The American Story – A Book Review by Jim Scott

  

The American Story, Conversations with Master Historians, by David M. Rubenstein

Recognized by award winning documentarian Ken Burns as “one of the best interviewers he knows,” David Rubenstein has written this book “to share with readers some of the wealth of historical knowledge that members of Congress have learned between 2013-2019,” i.e., during the running series of learning at the Library of Congress, Rubenstein’s Congressional Dialogues.  His purpose in creating the 38-session series was to increase for our national legislators their personal level of historical knowledge, that it may inform them better of future challenges and perhaps “help reduce the partisan rancor” in Washington.

Having generated prodigious, personal wealth on Wall Street, becoming a philanthropist of extraordinary dimensions, and long time host on PBS of The David Rubenstein Show (Peer to Peer Conversations), he is a critical thinker: aware of interrelatedness of critical questions, able to ask key questions at the right times, and being an active listener.  Fascinated lifelong with the power of books, he has structured here in his first book a dialogue series with authors who spent typically five to ten years, often longer, researching their published subjects, from the Founding Era to the late 20th century.  Himself educated in history and law, he has been a lifelong book collector, with a visceral understanding of the magnetic power between book-and-author and the radiant potential of that power waiting for release to the critical reader.  

Those who knew him as the master of detail and tireless deputy chief for domestic policy in Jimmy Carter’s presidency, attribute to Rubenstein the rigid rule for guest meetings in the stirringly historical Roosevelt Room: displaying conspicuously those books that may have been written by the specific guests or other books that were assumed logically to have been part of their personal libraries.  Effect: discussions were always more passionate and engaging, with a palpably positive impact on substance and productivity.

Thirty-plus years later, the Congressional Dialogues proceeded under the expert panning for gold by Rubenstein, interacting with the likes of David McCullough on ADAMS, Jon Meacham on JEFFERSON, Jack Warren on WASHINGTON, Ron Chernow on HAMILTON, Taylor Branch on MLK JR, Bob Woodward on NIXON, and many others.  The sessions were well attended and the proceedings effectively edited and reproduced in book-form.  

The book is eminently readable and enlightening.  Most readers will likely agree that Rubenstein’s educational objectives shall have been fulfilled, just as they may agree disappointedly that the “rancor in Washington” continues unabated, though not Rubenstein’s fault.

 

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Books by Neil deGrasse Tyson | Book Review

Books by Neil deGrasse Tyson, W.W. Norton & Company | Book review by Jim Scott

I.  Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, 2017

II. Letters from an Astrophysicist, 2019

Tyson is a contemporary American astronomer, science writer and communicator, perhaps as famous today as was the late-Carl Sagan in the ‘80s.

Sagan, as director of Cornell’s Laboratory for Planetary Studies and collaborator on Viking’s Mars probes, and Pioneer and Voyager probes outside the solar system, and Tyson, as director of Hayden Planetarium and television host of the National Geographic and Fox program series on the universe, have both earned prestigious public awards for their work.  Tyson has openly demurred to the prospect of filling Sagan’s shoes.  So be it.  But do not let his modesty tempt you to ignore these tidy books by Tyson!

His ‘Astrophysicsis a triumph of clarity and succinctness.  A small book of 200 pages, delivered in 12 chapters, starting provocatively with Ch. 1-The Greatest Story Ever Told”, ending with encouragement to the reader in Ch. 12 to grasp mankind’s place in the cosmos, and eschew the “childish view that the universe revolves around us.”  In between, Tyson delivers accessibility to some of the most mind-numbing concepts that the overwhelming majority of the public would otherwise never seek, never taste, much less digest.  Black holes?  Inter-galactic space?  Neutrinos?

But, then, you might ask, “So what?”  Do we, who do not wish to spend countless hours in labs or behind telescopes, really care what brainiac astronomers-astrophysicists-cosmologists think about?  Maybe, maybe not.  Or, is this another unread, cocktail-table adornment signaling to your house guests how scientifically sophisticated and intellectually curious you are?  Certainly not!

Tyson set out to capture your interest in joining him through his lens as a passionate educator in exploring the universe, and focusing on the nuts and bolts of his craft (astrophysics): that niche in the astronomer’s world that studies the physics and properties of celestial objects, including stars, planets, and galaxies, and how they behave; exploring the nature of space and time, exploring how mankind fits within the universe and how the universe fits within us. 

Tyson may indeed capture you as he has me.  Anticipating that, he has followed with ‘Letters’, a remarkably insightful, compact compilation of decades of his science correspondence (with whomever!), “a vignette of the wisdom (he) has mustered to teach, enlighten, and ultimately commiserate with the curious mind.”  As in art, one might recall having read Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, advising a student of poetry to feel-love-seek truth in understanding and engaging the world of art.  “Go into yourself,” beautifully explained by Rilke.

Likewise, in science, brilliantly conveyed in Tyson’s thoughtful, sensitive letters.

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Book Review | Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane

Book Review by Jim Scott | Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane

Perhaps your magnum opus is your chicken liver rigatoni with cippolini onions and sage celebrated by your dinner guests.  Then share the table with “chef” Macfarlane, a master in non-fiction nature writing.  His meal, Underland, is a sumptuous dish of claustrophobia broiled slowly with a peripatetic discussion of deep thoughts while journeying into the bowels of the earth.  He and his companion (the reader, in true Aristotelian fashion) will stare into the face “of deep time…the chronology of the underland…the dizzying expanses of Earth history that stretches away from the present moment…measured in units that humble the human instant…kept by stone, ice, seabed sediments and the drift of tectonic plates.”

This is no knockoff of James Tabor’s acclaimed, deep cave exploration Blind Descent.  Not as an adventurer seeking record-breaking cave depths, Macfarlane offers this brilliantly researched work to tease the reader’s understanding of the geologic ways of our planet and, along with it, to explore the writer’s take on the human impact against the natural backdrop.  He has done this with the humility of modern physicists (though physics is not his discipline), who recognize that human knowledge is an island in an ocean of ignorance. 

Robert Macfarlane is a passionate environmentalist and Fellow in English at Emmanuel College of Cambridge University, where he is Director of Studies in English and University Reader in Literature and the Environmental Humanities.  He is a winner of the American Academy of Arts and Letters E. M. Forster Award (2017).  Underland recounts his cave explorations in England, France, Italy, Finland, Norway, and Greenland, supplemented with exhaustive research into biology, ecology, geology, history, glaciology, and astrophysics.  His prose has the transcendent beauty of that expected from an English professor, combined with mythological darkness of literature from the underworld, human imagination of ancient Greek, Hindu, Aztec, Mayan, Inuit, and Finnish storytellers.

  He is a profound believer in climate change who pulls no punches in delineating man’s degradation of the environment.  He speaks both to serious laypersons and scientists, asking without preaching, “did we do that?” as he tackles the issues of whether we stand today in a man-made world gone nuts, or whether that change is yet one more manifestation of nature’s power and variability of the Holocene (the official epoch of the planet’s current history).  Implicit in Underland is his suspicion that the “gone nuts” theorem is a popular by-product of the yet unproven exit from Holocene to Anthropocene (the age of man), which he defines as the “crowning act of  (man’s) self-mythologization…and technocratic narcissism” instead of recognizing the vast forces of the agency of nature.  Readers may recall Nobel Prize physicist, the late Richard Feynman, “Reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”

This is no global warming polemic, nor a denier’s playbook.  This is a learning springboard and a summons to get beyond political convenience, to acquire more actionable knowledge of planet Earth and mankind’s feckless stewardship.  Do not be surprised if this book surpasses Macfarlane’s previously acclaimed The Mountains of the Mind (2003), The Old Ways (2012), and Landmarks (2016), and is acknowledged as his magnum opus.  Take the time to read it.  You won’t be disappointed.

Buy this book

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LGW to MAD

Book Suggestion by Angella Meanix, Bookseller

If you’re looking for a long-drawn-out book with lots of complicated characters and convoluted storylines, don’t read this book.

Turbulence by David Szalay was a great read. It’s a book of short stories that took me on a journey of brief escapades. I love that I didn’t have to get too involved or keep too much track, rather I enjoyed little insights – moments, decisions, and actions. Each character’s life felt brief and transient mirroring the structure of the book itself; boarding flights, Uber rides and layovers. I still felt connected to each of them and wondered how things would turn out though.  I was completely absorbed.

I am a fan of short stories.  Not all ideas have a full 300 pages in them.  This type of book is great for a quick escape.  Curled up on the couch, the stories played out around me.  The Fall season coming on, a cup of tea and a blanket seemed particularly conducive to the delicate relationships in these tidy chapters.

If you find yourself saying “I don’t have time to read”, you might consider this book or any collection of short stories.  Interpreter of Maladies, Fly Already to name a couple.

Excerpt:

GRU to YYZ:  The next morning she had to lose the pilot before she could leave.  He was still in her bed.  Asleep. “Hey”, she said, “Hey, I have to go.”  He opened his eyes (light blue).  There was reddish stubble on his big jaw.  He looked around still not sure where he was.  Outside the last rain of the São Paulo summer was falling audible in occasional plinks and tinks on the window.  “What time is it?”, he finally asked propping himself up.  “Almost eleven”, she told him, “I have to leave in ten minutes”.

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The 60s: The Story of a Decade (New Yorker: The Story of a Decade)

The 60s: The Story of a Decade/ The New Yorker Ed. Henry Finder

| Book Review by Jim Scott |

This is the third of The New Yorker’s ambitious series, The 40s, The 50s, and now, The 60s.  Following the style of its previous collections, The 60s presents historic New Yorker pieces from the decade, accounting in real-time many seminal events of the tumultuous period.   The series’ project director is Henry Finder, the editorial director (since 1997) of this influential and talent-packed magazine.  (The highly respected Finder is also responsible for editing the magazine’s editor-in-chief, David Remnick’s, prolific authorship of books and magazine articles.)

By the 1960s, the magazine had fully transitioned in twenty years from a lighter, oft-time comedic, societal commentary magazine to one that approached problems and issues boldly.  Under editor Remnick from 1998, The New Yorker continued to celebrate its maturity as “fully politically engaged, daring and intellectually exciting.”  The decade series, launched under his tenure and Finder’s leadership, gives vibrancy and substance to that claim of successful, committed transition.

Many timeless works and authors of the ‘60s found place weekly in The New Yorker, and are included in The 60s, such as James Baldwin, Truman Capote, Rachel Carson, Bob Dylan, Cassius Clay, John Cheever, John Updike and many others.  The anthology is organized in parts, titled: Reckonings (environment, race, crime); Confrontation (University integration, Berkeley, Chicago, Washington, Prague); American Scenes (Cuba crisis, The Great Society, Missile silos, Woodstock, Assassinations); plus Artists & AthletesPoetryCritics (Cinema, Art & Architecture, Television, Theater, Music, Books).

Current New Yorker writers, including Jill Lapore, Malcolm Gladwell, and David Remnick himself, provide thoughtful, contemporary, historical context for the selected works.  The result is a fascinating time capsule portraying rising awareness or calls to action during what was, undeniably, a turbulent period.

One may pose several questions on editorial decisions driving this otherwise superb ‘60s collection: Where is Betty Friedan (The Feminine Mystique, 1963) who ignited the contemporary women’s movement?  Where is Harper Lee (To Kill A Mockingbird, 1960) whose Atticus Finch lionized “white” courage in the face of racial prejudice? Where is Malcolm X’s Autobiography, 1965, which changed the way many Whites and Blacks looked at their worlds?

Despite these omissions, the book deserves your attention and a place on your bookshelf, along with its predecessors, The 40s and The 50s.  Finder’s works are towering celebrations, which should be read by anyone wishing to visit or revisit the trauma and upheaval of the ‘40s, the tensions, and innovations that underlay the placid ‘50s, and the “shattering of glass” which marked the ‘60s.

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Book Review: Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland

| Book Review by Mike Wall |

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland 

by Patrick Radden Keefe

In Belfast, Northern Ireland in late December of 1972 as many as eight men shoved their way into the apartment of Jean McConville, a 37-year-old widow and mother who had just stepped out of her bath. They ordered her to dress and come with them. All but two of the men were masked. Jean’s oldest son recognized the unmasked men as neighbors. One man carried a handgun. All 10 of her children were present. Downstairs more masked men waited. Jean was bundled into a van. A man put the muzzle of a gun next to her son’s face and told him to leave.

Her body was discovered in 2003. A blue diaper pin she kept clipped to her blouse helped identify her. No one had been prosecuted for her murder.

Using the murder of Jean McConville as the lodestar, Keefe tells the story of The Troubles, the internecine violence and open warfare that has taken the lives of more than 3500 people since 1969. Brokered by the United States, The Troubles ended with The Good Friday Agreement of April 1998.

This book records the aftereffects of this conflict, how the participants, years later, “nursed old grudges and endlessly replayed their worst abominations”, and how “they never stopped devouring themselves (322).”

We learn what happened to Jean McConville.

Decades later Gerry Adams. an IRA leader was heckled while giving a speech. The man in the crowd yelled, “Bring back the IRA!” Adams shot back, “They haven’t gone away, you know (319).”

That is a moment to make you gasp, that it could all come back. Yeats in his great poem on the Irish revolt against British rule, “Easter, 1916” asked if all the deaths were worth the gain.

Jean McConville’s death was not. She is the person who matters, the name and story that forces us to move beyond statistics and slogans and into the real pain of political violence.

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A Wonderful Stroke of Luck

avid reader

From The Avid Reader Show, Sam’s latest interviews from a history of over 450 interviews over the past decade:

A Wonderful Stroke of Luck is set in a boarding school in New Hampshire where we meet Ben and his unique teacher, Pierre LaVerdere, who teaches reason and the art of skirting around the truth.  Though Pierre’s students leave him, he never really leaves them.  It’s not difficult to relate to Ben, when Ben leaves boarding school he wonders as we all often do with periods of our lives – what did that experience really mean?  His whole life shaped by a couple of years … why?  When you read the book that why will be answered.  Listen to the podcast:  THE AVID READER

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The Uninhabitable Earth | Book Review

| Book Review by Jim Scott |

The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells

Wallace-Wells has delivered an eloquent description of the world’s climate breakdown and the consequent societal collapse.  Though a non-scientist and non-environmentalist, this talented journalist writes that mankind has “exited the state of environmental conditions that allowed the human animal to evolve in the first place, in an unsure and unplanned bet on just what that animal can endure.”  His conclusion emerges from analyzing years of others’ “scientific work” (my emphasis) and recognizing the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as the gold-standard assessment of the Earth’s state (on a carbon dioxide [CO2] drunk) and the likely trajectory for climate change (collapse), due principally to human-generated, CO2-rich emissions, accepted as “settled science” in our schools, colleges, scientific journals, and public media.

Cause=>effect=>solution: he says, “We have all the tools we need, today, to stop it all: a carbon tax and the political apparatus to aggressively phase out dirty energy; a new approach to agricultural practices and shift away from beef and dairy in the global diet; and public investment in green energy and carbon capture.”

In Wallace-Wells’ final pages, he inadvertently acknowledges that “we live today under clouds of uncertainty about climate change,” after already having told us repeatedly of the certainty of his bleak, IPCC scenario.  His stylistic phrase “clouds of uncertainty” is perhaps a Freudian slip: clouds and water vapor are unmentioned greenhouse gas molecules, accounting for as much as 10 times warming effect of CO2 + methane + nitrous oxide, combined, though yet remaining inadequately evaluated and modeled by the scientific community.  Moreover, many other serious researchers, believing that it’s wrong to blame global warming primarily on greenhouse gases in general, much less on CO2 alone, cite IPCC’s major shortcomings in the key areas of research scope, inadequate models, conflicting temperature information, lack of regional geographic relevance, and economics.  And Nobel Prize winner (for climate change economic modeling) William Nordhaus has soundly criticized the IPCC’s strategic CO2-target cap as costing more than it’s worth.

They describe the global heat engine as a complex interplay of activities all over Earth’s surface: on the sea and on land as well as above (stratospheric winds) and below (ocean currents and deep, geological activity).  Caltech’s Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences is aggressively researching the global heat engine scope issues.  In addition, to replacing the clunky IPCC climate models, MIT’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change has described in refereed technical journal, NATURE, its long-anticipated “Multi-Sectoral Climate Impact Assessment” strategy using a highly advanced, integrated modeling framework, which at long last analyzes and integrates economics with regional, geospatial factors.  The fresh, ongoing climate research by these and others should help inform Wallace-Wells’ “certainty” as well as help dispel our uncertainties.

Meanwhile, read Wallace-Wells’ book as he takes us to a place where we may not wish to go, as hair raising as poet Virgil was for Dante in the Inferno.

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The Paper Wasp

avid reader

From The Avid Reader Show, Sam’s latest interviews from a history of over 450 interviews over the past decade:

Listen to the podcast:  THE AVID READER

The Paper Wasp is about two women, one beautiful, one plain, one insecure and one quite confident (at different times).  It’s about a rekindled relationship in which power shifts, spirituality is embraced or given lip service and plans are made, by both women, plans that sometimes work and sometimes don’t.  My point, somehow made in an extremely disjointed fashion, is that it’s hard to know who’s successful, who’s a failure, who knows what their life is about and who doesn’t and then layered on that is the insecurity the reader experiences when she has no idea whether what she is reading is what is really happening.

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Cinderellas of Conflict

| 3 Book Review by Jim Scott |

  • A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War,

by Patricia Fara

  • Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II,

by Liza Mundy

  • Hidden Figures:The Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win The Space Race,

by Margot Lee Shetterly

 

These are three, celebratory narratives of women excelling in science, engineering and mathematics in the shadow of war and international conflict.

Patricia Fara, a Cambridge science historian, writes convincingly of the wholesale, societal animus against women in Britain 100 years ago.  Based on her prodigious research, she celebrates the work of historically marginalized women scientists, previously excluded from the solidly male territory of the technically elite.  Fara delivers a lasting tribute to the women who bridged the science and engineering talent gap caused by WWI’s absorption of male counterparts.

Accomplished journalist Liza Mundy extols the work of several thousand, mathematically astute, American women recruited in WWII by the U.S. Army and Navy and deployed successfully as code-breakers of German and Japanese war communications.  Mundy passionately and effectively portrays the mind-numbing tedium and frustration of their clandestine work, and holds no punches in assailing society’s entrenched misogyny before, during, and after the war.

Margot Lee Shetterly, daughter of a Black research scientist at NASA-Langley Research Center, founded “The Human Computer Project” as the research vehicle resulting in the paean, Hidden Figures.  The focus was the successful struggle of segregated Black women mathematicians who played key roles inside NASA, with clear impact on the U.S./U.S.S.R. space race of the ‘50s and ‘60s.  She illuminates the human computers’ efforts to overcome Jim Crow and “gender-smack down” realities, both of which failed spectacularly to attenuate the spunk and value of the women to NASA’s successes.

As Frederick Douglas wrote presciently in 1870: “Women’s natural abilities and possibilities, not less than man’s, constitute the measure of her rights in all directions and relations, including her right to participate in shaping the policy and controlling the action of the Government under which she lives…” These 21stcentury stories reflect the “Douglas touch” on women’s rights, extending from a suffrage base of counting politically towards one of competency-based, professional equality.

These mathematicians, scientists, and engineers were clearly Cinderella figures, where war and conflict were wicked stepmothers, with a fairy godmother nowhere to be seen until the likes of Fara, Mundy, and Shetterly appeared to reveal their exciting stories from obscurity.

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