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Book Reviews

'Wasting Minds' and Why Johnny Can't Read or Cypher

July 28th 2011

Book Covers - Wasting minds

Wasting Minds: Why Our Education System Is Failing and What We Can Do About It. Ronald A. Wolk. ASCD. 2011. 256 pages.

Ronald Wolk, who grew up in Pittsburgh and now lives in Rhode Island, earned a distinguished reputation as an education journalist. As founder and first editor of Education Week, he established a high standard for thorough, professional coverage of the national school reform debate that was kicked into high gear by the “Nation at Risk” report (1983) and then into overdrive with No Child Left Behind (2002). He now chairs Big Picture Learning, the parent organization of “The Met” school in Providence, and, not surprisingly, shares the ideas of its founder, Dennis Littky.

Surveying the current national education scene, Wolk is not optimistic: “The conventional school is obsolete,” he says, “and may very well be beyond repair.” Although he “once believed that education research would lead us to the promised land of successful schools and high student achievement,” he no longer does (even though he then goes on to cite study after study).

The book’s first half targets “false assumptions” driving much of contemporary reform. I found much that was persuasive (for instance, I agree that NCLB relies too much on testing and has counter-productively narrowed the curriculum), much to disagree with (he asserts that a core curriculum is inevitably inflexible and unappealing), and much that is muddled (on the one hand, he says it is “neither fair nor true” to charge that many teachers are lazy or incompetent; on the other, until the teaching profession attracts stronger candidates and prepares them better, “we cannot reasonably expect to get the teachers our students need and deserve”). Read more ..

Book Reviews

Does the Noise in My Head Bother You or is it just Rock 'n Roll?

July 28th 2011

Book Covers - The buzzing in my head

Does the Noise in My Head Bother You?: A Rock and Roll Memoir. Steven Tyler. HarperCollins. 2011. 400 pages.

Like a meal at McDonald's, reading autobiographies of pop culture artists always seems like a better idea before I begin than after I'm finished. I start out wondering how particular works of art I've always loved got made, but by the time I'm done reading I find myself amazed that the person I've read about was actually capable of such achievements. Their tics, stories, and laments seem to demystify them to the point that putting down the book feels as if I'm finally parting after spending too long on vacation with someone I thought I liked. If familiarity doesn't breed contempt, it does engender impatience.

I've long been a fan of the rock band Aerosmith, and I've long liked its lead singer Steven Tyler, no time more so than recent stories about the graceful way he handled a wheelchair-bound woman as one of the talent judges of American Idol. Though long regarded as Rolling Stones knockoffs -- Tyler's autobiography arrives in the wake of Keith Richards' widely acclaimed Life -- Aerosmith was responsible for some of the memorable songs of the 1970s: "Dream On," "Sweet Emotion," and, of course, "Walk this Way," which received a new lease on life when it became a hip-hop hit for Run DMC in 1985.

After struggling with drug and alcohol addictions, Tyler and his bandmates enjoyed a renaissance with a string of pop hits in beginning in the late 1980s, greatly aided by some classic MTV videos (like "Crazy," starring Liv Tyler, a daughter from one of his three marriages), and had a #1 hit in 1998 with "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing." In recent years, the term "rock star" has become a metaphorical term for someone who's celebrated in his field. But back in the day when rock was king, Tyler was a bona fide rock star, and a title he's riding into a celebrity retirement. Read more ..

Book Reviews

Bush's Wars: A Useful First Draft of History

July 28th 2011

Book Covers - Bush's Wars 2.1

Bush's Wars. Terry H. Anderson. Oxford. 2011. 312 pp.

It is often said that journalism is the first draft of history. Bush's Wars is presented as the first major comprehensive study of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an effort to weigh the foreign policy legacy of President George W. Bush. This is how the blurbs and publicity for the book position it, and the way Terry H. Anderson puts it in his introduction: "to 'figure out,' in Bush's words, the history of the defining policies of his presidency -- and to do it during his lifetime."

But Bush's Wars is more a report of the journalism on those wars than a scholarly assessment in its own right. Strictly speaking, a piece of academic scholarship would draw on primary source research and advance an argument that had never been systematically articulated before. Bush's Wars distills an already voluminous literature into a 240 page narrative (whose footnotes are batched a little too aggressively to track sources all that easily). Its point of the view, that the Afghan war was bungled, and that that Iraq was both launched under false pretenses and bungled, has long been the conventional wisdom in U.S. society at large. So the book doesn't really have a lot to offer in the terms on which it presents itself.

Perhaps I should be praising it with faint damnation. Bush's Wars is actually a useful little volume that may well have a long shelf life for two reasons. The first is that there is indeed nothing like it: a piece of one-stop shopping that surveys its subject in a way that manages to be both wide-ranging and succinct. The second is that while there's little here that your garden-variety news junkie wouldn't already know, there are undoubtedly a large number of people who lived through the era without knowing much about it, and a growing number of people who were too young to really remember it. It is for those people -- i.e. college students -- with whom the book should find a home as what it really is: a course adoption text. Read more ..

Film News

Watch 'Enemies of the People' Free from PBS until August 12

July 20th 2011

Film - enemies of the people

Cambodia's communists, known to the world as the Khmer Rouge, slaughtered nearly two million people in the late 1970s. A Hollywood movie, The Killing Fields, brought the horror of the genocide to the consciousness of many, yet the systematic murders in Cambodia remain largely unexplained until now.

Thet Sambath, lead reporter for an English-language newspaper in Cambodia whose parents were murdered by the genocidal leftists, made it his goal to find out why so many were killed. Working on the film in his free time for a decade, Sambath would gain the trust of the men and women who perpetrated the massacres.

From the foot soldiers who slit throats to Pol Pot's right-hand man, the notorious Brother Number Two, Sambath and co-director Rob Lemkin record shocking testimony never before seen or heard, in Enemies of the People.

The film has been entered as evidence in the trial of octogenarian Nuon Chea, a.k.a. Brother Number Two, on charges of crimes against humanity. Brother Number Two, a leader in the Khmer Rouge politburo during the genocide answers Sambath's burning question, "Why?"

Produced in association with American Documentary | POV. A co-presentation with the Center for Asian American Media. Winner of the 2010 Sundance World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Prize. Read more ..

The Music Edge

Smithsonian Celebrates the Richness of American Rhythm and Blues

July 18th 2011

Art Topics - Jerry Williams swamp dogg
Jerry 'Swamp Dogg' Williams

Rhythm and blues. It's an American treasure and a powerful influence on popular culture. The evolution of this art form was celebrated at the Smithsonian’s recent Folklife Festival on the National Mall in Washington. Rhythm and blues was invented by African Americans more than 70 years ago. The term "R&B" was originally a marketing tool, but now refers to various musical styles including Gospel and Electric Blues, which was popularized by BB King.

Seventy years later, R&B is still going strong. At the celebration on the National Mall, thousands - young and old - came out to listen and dance. Some remembered the dance moves from the popular television show "Soul Train," which ran for 35 years. Many at the festival got into the moves and the mood. Lonnie Bunch, director of the National Museum of African American History, kicked off the R&B tribute.

"I realized this is the music that told us volumes about America, and it was also the kind of music that spoke about pain. It spoke about resiliency," says Bunch. "In some ways it becomes a universal music and then the music is so infectious. You can be anywhere in the world and hear people tapping their toes to Rhythm and Blues because it’s that special.” Read more ..

Book Review

A Timely Guide to Restoring America’s Greatness

July 17th 2011

Book Covers - reawakening virtues - williams

Reawakening Virtues: Restoring What Makes America Great. Armstrong Williams. New Chapter Publisher, 2011. 208 pages.

It was 8:21 on a Friday night, and there I was, reading yet another book on how to reclaim the morals and principles that America used to hold dear. What a way to start a weekend. Rather prudish, don’t you think?

When I found out that my husband had to work late, I decided it was as good a time as any to start reading the copy of Armstrong Williams’s new book Reawakening Virtues: Restoring What Makes America Great, which this newspaper had asked me to review. To be perfectly blunt, I was expecting to read what I’ve read (and even written about myself) a million times before.

The cry goes something like this: “Our nation is going to hell in a handbasket, and if we don’t do something fast, we’re doomed.” Don’t get me wrong—I believe the statement is true. The sad reality is that it is nothing new.

Mr. Williams’s book, however, is something new—and on that quiet summer evening, I discovered that it is quite powerful, too.

At the title of Chapter 1, Williams had my undivided attention: “The Virtue of the Sabbath.”

I immediately recalled a meeting I had several years ago with a friend—radio host and film critic Michael Medved—about the very subject of the Sabbath. Michael wanted to know why Christians seem to ignore the commandment about keeping the Sabbath. He had the same question about his own Jewish brothers and sister, too. Although I know the early Christians began observing the day of rest on Sundays because that was the day of Jesus’s Resurrection—I really could not answer as to why the day—whether it be Saturday or Sunday—has lost its sense of holiness with so many people of faith. What I do know is that it wasn’t destroyed by a secular culture. I can blame a lot of our ills on that, but not this one. No, the failure to take a complete day and set it aside to rest in God is the fault of every single Christian and Jew who chooses to ignore this very clear command—myself often included. Read more ..

Book Review

American War Machine: Deep Politics, War on Drugs, and CIA Obfuscation

July 13th 2011

Book Covers - American war machine

American War Machine: Deep Politics, The CIA Global Drug Connection, and the Road to Afghanistan. Peter Dale Scott. Rowman and Littlefield. 2010. 408 pages.

In their 1964 book, The Invisible Government, journalists David Wise and Thomas B. Ross wrote that “there are two governments in the United States today. One is visible. The other is invisible. The first is the government that citizens read about in their newspapers and children study about in their civics class. The second is the interlocking, hidden machinery that carries out the policies of the United States in the Cold War. The second invisible government gathers intelligence, conducts espionage and plans and executes secret operations all over the globe.” In the 45 years since these words were written, we have learned a lot more about how the secret government operates, above and beyond the law, and continues to do so long after the Soviet demise.

Peter Dale’s Scott’s American War Machine represents an important contribution. Building on the themes of The War Conspiracy (1972) and Deep Politics and the Death of JFK (1996), Scott, a professor emeritus of English literature at UC Berkeley and founder of its peace studies program, highlights the influence of right-wing cabals connected to Wall Street and the oil and arms industries in driving American foreign policy in a militaristic direction. Carrying out clandestine operations financed through off-the books channels, including the narcotics trade, they exemplify the crisis of democratic accountability in the United States and have yielded disastrous consequences in contributing to the destabilization of volatile regions and to the growth of international terrorism and drug production.

Scott begins the book recounting an incident in which a Vietnam Special Forces veteran who witnessed opium loaded onto CIA Air America planes had a large hole burned into the door of his car the night before their scheduled interview as a warning to keep silent. For Scott, this small act of terrorism exemplifies the repressive dimension of the American government, which most citizens are loath to acknowledge. Read more ..

Book Review

A Long Goodbye: Soviet Withdrawal and Failure in Afghanistan

July 13th 2011

Book Covers - A Long goodbye

A Long Goodbye: The Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan. Artemy M. Kalinovsky. Harvard. 2011. 320 pages.

There appear to be people who would like this book to be, in effect, Why the U.S. Will Fail in Afghanistan. Such people include the publicity department at Harvard University Press, whose press release for the book cites the "suspiciously familiar" set of reasons Artemy Kalinovsky cites for the Soviet debacle there. They also include investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, whose blurb for the book suggests he did not actually read it, since his remarks focus on this angle, which comprise about three (very good) pages on the subject. There are of course very good reasons, in both marketing and intellectual terms, for viewing The Long Goodbye through that lens (it is, after all, why I picked it up). But such a perspective also distorts what this book is and why it is valuable.

A more relevant, if still somewhat nationally narcissistic, historical analogy is more relevant: The U.S. and Vietnam. Before a few years ago, the comparison was downright proverbial: the Soviet decade-long (1979-89) adventure in Afghanistan was the USSR's Vietnam, the imperial incursion that brought a hegemon to its knees. Some would say it was actually worse, since it precipitated the end of the Soviet Union itself.

Kalinovsky does engage this analogy (a little). And he sees merit it. Certainly, he would agree that both Afghanistan and Vietnam posed knotty military problems (though he is among those who believes that the Soviet 40th army acquitted itself well). And that both generated dissent at home and disenchantment abroad. But the emphasis here is the reverse of what one typically sees in discussions of Vietnam: for the Soviets, maintaining credibility with its allies and the Third World were primary, while managing public opinion was not a serious issue until the war was almost over. Read more ..

Book Review

Rabbi Outcast: Rabbi Elmer Berger and Insights into Jewish Anti-Zionism

July 13th 2011

Book Covers - Rabbi Outcast

Rabbi Outcast: Elmer Berger and American Jewish Anti-Zionism. Jack Ross. Potomac Books. 2011. 296 pages.

Rabbi Elmer Berger, the leading ideologist and main strategist of the American Council for Judaism (ACJ), the American Jewish organization created in 1942 specifically to oppose Zionism, is the subject of Jack Ross’ sympathetic and well-researched. In this biography, Ross ably portrays and analyzes the sources and evolution of Berger’s anti-Zionist thought and traces the rabbi’s career as probably one of the fiercest and most enduring American Jewish anti-Zionists.

From his early thirties until his death at the age of eighty-seven, Berger dedicated himself totally to an unrelenting campaign against Zionism. In the course of this endeavor, he constructed perhaps the most systematic, aggressive, and persistent Jewish ideological and public assault on Zionism and its partisans in the United States. Between 1942 and 1967, his most productive years, Berger played a leading role in the ACJ. As the organization’s executive director and chief ideologist, Berger closely supervised the formulation of almost every official ACJ document and organizational policy. Despite Lessing Rosenwald’s and Clarence Coleman’s formal leadership as the presidents of the organization, it was Berger who played the commanding role in shaping and guiding the ACJ’s anti-Zionist campaign.

The ACJ came into existence in 1942 as the response of a group of Reform rabbis and lay opponents of Zionism who were alarmed by what they considered to be the rapid growth of Zionism in the U.S. and its intrusion into Jewish communal and religious life. Theirs was a direct reaction to a February 1942 resolution of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the one-time stronghold of Reform anti-Zionism, favoring the creation of “Jewish army” in Palestine as well as to the gathering of the Zionist Biltmore Conference in New York in May in which the Zionist movement openly declared its end-goal—the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. Read more ..

Book Review

The Notes: Ronald Reagan's Private Collection and a Look at the Mind of the Gipper

July 11th 2011

Book Covers - The Notes

The Notes: Ronald Reagan’s Private Collection of Stories and Wisdom. Douglas Brinkley, ed. Harper. 2011. 299 pages.

The Notes: Ronald Reagan’s Private Collection of Stories and Wisdom is the latest publication to promise direct insight into the mind and work of America’s fortieth president. It follows compilations of his letters, radio addresses and diaries which targeted the common perception of Reagan as a passive simpleton and revealed him as a prolific and attentive writer. These earlier publications are of unarguable value to students of Reagan, of revisionist intent or otherwise, and The Notes seeks to match their importance to researchers and enthusiasts. Like The Reagan Diaries, with whom the book shares an editor, Douglas Brinkley, The Notes have their origin in the expansive collection of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Rather than his own writing, the book comprises Reagan’s own trusted collection of historical quotes, aphorisms and jokes which served as a constant aide to his public communication over forty years. This is significant and potentially revealing content, but suffers here for want of coherent organization or useful explication.

Brinkley believes in the collection’s importance. It is “the Rosetta Stone” which reveals “the real Reagan”; its publication is “a landmark event in Reagan studies,” “equally important” to that of his diaries. “For if Reagan is remembered as the Great Communicator,” Brinkley asserts, “these notes provide the most effective way of decoding his craft.” The editor, though, leaves the decoding to the reader, presenting the note cards in their raw form, organised into loose categories. Unfortunately, he leaves us without certain tools for the job. Brinkley explains in the introduction that only forty percent of the notes are written on White House stationery, but gives no indication in the body of the book which ones, or when any of them might have been collected. Read more ..

Book Review

Fire and Rain: The Beatles and James Taylor and All that Troubled Water of 1970

July 11th 2011

Book Covers - Fire and Rain: the beatles

Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY, and the Lost Story of 1970. David Browne. DaCapo Press. 2011. 392 pages.

As he contemplated writing this book, Rolling Stone contributing editor David Browne conceived an ambitious agenda: “The more I thought about it,” he says, “the more 1970 felt like the lost year: the moment at which the remaining slivers of the idealism of the ‘60s began surrendering to the buzz-kill comedown of the decade ahead….I couldn’t resist revisiting a moment when sweetly sung music and ugly times coexisted, even fed off each other, in a world gone off course.” An entirely reasonable idea. The book itself, however, is uneven—strongest when considering the “sweetly sung music,” weakest when describing the “ugly times” in which that music appeared and trying to establish why the times and the tunes were connected.

Occasionally the errors are factual. It’s certainly true, for example, that “the two years leading up to [“Bridge Over Troubled Water’s] release had been brutalizing ones,” but the years 1968 and 1969, saturated with violence though they were, did not include assassination of “both Kennedys.” Slips like that would matter less if there were sustained discussion of the world beyond the music, but there isn’t. We just get summary versions of the late-60s litany of “one piece of bad news after another”-- the killings at Kent State and Jackson State, the Weathermen’s turn toward violence, the seemingly endless arguments over Vietnam, civil rights, and urban crisis. But Browne doesn’t try to explain why 1970’s events made idealism surrender. Read more ..

Book Review

Clothed in the Robes of Sovreignty: Founding Fathers and Masters of American Symbolism

July 11th 2011

Book Covers - Clothed in the robes of sovreignty

Clothed in the Robes of Sovereignty: The Continental Congress and the People Out of Doors. Benjamin H. Irvin. Oxford. 2011. 378 pages.

Clothed in the Robes of Sovereignty tells the story of an unsuccessful experiment: the attempt by the infant government of the United States to create a semiotics of the American Revolution. We all know that the Founding Fathers were masters of the English language (one part of their patrimony they could never forsake). The attendant attempt to create a national system of symbols and rituals to go along with manifestos like the Declaration of Independence preoccupied figures no less than John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. From the mid-1770s to the mid-1780s, a period spanning the formation of the First Continental Congress to the Treaty of Paris, government leaders declared holidays, struck medals, built monuments, created currency, and took other steps to culturally institutionalize their government. But while some of these steps toward creating what Benedict Anderson has famously called "imagined communities" had an effect temporarily, very few of them ever took root.

As Benjamin Irvin, assistant professor of history at the University of Arizona, explains, there are a number of reasons why. Perhaps the most important in his view is that that the people -- make that the People -- had an unofficial vote in the adoption of collective symbols, and didn't passively accept what their leaders handed them. So a parade might turn into a riot, for example. Ordinary people could also send messages of their own. Irvin's first chapter describes an episode when Congressional leaders were forced to cancel a ball to be held in Philadelphia to mark the arrival of Martha Washington, because they were warned that such frivolity, which appeared to contradict Congress's own pronouncements about frugality, led to threats that the tavern where the event was to be held would be attacked. Irvin uses the phrase "the people out of doors," which has become something of a buzz phrase among scholars of the period, to describe such dynamics. Read more ..

Film Review

The Tree of Life: Considering whether Human Existence is a Good Thing

July 10th 2011

Film - Tree of Life

Tree of Life. Director: Terrence Malick. Starring: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken. Length: 139 mins.

In a recent number of the Times Literary Supplement, Peter Singer paid an extravagant tribute to Derek Parfit, the ethicist whose magnum opus, On What Matters, he calls "the most significant work in ethics" in more than a century. Whether he is right or not, I am not competent to judge, but I do notice a blemish on the great man’s splendid surface that has apparently escaped Professor Singer’s attention. See if you can spot it.

Parfit also asks a less obvious question about all of human existence. If a massive asteroid hit Earth tomorrow, ending human history, would it have been a good thing that humans existed at all? Our answer may depend, Parfit thinks, not only on how we balance the suffering that has resulted from human existence against the happiness it has brought, but also on what weight we give to the badness of the fact that some people suffered greatly without having anything to compensate them for their suffering. Parfit answers his own question affirmatively, holding that human existence to this point has been a good thing, but he acknowledges that this may be wishful thinking.

Yet first of all, surely, our answer must depend on the fact that we ourselves are human, and that questions of value such as this are questions that only human beings are equipped to answer. They are therefore meaningless apart from the very humanity which is supposedly the matter under debate. In other words, it would not be possible for human existence to have been other than a good thing, since without human existence there would be no knowledge of good and therefore no good things. If the notion of a good thing is itself a good thing — as how can it not be? — then human existence must be a good thing. Indeed, the first and indispensable good thing. Read more ..


Sydney's Limmud Oz Attracts 1,100 to Nonstop Festival of Learning

July 5th 2011

Jewish Topics - Limmud Oz Banner
Limmud Oz--the Australian Festival

Despite a rainy and windy long weekend, over 1100 people enjoyed hearing over 200 presenters talk, act, sing, and argue about everything from Israel to asylum seekers. The atmosphere was amazing. It was abuzz from the first Saturday night June 11 through its Monday evening June 13.

Headline international presenters like Nazi-hunter Efraim Zuroff, Israeli singer Efrat Gosh, journalist and author Edwin Black, and former Knesset member Naomi Chazan drew the largest crowds, but participants enjoyed the opportunity to choose from a spectacularly diverse array of sessions and subjects. Limmud-Oz is one of the few opportunities for the entire Jewish community to come together. Israeli singing sensation Efrat Gosh performed while others attended sessions on Jewish identity, interfaith dialog, and Martin Buber.
The majority of participants came from Sydney, but there were also a number of attendees from Melbourne and elsewhere in Australia.  Read more ..

Film Review

Enemies of the People: A Film that Offers Justice to Victims of Cambodia's Killing Fields

July 5th 2011

Film - enemies of the people

Enemies of the People. Director: Thet Sambath. Writer: Rob Lemkin. Length: 93 minutes.

Cambodian journalist and genocide survivor, Thet Sambath, has won the 2011 Knight International Journalism Award for uncovering the secrets the Marxist genocide during the brutal Pol Pot regime of the 1970s. His documentary film Enemies of the People: A Personal Journey into the Heart of the Killing Fields will be used as evidence at the trial of the Khmer Rouge leaders which began in Cambodia's capital city, Phnom Penh, on June 27.

Thet Sambath spent a decade tracking down former Khmer Rouge officials and and eliciting unprecedented confessions and is a senior reporter with the English-language daily Phnom Penh Post. He interviewed Khmer Rouge cadres who participated in the orchestrated murder of hundreds of thousands of fellow Cambodians during the Marxist regime. Among the high officials he interviewed is Pol Pot’s deputy Nuon Chea (aka Brother Number 2).

His film Enemies of the People also won a Special Jury Prize for World Cinema at the Sundance Film Festival of 2010 and is to air on PBS television in July. The Knight Award is given annually by the Washington DC-based International Center for Journalists in recognition of media professionals who have taken bold steps to keep citizens informed despite great obstacles. A statement by ICFJ read, “[Sambath’s film] is arguably the most important documentary about the Khmer Rouge. Within Cambodia its impact was close to home and personal. It will be used as evidence in the trial of Nuon Chea this year, and it brought Cambodians some understanding of that tragic time in their history.”

Thet Sambath said of his most recent prize, “I am truly honored to receive this award for my work over the last decade. I believe its recognition will assist greatly in the process of finding out the truth of my country’s sad history and enabling us all, victims and perpetrators alike, to move forward together towards a more peaceful and just future.” Read more ..

Book Review

The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris get an Eyeful and are Transformed

June 29th 2011

Book Covers - Greater Journey

The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris. David McCullough. Simon & Schuster. 2011. 576 pages.

The Greater Journey is a masterful exploration of the experiences of Americans in Paris in between the 1830s and the end of the nineteenth century. Some, like Harriet Beecher Stowe, only came for a few months. Others, like Oliver Wendell Holmes or James Fenimore Cooper, stayed longer, sometimes for years. Some, like Charles Sumner or Samuel F. B. Morse, kept coming back, and a few, like George Healy and Mary Cassatt, ended up settling in Europe for good. They came alone or with their families, or like John Singer Sargent, were been born in Europe of expatriate American parents. The book provides wonderful vignettes of people and places, but it is much more than that.

The title in itself evokes the main idea of the book: by going East, toward “civilization,” these Americans achieved as much for themselves and for the United States as a nation as others did by going West and exploring American “wilderness.”

Beyond the title, McCullough does not present an overarching grand argument upfront (there is no formal introductory chapter). Instead, relying heavily on letters, diaries and personal accounts, he immerses the reader in the experiences of Americans in Paris, and lets the picture emerge and come together. McCullough is a master story teller, but his touch is light, and reading The Greater Journey feels like taking a stroll through a gallery with an expert and passionate guide. It is fitting that much of the book focuses on artists, as it reads like a good painting. Brush strokes of varying width and depth make for a textured and multi-layered tableau, which will leave different readers with their own particular experience of the book.

The Greater Journey is organized chronologically. Part One explores the 1830s; Part Two, the 1840s through 70s; and Part Three, the last thirty years of the century. Each part is in turn divided into chapters revolving either around an important aspect of the lives of Americans in Paris, or around an important historical event, such as the cholera epidemic of 1832 or the 1870 siege of Paris. By choosing to approach his subject chronologically, McCullough achieves both a greater depth and a more subtle picture than had he chosen to treat each individual in separate chapters. It also allows him to make the narrative richer by inserting shorter passages on characters whose experience in Paris did not warrant full examination, or for whom he had limited sources. More importantly, the portraits croisés approach allows him to explore the relationships between his subjects, and to bring dynamism to the story by highlighting the evolution of both the city and its American visitors. Read more ..

Book Review

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, Complexity and Mystery

June 23rd 2011

Book Covers - Reinventing Malcolm X

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. Manning Marable. Viking, 2011. 608 pages.

Based upon the extensive Malcolm X project conducted under the auspices of the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning, a deconstruction of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, oral histories and personal interviews, archival research, and an extensive investigation of FBI records and other government documents made available under the Freedom of Information Act, Manning Marable, the M. Moran Weston and Black Alumni Council Professor of African American Studies at Columbia University, has produced what should long stand as the definitive biography of Malcolm X.  Marable celebrates Malcolm as a “truly historical figure in the sense that more than any of his contemporaries, he embodied the spirit, vitality, and political mood of an entire population—black, urban mid-twentieth century America”.  Embodying the two central figures of African-American folk culture, the hustler/trickster and the preacher/minister, Malcolm displayed an amazing talent for reinvention that allowed him to reach the most marginalized sectors of the black community.

The theme of reinvention is, of course, crucial to Malcolm’s Autobiography, but Marable argues that the structure of the book may better reflect collaborator Alex Haley’s perspective than that of Malcolm. Haley originally envisioned focusing the book around Malcolm’s criminal career as “Detroit Red,” leading to his salvation by Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam (NOI).  According to Marable, the integrationist Haley viewed Malcolm’s life as a cautionary tale; for if the United States did not address its history and polices of racial discrimination then the result would be increased frustration and growing extremism within the black community.  This approach, insists Marable, encouraged Malcolm to depict himself as a far more hardened criminal than was really the case.  The split between Malcolm and the NOI, however, challenged this structure of the Autobiography.  Malcolm was assassinated before he could adequately review the material dealing with the break from Elijah Muhammad. The Autobiography, accordingly, centers primarily upon Malcolm’s early life, criminal activity as “Detroit Red,” prison conversion to the NOI, and his career as a minister spreading the message of Elijah Muhammad. Read more ..

Book Review

Together Alone: Fretting about Frittering Away our Time on the Net

June 22nd 2011

Book Covers - Alone Together

Alone Together: Why We Expect more from Technology and Less from Each Other. Sherry Turkle. 2011. 384 pages.

Over the course of the last quarter century, Sherry Turkle of MIT has become the sociologist-cum-philosopher of human-computer relations. This inquiry began in 1984 with The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit, which was published just as personal computers were entering the collective bloodstream. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet arrived in 1995, and was again ahead of the curve, talking in depth about the "Multiple User Domains" (MUDs) that we've come to know as chat rooms. Alone Together is presented as the final installment of a trilogy of what Turkle calls "the inner life of devices." It works well as a point of entry to Turkle's body of work in tracing the questions -- she's less good on answers -- raised by the advent of our digital lives. It also suggests that in some ways, she's played out the string.

Alone Together is really -- and may well have been best published as -- two books. The first is in effect an inquiry into the coming age when robots will be a practical, and, perhaps, pervasive, part of our everyday lives. As she's done all along, Turkle pays particular attention to children's toys, not only because devices like Tamogotchis and Furbies were harbingers of more sophisticated devices, but also because she's keenly aware that the technological socialization of the young will have important implications for society as a whole. But she's (now) especially attentive to the other end of the demographic spectrum: the use of robots as devices, particularly psychological devices, for the care and company of the old. At least superficially, the logic seems irresistible: machines can perform tasks more efficiently and cheaply than people, and in many cases (like that Alzheimer patients, for example), artificial care, and caring, makes sense. Read more ..

Film Review

City of Life and Death: Once Again We Learn that War is Hell

June 22nd 2011

Film - city of life an death

City of Life and Death. Director:  Lu Chuan. Starring: John Paisley, Wei Fan, Hideo Nakaizumi, Yuko Miyamoto. Length: 132 mins.

Four years ago, the documentary Nanking by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman told the story of the horrific Japanese rape in 1937 of the city that was then the Chinese capital (it's now called Nanjing). That movie had the tag-line: "The True Story of How a Few Brave Souls Saved the Lives of Thousands," but this sounds a lot better than and is therefore movie publicists' code for "The True Story of How Many More Thousands Could Not Be Saved."

That is, we like to justify becoming voyeurs of the horrible deaths and sufferings of others by (among other means) emphasizing the uplift to be derived from the few who escaped - and maybe the patriotic pride involved in their doing so, since their escape in this case was effected mostly through the agency of Americans and Europeans in the diplomatic enclave which the Japanese mostly didn't interfere with. But for every one who escaped, hundreds more didn't, and that's what you were really watching when you went to Nanking. Read more ..

Film Review

A Somewhat Gentle Man: A Humorous Tale of Revenge

June 16th 2011

Film - somewhat gentle man

A Somewhat Gentle Man (En ganske snill mann). Director: Hans Petter Moland. Starring: Stellan Skarsgard, Bjorn Floberg, Henrik Mestad, Jorunn Kjellsby. Length: 90 Mins.

That the second iteration of True Grit has recently proved to be such a hit, even winning an Academy Award nomination as Best Picture, shows how the world of classic Hollywood somehow manages to live on in spite of all the formidable cultural forces now arrayed against it. Where in our culture today, except in the movies, is it any longer possible to present without irony a straightforward quest for revenge as something like what it was in the Hobbesian state of nature of Old Hollywood: that is, not only permissible but compulsory. True, the postmodern idiom in which today's movies are couched has done much to rob such a revenge saga of its moral force and justification. As Tony Soprano says to his son A.J. about The Godfather, "Jesus Christ, A.J. . . . It's a movie!" But if the culture draws back from the primitive grandeur of the theme, the movie itself doesn't.

To me, that's something to cheer about, because the pseudo-profundities of New or Revisionist Hollywood - which tends to produce movies like Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven (1992) or Mystic River (2003) that are tedious moralizing tracts against revenge - have never had much appeal. It's so easy for film-makers with an ambition to be seen as "deep" or "thoughtful" to stack the deck against revenge seekers by making their would-be victims into pathetic and pitiable creatures who often (as in Mystic River) aren't even guilty of the deeds for which they are being called on to pay the ultimate price. This is what Hans Petter Moland is doing, too, in the Norwegian movie A Somewhat Gentle Man (En ganske snill mann), though with rather more subtlety and a lot more humor than usual. Read more ..

America's Nazi Nexus

Infamous Auschwitz Tattoo Began as an IBM Number

June 16th 2011

Investigation - IBM in Auschwitz Phone Book Cropped

Auschwitz Phone Book Shows IBM Hollerith Buro Phone # 4496

In August 1943, a timber merchant from Bendzin, Poland, arrived at Auschwitz. He was among a group of 400 inmates, mostly Jews. First, a doctor examined him briefly to determine his fitness for work. His physical information was noted on a medical record. Second, his full prisoner registration was completed with all personal details. Third, his name was checked against the indices of the Political Section to see if he would be subjected to special punishment. Finally, he was registered in the Labor Assignment Office and assigned a characteristic five-digit IBM Hollerith number, 44673. The five-digit Hollerith number was part of a custom punch card system devised by IBM to track prisoners in Nazi concentration camps, including the slave labor at Auschwitz.

The Polish timber merchant's punch card number would follow him from labor assignment to labor assignment as Hollerith systems tracked him and his availability for work, and reported the data to the central inmate file eventually kept at Department DII. Department DII of the SS Economics Administration in Oranienburg oversaw all camp slave labor assignments, utilizing elaborate IBM systems. Read more ..

Film Review

Everything Must Go: A Story of Leaving our Stuff Behind Us

June 14th 2011

Film - everthing must go

Everything Must Go. Director: Dan Rush. Starring: Laura Dern, Will Farrell. Glenn Howerton, Christopher Jordan Wallace. Length: 90 mins.

Americans must have something of a love-hate relationship with their material goods. Just look at how they routinely refer to them collectively by using a common vulgarism for excrement. In Everything Must Go by Dan Rush, which is (very loosely) based on a Raymond Carver short story ("Why Don’t You Dance?"), Nick, the hero, played by Will Farrell, is fired from his job and comes home to his pleasant Phoenix suburb to find that his wife has left him, changed the locks on the doors of his house and deposited all his belongings on the front lawn. At first he retains his "normal" attitude to the relics of his life spread out before him: "This is my corner," he says, "I’m not leaving my stuff." But eventually he takes a certain pride in selling it all, or nearly all, in a gigantic yard sale. We hear him on the phone to his wife’s voice-mail — she refuses to speak to him — telling her that "I’m selling all my stuff, my crap," as if this might persuade her to give him another chance.

Yet Mr. Rush, a director of commercials making his first feature film, doesn’t quite persuade us. Even at the moment when Nick first sees his crap on the lawn, we sense something a little off about this scenario. Aren’t these things Mrs. Nick’s belongings too? It seems odd, to say the least, that a couple who have apparently been together for some years and have a joint bank account (which she has also shut him out of) should still think of the furniture in their shared home as his ‘n’ hers. Or that she should have gone to all the trouble of putting his stuff outside before abandoning the house altogether. The wife never appears in the movie, remaining a distant but malign presence throughout, but her breaking up of the matrimonial home into Nick’s crap and (presumably) the crap that, along with other things, Nick no longer has access to seems a shade too literal — as if she shared with Mr. Rush a Shakespearean ambition to present us with Nick, like Poor Tom on the heath in King Lear, as "unaccommodated man." Read more ..

Film Review

Hesher: Life in Metaphor

June 14th 2011

Film - Hesher

Hesher. Director: Spencer Susser. Starring: Jordan Gordon-Levitt, Piper Laurie, Natalie Portman, Rainn Wilson. Length: 106 mins.

In one scene of Spencer Susser’s movie, Hesher, a teacher lectures a classroom full of 12 year-olds, including the film’s hero, T.J. (Devin Brochu), on metaphor in Shakespeare. What the teacher is saying is way over the children’s heads, and all of them are bored when the title character, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, pops up at the window and causes a distraction. This is just one of the occasions when this strange character appears, as if out of nowhere, in the life of T.J., who lives with his father (Rainn Wilson) and grandmother (Piper Laurie) and is sunk, like them, in grief over the death two months earlier of his mother (Monica Staggs) in a car crash.

It makes us wonder if Hesher himself is a metaphor of some kind. A foul-mouthed, pot-smoking pyromaniac with home-made tattoos expressive of violent, obscene and punk iconography, he moves into T.J.’s grief-stricken home because no one has the energy to throw him out and, well, you can guess what happens.

Spoiler alert!

The movie, after all, belongs to the ever popular genre of the therapeutic romance. But if Hesher is meant to be a metaphor, he’s far from being the only one in the movie. At one point, he relates an obscene anecdote of his own sexual prowess involving four women simultaneously in the presence of Nicole (Natalie Portman), an impoverished check-out girl on whom T.J. develops a crush after she rescues him from a bully (Nicolai Dorian). "Is that some kind of perverted metaphor for me?" she asks him.

"What?" asks Hesher.

"Never mind," she replies.

Evidently it’s not, however, since not long afterwards and much to T.J.’s disgust she herself goes to bed with Hesher — whose alarmingly feral — not to say criminal — ways are supposed to be weirdly attractive to women. Read more ..

Film News

Award-Winning Film Explores Meaning of Life

June 9th 2011

Book Covers - tree of life (movie)

Filmmaker Terrence Malick is not prolific. His five feature films span four decades. But each is masterful and has met with acclaim. His latest, The Tree of Life, starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, and Jessica Chastain, recently received the Palme D’Or (top prize) at the Cannes Film Festival. Malick is known for his powerful visuals, spare dialogue and spiritual themes.

The Tree of Life is about the quest to find balance between one’s spiritual self and human nature.

Malick, a former professor of philosophy, presents this innate struggle through characters in a suburban American household of the 1950s. The father is proud and oppressive. He struggles inwardly because he has not succeeded in the world. Because of his feelings of inadequacy, he tries to mold his sons to his ideal.

Jack is still a boy, but he carries the world on his shoulders. He admires his father but also resents him.

For Malick, the struggle between father and son reflects both the cruelty and beauty of nature. In a twenty minute sequence, the director offers shots of the universe at work, an awesome struggle among natural forces.

But there is also grace, kindness and altruism. The mother in the story, played by Jessica Chastain, embodies them.

The boy grows up to be a successful, but also conflicted man played by Sean Penn. He struggles as he deals with the loss of his younger brother and the loss of innocence. Read more ..

Book Review

An Unfinished Revolution: Marx and Lincoln Together at Last

June 8th 2011

Book Covers - An Unfinished Revolution

An Unfinished Revolution: Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln. Robin Blackburn. Verso. 2011. 272 pages.

One was the founder of communism, the other a pillar of American democracy. That, along with many other things, made them as different as night and day. Yet they occupied the same historic period and profoundly affected their times. They both opposed slavery, though perhaps not on the same moral grounds one would wish for by today’s standards. They also both supported the principle of free labor—a concept that was essential to the emergent industrial economy that would soon transform the world. The men were Abraham Lincoln and Karl Marx. They are not often thought of together, but as Robin Blackburn’s new book makes clear there are important ways in which they should be.

Slavery in the New World was but one leg of an elaborate production and trade system. It went from the slave trading “business” in Africa, to the plantations of the New World, to the cotton mills of Manchester and Birmingham. Slavery was foundational to this set up yet at the same time a barrier to its further expansion. For once capitalism took hold it was labor power, untethered to land or master, that was needed to fuel the ascendent economy. It was this force that emboldened and impelled the best of the generation living amid and under it, to take up the cause, even taking up arms, to throw it off. It is this underlying political economy that is too often lost when discussing the American Civil War. In this book of documents, with a generous introduction, Blackburn thus fills in a certain blind-spot in the historical record. Read more ..

Film Review

Little White Lies: A Comedy About Unhappy People Fitfully Being Happy

June 8th 2011

Film - Little white lies

Little White Lies. Director: Guillaume Canet. Starring: François Cluzet, Marion Cotillard and Benoît Magimel. Length: 154 mins.

A middle-aged man snorts cocaine in the toilets of a throbbing night-club in Paris; he flirts with a friend’s girlfriend, embraces both, becomes bored, sneaks out, gets his helmet from the cloakroom, mounts his scooter, drives off through the boulevards and – with shocking speed and violence – is hit by a lorry jumping a light at a junction.

The motorcyclist is Lúdo, the mercurial wit and center of a group of metropolitan middle-class professionals who spend les grandes vacances together every year. Lúdo’s accident occurs just as their annual break is about to start, and – after an initial bit of soul-searching – they decide there is no point them all being stuck in Paris with him inaccessible in intensive care, so agree to a shortened holiday, remaining in touch with the hospital and ready to fly back at a moment’s notice should they need to. No doubt this is what Lúdo would have wanted them to do, had he still got the power of speech. Read more ..

Film Review

Third Star: A Meditation on Friendship and Terminal Illness

June 8th 2011

Film - Third star

Third Star. Director: Hattie Dalton. Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, JJ Feild, Tom Burke, Adam Robertson, Hugh Bonneville. Length: 92 mins.

The road trip movie, in its various guises, has been done so many times that to give it a new twist is no mean feat. The ‘what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas’ mantra has been adapted and used to cover up all manner of sins, but none quite like the denouement of Third Star. The plot is fairly plateaued – unlike the Pembrokeshire scenery that hosts the action – until its conclusion, which places a prism in front of the fairly linear story that leads up to it and distorts the images of all of the characters.

The fact that Third Star tells the story of 29-year-old terminal cancer patient, James (Benedict Cumberbatch) says all there is to say about the prevailing tone of the film. His three close friends agree to take him on a camping trip to his favorite place, the beautiful Barafundle Bay on the Welsh coast. The expedition brings the usual revelations, arguments, reconciliations, mishaps and comedy that sustain the momentum of any such film. The four leads fill the roles well and there is a real investment in their group dynamic as well their individual stories by the end of the film. Read more ..

Book Tours

Edwin Black Featured Speaker at Limmud-Oz Conference in Australia

June 4th 2011

Contributors / Staff - Edwin Black

Renowned investigative journalist and author Edwin Black, as part of his intercontinental lecture tour, is scholar-in-residence in Australia where he is updating his audiences on his latest books and research. As a featured speaker at Limmud-Oz, a festival to be held in Sydney June 11-13, over the Queen’s birthday holiday, Black will discuss oil and diplomacy over the last one hundred years and its impact on peace and security for Israel and the broader Mideast. Black is also expected to speak on the roiling issue of BDS, the anti-Israel Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanction movement. The BDS coalition of left-wing Jewish groups and Arab economic jihadis, traces its direct roots to the aggressive adoption of Hitler's anti-Jewish boycott by Arabs in Palestine during the Holocaust.

The Limmud-Oz festival is a unique, community-wide event that celebrates Jewish learning and creativity. Program Director Michael Misrachi is confident that this year’s conference offers “something for everyone,” with up to 12 sessions going at any one time. Participants can choose from a diverse program that includes film, theatre, cooking, art, politics, history, spirituality and more.

On the opening night international panel discussion scheduled for Saturday, June 11, Black will speak on the topic "Who is a Friend of Israel?" The much anticipated panel of international figures is expected to confront the BDS issue head on, with Black giving the historical perspective as it applies to today's Arab Spring.

The panel will be followed by three sessions on Sunday, June 12, plus an afternoon book signing session that comes after a lecture touching on his research into America’s contribution to eugenic racism and the Holocaust, and another on oil, petropolitics, and the Middle East. Wrapping up his participation in Limmud-Oz, Black will present his findings on his latest bestseller, “The Farhud: Roots of the Arab-Nazi Alliance in the Holocaust.” His final address in Australia, "Ethics and Computing: From IBM's Role in the Holocaust to Wikileaks and Social Media," is based in part on his book IBM and the Holocaust. That talk will replicate one he gave in Melbourne at Monash University sponsored by a coalition of computer societies. Read more ..

Book Review

The Central Park Five: A Feral Media Hypes a Rape and the Wilding of New York City

June 4th 2011

Book Covers - Central Park 5 redux

The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding. Sarah Burns. Knopf . 2011. 256 pages.

New York City in the 1980s, the time period for Sarah Burns’ engrossing The Central Park Five, was suffering from a level of poverty unseen in years, legions of men and women wandering the streets, a plague of drugs, prostitution, petty and major crimes, and deteriorating public venues, all of which added to the frustrations of its citizens and politicians. It all seemed to come to a head on April 20, 1989 when a 28-year-old white women was found alive but mauled and raped in Central Park, her skull shattered, most of her blood having poured out onto the ground.

The victim of this abhorrent and despicable crime was Patricia Ellen Meili, known to her friends and family as Trisha, a Yale business school graduate and employee at Salomon Brothers’ investment house. The night before she had set out for a nightly run in the park, a thoughtless practice her concerned family had warned her against. As Burns reports, her rape “was by no means an isolated one…Twenty eight other first-degree rapes or attempted rapes were reported in NYC that same week,” most of the victims were black, Hispanic or Asian women, including a black woman raped and thrown off a roof by two young black men. Still, as Burns reminds us, none of the minority women received anywhere the attention as the Central Park attack because white-run media and its readers and viewers were drawn primarily to white victims.

It all began the evening of the 20th of April when a group of black and Hispanic teenage boys began gathering at one of the park’s entrances, apparently intent on “wilding”-- jargon for going wild at others’ expense. One was 16, the youngest only 13. Once inside the park, that vast, much-cherished recreational area for all New Yorkers, they began attacking any runners and bikers they ran across. One white male jogger was beaten so badly that a cop who saw him after the attack said it was as if he had been “dunked in a bucket of blood.” Read more ..

Book Review

Stories I Only Tell My Friends: Rob Lowe's Brushes with Sex Tapes, Star Wars, and Al-Qaeda

June 4th 2011

Book Covers - Stories I only tell my friends 2

Stories I Only Tell My Friends. Rob Lowe. Henry Holt publishers. 2011. 320 pages.

Rob Lowe is Forrest Gump with a brain.

Lowe's new memoir, the cleverly titled Stories I Only Tell My Friends, pretty much does what you expect a book of this kind to do: drop lots of names. You read it to hear about people like Tom Cruise, Emilio Estevez, Demi Moore, and various other members of the "Brat Pack" (so dubbed in a 1985 New York magazine profile) who briefly dominated Hollywood in the early 1980s. And you do indeed get stories about youthful excess, backstage romances, and the like. And since Lowe was a star of the hit NBC series The West Wing, you know at the outset that he's going to end up a Friend of Bill and visit President Clinton at the White House. If you're a big Rob Lowe fan, this will be sufficient to buy the book.

What's really surprising, though, are how many other brushes with fame Lowe has had in his lifetime, in contexts that are totally unexpected. Like the amusing story where Cary Grant gives him soap on a rope. Or the one involving a failed audition by Janet Jackson. Or his adolescent visit to a San Fernando Valley chop shop, where he witnessed the shooting of Star Wars scenes involving the Millennium Falcon and Death Star (George Lucas & Co. needed lots of cheap space). Long before he he had achieved any fame himself, Lowe found himself tugging on George McGovern's coat in the 1972 presidential campaign.

Other stories are more grave. Lowe had a well-publicized romance with Princess Stephanie of Monaco, but less well known is the assassination of the security man who escorted him to and from the palace. Lowe had a brief but intense acquaintanceship with John F. Kennedy, Jr. on the eve of his death. And he also had a chilling intersection with the terrorists involved in 9/11. Even for a celebrity who you would expect to meet lots of people, the volume and variety of his contacts are uncanny. Read more ..

Film Review

Cave of Forgotten Dreams: An Experience of the Humanity and Mystery of Pre-Historic Peoples

June 4th 2011

Film - cave of forgotten dreams

In December 1994, three French explorers examining the cliffs along the Ardèche River found air vents which they thought might be evidence of an as-yet-undiscovered cave. They found a small gap and descended into a network of chambers covered in scintillating calcite encrustations, but the breathtaking natural beauty was only the first discovery. They soon realised that they were not the cave's first human visitors. Thousands of years ago, before the mouth of the cave collapsed in a landslide, prehistoric man left his mark by covering the walls with paintings of animals, now long extinct. Chauvet cave (named after one of the explorers) is now thought to contain some of the oldest prehistoric paintings yet known to archaeologists – dating back about 30,000 years.

When the cave was discovered, archaeologists already had experience of the destructive effects of visitors on cave paintings at Lascaux (also in France) and at Altamira in Spain. The paintings had been preserved for thousands of years because of the specific environment maintained in the caves, and the introduction of people, with their heat and their breath, disrupted this delicate balance. For this reason, Chauvet cave has never been open to the general public, and only small numbers of scientists and archaeologists have been allowed inside. This film, therefore, shows us a place which we could never hope to visit in person (though there are plans to build a scale replica for visitors), and this film crew were the very first permitted inside the cave. In a way, Werner Herzog is performing a public service by allowing us access to a site which is so important to our understanding of the human past. Read more ..

Film Review

Pirates of the Caribbean, On Stranger Tides: Give it a Rest, Capt'n Jack

June 4th 2011

Film - Pirates of theCaribbean 4

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Director : Rob Marshall. Starring: Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Geoffrey Rush, Ian McShane. Length: 136 mins. 

I'll be honest, I wasn't expecting much from Pirates 4. I mean what could they possibly squeeze out of a Disneyland attraction that's been ridden one too many times already? Oh yeah, that's right, sorry, I forgot... money. I regret having to take such a cynical view but it is the sad reality. The Pirates franchise stopped being about entertaining the audience as soon as the end credits of the first film rolled. They should have left it there. Captain Jack should have been allowed to sail into the sunset on the Black Pearl and the studios could have been content with having uncovered a rare treasure in the action adventure genre.

That's the trouble with rare treasures. Because they're new and exciting, and rare, everyone wants a piece. And because everyone wants a piece, it has to be distributed in increasingly stingy and unsustaining amounts. As a result, by the time the opening credits of On Stranger Tides sailed by, the story and the familiar characters that drag it miserably to its inevitable finish, had long since begun to wear thin and now seemed a bit inadequate and, dare we say it, at times rather useless. As Bilbo said to Gandalf when he fancied a well earned rest from hobbitting, “I feel thin. Liked butter scraped over too much bread. I need a holiday. A very long holiday.”

More than once during On Stranger Tides I was wishing Captain Jack had followed old Bilbo's example and retired his cheeky smile and irreverent mumblings and just found a beach somewhere... “yo ho ho and a bottle of rum” and all that. But literally within two minutes of the opening sequence I was practically mouthing along to Jack and Gibb's not so witty and predictable banter, unable to stop thinking about just how clean they both looked for a couple of filthy pirates and how rehearsed and “actory” it all felt. An obligatory swig of a token character prop here, a laboured encore of the same old dialogue there. Come on lads, you’re better than that! Read more ..

Film Review

There Be Dragons: A Recognizable Portrait of Heroism and Piety

May 29th 2011

Film - There Be Dragon

There Be Dragons: Directed by Roland Joffe. Starring Charlie Cox, Wes Bentley, Olga Kurylenko, Rodrigo Santoro. Length: 100 mins.

Some people will like There Be Dragons by Roland Joffe (The Killing Fields, The Mission) because it is something of a throwback to the Hollywood epics of old in which a (usually) tragic romance is set against the background of real world-historical events like wars and revolutions. The individuals’ experience of these events, as in Gone With the Wind or David Lean’s Dr. Zhivago is supposed to cast dry historical narrative in a new and more thrillingly human light. As an example of this kind of movie, however, I think Mr. Joffe’s film is less than completely successful. What I liked about it was that it was a different kind of throwback: to a time when Hollywood, if only out of its own self-interest in trying to attract an audience largely made up of Christian believers, had to be at least respectful to religion and sometimes produced movies that were themselves quasi-iconic aids to Christian devotion.

Xavier Beauvois’s Of Gods and Men is that kind of movie, but it owes little or nothing to Hollywood. Mr. Joffe’s picture, by contrast, is Hollywood through and through, and that’s its weakness. Half of it is about St. Josemaría Escrivá (Charlie Cox), the founder of Opus Dei, but his story, set against the background of the Spanish Civil War, has to compete with that of a fictional rivalry with his childhood friend, Manolo (Wes Bentley). We learn of Manolo’s joining the Republican side as an agent of the fascists, of his unrequited passion for a Beautiful Hungarian Communist (Olga Kurylenko), of the BHC’s spurning him for love of the Communist leader, Oriol (Rodrigo Santoro), of Manolo’s crises of conscience with regard to (a) the BHC and his rival and (b) his ex-friend, the priest — and, as if all this weren’t enough, of the dying Manolo’s complicated relationship nearly 50 years later with his son, Robert (Dougray Scott), who happens to be writing a biography of Josemaría Escrivá and is only now discovering his father’s relationship with his subject. Read more ..

Book Review

To End All Wars: A Story of War that Haunts and Illuminates

May 25th 2011

Book Covers - To end all wars

To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918. Adam Hochschild. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2011. 404 pages.

Adam Hochschild’s haunting yet illuminating assessment of World War I (mainly concentrating on Great Britain) is a welcome addition to the vast historical and literary output literature of that pointless war. But it is different. By no means a detailed if conventional history of battles and strategies and politicians, it is, firstly, a powerful condemnation of a war that should never have been fought. The battle at Passchendaele (officially, the Third Battle of Ypres) cost the lives of at least 300,000 men. Hochschild rightly calls it “a blatant, needless massacre initiated by generals with a near-criminal disregard for the conditions men faced.’ In northern Italy, German and Austrian armies at Caporetto caused more than 500,000 Italian casualties -- dead, wounded or captured. On the eastern front the Russian armies, its generals and government corrupt and incompetent, were effectively defeated a year or so after the Romanovs entered the war.

What makes To End All Wars so original (mirroring to some extent Paul Fussell’s splendid 1975 book The Great War and Modern Memory) is that Hochschild also eloquently tells the story of courageous and principled Britons and to a lesser degree the French Socialist antiwar leader Jean Jaures, who opposed the war and even refused to serve in its ranks. Though he praises the great anti- war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen (a combat lieutenant whose parents were told of his death in France the day the Armistice was signed) it also looks sympathetically at those who chose to volunteer or accept conscription “for whom the magnetic attraction of combat, or at least the belief that it was patriotic and necessary, proved so much stronger than human revulsion at mass death or any perception that, win or lose, this was a war that would change the world for the worse.” Read more ..

Film Review

Win-Win: Middle-class quiet desperation, and Moral Earnestness

May 25th 2011

Film - Win Win

Win Win. Director: Thomas McCarthy.  Starring: Paul Giamatti,  Amy Ryan, Alex Shaffer, Jeffrey Tambor. Length: 106 minutes.

An example of the violation of the law of Chekhov’s gun that I mentioned in a recent review — that is, the rule that, "if in Act I you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act" — occurs in Thomas McCarthy’s enjoyable Win Win. In an early scene we see the hero, Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) tinkering with a symbolic boiler in his New Jersey lawyer’s office. Mike’s legal practice isn’t doing too well, and neither is the boiler. Of the latter we are told that it very well might explode unless it is fixed — and that there is not enough money to fix it. If that’s not an invitation to the boiler to explode at some strategic point later in the film, I don’t know what is. But to Mr. McCarthy the boiler, its symbolic work done, has no further interest and is heard from no more. Any subsequent explosions will be only of the metaphorical kind.

Admittedly, it’s a small point, but it’s a flaw in the movie’s construction, as is its waste of the great Jeffrey Tambor as Stephen Vigman, Mike’s associate and his assistant wrestling coach who more or less drops out of the movie half-way through, having been given nothing of importance to do hitherto. The time spent on Mike’s much less interesting friend Terry (Bobby Cannavale) and his failed marriage also seems to me to be wasted, as it adds little or nothing to the movie’s two main stories. One of these is about Mike’s conscience and the breach of professional ethics he commits to save his business, and the other is about a young runaway named Kyle (Alex Shaffer) who transforms the fortunes of his wrestling team. Read more ..

Book Tours

Investigative Author Edwin Black Lectures in Australia on Holocaust and Petropolitics

May 19th 2011

Contributors / Staff - Edwin Black

Edwin Black, investigative journalist and prize-winning author, will give numerous lectures and talks during an extended book tour and month-long scholar-in-residence program in Australia. Black, who makes hundreds of appearances each year, was brought to Australia by The Shalom Institute, which is associated with the University of New South Wales. The author will conduct two four-week courses: "Oil, Petropolitics, and the Middle East" and "Collaborations with the Nazis." Both courses emerge from two of Black's intersecting portfolios: oil and genocide. Each subscription-only session is two hours long.

The Shalom Institute courses emerge from research done for Black's numerous bestselling books. The latest two volumes are The Farhud: Roots of the Arab-Nazi Alliance in the Holocaust, which has been lauded by critics such as Middle East expert Walid Phares as "meticulously researched and documented," and British Petroleum and the Redline Agreement, the research for which was lauded by The Middle East Quarterly as "gripping."

Black's most famous work is IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation. The international bestseller, a million copies in print in 14 languages, chronicles how IBM knowing co-planned and co-organized with the Hitler regime all six phases of the Holocaust: identification, exclusion, confiscation, ghettoization, deportation and extermination. The book received the two highest awards of the American Society of Journalists and Authors: best book of the year, and best investigative article of the year for an adaptation, "Final Solutions—IBM in Auschwitz."

His other editions, such as War Against the Weak, Banking on Baghdad, Nazi Nexus, The Plan and Internal Combustion have been lauded for setting a new standard for journalistic excellence and historical research. The Jerusalem Post proclaimed his first work, The Transfer Agreement, as "historical journalism at its best." Read more ..

Book Review

The Master Switch is like a Killer App

May 18th 2011

Book Covers - Master switch

The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires. Tim Wu. Alfred Knopf. 2010.

If The Master Switch was a piece of software, it would be a killer app: not exactly original, and relatively narrow in function, but terrifically practical and elegant. A bit like an iPad, in fact, though one closer to the spirit of Steven Wozniak than as executed by Steven Jobs. (Remember Woz? The author would not be surprised if you don’t.) And therein lies the heart of its haunting argument about the way the future of communications will likely be found in the past.

The story Tim Wu tells in this book is a cyclical one. It begins when someone – an Alexander Graham Bell in telephony, a Thomas Edison in film, a Philo Farnsworth in television – emerges at the vanguard of a disruptive new technology, in the Joseph Schumpeter sense of creative destruction. Taken alone, that technology itself is insufficient; it needs an imperial-minded entrepreneur, like Alexander Vail of AT&T or David Sarnoff of RCA, to build a viable legal, political and economic infrastructure for it, and who then go on to dominate it, whether by vertical integration or the creation of a government-sanctioned cartel.

These dominant players then fend off subsequent challenges, including those posed by genuinely better mousetraps in the form of new technologies like FM radio, cable television, or the Internet. But eventually the Old Guard gets felled, sometimes by opponents it failed to see coming, and sometimes by quirky historical circumstances: who would have figured that Richard Nixon would be the patron saint of cable TV? Read more ..

Book Review

The Rights of the People: How Our Search for Safety Invades Our Liberties

May 18th 2011

Book Covers - Rights of the people

The Rights of the People: How Our Search for Safety Invades Our Liberties. David K. Shipler. Alfred Knopf. 2011.

David Shipler won a Pulitzer Prize for The Working Poor, an exemplary work that explored largely overlooked Americans having a hard time making ends meet. Now Shipler, a former reporter and foreign correspondent for the New York Times, turns his attention to the momentous impact September 11th and the resulting “War on Terror” has had on our personal freedoms. Shipler is hardly alone in warning about the many invasions of privacy we’ve seen since the attack and the problems it creates but Benjamin Franklin’s justly famous hoary words put it best: “Those who desire to give up freedom in order to gain security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.” The central question he and other contemporary critics ask – but do not answer –who can?—is whether our need to prevent another 9/11 justifies what we do in the name of security.

Fittingly, the book opens with The Bill of Rights, which has been repeatedly disregarded throughout our history during periods of stress, both real and presumed. Our past is filled with shameful examples, from John Adams’ Sedition Act, Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, Woodrow Wilson’s Espionage Act, FDR’s incarceration of Japanese Americans, Joe McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover, court rulings in defense of slavery, the theft of Native American lands and other outrages.

His meticulous and admirable reportage takes us initially into the treacherous, impoverished neighborhoods of nighttime Washington and to police precincts where cops are told to maintain the law while coping with demanding situations. Shipler’s dramatic descriptions of the fruitless, even absurd efforts to curb the drug trade in the nation’s capital is strengthened by his willingness to spend lots of time with local residents. About the police he writes, “Aggressive investigation is legitimate but it creates two hazards, the danger of error in a particular case and the danger to the country’s larger culture of liberty.” Then, in an abrupt transition, he moves on to the larger world of warrantless wiretaps, searches and detainments without any findings of guilt. Read more ..

Book Review

The Constitution Goes to College: Five Ideas that Shaped American Higher Education

May 18th 2011

Book Covers - Constitution goes to College

The Constitution Goes to College: Five Constitutional Ideas that Have Shaped the American University. Rodney A. Smolla. New York University Press. 2011. 232 pages.

Critics and defenders of American higher education often employ the stereotype of the university as “ivory tower.” But to a greater extent than is often recognized by its critics or admitted by its defenders, the American university is very much implicated, embedded, and nested in American society. That is the point of Rodney A. Smolla’s fine book, which with admirable clarity and subtlety tracks the linkages between ideas based in the Constitution and the ongoing evolution of the American university.

Smolla, currently president of Furman University and formerly dean of the law schools at Washington and Lee University and the University of Richmond, begins by asserting that “there is scarcely any constitutional question that arises in the United States that does not devolve, sooner or later, into a campus question.” Surveying the contested terrain of the contemporary campus, from academic freedom (for faculty, students, and institutions), to affirmative action, to the rights of religious groups on campus, and more, it is hard to disagree. All such issues, according to Smolla, involve at least one of “five fundamental tensions” that have influenced American higher education: “(1) the debate over whether we have a ‘living Constitution’; (2) the division between the public and private spheres; (3) the distinction between ‘rights’ and ‘privileges’; (4) the notion of ‘ordered liberty’; and (5) competing conceptions of equality.” Campus religious groups that seek to exclude nonbelievers, for instance, place religious and associational rights in conflict; affirmative action raises questions of “process equality” versus “outcome equality.” Read more ..

Authors on the Road

Best-Selling Author and Investigative Journalist Edwin Black in Las Vegas on Nazi-Arab Collusion in the Holocaust

May 9th 2011

Contributors / Staff - Edwin Black

Sponsored by Jewish Community Center of Southern Nevada and The Jewish Federation of Las Vegas, renowned author and investigative journalist Edwin Black will speak in Las Vegas about his newest book The Farhud: Roots of the Arab-Nazi Alliance in the Holocaust. He will lecture at the Jewish Community Center on May 10 at 7 pm.

Lauded by critics such as Middle East expert Walid Phares as "meticulously researched and documented," The Farhud chronicles the robust axis between Arabs and Nazis, on and off the battlefield, during the Holocaust. What the book documents is "a legacy of hate" by Arabs against Jews combined with the Nazi lust for oil that brought Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler into common cause with the Muslim Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and other Arab leaders.

“Farhud,” a word in Arabic that signifies violent dispossession, is used to describe the horrific events of 1941 in Baghdad when Iraqi Nazi mobs murdered and raped the Jewish community, seizing their property and wiping out their millennial presence in the country.

The stated goal at the time was to exterminate Jews not only in Palestine and in the Middle East but also in Europe. Eventually, the shoulder-to-shoulder battlefield alliance of Nazis, Muslims and Arabs during World War II also created the Muslim-Catholic murder regime in Croatia known as the Ustasha, perhaps the most heinous killers of the Holocaust, according to Black. Of his latest work, Black wrote, “This is a book I wish that I didn’t have to write.” Read more ..

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