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Archive for the ‘Nonfiction’ Category

bully

In a feat of near-superhuman endurance, Benjamin powered through and finished The Bully Pulpit. Here’s his review:

Including the endnotes, this is a tome of 900 pages (30 CDs).  Starting with the book on CD, I knew I would not have enough time to listen to the whole book before its due date, so I put a hold on the printed copy also. Shortly after returning the CDs, I checked out the printed version and finished the book. Written by Pulitzer Prize winner Doris Kearns Goodwin, The Bully Pulpit concurrently provides detailed biographies of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, exploring their fundamental contributions to American history from the end of the nineteenth century through the first quarter of the twentieth century.

Woven into the narrative is the fascinating history behind the rise of McClure’s Magazine, complete with intricate biographies of S. S. McClure and his famous journalists: Ida M. Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker, William A. White.  That all of these characters converge is not coincidental. These men and women were at the pinnacles of talent, dedication, and intelligence of their age.

Theodore Roosevelt is a household name. TR, as he is often referred to, had a tremendous influence on this country. William Howard Taft, although not as well known, also used his prodigious knowledge and skills to impact the direction of America. Contemporaries, both men rose above their peers with growing reputations, responsibilities, and national recognition. Although different in temperament and style, they were close friends for many years. Both were moderate progressives who enjoyed affectionate marriages, and were utterly dedicated to their families. However, after Taft became President in 1909, the men became estranged.

Taft did not crave the limelight.  If it were not for his wife, who aspired to live in the White House, he would have served as a distinguished Federal judge most of his career.  He sought equanimity and impartiality in his judicial decisions. His colleagues loved his amicability, intelligence, and fairness.

Roosevelt was a born leader. Anxious to excel and adoring attention, he held interests in every topic under the sun, and was knowledgeable about most of them.  He had boundless energy and enjoyed a good debate. Unlike Taft’s spouse, TR’s wife shied away from civic life. Yet, Roosevelt was happiest when he was inordinately busy and extraordinarily public.

Goodwin’s scholarship is excellent.  In The Bully Pulpit, she brilliantly combines all the lives of the characters to retell this fascinating history of the triumphs and tragedies of two American presidents.  Goodwin’s title reflects her underlying thesis that Roosevelt’s rise to prominence was aided by this masterful stewardship of and relationships with journalists.  However, this book goes a great deal beyond that one focus. Goodwin provides an amazing biographical history of Taft and Roosevelt that not only illustrates how these men lived, but also sheds light on the birth of modern politics.

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zealot

Today, we get Benjamin’s take on one of the most talked-about biographies in recent years: 

Zealot was a number one New York Times bestseller. The book has been vilified by some and praised by others. This comes as no surprise, as Zealot looks for the historical Jesus, a search that invariably causes uproar.

Aslan produces a readable exegesis on the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth.  He informs his reader at the start that he is not writing to question anyone’s faith or beliefs.  He is, however, presenting a view of Jesus as a man who lived at the beginning of the Christian Era. Jesus gained a following in the rural areas of Galilee and Judea, went to Jerusalem to rail against the establishment, and was executed on a small hill named Golgotha.

Alsan methodically explores who the man Jesus of Nazareth was in the context of the world in which he lived. This is possible because a great deal is known about how the Romans treated criminals, what constituted a crime against the Roman Empire, who had power, and who did not.  There has been extensive discussion and analysis about the Temple in Jerusalem and the Pharisees, Sadducees & Essenes (the major Jewish sects during that time). Numerous narratives of Jewish messiahs exist, including accounts of their anti-Romanism, aversion to the hypocrisy of Temple priests, nationalism, and executions.  Despite this, there is limited hard evidence for many portions of the history to draw on, so Aslan spends much of his book reaching conclusions based on interpretation and correlation. Aslan carefully and systematically forms his thesis based on what he can suppose, infer, and theorize.

Zealot does not actually contain much history that has not previously been explored. The difference between this book and other discussions of the historical Jesus may be one of style and accessibility.  As a retelling of the story of Jesus of Nazareth, it is cogent, clear, and understandable.The author’s extensive research is documented through his 50 pages of endnotes.

For me, Zealot is a book primarily about a man who lived two thousand years ago and what that person’s experiences may have been, given the culture, political reality, and existing religious environment. Aslan has crafted a well researched, thought provoking history. While Zealot is not a book for everyone, it does offer an interesting perspective that will lead many readers to contemplation the topic and perhaps some lively discussion.

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IceArmchair explorers, add this to your bookshelf of travel and survival narratives in the cold and lonely north.

The USS Jeannette set off in search of the North Pole in 1879. Manned in large part by men who had just missed the “glory” of service in the Civil War, the expedition boasted the latest innovations, including Edison’s lights and Bell’s telephones, and was spurred on by scientific theories that the Kuro Siwo, a Pacific equivalent to the Gulf Stream current, would sweep the ship effortlessly north to a temperate polar sea. Unsurprisingly, this was not their experience.

Instead, the Jeannette was locked in a vice of pack ice for two years before its hull was crushed, and the expedition was left to make its way 1,000 miles across more ice and unexplored territory to Siberia—before winter, and before their provisions would run out. At one of the lowest points in their journey, they learned that despite days of grueling slog to the south, hauling their boats, the drift of the floating ice over which they were travelling had dragged them north, even farther from rescue than when they started.

Author Sides delves into the background of the expedition, setting the usual narrative of cold and deprivation in its Gilded Age context. Vivid descriptions, many from the letters and journals of the men involved, add to the account.

Possibly the most striking character in this story wasn’t even on the expedition: financier James Gordon Bennett, Jr., editor of the New York Herald, whose journalist was embedded with the crew. In a book filled with colorful personalities, Bennett is still, as Sides writes, “spectacularly weird,” having once abducted a musical theater company, broken off an engagement by urinating into his prospective in-laws’ grand piano, and boosted newspaper circulation by printing a fake story about New Yorkers mauled by escaped zoo animals in Central Park (“A Shocking Sabbath Carnival OF DEATH!”)

Check the WRL catalog for In the Kingdom of Ice.

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flashCapitalism is great. When it works, it transfers money from people willing to take risks to people who have risks worth taking. Sure, the eventual payoff to both is in proportion to the risk, and the risk is in proportion to the vision, but the overall purpose is to move idle money to the places that can put it to use. Capitalism is great. When it works.

And then there are the parasites.

In Flash Boys, Michael Lewis tells the story of a bunch of regular guys who decided to drag one group of parasites into the light so the markets could understand how and why they had become hosts. The parasites had a simple business model. Someone sends out an offer to buy United Widgets at $1.00, the parasite would see his offer, and go buy the available shares at $1.00. Then he’d offer them to the buyer for $1.01. A penny a share of pure profit, no risk, no real value added. But how did he see the spread between the two?

He figured out that placing his computer server just a little closer to the server that executes trades would buy enough lag time that he could spot the opening and get the jump on real investors. The smart guy and his cronies started at milliseconds and wrung every angle until they were down to beating legitimate investors by nanoseconds. These weren’t the small-time investors, either—institutional investors managing billions of dollars couldn’t figure out why they were constantly paying higher prices when the computer said right there that they should have gotten it for less. They’d scratch their heads and pay the higher cost.

But there were people in the system who caught on to the parasites. Instead of cashing their knowledge in for a few million bucks, these regular guys decided they were going to put the markets back on an equal footing. (Well, as equal as it could be.) There are too many for me to credit in this post, but basically they were organized and inspired by Brad Katsuyama, a low-key guy working for the low-key Royal Bank of Canada. For my money (what’s left of it after the markets got hold of it), he should be recognized as a genuine hero. But his discovery about lag time was only the tip of the fraud, and his real courage came out when he brought his findings and his solutions to those institutional investors. Their reaction—and the way he finally convinced them that he had a viable solution—shows that sometimes heroism doesn’t happen in a flash. Heroism takes work.

As for the parasites? A friend once told me, “Bulls make money, bears make money, pigs get slaughtered.”  When I look around, it seems that the parasites, and the pigs, are actually doing better than everyone else. Capitalism is great. When it works.

Check the WRL catalog for Flash Boys

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04book "Contagious: Why Things Catch On" by Jonah Berger.We are ending the week with this sobering view of technology from Connie of the library’s Outreach Services Division.

I was watching a TV show called Blacklist when the main character started talking about “Big Data” and how someone with the right skills can find out just about anything about anybody and track them. I had only a vague idea what this meant.

What is “Big Data” and why should we care? I turned to the library for answers.

The authors of Big Data interpret this to mean processing vast amounts of stored data very quickly in a way that can’t be done on a smaller scale. Algorithms applied to this data have a predictive capability that will “change markets, organizations, the relationship between citizens and governments and more.”

This book develops that concept in a very understandable way with interesting examples of how our world had already changed by the large amount of data stored.

A positive example of the way big data has already helped consumers is Farecast, which predicts when air fare will be cheapest to buy. And future ways big data may benefit humanity is by predicting where outbreaks of disease will occur.

The negative implications of the predictive quality of “Big Data” are thought provoking (think of the movie Minority Report). Not only does everything we do on the Internet never go away, but that information can be analyzed over and over again for different purposes without our knowledge or consent. Even if the data is anonymized, it can still be traced back to a single individual!

The authors state that the amount of data will continue to grow along with our ability to process it. It is “the dark side of big data” that I found most alarming – more surveillance of our lives, less protection of privacy, and loss of anonymity. I found myself marking sections in the book and going back to re-read it. It also sparked a lot of discussion in my book group. Technology is a part of all our lives whether we love it or hate it and this book was a fascinating peek into our future.

Check the WRL catalog for Big Data

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spyHave you ever been so ticked off at the characters in a book that you wanted to yank them through the print and slap them? For me, it’s usually those comedies of manners in which the whole plot could be resolved by someone taking a deep breath and speaking their mind. In A Spy Among Friends, it’s the real people with the sense of privilege and identity that assumes, against all evidence, that one of your chums couldn’t possibly betray your country.

Nicholas Elliott, Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt, Donald Maclean, and Guy Burgess all came to the highest circles of British government through the same path. After a middling Oxbridge education, a friend of Pater puts a word in the ear of a fellow Club member, and suddenly Military Intelligence or the Foreign Service has a new acolyte. Wear the club tie and handmade suits, drink heavily, and send others into harm’s way. The problem is that four of these five men had a loyalty higher than the institutions that made them. They were spies for the Soviet Union.

Kim Philby pulled off probably the greatest intelligence coup in history. Taken in total, his career as a Soviet spy spanned 30 years, enabling him to betray Republicans in Spain’s Civil War, anti-Soviet cells in Russia, military and counter-intelligence operations during World War II, anti-Nazi factions in Germany, Allied agents, and infiltrators hoping to destabilize their Eastern Bloc countries. He was also able to protect Russian spies in the West, including Burgess and Maclean, either from detection or arrest, by tipping them off. He charmed his way into the inner circles of British and American intelligence, creating a vast pipeline of secret information that flowed on a river of booze and weekend parties directly to the KGB.  He didn’t do it for money, he didn’t do it for excitement—he did it for ideology.

Nicholas Elliott was perhaps Philby’s closest friend, and his greatest victim. Time after time Elliott shared operational details with Philby, then wondered why those operations spectactularly failed, with fatal consequences for the people on the ground. He couldn’t picture that Philby, whose charm and drinking ability easily elicited critical secrets from their circle, was the source of those betrayals. Elliott even subverted investigations into Philby’s background for 12 years, playing up the idea that the working class detectives from MI5 had no right to question the aristocrats of MI6. And on his word, MI6 closed ranks to protect Philby. When Philby finally defected in 1963, Nicholas Elliott was the last British intelligence agent to talk with him.

Ben Macintyre does a great job bringing that culture of entitlement to life, effortlessly capturing the atmosphere of the British Empire’s last bastion without making it seem cliche.  While he occasionally talks about tradecraft and agent recruitment, his interest really lies in dissecting the old boy network. An afterword by John Le Carre, which is really a collection of snippets, shows that Nicholas Elliott seems never to have overcome that trust in connexions. Looking back at all he’d tried and failed to accomplish, it really made me want to reach into the book and slap him. I just didn’t have my white gloves on.

Check the WRL catalog for A Spy Among Friends

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hotzone

Can you imagine what it’s like to die from Ebola? Do you know what filoviruses like Ebola and a sister virus, Marburg, can do to a body? If you read The Hot Zone, by Richard Preston, you’ll have a vivid idea. The images will stay with you for a very long time, and you’ll have a good understanding of the horror that people in West Africa are going through right now. In a blurb, Stephen King wrote that the first chapter is “one of the most horrifying things I’ve read in my whole life.” I couldn’t agree more.

Preston brings his superb descriptive skills to this non-fiction book, part of his Dark Biology series. “Ebola Zaire attacks every organ and tissue in the human body except skeletal muscle and bone. It is a perfect parasite because it transforms virtually every part of the body into a digested slime of virus particles.” If you don’t want to read more like that, you may want to avoid this book and stick with the description of Ebola on the WHO website, “…fever fatigue, muscle pain, headache and sore throat. This is followed by vomiting, diarrhoea, rash, symptoms of impaired kidney and liver function, and in some cases, both internal and external bleeding (e.g. oozing from the gums, blood in the stools)….”

The Hot Zone was published in 1995 and was a #1 bestseller on the New York Times bestseller list. It is now back on some non-fiction bestseller lists, as fears may be warranted that the outbreak in West Africa is out of control; the disease has spread to thousands of people and through at least five countries.

Last month, two U. S. aid workers in Liberia who contracted Ebola were brought back to the U. S. for treatment. Everyone involved understood that Dr. Kent Brantley and his colleague Nancy Writebol were infected with Ebola, and they were “transported with appropriate infection control procedures in place to prevent the disease from being transmitted to others.” Each was transported using an Aeromedical Biological Containment System, “a sort of framed tent made of thick, clear plastic with a negative-pressure, HEPA-filtered air supply designed to keep the [airplane] cabin clear of infections.” The two were taken to the isolation unit at Emory University Hospital where patients are sealed off from anyone not wearing protective gear. Both eventually recovered.

But this wasn’t the first time the Ebola virus was in a host in the United States. The last known time, the subject of this book, was in 1989 when the virus was found in the Reston [Virginia] Primate Quarantine Unit, a now-closed building that housed research monkeys. These monkeys were imported from the Philippines. At first, no one knew why the monkeys were getting very sick and dying. The staff knew something was horribly wrong, so the on-call veterinarian, Dan Dalgard, contacted experts at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, about an hour away. The virologist at USAMRIID, Peter Jahrling, “was surprised and annoyed when, the next day, a few bits of frozen meat from Monkey O53 arrived at the Institute, brought by courier. What annoyed him was the fact that the bits of meat were wrapped in aluminum foil, like pieces of leftover hot dog. … [T]he ice around [the monkey meat] was tinged with red and had begun to melt and drip.” If either party had suspected a filovirus was in play, strict isolation precautions would have been used, but they weren’t. Anyone who had any contact with the monkeys or samples—those who fed the monkeys and cleaned the cages, the veterinarians, the courier—could have been infected with the virus.

In striking detail, Preston describes the process of, and the people involved in, the diagnosis and the eventual disposition of the 450 monkeys housed in the building. Once you start reading, you will not want to put the book down.

There are other sections in The Hot Zone besides “The Monkey House.” Part 1, “The Shadow of Mount Elgon,” describes the 1980 infection and death of a Marburg virus patient, called Charles Monet in the book, a Frenchman who lived in Kenya. He and a friend took a New Year’s Day trip to nearby Kitum Cave. Preston describes the beauty of the African land and shows how interesting the cave—in a bat-filled, petrified rain forest—must have been. About a week after the cave exploration, Monet got a headache. He spiked a fever, became nauseated, and his personality changed. I will leave it to the reader to read how his transformation continues; the text is absolutely not for the faint of heart.

Check the WRL catalog for The Hot Zone

WRL also owns The Hot Zone as an ebook.

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