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The word modern depends on a writer’s place in history. To Giorgio Vasari, in the art world, modern begins with Cimabue and rises to a pinnacle of modern art with da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Titian.
“Lives of the Artists” credits modern art to Cimabue and Giotto with what is seen in nature as their inspiration. Vasari argues that Cimabue and Giotto break away from the symbolic form of Byzantine design to re-awaken the arts of architecture, sculpture, and painting. In “Lives of the Artists” Vasari chronicles the rise of 16th century “modern” art.
Vasari’s book is a fascinating examination of a great era of art by an artist that actually met Leonardo de Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti.
A mangled "Umbrella" on the cover of Will Self’s book presages a story of discarded lives in mental asylums that presumably shelter and heal wreaked minds. Self’s picture of a mental asylum belies the definition of shelter and treatment. Rather than shelter, Self’s asylum is an indoor latrine that never flushes; a facility that assuages consciences of healthy relatives, and offers jobs to incompetent psychiatrists and uncaring caregivers.
In the first half of "Umbrella", a listener is disoriented by something like stream of consciousness that flows back and forth between a mental asylum’s routines and earlier lives of asylum’ patients. The narrator’s voice (literally, John Lee) keeps a listener’s mind in the story, but as the story progresses, Will Self’s authorship asserts its self. Self suggests industrialization of the world breeds social discontent through devaluation of human worth that increases mental illness and distorts medical treatment. Self’s story infers distortion of medical treatment is compounded by the same engines that drive industrialization to increase mental illness.
An optimist would argue that Self’s story is wrong about the effect of industrialization, and a pessimist would say it is right. A realist would suggest the story is both right and wrong.
The technological revolution is disrupting society today in as profound a way as industrialization did in the twentieth century. Like industrialization, technological’ disruption is good and bad. The important question is whether the world is progressing toward goodness or evil in these monumental disruptions. Are human beings being re-purposed or discarded? Or, to paraphrase former President Reagan and today’s President Obama, is society better off now than before?
With a smile and a pair of tennis shoes, Jim Holt tries to sell the idea that there is an answer to the question, “Why Does the World Exist?” Like Willy Loman, in “Death of a Salesman”, Holt has a gift for gab but neither he nor anyone else is able to close the sale.
It is certainly not that Holt is not a good salesman but he tries to sell a thing impossible to define. No known person has enough theoretical or experimental proof to convince one there is an answer to “Why Does the World Exist?” All that remains is faith, either in science, religion, or philosophy. Holt’s “…Existential Detective Story” is a terrific synthesis of physics, religion, and philosophy but the mystery remains, “Why Does the World Exist?”
Like Don Quixote, Holt puts a pan back on his head, grabs his lance, swings his leg over Rocinante, and tilts at Descartes’ “cogito ergo sum” to answer the question of why the world exists. It is simply a matter of what you think. Of course, Holt does not believe this is an answer either. He is a very smart guy, a good writer, and an interesting philosopher.
In the shadow of highly successful fathers, the only light for sons and daughters seems to come from mothers. Harlow Unger’s biography of John Quincy Adams reflects on the great accomplishments of a son who endeavors to equal or eclipse the success of his history-making father. Rarely does one find a son that has accomplishments equal to or greater than a famous father.
It appears that John Quincy is being perfectly groomed to be a future President of the United States. One senses, from Unger’s review of letters between J. Q. and his father and mother, that his mother instills confidence in her son that is often criticized by a loving father. Without a mother’s instilled confidence, John Quincy may never have shined through his father’s towering shadow.
John Quincy Adams is at Bunker Hill in Boston as a child, at the beginning of America’s revolution. His father is the second President of the United States. He became a United States Minister to the Netherlands, Prussia, Russia, the Court of Saint James, a U. S. Senator, a U. S. Representative, a Constitutional lawyer, and a President. John Quincy Adams appears to be the most well prepared human in the world to become leader of his country but he fails to get enough public support to be popularly elected. John Quincy Adams seems to have been a very great and good man. If Abigail Adams had lived to see it all, she would have wondered, what is a mother to do?
The uni-bomber, Ted Kaczynski is said to have read "The Secret Agent" as a coda for his decision to murder and maim innocents. Kaczynski’s craziness and the atrocity of 9/11 are most often referred to in modern reviews of The Secret Agent.
"The Secret Agent" is about a middle-aged, over weight secret service agent named Adolph Verloc. Verloc lives in England and is a spy for an unnamed country. Verloc is called into his employer country’s Embassy to tell him that he is going to be fired unless he provides some actionable service for his pay. Verloc is upset with the news because he is dependent on the income received from the foreign country.
Conrad offers some insight to a terrorist’s demented beliefs. The consequence of a terrorist event is the devastation of those left behind. However, the tale is too long; mystery, revelation, insight too meager, and characters too stereotypical. "The Secret Agent" is only marginally interesting because of Horovitch’s narration.
Adrian Goldsworthy’s "Caesar: Life of a Colossus" surprisingly reveals that Gaius Julius Caesar is a methodical builder of power and prestige. Caesar is shown to be a giant of history after years of work as a self-confident manager of people and events. Caesar is pictured as a consummate leader that manages those in high and low positions in Roman society.
Caesar’s rise to power reminds one of Lincoln or Churchill rather than Alexander or Napoleon. Lincoln and Churchill are in their middle years of life as they rise to fame as influential orators and mature men of action. Alexander and Napoleon, though certainly men of action are young shooting stars. Alexander and Napoleon are world conquerors in their 30s, while Caesar is in his 40s when fighting the Gallic wars; wars that only begin his steep climb to immortality and fame.
The Civil War and WWII solidify reputations for Lincoln and Churchill. The Gallic wars frame Caesar’s historic stature. Caesar, like Lincoln and Churchill, are seasoned by life before they become colossuses. Of course, Lincoln and Churchill are not entirely apt comparisons because Caesar created military and political loyalty at the front of combat while Lincoln and Churchill created loyalty from behind the lines.
Goldsworthy suggests that Caesar is one of the greatest leaders of all time. Driven by belief in his ability to understand the public, his soldiers, his competitors, and his enemies Caesar forged an empire. Through luck, skill, indefatigable energy, and intelligence, Caesar grasped power and used it to change the course of history.
"Go Tell It on the Mountain" because God is not there. "Go Tell It on the Mountain" because no one listens. "Go Tell It on the Mountain" because no one cares. James Baldwin rages against culture that makes one, what one is not. Baldwin wins fame from a book that defines the chains of discrimination. He explains why and how culture is a curse. Baldwin tells a story that explains why being different denies equal opportunity.
Being smart or being religious is not enough; particularly if you are a minority or a woman because cultures stultify individuality and restrict opportunity. Women, in Baldwin’s novel, are at once the saviors of black men and unwitting perpetuators of an unjust culture; i.e. women support their mates while accepting the delusion of a vengeful God that will punish evil; if not now, in an afterlife. The consequence in this earthly life is the perpetuation of inequality.
Individuality and opportunity are hindered by poor education and biases that are eternally engendered (institutionalized) by discrimination. Blacks have shown they are more than criminals, preachers, sports stars, and entertainers. And women have shown they are more than child bearers and housewives but America continues to struggle with equal opportunity for all. Baldwin exemplifies America’s struggle in "Go Tell It on the Mountain".
Living life takes a kind of courage. Gail Caldwell’s memoir, "New Life", is a glimpse of her courage. Challenged by early life polio, Caldwell fashions a universal story. Most children learn how to walk before they are two. Caldwell took a little longer, but her experience resonates with every person’s success in mastering a new skill. All feel a sense of being a captain of their soul and master of events when they learn to walk or stand alone.
Courage is most clearly evidenced in Caldwell’s memoir when she advances into middle age. Unlike being late to walk, Caldwell is early to immobility at 61. Through chance, Caldwell is seen by a doctor who properly diagnoses premature hip damage. (Previous doctors failed to x-ray Caldwell’s hip.) The damage can be corrected with a surgically implanted titanium hip-joint. Caldwell chooses to have the operation. That choice means six months of excruciating rehabilitation.
One can draw different conclusions from Caldwell’s memoir. Every life has its challenges. No life is offered a list of instructions; either at birth, adolescence, maturity, or death. Every person has chances and choices. It takes a kind of courage to make choices. Caldwell’s choice is to never give up.
As the title "Naked Statistics" implies, Charles Wheelan strips the clothes off social, economic, and scientific studies that use statistics to prove a point. Wheelan expresses confidence in probabilities, based on statistical analysis, while cautioning the public. Wheelan eschews blind acceptance of reported conclusions based on faulty statistical analysis. In choosing this audio book, prepare to learn the vocabulary of statistics.
Wheelan’s book is spiked with interesting vignettes of statistical analysis gone astray. It is a good introduction to, and cautionary tale about, the science of statistics. Wheelan reinforces the fear of information accumulation and availability that can mislead the public as well as invade privacy.
George Eliot’s book, "Middlemarch", explores social complexity beginning with character development, middling through human delusion, and ending with social balance, a balance tinged with fragility.
"Middlemarch" vivifies English society in the 1830s; i.e. a society in transition that resonates with discontents in 21st century American’ society. Women are seeking equality; living-wage jobs are scarce; wealth is held by a small minority; and a rumbling underclass demands reform through elections. In George Eliot’s classic, a small English community is transitioning from proprietary agricultural economics to tenant-driven industrial economics; just as today’s America is transitioning from industrial economics to technological economics. One may get bogged down in the historical moment of "Middlemarch" but Eliot’s insight to human nature is what drives its literary popularity.
In the end, a listener is impressed by Eliot’s ability to reveal how happenstance, both good and bad, is a significant part of one’s life. Many inferences about education, inheritance, marriage, science, religion, and humanism are made by Eliot. All one can do, when the happenstance of life slaps you down or builds you up, is move on; i.e. happenstance is concretely revealed in Eliot’s examples of the misdirection of life caused by human’ delusion.
In the 21st century, women are still seeking equality; living-wage jobs are still scarce; wealth is held by a small minority; and a rumbling underclass demands reform through elections. In the 19th century, Eliot is saying it is time to move on. Eliot infers people should live life as best they can; with as few delusions as they are capable of grasping. But in the end, even in the 21st century, all one can do is move on.
David Schwartz captures the heart of a gambler in Grandissimo. Schwartz introduces Jay Sarno, a man willing to bet everything on an idea. Schwartz researches 1950’s history to recount Las Vegas’s transition from gambling mecca to bacchanalian resort. Schwartz suggests that Jay Sarno was the man with the plan.
One concludes from Schwartz’s biography, despite unethical behavior, thrill-seeking habits, and a high-stakes’ gambling lifestyle, Sarno turned Las Vegas toward the idea of a resort community with adult entertainment and family appeal. Circus Circus, The Excalibur, and the Luxor offer entertainment for the whole family. From gambling, to circus acts, to bowling, to non-gaming video parlors, Las Vegas became the world’s playground. Much of that transition is attributed by Schwartz to Jay Jackson Sarno.
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