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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Interview with Craig Brown author of “Hello, Goodbye, Hello”

 

 

 

 

Today at 5:00pm on WCHE 1520am, Sam interviews Craig Brown author of hello, Goodbye, Hello.

From “one of the funniest writers in Britain—wise, clever, hilarious, and a national treasure” (Helen Fielding, author of Bridget Jones’s Diary) comes this delightful book of “101 ingeniously linked encounters between the famous and the infamous” [The Observer (London) Best Books of the Year]. Can you imagine more unlikely meetings than these: Marilyn Monroe and Frank Lloyd Wright; Sergei Rachmaninoff and Harpo Marx; T. S. Eliot and Groucho Marx; Madonna and Martha Graham; Michael Jackson and Nancy Reagan; Tsar Nicholas II and Harry Houdini; Nikita Khrushchev and Marilyn Monroe? They all happened. Craig Brown tells the stories of 101 such bizarre encounters in this witty, original exploration into truth-is-stranger-than-fiction.

“Captivating… . A glittering daisy chain that reads like a mathematical proof of the theory of six degrees of separation… . Mr. Brown constructs portraits that have all the immediacy of reportage, all the fanciful detail of fiction. He has whipped up a gratifying summertime confection — funny, diverting, occasionally sad.”  —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“The book that made me laugh most was Craig Brown’s quirky game of biographical consequences.” —Julian Barnes, Times Literary Supplement “Books of the Year”

Craig Brown has been writing the Private Eye celebrity diary since 1989 and is a columnist for London’s Daily Mail. He has also written parodies for many publications, including the Daily Telegraph, Vanity Fair, The Times, and The Guardian. The author of several books of fiction and nonfiction, he lives in London.

Interview with Sadie Stein author of “Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story”

Today at 5:00pm on WCHE 1520am, Sam interviews Sadie Stein, author of Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story.

What does it take to write a great short story? In Object Lessons, twenty-one contemporary masters of the genre answer that question, sharing favorite stories from the pages of The Paris Review.

A laboratory for new fiction since its founding in 1953, The Paris Review has launched hundreds of careers while publishing some of the most inventive and best-loved stories of the last half century. This anthology – the first of its kind – is more than a treasury: it is an indispensable resource for writers, students and anyone else who wants to understand fiction from a writer’s point of view.

A repository of incredible fiction, Object Lessons includes contributions from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Daniel Alarcon, Donald Antrim, Lydia Davis, Dave Eggers, Mary Gaitskill, Aleksandar Hemon, Jonathan Lethem, Sam Lipsyte, Ben Marcus, Colum McCann, Lorrie Moore, Norman Rush, Mona Simpson and Ali Smith, among others.

Listen to Sam’s interview with Sadie on Podomatic or you can download the podcast on iTunes.

Interview with Justin Torres author of “We The Animals”

Today at 5:00pm on WCHE 1520am, Sam interviews Justin Torres,  author of We The Animals.

Three brothers tear their way through childhood – smashing tomatoes all over each other, building kites from trash, hiding out when their parents do battle, tiptoeing around the house as their mother sleeps off her graveyard shift. Paps and Ma are from Brooklyn – he’s Puerto Rican, she’s white – and their love is a serious, dangerous thing that makes and unmakes a family many times.

Life in this family is fierce and absorbing, full of chaos and heartbreak and the euphoria of belonging completely to one another. From the intense familial unity felt by a child to the profound alienation he endures as he begins to see the world, this beautiful novel reinvents the coming-of-age story in a way that is sly and punch-in-the-stomach powerful.

Written in magical language with unforgettable images, this is a stunning exploration of the viscerally charged landscape of growing up, how deeply we are formed by our earliest bonds, and how we are ultimately propelled at escape velocity toward our futures.

We the Animals [is] the kind of sensitive, carefully wrought autobiographical first novel that may soon be extinct from the mainstream publishing world…An affecting story of love, loss and the irreversible trauma that a single event can bring to a family. ~The New York Times

A novel so honest, poetic, and tough that it makes you reexamine what it means to love and to hurt.~O, The Oprah Magazine

Justin Torres grew up in upstate New York. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, Glimmer Train, and other publications. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he is a recipient of the Rolón United States Artist Fellowship in Literature, and is now a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford. He has worked as a farmhand, a dog-walker, a creative writing teacher, and a bookseller.

Listen to Sam’s interview with Justin on Podomatic or you can download the podcast on iTunes.

“The Dressmaker” by Kate Alcott

I recently finished reading The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott and although it’s a story about the Titanic tragedy it’s not the usual take on the disaster. The Dressmaker focuses mainly on the aftermath of the ship’s sinking…an aspect of the story I knew very little about. The author uses verbatim testimony from the transcripts of U. S. Senate hearings that were held in an attempt to discover what exactly happened and who, if anyone, was at fault. The hearings also investigated the behavior of survivors and why the numbers were so skewed in favor of the wealthier passengers. Out of 2,223 people on board the Titanic, 706 survived and of that number 60 percent were from first class. Therein lies the story that Miss Alcott tells in The Dressmaker.

Tess Collins is an ambitious young woman desperately looking for a way out of her class restricted existence. She is a talented dressmaker and is determined to make her mark on the world…if only she can find a way. That opportunity arises when she meets famous fashion designer Lucile Duff Gordon just as she is about to board the Titanic and agrees to become the designer’s personal maid. Of course the disastrous sinking occurs only four days into the voyage and actually the author deals with the sinking and rescue in very quick measure. What happens when they eventually land in New York is when the story really begins to take shape.

A United States senator is determined to prove negligence on the part of the White Star Line and begins hearings in New York almost immediately. However, what begins to become apparent through the testimony of various survivors is how class and wealth determined to a great extent who lived and who did not. Reports of life boats being launched with 12 people aboard when they could have held upwards of 60 people, stories of half full life boats refusing to pick up survivors still in the water, and other horrendous acts of cowardice and malice were documented during the hearings. And Lucile Duff Gordon and her husband Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon find themselves smack in the middle of this maelstrom. Because of the negative publicity and fierce public outcry, the designer is forced into seclusion and Tess gets her chance to prove her value to Lady Gordon by taking over the preparations for the upcoming fashion shows.

But Tess’s allegiance to her employer is torn. She has developed a strong friendship with one of the surviving sailors from the ship and he was aboard Lady Gordon’s lifeboat. So he knows what really occurred that night and has hinted to Tess that her high regard for the designer may be ill placed. Poor Tess is truly stuck in the middle! She owes so much to Lady Gordon but finds it harder and harder to overlook what is becoming clear….Lady Gordon concerned herself with her own survival at the expense of many others.

There is another male suitor pursuing Tess during the story as well. He is a wealthy businessman, twice divorced, and I honestly found that relationship to be a little far-fetched. I didn’t think it added anything to the story except to give Tess another chance to show the reader what she was really made of. 

I enjoyed this book although I can’t say I loved it. I thought the writing drug a bit toward the end and it was fairly predictable. However, the information from the Senate hearings was fascinating and horrible at the same time. This was a side of the tragedy I was totally unaware of. Another interesting tidbit I discovered is that Kate Alcott is the pen name for Patricia O’Brien, a New York Times best selling author. Evidently because her previous novel had not sold well, her publisher passed on The Dressmaker as did 12 other publishing houses. Her agent decided to try another tactic and tried selling the book under the pen name, Kate Alcott. The book sold in three days!

~ Judy

Interview with Vaddey Ratner author of “In The Shadow of the Banyan”

Today at 5:00pm on WCHE 1520am, Sam interviews Vaddey Ratner, author of In The Shadow of the Banyan.

For seven-year-old Raami, the shattering end of childhood begins with the footsteps of her father returning home in the early dawn hours bringing details of the civil war that has overwhelmed the streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. Soon the family’s world of carefully guarded royal privilege is swept up in the chaos of revolution and forced exodus.

Over the next four years, as she endures the deaths of family members, starvation, and brutal forced labor, Raami clings to the only remaining vestige of childhood—the mythical legends and poems told to her by her father. In a climate of systematic violence where memory is sickness and justification for execution, Raami fights for her improbable survival.

Displaying the author’s extraordinary gift for language, In the Shadow of the Banyan is testament to the transcendent power of narrative and a brilliantly wrought tale of human resilience.

“The humanity…shines through…in the author’s depiction of a pure, unbroken love between daughter and father and in Ms. Ratner’s portraits of the human will to survive.” ~ Howard French, The Wall Street Journal

“By countering the stark and abject reality of her experience with lyrical descriptions of the natural beauty of Cambodia and its people, Ratner has crafted and elegiac tribute to the Cambodia she knew and loved.” ~Booklist

Vaddey Ratner was five years old when the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975. After four years, having endured forced labor, starvation, and near execution, she and her mother escaped while many of her family members perished. In 1981, she arrived in the U.S. as a refugee not knowing English and, in 1990, went on to graduate as her high school class valedictorian. She is a summa cum laude graduate of Cornell University, where she specialized in Southeast Asian history and literature. In recent years she traveled and lived in Cambodia and Southeast Asia, writing and researching, which culminated in her debut novel, In the Shadow of the Banyan.

Listen to Sam’s interview with Vaddey Ratner on Podomatic or you can download the podcast on iTunes.