drastically curtailing our television viewing.  She was ostracized by many and criticized by her friends for taking such an unorthodox approach, particularly in our social setting, but it was a risk she was willing to take and it obviously paid big dividends. Read more ..

Author's Own Story

Thugs--How I Selected the Worst of the Worst

January 27th 2008

Micah Halpern headshot

Thugs is a popular history. It is about legacy and continuity. It is about the horrors that shaped history and the perpetrators of those horrors. It is an accessible entrée into the lives and careers of some of the world’s most powerful leaders.

Who was despotic enough, demonizing enough, ruthless, barbaric, merciless enough to make the cut and be included in this book?

My guiding principle was that these be leaders who cared not a whit about the values and ideals that I and my world—the free and democratic world—hold dear. These are leaders who used their power for the purpose of furthering their own personal and political goals. Thugs is a peek into the private lives of the rich and infamous. It is a glimpse into the political aspirations of the biggest and most notorious of egos.

There are many despots, dead and alive, to choose from. I chose to write about leaders not because they were necessarily worse than others but because of the way they impacted history. I chose people for the roles they played, not merely for the barbaric acts they performed. Brutality alone was not enough to warrant a place in Thugs. I wanted characters about whom there was controversy. Controversy centering on their place in history. Controversy about the role they played during their own historical period and in their own country. I chose people who arouse controversy in academic circles and around the dinner table, I chose men and women who are the subjects of popular debate. Read more ..

Author's Own Story

Will Israel Survive? Author Bets "Yes"

January 11th 2008

World Citizens - Mitchell Bard
Mitch Bard

I gave my new book the provocative title “Will Israel Survive?” because Israel faces so many challenges today that it is a legitimate question. In fact, a little more than a year ago, nearly one-fourth of Israelis said they were not certain if Israel would exist in the long run and 54% feared for the existence of the state.

Israelis have good reason to be concerned. Consider the threat of Islamic jihadism that appears to be gaining strength along its borders following the Hamas takeover of Gaza, and also the war with Hezbollah. Radical Islamists cannot accept Jews ruling over Muslims or any territory that belongs to the past or perceived future Islamic empires. They will wage war so long as Israel exists so it does not matter where the borders are drawn.

Israel can live with terrorism, but what happens if Iran acquires a nuclear bomb? Can Israel risk the threat of annihilation? If not, what can it do? Should it rely on the international community or the United States to prevent Iran from acquiring the bomb or deterring it from using one? Does it have the capability to act unilaterally to stop Iran and what are the consequences of a military strike? Read more ..

Amazon Author Wars

Shadowy New Amazon Service Kindles More Questions than Answers

December 14th 2007

Amazon Kindle2
Amazon's Kindle

Many Authors have recently become astonished to discover their books being offered by Amazon at a steep discount on a promising and highly promoted if shadowy new Amazon service called Kindle. Most authors did not know their books were being converted into that format, and what the royalties will be. This latest Amazon technological incision into copyrighted content has only deepened the divide between the company and the world of writers who have collectively voiced resentment over the company’s sales tactics.

What is Kindle? The service is simply an e-book system rigged to work only with a sleek new Amazon ten ounce electronic PDA-style reader called Kindle that stores books remotely. But it is wireless. You only own a virtual copy that does not exist outside a wireless-enabled environment. Forget about it on a cruise, a trip into the wilderness, crossing the border into Mexico or Canada unless you download books into a handheld library which can be a time consuming an expensive proposition especially for those who have to pay for a wireless connection.

The $400 reader, currently not shipping due to limited manufacturing, is the latest attempt to convince people to read books on palm-top computer screens instead of holding them in their hands. Previous attempts have suffered a dismal fate. Initial reviews are mixed from unlimited praise by first adopters on the Amazon website to "not used friendly and destined to failure" by one publisher working closely with the site. That said, the Kindle concept is more than nifty. It may be the wave of the future. Unfortunately for now, Amazon’s mishandling of the program is giving it a black eye. Read more ..

Travel on Television

History Channel Finding Its way with Lost World--Masada

History Channel logo

No one should venture a trip to Masada without first viewing the History Channel's "Lost World" episode regarding Herod's monumental works in ancient Israel, especially at Masada.The "you discover" epsiode is packed with the type of computer graphics and visualizations that generate greater views and perspectives than the standard long shots of the ramps and staging areas below. Of particular interest is the explanation of Herod's innovative mountaintop mid-desert bath houses which generated both steam and cool water in an arid desert where nearby water did not exist. To bring even greater life to the history, trying viewing the two-part dramatic series Masada. The story of Masada is one of history's first great mass sacrifice for freedom, and enduring tale to this day.

Grand Opening

Spertus Institute Readies for a Grand Reappearance--from Wolfgang Puck to "The Transfer Agreement"

September 7th 2007

Spertus Institute

Chicago’s Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies is finally moving into its long-awaited new home on trendy South Michigan Ave. November 30, 2007, the acutely angular 10-story glass edifice, $55 million in the making, will open its doors for studies, research, and cultural amazement. Spertus’s college, museum, collections and performance venues along with the Asher Library and Chicago Jewish Archives will function beneath tenth floor garden bestowing sweeping views of majestic Lake Michigan and Grant Park.

Among the special features, Spertus will provide a 400-seat multimedia theater for speaking events, music, dance and film. Wolfgang Puck Catering will operate the kosher café. The Chicago Jewish Archives, managed by archivist Joy Kingsolver, offers more than 200 valuable collections, including the pivotal records of Chicago Zionists instrumental in the dramatic events swirling around the Holocaust and establishment of the State of Israel.

Among the Chicago Jewish Archives collection supervised by the hardworking Kingsolver is collection 72, the original research files used by author Edwin Black in assembling his bestselling award-winning book, The Transfer Agreement. Read more ..

Book Review

History of Tycoons Requires Time Investment

August 8th 2007

Book Covers - The Last Tycoons Book Cover

William D. Cohan. The Last Tycoons: The Secret History of Lazard Frères & Co., The World’s Most Elite and Enigmatic Investment Bank. April 2008, Broadway. 752 pages.

Though well researched and authoritative, this history of the Lazard Frères’ investment firm may not be of interest to those not involved with the firm.

Corporate histories and exposés are dicey things. Even when the subject is fairly familiar, there still needs to be a compelling narrative with good guys, bad guys and enough revelations to keep things interesting. And if you are an insider, ex-employee, client or are otherwise well acquainted with the company being profiled, you are bound to be more interested and aware than other readers.

For example, I once shared a book on the Coca-Cola Co. with a manager who formerly worked for the firm. He later reported that he’d enjoyed it but that its picture of the organization was quite incomplete.

No kidding!

A book providing a complete and detailed portrait of any company would have to be so huge that it would be unwieldy and so detailed that it would be virtually unreadable, making it unlikely to be widely read and to attain popular success.

The Last Tycoons comes close, which is not necessarily a good thing for all concerned.

Author William Cohan worked at the Wall Street firm of Lazard Frères for six years and was later a managing director at JPMorgan Chase & Co. and an investigative journalist. In writing this book, which has been promoted as the first full look at the firm, a major financial powerhouse, he brings his ample professional accomplishments in both fields to bear. Read more ..

Authors on Tour

Joyce Bender Interviews Edwin Black on Eugenics

May 18th 2006


Award-winning author Edwin Black has reached out to the disability community during his recent book tour for his best-selling book War Against the Weak. In a reent interview on Disability Matters, Black laid out why the disabled community today must be concerned with the eugenic crusades of decades gone by. A transcript follows.

"Disability Matters"

May 9, 2006 2:00 PM

Audio Version


Joyce Bender


Edwin Black

Welcome to "Disability Matters" With your host, Joyce Bender. All comments, views and opinions expressed on the show are solely those of the host, guest and callers. Now the host of "Disability Matters." Here's Joyce Bender.

Joyce Bender: Welcome to the show and if you're listening to the show today you are going to hear one of the best shows we've had in three years. So you make sure if you've heard the show and your friends have not, that you send them back, as you know all my shows are archived, for the past three years on my website www.benderconsult.com and on VoiceAmerica.com. Because this show is so important it is my great honor to have an award winning, internationally known author, who by the way has been nominated eight times for the Pulitzer Prize and to me, a true civil rights leader, Mr. Edwin Black. He is an investigative author of 47 best-selling books that are available in 13 languages and in 40 countries. As I mentioned earlier, he has been nominated eight times for the Pulitzer Prize and he has dedicated his life to exposing hatred, genocide, and corporate misconduct. His book War Against the Weak really hits people with disabilities, all 54 billion of us right between the eyes. And I feel it helps to explain the attitudinal barriers we are facing today. Edwin, welcome to the show.


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