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???Wind in the Willows??? charms its audience with animal characters that live near a river, probably the Thames, in London, England. Rat is the brains; Badger is the brawn; Mole is the anti-hero, and Toad is the fool; the fool that learns an important life lesson. ???You are a Toad??? is not what one wants to be called; Kenneth Grahame???s 1908 anthropomorphized animal tale tells why.
As Ronald Reagan famously said, “There you go again”. Dave Eggers writes another book about a tragic human event. However, Eggers avoids character controversy like that which followed “Zeitoun”, a story about the Katrina disaster. Eggers classifies “What Is the What” as a novel, without any claim to source-vetted facts or the integrity of its primary character.
"What Is the What" is about Sudan and its 20th century genocidal history. This is a clarifying story of the complex religious, ethnic, and moral conflict that exists in Sudan and in all nations peopled by extremes of wealth and poverty.
God offers man a choice of cows or something called the "What". God asks, “Do you want the cows or the What?" But, man asks, “What is the What”? God says, “The What is for you to decide.”
The father of the main character of "What is the What" explains that, with cows, a man has something; he learns how to care for something; becomes a good caretaker of a life-sustaining something, but a man who has no cows has nothing, cares about nothing; and only becomes a taker of other’s something.
What is the What? It is more than cows; it is the enlightenment brought from education that combats cultural ignorance, and religious intolerance; i.e. the "What" is that which celebrates freedom and equal opportunity for all.
Alan Furst creates a sense of foreboding, isolation, and hedonistic abandon before WWII in "Midnight in Europe". It is 1938. The Spanish Civil War is raging. France and England are kowtowing to Hitler’s land-grabbing demands and false concessions. By the end of the year, the Franco/English appeasement agreement in Munich will be signed and Czechoslovakia will be ceded to the Nazis.
Spies lurk in Paris’ bars and crooks work on the fringes of clandestine arms’ and munitions’ deals. The spies are working for their governments. The crooks are lining their pockets at the expense of nationalist patriots.
There are several tales of derring-do in Furst’s book but this genre of fiction is overdone and nothing new about pre-war Europe seems revealed by Furst’s effort. Furst is a good writer but he needs a new story line.
“Silent Snow” resurrects one of the most notorious crimes of the century, the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s son in 1932; i.e. Steve Thayer reincarnates the history of the kidnapping by creating a modern-day’ abduction by a possible mystery accomplice of the original crime.
Thayer weaves a tale of intrigue ranging from World War I to the modern day. He manufactures new criminal characters, cops, and news reporters with detailed obsessive/compulsive backgrounds. He creates heroes, and heroines of a terrible crime. “Silent Snow” is a re-creation of a crime of the past, the Lindbergh baby’s kidnapping and bludgeoning. Thayer may or may not have the same ending in his modern-day version of the kidnapping. David Birney’s telling of Thayer’s mystery keeps listeners waiting for answers until the last chapters’ closing.
Thayer has great imagination with excellent descriptive' skill. The recorded facts of the Lindbergh’ kidnapping are nicely recreated, including involvement of General Schwarzkopf Senior (America’s “Desert Storm” General’s father) in the original investigation; i.e. the kidnapping is an important incident in American’ history because it led to the Lindbergh law that shifted investigation of kidnapping from local to national control. The irony of that shift plays out in “Silent Snow” as a questionable federal government usurpation of power. Mistakes are made by the federal government as readily as they are by local government. Putting that observation aside, the story is interesting; overly melodramatic, but worth the time for a mystery’s unfolding.
The book cover of “For the Love of Physics” summarizes its endearing intent. Walter Lewin bridges the chasm between the lay public and Physics by simplifying and vivifying fundamental laws of a confusing science. With erudition and demonstration Lewin reflects joy in physics. Lewin is a teacher and astrophysicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Lewin considers Newton, Maxwell, and Einstein to be the greatest scientists in history because of their prescient ability to produce theories that unify laws of nature. Though quantum mechanics was never accepted by Einstein and not discovered until Newton and James Clerk Maxwell were gone, these three scientists viewed the world with blunt measurement tools and, through force of imagination, succeeded in creating theories that have been confirmed by future physicists within the probability environment of quantum mechanics.
Science continues to advance with refinement of particle physics cyclotrons like the Large Hadron Collider that are exploding protons into constituent elements, and refined tools that measure smaller and smaller elemental particles that define bigger and bigger natural laws.
Lewin and Goldstein’s book excites the imagination and encourages the future of science.
Michio Kaku infers there is an undiscovered Unified Field Theory. Kaku is a theoretical physicist, a graduate of Harvard and U.C. Berkley. Kaku’s "Einstein’s Cosmos" mingles interesting details of Albert Einstein’s life with Einstein’s unshakable belief that there is a Unified Field Theory that explains everything about everything; i.e. the cosmos’ origin, its deterministic exigencies, and the physical realities of this and other universes. Kaku recounts the incredible insights Einstein gave the world through thought experiments that became experimentally proven truths; truths revealed many years after Einstein postulated the immutable speed of light, the mutable fourth dimension, and mass/energy equivalence.
Kaku ends Einstein’s Cosmos with a brief explanation of the current state of Unified Field Theory’ research; i.e. Kaku suggests the most promising research is in string theory; particularly, superstring theory. The belief that a probabilistic and deterministic world can be explained in terms of strings that vibrate and change the nature of reality like a violin changes the sound of a note based on strings that are plucked.
However, like Einstein’s brilliant thought experiments in 1905, the truth of a superstring theory’ is not provable with today’s technology. There is presently no way of observing or measuring strings. They are too small-smaller than a Planck length.
Though Kaku does not mention Lee Smolin, a Harvard educated physicist, some believe string theory is a research' dead-end. Kaku’s book shows that research' dead-ends were raised about Einstein when his thought experiments could not be experimentally proven.
What irony–two of the best known literary adventures ever written were about white’ heroes based on the life of a black' swashbuckler. Tom Reiss, in "The Black Count", resurrects the life of Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie, a Haitian-born’ Frenchman who is the son of a white aristocrat and a slave. This swashbuckler becomes a fearless and heroic general in Napoleon’s army. He is the father of Alexandre Dumas, author of “The Three Musketeers” and “The Count of Monte Christo”.
"The Black Count" dies at the age of 43 and is nearly erased from history by the duplicity and discrimination of his time. After a two-year imprisonment, with failing health, General Dumas is nearly a broken man. Napoleon no longer wants Dumas in his army. One presumes because of past personal conflicts or because of Dumas’ failing health.
Reiss intertwines the novel, “The Count of Monte Cristo”, with the story of General Dumas’ life but, unlike the novel, the General does not escape prison with enough treasure to destroy his enemies. Revisionists, like Tom Reiss, are left to correct, or at least, vivify history. Reiss shows that Napoleon is less than a liberator and Alex Dumas is more than a father of Alexandre Dumas.
"Big Little Lies" is about bullying, in every sense of the word. Liane Moriarty intimidates (bullies) those who think they are novelists. Caroline Lee offers a bully performance of an expertly written novel. "Big Little Lies" will influence (bully) men with anger management issues, intimidate (bully) inept marriage counselors, and browbeat (bully) idle gossips.
Moriarty sustains suspense about adult bullies by building a story about the origins of human cruelty, a murder, and a murderer. There is no definitive answer about the origin of bullying, but Moriarty infers heredity and environment play a part.
What Moriarty so beautifully renders is a murder mystery tied to the origins and consequences of bullying. Someone is murdered. It could be Jane. It could be Celeste. It could be the husband of Celeste. It could be a child. It could be one of the mothers or fathers that unjustly blame Jane for raising a child bully. The accompanying question is who is the murderer? Moriarty maintains the mystery and suspense until the end.
The “History of Money” is an interesting historical journey, written by Jack Weatherford. However, at times, resource selection seems loosely based on the title’s inferred theme. One of Weatherford’s references is to Michel Montaigne. Montaigne’s reference to money in his book, “Essays”, is superfluous. Montaigne said little about the historical role of money, except as an inheritance and burden.
Weatherford explains that we have entered a new age of money. Early civilizations disclaimed the importance of money; the ruling class coveted money for power; the merchant class acquired money for trade; the industrial class sought money for production; and now the capitalist class has risen. Like the Romans, capitalists acquire money for power.
However, the medium of money has become unanchored by the physical world. Money lives in cyber space, untethered by physical relationship. Capitalists have become the new Caesars backed by money that never touches human hands. Though Weatherford does not address bitcoin, he infers a new form of money is being created out of nothing.
One might argue money has always been created out of nothing, except convenience. Money is certainly more conveniently handled today than in ancient times. The concern is that the speed of change, figuratively and physically, is less controllable in cyber space.
Peter Whitfield offers a whirlwind tour of “The History of Western Art”. He begins with cave paintings and ends with performance art by an “artist” locked in a library with a wild animal. The distressing thought is that “art is anything you can get away with.”
In slightly more than five hours of narration, a listener traverses 30,000 years (some say 40,000 years) of art history. Whitfield is a poet and critic. “The History of Art” is an intelligent introduction to a mystifying, fascinating, and intimidating subject.
At the end, one wonders whether art is entering a new dark age where the value of art is degraded by technology that makes too much of medium as message. Art needs to be more than a transaction between willing seller and buyer.
Add Lev Grossman to entertaining stories of magic, mythical lands, and magicians in modern literature. Even if this is a listener’s first exposure to Grossman’s trilogy, it is an enjoyable adventure that reminds one of the wonderland of Narnia and the magic of Harry Potter.
Grossman may abjure comparison to C. S. Lewis and J. K. Rowling but The Magician’s Land borrows some of the imaginative ideas of Lewis and Rowling; e.g. a portal to another world for children to be kings and queens, and a hide-a-way’ school to exclusively recruit and teach magicians. However, Grossman’s tale is not confined by Christian symbolism or moral sorcery. There is good and evil in Grossman’s story but it is not related to God or gods. There is sorcery but it is practiced by magicians that make mistakes engendered by human nature.
The Chatwins and fellow magicians are catalysts of destruction and resurrection in The Magician’s Land. The Chatwin’ and chosen portal travelers are symbols of human nature; i.e. just as human nature is the spark of life, it is the force of death in Fillory. Innocent and corrupt human nature is the same spark and force on earth.
Whether there is a God or gods; whether there is magic or not, Grossman infers humanity is on its own–the hope of earth (or other world’s) is in the uncorrupted innocence of children grown into leaders.
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