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George Packer drives a stake into America’s heart in “The Unwinding”. American anger, fear, and frustration build in the minds of all—whether Republican, Democrat, Tea Partyer, or Libertarian.
Whether an accolade of private enterprise or government, Packer offers stories of Americans that show American’ belief makes no difference because America is no longer a land of opportunity but a land of greed; not of the free but of the shackled—a risk noted by Thomas Hobbes in the “Leviathan”. The shackles come from society’s failure to protect individuals from the tyranny of special interests. One side argues that it is because of ineffective government–the other side argues it is because of too much government.
The unwinding of the financial crises reflected in the dot-com bubble of 2000-2001 and the 2007-08 sub-prime mortgage crises unfolds in stories told by Packer in this disturbing narrative. America has become a nation of extremes with each extreme using whatever means necessary to deny success of either “tea party”, “libertarian” or “occupy wall street” followers. The consequence is a “do-nothing” congress, an ineffectual President, and a politicized Supreme Court. One is left with fear, anger, and frustration after completing Packer’s diatribe. The only consolation is in history.
America has been in crises before–in 1776, 1789, 1865, 1929, 1941, 1951, 1967-68, 2001. Americans survived before; Americans will survive again but how angry Americans are, and how frustrating it is to watch America muddle along while Congress fails to act.
The principle of the power of the pen comes from a play titled “Richelieu; Or the Conspiracy” written in 1839 with the suggestion that “The pen is mightier than the sword”.
Jonathan Swift is primarily remembered for “Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World”; better known as “Gulliver’s Travels”. What is less well-known of Swift is that he was and is a revered Irish hero, a man blessed with the power of the pen.
The climax of Damrosch’s biography is Swift’s publication of “Gulliver’s Travels”. Swift’s dissection of societies’ follies is as relevant today as it was in the 18th century. One might argue that “A Tale of a Tub” is equally important but “Gulliver’s Travels” resonates with all who read for pleasure, politics, or enlightenment. “A Tale of a Tub” is trapped in the time of its writing.
There are other biographical details about Swift’s life, and Swift’s idiosyncratic habits but power of the pen is the thematic giant in Damrosch’s book. Damrosch shows how Swift became a feared satirist by England’s leaders.
“The Magic of Reality” introduces science to children and adults that wish to see the world as a place of wondrous events and boundless opportunity. Richard Dawkins is an unrepentant atheist but his writing and presentation does not convince one of a Godless universe.
“The Magic of Reality” is not a debate about science or second coming. Dawkins de-mythologizes the hypocritical beliefs of those who insist on the literal truth of the Bible and infers a challenge to those who believe in the reliability of organized religion. Dawkins fails to convince one that God does not exist but he believes most of humankind is fooled by an emotive mind.
Dawkins does for general science what Richard Feynman is said to do for Physics, i.e. he makes complex theories simple to understand. Dawkins’ interspersion of apocryphal stories enliven practices and theories of real science; i.e. science’s methods and results are explained in simple language.
Dawkins shows that mankind seeks nature’s truth through science because without science there is no future. The species, Homo sapiens, is capable of escaping extinction but only through continued exploration of science; i.e. species evolution alone is not enough.
Dawkins notes that our sun will become so hot in two billion years that life, as we know it, will be over .Should we wait for the Bible’s “second coming” or should we plan for a future on some other planet? Dawkins book is an excellent introduction to science; not a refutation of God.
Driving to the office the other day, while waiting for a traffic light to change, a well-dressed youngish black man offers a newspaper titled “The Final Call” to anyone willing to make a donation to its publication. “The Final Call” is the official paper of the “Nation of Islam” (NOI) that covers news worthy events of black America and proffers the philosophy of Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the NOI movement in the United States. “The Final Call” generates feelings of fear and hope. There is the fear of widening the gap between blacks and other races in America. There is the hope that black Americans will embrace belief in their ability to equal and exceed accomplishments of any race, creed, or color in America, as well as the world.
Malcolm X is not a saint in this biography. He is shown to be a political leader in transition that touches the nerves and lives of black and white America. Malcolm X lives and dies in American history’s faltering effort to become a true land of the free, with equality of opportunity for all. Malcolm X’s life story kindles fear and hope in a world populated by “all too human” human beings.
In a physics reference table, A Brief History of Time is an old book because it dates before the year 2000. However, it remains a fairly good layman’s overview of the state of physics.
This surprise best seller is not easy to understand in spite of its brevity and avoidance of mathematics. Without additional reading, “A Brief History of Time” is less intelligible than more recent physics-for-laymen' books (see previous reviews).
Hawking describes the relativity of time, black holes, the big bang theory, God, and string theory (the most current research subject involving unified field theory).
The quest for a unified field theory is part of a physics reference table that began with Newton, progressed through Einstein and Dirac, and is presently stalled at string theory speculation. The search continues, passing to future generations. Finding a unified field theory, in Hawking’s opinion, would be like reading the mind of God.
“The Age of American Unreason” interests baby boomers because it capsules events of the pig-in-a-python‘ era (babies born between 1946 and 1964). Susan Jacoby’s characterization of this era as “The Age of American Unreason” is a failed argument because of over generalization.
Literary education is unquestionably different today than when Ms. Jacoby graduated from college but different is neither good nor bad; i.e. literary education from Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Faulkner, Charlotte Bronte, Pearl Buck and other literary giants is still being consumed by the public. New authors like Katherine Stockett, Salman Rushdie, Yann Martel, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, or Aravind Adiga, are among many newer intellectual writers. The medium may be different but the message is the same (after all, Jacoby’s book is available through audio books and e books). To suggest that the classics are not being read, understood, or appreciated today is a distortion of reality. How many literary themes have been replayed on the stage and screen? Where did the playwright or filmmaker get his or her idea?
Who would argue that science is not advancing? The intellectual advance of quantum mechanics, cosmology, and the science of man is astounding. Philosophy is grounded on advances in Science; with continued research there will be future philosophical intellectuals like Plato, Spinoza, and William James; in fact, they are probably here now but not with history’s perspective. The frightful truth of 21st century is that there is so much knowledge available that the biggest threat to intellectualism is knowing less and less about more and more.
Susan Jacoby is a highly sought after writer and speaker. One admires her reputation as a liberal but liberality is not a license to write junk thought.
“Dissolution” is a good mystery about a murder most foul.This is the first of a series of historical novels about a physically impaired Royal Commissioner that investigates crimes in the time of Henry the VIII.
The listener is introduced to Matthew Shardlake. Shardlake is an attorney commissioned by Oliver Cromwell to investigate the murder of a fellow Commissioner. Sansom creates the feel and smell of early 16thcentury life in a Sussex monastery, 50 miles from London. More interestingly, he reveals a version of Oliver Cromwell and the great upheaval of Roman Catholics at the time of Anne Boleyn’s beheading and King Henry the VIII’s rapacious hunger for Papist' wealth. Sansom writes about social change in the 1530s. He reveals how that change muddies truth and justice, and exposes good and evil.
What makes Sansom’s book more than a murder mystery is historical integrity and its larger human context. The story reveals Machiavellian' reasons for dissolution of the Roman Catholic Church in England. The Roman Catholic Church was not then, nor is it now, entirely good or entirely evil. As in all social change, dissolution of any human system of government, any kind of organization, throws both good and evil into the street; what remains is still a balance of good and evil but in a different organizational form. Only the future and history reveal whether social change is better or worse. Evil does not disappear with organizational dissolution or social change because evil is a part of what makes mankind human.
"The Silkworm" shows more of the imagination a reader expects from J.K. Rowling (aka Robert Galbraith). "The Casual Vacancy", an earlier Rowling’ novel, fatigues rather than energizes interest. In contrast "The Silkworm", though overly complicated, is entertaining.
In "The Silkworm", Rowling continues with a character originally created by her pseudonym authorship of "The Cuckoo’s Calling". A private investigator named Cormoran Strike is investigating a grisly murder. The character Rowling describes in "The Silkworm" is a 6 foot plus “Robert Mitchum” kind of character, a self-absorbed, 35-year-old tough guy with a stereotypical Girl-Friday named Robin Ellacott. The Girl-Friday is a beautiful, intuitive, and intelligent woman; grossly underestimated by men.
Though the story is nicely narrated by Robert Glenister, the number of characters is unnecessarily long. By the end of the book, one is confused or fatigued by trying to remember who is who.
Rowling weaves the investigation of a heinous murder into Strike’s and Robin’s personal lives. A reader/listener is drawn into "The Silkworm" to solve the murder mystery and vicariously live the lives of one of its two main characters. Rowling introduces over 18 characters in the story. Too many to care about; too many to remember, but the story is strong enough to compel a reader/listener to want to know how it ends. It is a good story; even if it is character heavy and somewhat formulaic.
Tail wags dog is a possible headline for Max Tegmark’s highly entertaining book, "Our Mathematical Universe". Tegmark is a Professor of Physics at MIT. Tegmark offers a theory of cosmology that posits the insignificance of human beings and the advance of cybernetics (automatic controls of the nervous systems and brains).
Tegmark offers interesting answers to all questions asked at the beginning of the book. The answers are clearly explained but often border on misanthropy, if not lunacy. Many people are willing to acknowledge humans are not the center of the universe but Tegmark concludes humans are mathematical equations derived from particles held together by dark matter and energy. Tegmark suggests what humans see, feel, touch and smell is an illusion; i.e. a movie with a beginning and end, signifying nothing but an agglomeration of atomic particles defined by mathematics. A logical extension of that conclusion is that there is no difference between a human being and a programmable machine.
This is a fascinating book, lauded by many, and panned by some. For a perspective on physics and cosmology, "The Mathematical Universe", is a TOUR DE FORCE. For entertainment, "The Mathematical Universe" is as good as it gets.
Professor Kreeft, in The Modern Scholar’ lectures, offers stories of interesting philosophers and what they think they know about moral thought. Ethics: A History of Moral Thought is a whirlwind tour of how philosophers define ethics. It begins in antiquity and continues through tomorrow. What one hears in these lectures may be accepted and practiced in life tomorrow or never; if never, one is seemingly confirming belief in free choice, but not much more. As a warning to the curious, the tour is circular. The tour ends as it begins.
Nearing the end of Krefft’s lectures, he addresses the attempts of science to define morality and ethics. Krefft acknowledges the idea of observational analysis, dating back to Machiavelli’s views of history but the scientific movement gains momentum with David Hume (1711-1776), Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), and John Stewart Mill (1806-1873). It seems these three users of the scientific method provide little light in their analysis of morality and ethics. Their contribution is in the use of scientific method to understand normative standards of society.
By the end of Professor Krefft’s lectures a listener returns to Socrates suggestion; i.e. “Know thyself” because “The unexamined life is not worth living”. What you believe is what you believe. Krefft suggests we should always seek to understand why we believe what we believe.
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.
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