Category: Book Discussion (page 1 of 5)

Book Club: Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson, March 13, 2019

He was history’s most creative genius. What secrets can he teach us? The author of the acclaimed bestsellers Steve Jobs, Einstein, and Benjamin Franklin brings Leonardo da Vinci to life in this exciting new biography. Based on thousands of pages from Leonardo’s astonishing notebooks and new discoveries about his life and work, Walter Isaacson weaves a narrative that connects his art to his science. He shows how Leonardo’s genius was based on skills we can improve in ourselves, such as passionate curiosity, careful observation, and an imagination so playful that it flirted with fantasy. He produced the two most famous paintings in history, The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa. But in his own mind, he was just as much a man of science and technology. With a passion that sometimes became obsessive, he pursued innovative studies of anatomy, fossils, birds, the heart, flying machines, botany, geology, and weaponry. His ability to stand at the crossroads of the humanities and the sciences, made iconic by his drawing of Vitruvian Man, made him history’s most creative genius.

Book Club. I Was Told to Come Alone : My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad by Souad Mekhennet, February 13 2019

The journalist who broke the “Jihadi John” story draws on her personal experience to bridge the gap between the Muslim world and the West and explain the rise of Islamic radicalism Souad Mekhennet has lived her entire life between worlds. The daughter of a Turkish mother and a Moroccan father, she was born and educated in Germany and has worked for several American newspapers. Since the 9/11 attacks she has reported stories among the most dangerous members of her religion; when she is told to come alone to an interview, she never knows what awaits at her destination. In this compelling and evocative book, Mekhennet seeks to answer the question, “What is in the minds of these young jihadists, and how can we understand and defuse it?” She has unique and exclusive access into the world of jihad and sometimes her reporting has put her life in danger. We accompany her from Germany to the heart of the Muslim world — from the Middle East to North Africa, from Sunni Pakistan to Shia Iran, and the Turkish/ Syrian border region where ISIS is a daily presence. She then returns to Europe, first in London, where she uncovers the identity of the notorious ISIS executioner “Jihadi John,” and then in Paris and Brussels, where terror has come to the heart of Western civilization. Too often we find ourselves unable to see the human stories behind the headlines, and so Mekhennet – with a foot in many different camps – is the ideal guide to take us where no Western reporter can go. Her story is a journey that changes her life and will have a deep impact on us as well

Book Discussion: An Odyssey : a Father, a Son, and an Epic by Daniel Adam Mendelsohn,
October 10, 2018

When eighty-one-year-old Jay Mendelsohn decides to enroll in the undergraduate seminar on the Odyssey that his son Daniel teaches at Bard College, the two find themselves on an adventure as profoundly emotional as it is intellectual. For Jay, a retired research scientist who sees the world through a mathematician’s unforgiving eyes, this return to the classroom is his ‘one last chance’ to learn the great literature he’d neglected in his youth–and, even more, a final opportunity to more fully understand his son. But through the sometimes uncomfortable months that follow, as the two men explore Homer’s great work together–first in the classroom, where Jay persistently challenges his son’s interpretations, and then during a surprise-filled Mediterranean journey retracing Odysseus’ legendary voyages-it becomes clear that Daniel has much to learn, too: for Jay’s responses to both the text and the travels gradually uncover long-buried secrets that allow the son to understand his difficult father at last. As this intricately woven memoir builds to its wrenching climax, Mendelsohn’s narrative comes to echo the Odyssey itself, with its timeless themes of deception and recognition, marriage and children, the pleasures of travel and the meaning of home. Rich with literary and emotional insight, An Odyssey is a renowned author-scholar’s most revelatory entwining yet of personal narrative and literary exploration.”

 

Notes by Tom Igoe

Book Discussion: Destined for War : Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? by Graham T Allison, Nov 14, 2018

CHINA AND THE UNITED STATES ARE HEADING TOWARD A WAR NEITHER WANTS. The reason is Thucydides’s Trap, a deadly pattern of structural stress that results when a rising power challenges a ruling one. This phenomenon is as old as history itself. About the Peloponnesian War that devastated ancient Greece, the historian Thucydides explained: “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.” Over the past 500 years, these conditions have occurred sixteen times. War broke out in twelve of them. Today, as an unstoppable China approaches an immovable America and both Xi Jinping and Donald Trump promise to make their countries “great again,” the seventeenth case looks grim. Unless China is willing to scale back its ambitions or Washington can accept becoming number two in the Pacific, a trade conflict, cyberattack, or accident at sea could soon escalate into all-out war. In Destined for War, the eminent Harvard scholar Graham Allison explains why Thucydides’s Trap is the best lens for understanding U.S.-China relations in the twenty-first century. Through uncanny historical parallels and war scenarios, he shows how close we are to the unthinkable. Yet, stressing that war is not inevitable, Allison also reveals how clashing powers have kept the peace in the past — and what painful steps the United States and China must take to avoid disaster today.

 

See entry about Thucydides Thucydides

 

Two pieces shared by Tom Igoe

Graham-Allison-Opinion-in-Weekend-Financial-Times

The-Crisis-in-U.S.-China-Relations-WSJ.pdf

The Myth of the Liberal Order

The Truth About the Liberal Order

 

Dynamic growth of China’s GDP.

 

 

Book Discussion:The Spy and the Traitor : the Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War by Ben Macintyre, Dec 12, 2018

Oleg Gordievsky was a spy like no other. The product of a KGB family and the best Soviet institutions, the savvy Russian eventually saw the lies and terrors of the regime for what they were, a realization that turned him irretrievably toward the West. His career eventually brought him to the highest post in the KGB’s London station-but throughout that time he was secretly working for MI6, the British intelligence service”-

Book Discussion: Bad Blood : Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup John Carreyrou, Jan 9, 2019

The full inside story of the breathtaking rise and shocking collapse of Theranos–the Enron of Silicon Valley–by the prize-winning journalist who first broke the story and pursued it to the end in the face of pressure and threats from the CEO and her lawyers. In 2014, Theranos founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes was widely seen as the female Steve Jobs: a brilliant Stanford dropout whose startup “unicorn” promised to revolutionize the medical industry with a machine that would make blood tests significantly faster and easier. Backed by investors such as Larry Ellison and Tim Draper, Theranos sold shares in an early fundraising round that valued the company at $9 billion, putting Holmes’s worth at an estimated $4.7 billion. There was just one problem: the technology didn’t work. For years, Holmes had been misleading investors, FDA officials, and her own employees. When Carreyrou, working at the Wall Street Journal, got a tip from a former Theranos employee and started asking questions, both Carreyrou and the Journal were threatened with lawsuits. Undaunted, the newspaper ran the first of dozens of Theranos articles in late 2015. By early 2017, the company’s value was zero and Holmes faced potential legal action from the government and her investors. Here is the riveting story of the biggest corporate fraud since Enron, a disturbing cautionary tale set amid the bold promises and gold-rush frenzy of Silicon Valley

Moscow Nights : the Van Cliburn Story : How One Man and His Piano Transformed the Cold War by Nigel Cliff, July 11, 2018

Note we’ll meet on summer hours – 9:00 Mather Center.

Gripping narrative nonfiction that tells the dramatic story of a remarkable young Texan pianist, Van Cliburn, who played his way through the wall of fear built by the Cold War, won the hearts of the American and Russian people, and eased tensions between two superpowers on the brink of nuclear war.

In 1958, an unheralded twenty-three-year-old piano prodigy from Texas named Van Cliburn traveled to Moscow to compete in the First International Tchaikovsky Competition. The Soviets had no intention of bestowing their coveted prize on an unknown American; a Russian pianist had already been chosen to win. Yet when the gangly Texan with the shy grin took the stage and began to play, he instantly captivated an entire nation.

The Soviet people were charmed by Van Cliburn’s extraordinary talent, passion, and fresh-faced innocence, but it was his palpable love for the music that earned their devotion; for many, he played more like a Russian than their own musicians. As enraptured crowds mobbed Cliburn’s performances, pressure mounted to award him the competition prize. “Is he the best?” Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev demanded of the judges. “In that case . . . give him the prize!”

Adored by millions in the USSR, Cliburn returned to a thunderous hero’s welcome in the USA and became, for a time, an ambassador of hope for two dangerously hostile superpowers. In this thrilling, impeccably researched account, Nigel Cliff recreates the drama and tension of the Cold War era, and brings into focus the gifted musician and deeply compelling figure whose music would temporarily bridge the divide between two dangerously hostile powers.

 

Recommended by Gary Banks

Book Discussion: A Force So Swift by Kevin Peraino, Sep 12, 2018

A compelling year-long narrative of America’s response to the fall of Chiang Kai-shek and Nationalist China in 1949, and Mao Zedong and the Communist Party’s rise to power, forever altering the world’s geopolitical map.”

Video: https://youtu.be/-XA0AtyJmTY

God Save Texas : A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State by Lawrence Wright, Aug 8, 2018

Note we’ll meet on summer hours – 9:00 Mather Center.
Explores the history, culture, and politics of Texas, while holding the stereotypes up for rigorous scrutiny. God Save Texas is a journey through the most controversial state in America. It is a red state in the heart of Trumpland that hasn’t elected a Democrat to a statewide office in more than twenty years; but it is also a state in which minorities already form a majority (including the largest number of Muslim adherents). The cities are blue and among the most diverse in the nation. Oil is still king but Texas now leads California in technology exports. The Texas economic model of low taxes and minimal regulation has produced extraordinary growth but also striking income disparities. Texas looks a lot like the America that Donald Trump wants to create. And Wright’s profound portrait of the state not only reflects our country back as it is, but as it was and as it might be

Book Discussion: Paris in the Present Tense by Mark Helprin, June 13, 2018

Note we’ll meet on summer hours – 9:00 Mather Center.
The magnificent new novel by the gifted, singular #1 New York Times bestselling author of Winter’s Tale and A Soldier of the Great War Mark Helprin’s powerful, rapturous new novel is set in a present-day Paris caught between violent unrest and its well-known, inescapable glories. Seventy-four-year-old Jules Lacour?a ma?tre at Paris-Sorbonne, cellist, widower, veteran of the war in Algeria, and child of the Holocaust?must find a balance between his strong obligations to the past and the attractions and beauties of life and love in the present. In the midst of what should be an effulgent time of life?days bright with music, family, rowing on the Seine?Jules is confronted headlong and all at once by a series of challenges to his principles, livelihood, and home, forcing him to grapple with his complex past and find a way forward. He risks fraud to save his terminally ill infant grandson, matches wits with a renegade insurance investigator, is drawn into an act of savage violence, and falls deeply, excitingly in love with a young cellist a third his age. Against the backdrop of an exquisite and knowing vision of Paris and the way it can uniquely shape a life, he forges a denouement that is staggering in its humanity, elegance, and truth. In the intoxicating beauty of its prose and emotional amplitude of its storytelling, Mark Helprin’s Paris in the Present Tense is a soaring achievement, a deep, dizzying look at a life through the purifying lenses of art and memory

Elephant Company : the Inspiring Story of an Unlikely Hero and the Animals Who Helped Him Save Lives in World War II by Vicki Croke, May 9, 2018

J.H. “Billy” Williams always had an affinity for animals. So, when he responded to job offer with the East India Company to work with logging elephants his family wasn’t surprised, though worried that he had already come back from World War I in one piece, would he be so lucky with India? Not only did he find his calling with the elephants in India, Billy and his elephants became war heroes. At the onset of World War II, Williams formed Elephant Company and was instrumental in defeating the Japanese in Burma and saving refugees, including on his own “Hannibal Trek.” Billy Williams became a media sensation during the war, telling reporters that the elephants did more for him than he was ever able to do for them, but his story has since been forgotten. Part biography, part war story, and part wildlife adventure, Croke delivers an utterly charming narrative and an important, little-known piece of the legacy of World War II.

 

NYT’s Book Review: https://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/13/books/review/elephant-company-by-vicki-constantine-croke.html?_r=0 

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, April 11, 2018

The mysterious Jay Gatsby uses his fabulous wealth to create an enchanted world fit for his former love, Daisy Buchanan, now married to Tom. Daisy, though, is a romanticised figment of his own imagination, and the extraordinary world that he creates is equally illusory. He gives lavish, legendary parties where the guests and gate-crashers enjoy free-flowing champagne and cocktails and carefree hospitality. But a more sinister reality begins to break through, as idealized romantic figures prove to have human frailties and selfish motivations, and the grandiose world of Gatsby’s creation crumbles and disillusion turns to tragedy.

 

 

 

From wikipedia:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Great_Gatsby

 

From Vanity Fair:

https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2000/05/hitchens200005

 

From The New Yorker

Why “The Great Gatsby” Endures

Richard Brody

Imagine the character of James Gatz, North Dakota boy of big dreams and limited prospects, as he could have been written by a big-shouldered writer whose lifelong specialty, perhaps his most distinctive literary merit, was the depiction of natural energy yoked to ambition, put into action, and embodied in worldly accomplishment—Theodore Dreiser. His trio of novels from 1912 through 1915—“The Financier” and its sequel, “The Titan,” both about the rise, fall, and rise of the Philadelphia broker and philanderer Frank Cowperwood; and “The ‘Genius’,” about Eugene Witla’s rise from raw boy to artist and immoralist—skirt the sentimental mode of the bildungsroman to get into the tough, sinewy details of power and its mighty clashes. The very transformation of the seventeen-year-old Gatz into Gatsby, “in the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty,” would have been a big story—the mere connection of the prodigal farm boy’s mercantile impulses and precocious aesthetic visions would have filled a chapter or two. And his five years of work “in a vague personal capacity” for the crude potentate Dan Cody, for whom “he was in turn steward, mate, skipper, secretary, and even jailor,” could have been a third of a big book: “He was left with his singularly appropriate education; the vague contour of Jay Gatsby had filled out to the substantiality of a man.”

The chronology of Gatsby’s subsequent backstory invites more invention: as a poor officer stationed in Louisville in 1917, Gatsby met and loved Daisy Fay. He shipped out in 1918, and, while he was away at war, Daisy met the wealthy Tom Buchanan, married him in June, 1919, and gave birth to their daughter, Pammy, in April, 1920. Meanwhile, Gatsby “did extraordinarily well in the war. He was a captain before he went to the front and following the Argonne battles he got his majority and the command of the divisional machine guns.” Fitzgerald, who had been in the Army but never saw active duty, doesn’t make much of Gatsby’s combat experiences, which would have made for another few chapters of grim and gruesome knowledge.

Gatsby, returning stateside after five months in a program at Oxford reserved for American officers, spent three years doing the things that made him fabulously wealthy—bootlegging, maybe some gambling, maybe some shady financial dealings, maybe some oil business—and doing it apparently by design, in the hope of impressing and wooing Daisy. That’s the business part, and the intersection of an entrepreneur’s wiles and a gangster’s ruthlessness—two realms of bold, precise, intrepid maneuvering—would make for another meaty third of a book. By the time Daisy Buchanan reëntered the picture, she would already have been receding from it, because it’s inconceivable that such a Dreiserian hero—a fiercely self-willed yet violently circumstance-buffeted man who employed his enormous vital energy in such a wide and tough range of activities—could win his fabulous East Egg mansion while suffering no greater scar on his soul than the rejection of a débutante whom he had “taken… under false pretenses” of being her social equal.

Of course, Dreiser was an intensely sexual but unromantic novelist, whose view of society was essentially biological; he understood the human varieties of animal energy to be the force of change—to be what makes life interesting, even beautiful. For Dreiser, the physical rendering of mental and visceral forces—even when the result is appalling—is the very definition of beauty. That’s just the opposite of Fitzgerald’s interest, which was in social life and its poetic implications—its poetic failings—and in the contrast between the imperatives of the world and the vast dreams and inner visions that reality can never rival, despite mad and desperate attempts to realize them.

Dreiser was fascinated by effort; Fitzgerald thought of money as manna that falls upon the chosen whose very sense of grace carries them breezily through life. That’s why Gatsby remains a cipher in the book. For Fitzgerald, it sufficed that Gatsby was rich, the “how” of it the work of a destiny that marked his brow and to which the entire world was compelled to pay homage and to yield. Daisy’s failure to yield to it thoroughly—and Gatsby’s own gracelessly pathetic exertion on its behalf—are the cankers that burn through the story and turn it tragic, though Fitzgerald always elevates the shattered romantic perfection of nature’s true aristocrats and heroes.

Fitzgerald’s mythologizing of the social whirl, his casting of American types as archetypes, his framing of psychology as destiny, of style as divine grace, captured its moment. He offered glamour along with compassion and consolation, a sense of sad magic along with the expansive glow of romance. It took a few decades for “The Great Gatsby” to take root because it awaited another age of postwar prosperity—albeit one that was growing a conscience, a sense of self-doubt, of introspection and guilt that a noirish 1949 adaptation of “Gatsby” shows. The novel was adapted again in 1974, when a shambling era in thrall to the natural self began to rummage through the past in search of style.

And it’s back now, in another glittering age of incommensurable inequality, where, as my colleague George Packer recently wrote, “The fetish that surrounds Google Glass or the Dow average grows ever more hysterical as the economic status of the majority of Americans remains flat.” “Gatsby” exults in the grand, lustrous brightness, in the irresistible allure and cavalier freedom of wealth, even as it reveals its reckless—or overmeditated—menace. But it doesn’t lionize the exertion itself, which, in the wrong hands, runs the risk of veering into a Randroid hymn to supposedly self-made captains of industry. “The Great Gatsby” is, above all, a novel of conspicuous consumption—not even of appetite but of the ineluctable connection between wealth and spectacle. The central story of that storied age is slender, sleek, and graceful, neither depicting effort nor bearing its marks.

Long before the novel found its enduring place in American letters, it was already a movie, one made by a character of real-life myth of whom Fitzgerald wrote in one of his final stories. “Citizen Kane” is richer in the spirit of true expansiveness and dubious grandeur, of exorbitant pomp, mad desire, and incurable need than any direct adaptation of the book has been; it wouldn’t have taken more than a few tweaks to turn the young Orson Welles, playing the young Charles Foster Kane, into the cinema’s ultimate and definitive Gatsby.

I’m impatient to see Leonardo DiCaprio’s version; his own deflective opacity was at its most effective in another elusive role, that of Frank Abagnale, Jr., in Steven Spielberg’s “Catch Me if You Can.” And Pammy Buchanan would be nearly ninety-three. Perhaps Baz Luhrmann persuaded Olivia de Havilland or Joan Fontaine to make a return in an epilogue that would bring the novel briefly into the present day. I’ll report back.

The “Fresh Air” book critic investigates the enduring power of The Great Gatsby — “The Great American Novel we all think we’ve read, but really haven’t.” Conceived nearly a century ago by a man who died believing himself a failure, it’s now a revered classic and a rite of passage in the reading lives of millions. But how well do we really know The Great Gatsby? As Maureen Corrigan, Gatsby lover extraordinaire, points out, while Fitzgerald’s masterpiece may be one of the most popular novels in America, many of us first read it when we were too young to fully comprehend its power. Offering a fresh perspective on what makes Gatsby great-and utterly unusual-So We Read On takes us into archives, high school classrooms, and even out onto the Long Island Sound to explore the novel’s hidden depths, a journey whose revelations include Gatsby’s surprising debt to hard-boiled crime fiction, its rocky path to recognition as a “classic,” and its profound commentaries on the national themes of race, class, and gender. With rigor, wit, and infectious enthusiasm, Corrigan inspires us to re-experience the greatness of Gatsby and cuts to the heart of why we are, as a culture, “borne back ceaselessly” into its thrall. Along the way, she spins a new and fascinating story of her own

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