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The biographer of Wallace’s life, D. T. Max, works as a staff writer for “The New Yorker”. Dave Eggers, Tom Bissell, and Evan Wright (authors in their own right) say that Max delivers a history of Wallace that is ‘well researched’, ‘hugely disquieting’, and ‘indispensable’ in knowing Wallace and why he will be missed. One is inclined to agree with all of the former, but may question the latter; i.e., will Wallace’s writing be missed?
If one did not know anything about Wallace, after listening to “Every Love Story is a Ghost Story”, the uninformed becomes well-informed. Wallace is a smart, well-educated, germophobic heterosexual that drives for literary success with a manic-depressive intensity that is played out in his writing and ended by his suicide. His life is celebrated by academic success but marked by drugs, unhealthy human relationships, rehabilitation, and recidivism. He is shown to be an excellent professor of literature and an interesting conversationalist when his head is in the “game”. But, he is also shown to be violent and allegedly capable of planning a murder when his interest in a married woman (Mary Karr) is thwarted by uncertain divorce in a troubled marriage.
At the very least, one is compelled by Max’s biography to give “Infinite Jest” another chance to impress; maybe the fault is more in the reader than the writer.
“H Is for Hawk” fails to fit a specific category of writing. It is partly memorialist; partly biographic, and partly naturalist (in a call-of-the-wild sense). It seems a perfect book to be awarded a Samuel Johnson literary prize. Johnson’s scatological mode of writing about everything from word definitions (Johnson wrote the first comprehensive English’ dictionary) to Shakespearean literature is evident in Helen Macdonald’s interesting book.
Macdonald’s book reviews the life of T. H. White. White is an English author admired by modern writers like J. K. Rowling and Neil Gaiman. White wrote “The Once and Future King” and “The Sword in the Stone”, two magical stories about the legends of King Arthur. Interesting thoughts about White’s life are weaved into Macdonald’s view of herself, the recent death of her father, and her experience as an austringer (one who keeps goshawks).
Like White, Macdonald feels she has to prove her human’ competence. In contrast to White’s goshawk’ experience, Macdonald is quite successful as a trainer and keeper. This is not a story that will resonate with all who listen to it. However, Macdonald is a very good writer. Among other categories, “H Is for Hawk” is an excellent manual on how to keep and train a goshawk. Any fault in the book is in its subject; not it’s writing.
“Panzer Commander” offers a glossy view of WWII from a German tank Commander’s perspective; a man who becomes Combat Formation Commander of the 21st Panzer Division, late in the war. The gloss comes from genuine heroism. However, heroism hides war’s tragedy behind memories of tactical experience and heroic acts, rather than intimate reflection. Hans von Luck is a highly decorated German tank commander and author of “Panzer Commander”.
Ironically, Stephen Ambrose, a famous American’ biographical historian (somewhat disgraced by misrepresentation of historical facts about meetings with Dwight Eisenhower) provides the foreword to von Luck’s book. One suspects von Luck, like Ambrose, creates a story that is largely true but colored by modern experience, cultural influence, and the exigencies of writing an interesting story.
Memory, even when drawn from real-time, is clouded when recreated in a story. Inevitably, there is loss of relevant details because feelings and perception of the past are changed by time and experience of the present. Additionally, there is the ever-present pressure to entertain an audience and protect one’s privacy; i.e. a pressure that influences facts when telling a story.
Von Luck’s book is an informative story about WWII. It tells a listener how German officers went to war, courageously represented their country in battle, and rationalized their jobs as executors of a politician’s demented decisions. “Panzer Commander” explains what happens to defeated soldiers; how rank and a liberal education has its privileges, and how good leadership makes a difference in the outcome of a battle, a war, or a losers’ captivity.
One hesitates to review Eula Biss’s book “On Immunity” about inoculation because it likely reduces the probability that a reader/listener will fairly consider her point of view. Once a reviewer shows that Biss supports inoculation, those opposed are likely not to read or listen to her book. Biss is not a doctor. However, she is a mother, and an award-winning non-fiction writer who is praised for the quality of her research, and writing.
In light of Biss’s hyper-vigilance as a research writer, and more importantly as a mother, one knows she is committed to making the most responsible decisions possible about inoculation. The word “hyper-vigilance” in regard to research and motherhood is used to suggest Biss carefully considers inoculation’s benefits and threats. Biss notes that inoculation deniers are not entirely wrong about inoculation but she argues that their concerns are based on weak science. The evidence of history is that inoculation reduces the number of deaths and disabilities from illness; not without errors in manufacture and distribution, but with dramatic improvement in reduced mortality rates.
Biss infers those doctors who sit on the fence regarding inoculation (she mentions a famed pediatrician named Dr. Bob), do a disservice to the public. This synopsis of "On Immunity" is a candle light on Biss's book about inoculation. Read or listen to the book. It replaces candle light with sunshine.
Helene Wecker’s first novel opens a new world of imagination. As in all stories built on myth or legend, “The Golem and the Jinni” draws on universal human interest. Wecker explores differences between men and women, faith and religion, caring and not caring, love and friendship. The choice of George Guidell as narrator makes a good story even better.
Forget what you think you know about a golem or jinni as a monster. In Wecker’s novel, the monster under the bed, or in your dream, is not a golem or jinni. The monster is you, a human being. Wecker cleverly reveals myths of Jewish and Islamic demons in a story that blends human nature with a perception of differences between masculine and feminine mystique. Along the way, Wecker raises issues of faith and religion; caring and not caring; love and friendship. Wecker creates two powerful mythological characters with a supporting cast that contrast and reveal the nature of human beings. Wecker’s golem is feminine; her jinni is masculine.
At the story’s end, one hears an echo of the author’s view of love and friendship. Love and friendship lays somewhere between trust in what one says and the reality of what one does.
It is past time for Americans to re-read Thomas Paine’s “Rights of Man”. Though his primary purpose is to refute Edmund Burke’s condemnation of the 1789 French revolution, his observations on British Aristocracy are the essence of today’s American “Money-ocracy”.
The Occupy Wall Street demonstrations are an amorphous scream of disgust by an educated population that resents American “Money-ocracy’s” control of the economy, elected representatives, the election system, and the “Rights of Man”. “Money-ocracy” is an inheritable line of an American aristocracy.
Stockholders in American companies need to fight employee compensation inflation that is disconnected from human productivity. Entrepreneurs that create productive enterprises should be rewarded by as much money, power, and prestige as their contribution warrants but not by ridiculous salaries that make a mockery of human productivity.
“Occupy Wall Street” is an unlikely precursor of another American Revolution; however, it may be a symptom of an American cancer that debilitates productive life without killing the patient. “Occupying Wall Street” is not a hippie “sit in” but a plea for reform of American “Money-cracy” just as Thomas Paine’s “Rights of Man” was a plea for reform of Aristocratic inheritance.
History of the Lusitania is only vaguely, if at all, remembered by young Americans in 2015. Erik Larson spectacularly revivified WWI by chronicling the sinking of the Lusitania by a German’ submarine in 1915. In Larson’s detailed exposition, a reader/listener learns about early submarine warfare and its role in indiscriminate slaughter of civilians in war.
In the beginning chapters of “Dead Wake”, the choice of Scott Brick as narrator seems inept. However, as the brutality of the story rises, Brick’s somber delivery fits the tone of Larson’s sharpened history of the Lusitania. After leaving New York, the Lusitania slipped beneath the sea in 18 minutes on May 1, 1915, only 11 miles off the Irish’ coast; on that date, 1,193 men, women, and children became victims of a torpedo attack by a German’ submarine. The submarine, christened the U20, sinks the Lusitania at sea between Ireland and England.
Listeners will draw their own conclusion from Larson’s history of the sinking of the Lusitania. John F. Kennedy said, “Mankind must put an end to war before war puts an end to mankind”. Kennedy may have been referring to nuclear war but the story of the Lusitania suggests weapons are only a part of a slippery slope destined to end civilization.
After World War I, “the number of people killed today” became a measure of success in war. Adolph Hitler, Winston Churchill, and Harry Truman reinforce belief in bombing civilian targets as a way of ending war. (Joseph Stalin is in the same group, but not so much as a bomber but as an amoral mass murderer.) The fundamental argument is that civilian deaths demoralize the enemy. Once war is declared, morality disappears. In war, there are no “good guys”. There are only victims.
This is a panegyric for Beethoven and musical artists; i.e. a tribute to what makes Beethoven great and musicians talented.
In this two-hour narration, one begins to understand why Beethoven’s music is important; what makes the difference between a good musician’s performance, and a great musician’s performance.
Jonathan Bliss began taking Beethoven seriously at the age of ten. Bliss’s introduction to music became an obsession that began with emotion felt in listening to Beethoven’s Sonatas. He began practicing Beethoven’s most difficult pieces to develop muscle memory to exercise his technical talent but left an “in the moment” appreciation of Beethoven’s genius to future maturation. Bliss debuted at the New York Philharmonic in 2001 at the age of 21. He is the winner of the 2005 Leonard Bernstein Award and the Borletti-Buitoni Trust Award which suggests high qualification for his insight to musical quality and musicianship.
There is an element of salesmanship in this vignette because Bliss is planning to produce recordings of all 32 Beethoven’ Sonatas. One is tempted to buy his first two albums to see how he escapes recording studio mediocrity.
On balance, “Beethoven’s Shadow” offers insight to how far Beethoven’s shadow extends into the music world, what “real talent” is in composers and musicians, and what is gained and lost in studio recording of great music.
“Being Mortal” is about life’s last chapter. Atul Gawande is an American surgeon and experienced author who is well qualified to write about human mortality; i.e. Gawande’s exceptional qualification is from a Stanford and Harvard education, and personal family’ experience. As a doctor, he understands the medical profession. As a son of a father that dies from complications of cancer and old age, Gawande experiences firsthand the complex nature of decision-making when one’s life is nearing its end.
Gawande explains that doctors are principally trained to treat symptoms and causes of disease. “Being Mortal” suggests a medical customer’s desire at the end of life is as important as medical treatment. Gawande suggests modern medicine, by training, education, and experience, is frequently biased toward treatment rather than quality-of-life issues. Quality-of-life is a big part of the conscious and subconscious concern of terminal patients. Gawande argues that medical treatment for terminal patient’s is often too narrowly focused. If medical treatment only offers misery and pain from disease or old age, continuation of life should be a collaborative decision between doctor, patient, and family.
Gawande suggests medical treatment should be customized to increase the number of moment to moment enjoyments that make life worth living for the elderly and terminally ill. There is no cure for death.
George Orwell published “1984” in 1949. Orwell’s vision of totalitarianism, technology, and thought control match fears and failures of nations from the time of Churchill’s 1946 “Iron Curtain” speech to the present day. Orwell’s relevance seems as spot-on today as it was in 1949.
Totalitarianism continues to reign in many parts of the world; particularly in the Middle East, parts of Asia, and Africa. Technology then and now is a threat to everyone’s privacy and self-determination. Advances in social media through Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, with the help of Google, Yahoo, and Bing, are encroaching on everyone’s right to privacy and personal thought.
A striking parallel between Orwell’s “1984” and today is the inchoate and confused revolutionary zeal of Orwell’s hero/victim and the 21st century “Occupy Wall Street” movement. The “Occupy Wall Street” movement has little focus with protesters that cannot formulate an action plan to actualize their revolution. Today’s Moneyocracy is the Upper Class Comradeship in “1984” and the “Occupy Wall Street” protester is Orwell’s revolutionary hero/victim.
Orwell is as prescient today as he was in 1949. However, a monumental difference lays in the rise of non-state terrorism. The statelessness of AL Qaeda like movements add a different dimension to Orwell’s “1984”. Invasion of privacy by nation-states, with a status qua objective, become more acceptable, even to democratically inclined nations. Drawing the line between freedom of choice and government control becomes more difficult.
In the Great Courses’ lecture series, Dr. Michael Roberto, characterizes leadership in “The Art of Critical Decision Making”. Roberto’s primary methodology is examination of case studies that range from the Cuban missile crises, to the Daimler/Chrysler merger, to the 9/11/01 Trade Center bombing. He offers perspective on how good decisions can be made when complexity exceeds average to superior individual human capability.
Roberto’s argument is that a structured participatory process is the most consistently productive form of critical decision-making. Roberto infers, as the world becomes more complex, individual comprehension and patterning of facts becomes less reliable as a form of critical decision-making. His argument relies on leadership structure that insists on communication transparency and qualified freedom. Roberto suggests leaders elicit ideas from engaged people, rather than only experts, in making critical decisions meant to identify problems, proffer solutions, and accomplish goals.
Leaders need to engage employees whose ideas will be listened to, used, and appreciated rather than abjectly dismissed. Executives, who are more concerned about position than organizational effectiveness, are not leaders. They are cowards.
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