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Professors' Picks Podcast
Ridinger, Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric Dyson, Review (March 2022)
The contemporary dialogue on systemic racism within the society of the United States has entered a period marked by direct definition of white privilege, the practices used to oppress the black community it enables, and energetic pursuit of challenges to them in the public sector in both print and online media. While many of the books written as part of this newly-engaged in conversation center on redressing specific injustices, few take as thoughtful and comprehensive of an approach as Michael Eric Dyson’s Tears We Cannot Stop. Dyson, who is an ordained minister and longtime member of the Sociology faculty at Georgetown University, shapes his message on the state of race in America within a familiar framework of moral discussion, setting each topic as a section of a formal worship service. The text offers a powerfully fluid and clear expression of concepts many readers often find confusing, done within what Dyson describes as “a pedagogy of the problematic” (99). The sermon addresses issues tied to the basic definition of white identity and privilege (and how it/they are conflated with the national identity of America), the role of the police as viewed from within the black community (and the implications of generations of distrust for effective police reforms), questions of language, the politics of whiteness, and the idea of white innocence and how it perpetuates itself. Dyson speaks from his heart and spirit to the hearts and minds of his fellow citizens and challenges everyone to come together to create and nurture hope and a truer future free of many-leveled prejudices. The interwoven and inseparable nature of the racism bond that joins white and black America in dialogue is summarized by Dyson in the following words:
“Like it or not, black humanity has been, and continues to be, the only salvation white American humanity has . . . We have given this country the spiritual will and the moral maturity it lost in the bitter divorce of principle and practice. Our nation can only reach its best destiny when that recognition grounds our shared existence” (142).
This is a book to be read and savored; although written in 2017, before the events of January 6, 2021, its commentary remains relevant.
Ridinger, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells, Review (July 2021)
The sheer number and variety of sources of data on the current process of climate change makes it difficult for any reader to comprehend the information landscape of this rapidly evolving literature. In The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, journalist David Wallace-Wells has synthesized a readable and detailed review of the complex body of significant publications, websites and online media produced from a wide range of scientific and political perspectives on climate change and their interrelationships. His text opens with a thoughtful exploration of the speed and impact of the cascading climate events that have shaped and are shaping the ways humans describe and attempt to define warming and its consequences—an ongoing debate that ranges from minimizing the dangers to refusing to plan cogent action in favor of adapting to a world already in flux.
In the second section, he arranges the data into what he terms twelve specific “elements of chaos”—heat death, hunger, drowning, wildfire, freshwater drain, disasters no longer natural, dying oceans, unbreathable air, plagues of warming, economic collapse, climate conflict, and the effect of planetary warming on systems as varied as the human body and mind and social orders struggling to adapt.
The third section, “climate kaleidoscope” moves from looking at demonstrable categories of environmental change occasioned by planetary warming to six cultural responses to them generated by human society. The first, “Storytelling,” examines the way contemporary film, fiction, and nonfiction attempt variously to convey human reactions to and perceptions of the nature of global change. “Storytelling” is followed by “Crisis Capitalism,” which considers the capitalist economic model and its survivability within a continually altering planet. The third and fourth essays explore the realistic and theoretical options offered by technology and the political role consumption of resources does and will play. A question not usually associated with climate change, how such a force will impact how we conceptualize the interwoven ideas of history and progress, is the subject of the fifth section. And the ways an emerging range of writers is attempting to craft ethical codes humans may use to philosophically frame a radically altered future are presented in the last essay, “Ethics at the End of the World.” In the closing essay on “The Anthropic Principle,” the author frankly states the core of the problem: “The path we are on as a planet should terrify anyone living on it, but, thinking like one people, all the relevant inputs are within our control, and there is no mysticism required to interpret or command the fate of the earth. Only an acceptance of responsibility” (p. 226).
Ridinger, The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World by Catherine Nixey, Review (February 2021)
The ending of the classical civilization of the later Roman empire, between the fourth and sixth centuries C.E., is often portrayed as due to multiple causes including a series of military reverses culminating in repeated barbarian invasions, natural disasters, and the loss of political independence. Less frequently explored are the deliberate efforts made to extinguish the institutions of the multicultural Roman society and its complex polytheistic religions conducted by both the emperors and the leaders of the newly-legalized and politically correct Christian church. Times arts journalist and trained classicist Catherine Nixey begins her look at this unfamiliar historical thread with the closure of the School of Athens in 529 AD under an edict of the Emperor Justinian that those who embraced paganism would no longer be allowed to teach. Her deftly written and highly readable account takes the reader into the mindset of the early Christians, who viewed the world as full of potential for evil in the persons of demons, the worst of whom were the traditional gods of the Roman pantheon, both small and large. The purpose of Christianity was to bring in the salvation of humanity, and the old ways were viewed as necessary to be replaced by conversion for the good of the people of the empire—often by force advocated and encouraged by the fiery sermons and authoritarian writings of such leaders as Augustine and John Chrysostom. Actions against the “pagans” could (and did) take the form of the prohibition and burning of books by authors who favored such controversial subjects as philosophy and science (scrolls often seized from their protesting owners), the destruction of temples, and the mutilation of statues by groups of the newly founded extremist ascetic monastic orders, and encouraging members of Christian congregations to watch their neighbors for any pagan practices. Nixey explores a side of history unfamiliar to most people by bringing back to life the protests and conflicts of a deliberate and targeted cultural genocide that cost later centuries much of the literature and arts of the Roman Empire and which has been little touched on or acknowledged since. If you think you know ancient history, this book will challenge many comfortable ideas.
Ridinger, In Praise of Wasting Time by Alan Lightman, Review (January 2021)
The idea that a basic and primary element of the universe which is infinite in nature can be wasted is one of the stranger products of human philosophical thinking, and one that is embedded in and maintained by various cultural forms. This short and smoothly written 2018 book by MIT physicist and novelist Alan Lightman takes up the challenge of extracting the concept of “wasting time” from contemporary society by examining its history, beginning with the use of time as a measurement of labor in the Industrial Revolution giving rise to the idea that “time is money.” The increase in the speed of communication and business (begun with the railroad and the telegraph and culminating in the evolving Internet) has exacted psychological costs and contributed to the loss of the valuing of quiet time over the last 50 years. The majority of the book looks in detail at these costs, revisiting what Lightman calls “the silences, the needed time for contemplation, the open spaces in our minds . . . the knowledge of who we are and what is important to us” (29). The fourth chapter on “Play” illustrates the function of play as a way of passing beyond imposed rules and strictures to a private world where imagination is completely released, a need present in both adults and children. It is complemented by the fifth chapter, “The Free-Grazing Mind,” a deft exploration and synthesis of a body of diverse scientific research (both historical and contemporary) on the complex processes of creativity in “a mind that has unplugged from the wired world” (53). The next chapter on “Downtime and Replenishment” speaks to meditation and quiet time as ways of attaining distances from the world, and describes mental downtime as “having the space and freedom to wander about the vast hallways of memory and contemplate who we are . . . when we can ponder our past and imagine our future . . . when we can repair our selves” (65). Returning to the concept of time itself and the pace of life dictated by it, Lightman sets out different categories of time as used in ancient Greece and Rome and contrasts Western civilization’s acceptance of time as linear and unchanging with the nonlinear view of time held by many other nations. He observes that “attitudes about time regulate life, and the rhythms of life regulate attitudes about time” (77) and traces the idea that wasting time is sinful back to the influential Westminster Shorter Catechism written in 1646-1647, whose sixty-first question speaks of “profaning the day by idleness” (80). The title of the final section, “Half-Mind,” is based upon a recommendation made in 2016 by Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson that half of the planet’s surface be designated as conservation land. Lightman draws a parallel with Wilson, stating that “the destruction of our inner selves via the wired world is an even more recent phenomenon, and one more subtle than the destruction of the natural world” (84). He then offers suggestions for beginning a dialogue on developing new habits of mind where quiet, silences and meditation are built back into the ways of thought humans use to structure their world. The book’s length may be short, but it will inspire its readers to continuing a conversation with quiet and what it can teach.
Ridinger, Giants of the Monsoon Forest: Living and Working with Elephants by Jacob Shell, Review
The “monsoon forest” of the title lies at the intersection of the eastern end of the Himalayas with the Patkai Hills of northern Burma, one of the wettest regions on the planet, where each year heavy rains transform the landscape into a world where modern technologies of travel are severely limited. Yet, within this landscape, a distinctive interspecies relationship has existed for millennia between the Asian forest elephants and the men who catch, train, and work with them in areas as varied as teak logging and providing reliable transportation for the local population. Geographer Jacob Shell, of Temple University, who began visiting the region in 2013 to explore this striking partnership of humans with a threatened species, discusses the elephants’ demonstrated cognitive abilities (such as being able to learn commands in more than one language) and problem-solving behaviors involving balancing logs, unpicking logjams, fording and swimming in rivers, and identifying dangers in their environment). Shell notes that with their mahouts’ assistance, elephants can gain access to separated forest environments divided by developed lands, thus preserving the genetic diversity and health of both domesticated and wild elephant populations. Subjects explored are the mahouts’ social worlds of forest camps and village, and the adaptability of elephant routes to shifting monsoon transportation needs. An unusual inclusion is a comparative history of elephant domestication in the classical civilizations of Meroe, Egypt, and Carthage, and its decline by the end of the first century due to climate change and the retreat of the African elephant south of the expanding Sahara and the contraction of the range of the Asian elephant eastwards. Contemporary Burma’s environmental pressure on acreages of undeveloped forest cover poses challenges to the use of elephants, and Shell presents a proposal to have them work in flood relief to preserve these unique interspecies teams and keep this cultural development alive in changing times. His analysis also evaluates the effectiveness of game preserves and tourist centers that host elephants (as well as the logging industry) in providing long-term social and genetic advantages for the Asian elephants’ survival. Recent use of elephants in flood relief work in the Sumatran city of Banda Aceh after the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004/2005 and possibilities of their use in the Sultanate of Brunei are offered as examples of how this joint adaptation of two major species may survive and prosper.
Ridinger, Empress: Queen Victoria and India by Miles Taylor Review (October 2020)
Of all threads of story that have been woven around the reign of Queen Victoria, her relationship to individual nations of the Empire is perhaps less known than is warranted. Historian Miles Taylor has tackled this complex question, examining the Queen’s long involvement with India in a smoothly written account that should be read slowly to savor its wealth of detail. A wide variety of sources include colonial government documents of the Raj, Parliamentary debates and Acts pertaining to India, and the immense body of literary and journalistic publications produced in India by both public and private sources addressing the Queen in some fashion, down to poems written to her. Taylor examines three major themes—first, the development of Victoria’s active participation with and interest in all matters Indian; the many uses, made by the government of India, of the name and fame of the Queen; and the diverse ways representations of the Queen diffused throughout India’s complex political culture. Coverage begins with her accession in 1837 and traces her presence up to and beyond Indian independence in 1947. Particular attention is paid to the legacy of the Government of India Act of 1858, which transferred authority from the East India Company to the Crown. It was viewed by many as a Magna Carta for India, with its provisions for equality, and was frequently invoked across the subsequent decades by activists. Among the topics explored are the relationship of the British with native states and their rulers (both via treaty and reaching to the adoption of two Indian royals into the court at Windsor), ethnicity and how it was managed, Hindu and Muslim views of the Queen, her support among and identification with causes aiding Indian women, and the Identification of Victoria with technological development projects, such as railways and modernization. Separate consideration is given to the significance of tours by members of the royal family to India and how the Queen’s Golden Jubilee of 1887 and the Diamond Jubilee of 1897 were celebrated there. All illustrations (a select mixture of photographs, paintings, drawings—some done by the Queen—and artifacts) are in black and white. Following the shifting interaction of two powerfully distinct cultures through the life of Queen Victoria makes for fascinating reading.
Ridinger, The Second Kind of Impossible by Paul J. Steinhardt, Review (October 2020)
The idea that there could be unknown forms of matter on Earth that the basic tenets of a discipline have classified as “impossible”—and yet have been found—underlies this fascinating account by a Princeton faculty member. The opening chapters provide readable background on the history of crystallography and introduces the principle of symmetry: the idea that all crystals are periodic arrangements of atoms and that there is a finite number of symmetries that can be used to categorize all crystal forms—five, in fact. The substance of the book begins with Steinhardt’s discovery of a mineral that exhibited one of the forbidden forms of symmetry and his investigations that ultimately led to the definition of a new form of matter, the quasicrystal. The journey to prove the reality of this new substance involves delving into the politics of science, international travel, electron microscopes, exploring Kamchatka, meteorites, mosquitoes, and speculation about the nature of the early universe. Illustrations are clearly linked to the text and well-labeled. This is science writing at its best.
McGowan, Blowout by Rachel Maddow, Review (April 2020)
The Haiku Review
Oil CEOs and Governments: How to ruin a nation and a world
Eco crisis, poverty --
Thugs, Trump, Putin win.
In Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth Rachel Maddow trains her gaze on the US born industry’s damage to good government around the globe. She suggests that the industry’s damage to good government, by which she means transparent and legitimate democracy, has resulted in both environmental catastrophe and the impoverishment of the world’s population.
The crony capitalism she describes makes government the handmaid of industry rather than placing government in a position to regulate and control an industry within its jurisdiction. She provides examples of this corruption within the US at the federal, state and local levels. She shows this control extends even to leaders of cultural institutions -- for example the University of Oklahoma wanted to suppress the scientific findings of its faculty that hydraulic fracturing causes earthquakes. She also goes beyond US borders to Russia, Ukraine, and Equatorial Guinea, among others to consistently expose the standard operating procedures of this industry as anti-democratic, impoverishing and bad for the environment.
The corruption she describes functions as a natural element of capitalism and the profit motive. When capitalism is unrestrained, when an industry as large as the multinational Exxon, an individual country’s guiding principles cease to matter. An individual country may endorse human rights or sustainability, but these are immaterial to the industry, whose end is uncompromising gain. Thus, she suggests that a multinational like Exxon creates its own foreign policy that is based on profit alone. She suggests that the only power that can contain such ruthless industry is a democracy with an engaged citizenry.
Ridinger, Who We Are and How We Got Here by David Reich, Review (April 2020)
The investigation of the complex types of evidence of the lives and cultures of ancient human populations retrieved by archaeology has long employed a variety of analytic techniques drawn from other scientific disciplines, ranging from radiocarbon dating to pollen analysis. In Who We Are and How We Got Here, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and one of the pioneer researchers in analyzing ancient human DNA presents a readable treatment of the history of the development of the field of DNA genomics and its practical scientific applications in uncovering events in the recent human past not possible to identify by other means. The first section, “The Deep History of Our Species,” begins with the sequencing of the human genome in 2001 and reviews how the whole genome perspective can be applied to retrieve events in human species history which have left no other trace and in the process unveil the complex and repeated mixing of diverse human groups over millennia. The results of applying genome analysis to outline specific regional pasts are then reviewed for the Neanderthals and Denisovans of Eurasia, the deep biological prehistory of India, and the developing picture of the many migrations which formed the populations of Africa. Reich also explores more subtle questions of social inequality, mutation and pathogen evolution, race and identity (and demonstrates how they too leave an imprint in the human genetic story). His observation that “Language has to adapt to discuss genetic differences between people at a time when scientific developments have finally provided the tools to detect them” (253) is very apt, given the popularity of and problems with commercial DNA analysis.
McGowan, Varina by Charles Frazier, Review (April 2020)
The evening of her days: a lesson for the wife of President of Confederacy
First Lady Davis
learns good will is not enough
to avoid evil.
This novel is set in 1906 as a series of conversations that took place on six different Sundays between Varina Howell Davis, aka the first lady of the Confederacy, and an African American teacher, James Blake. At a far remove from the Civil War, Blake has come looking for Davis because for about a year of his life, near the end of the war and in its immediate aftermath, Varina had cared for him as one of her own children.
This relationship did exist. Varina Howell Davis, wife, then widow of Jefferson Davis, did adopt a mulatto boy of about five years of age near the end of the war after she saw him being beaten by his caretaker. Davis kept him with her until she and her entourage were apprehended en route to Havana upon their flight from Richmond at the end of war. While I am no scholar of the Civil War, from my research the major events the book records of Howell Davis’s life are accurately depicted. The meeting and conversations are the work of fiction.
The conversations between the two of them revolve around Blake’s need to know why she cared for him, what prompted her rescue of him, and to find someone who remembers him before he can remember himself. Howell Davis is living at a sort of asylum where she hopes to wean herself from her life-long addiction to opiates. Together they review her life from the time her relationship with Jeff Davis began, all through the period of the war, and her life after the war. What she discovers is self-delusion, her inability to see her own complicity and guilt, and her attempts at atonement. He discovers a complex woman only partially in control of her own life, most of which was shaped by happenstance, the strange choice to marry at eighteen, a friend of her father’s nearly twice her age. Wonderfully written and moving.
McGowan, Invisible Women: Data Bias in A World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado-Perez, Review (April 2020)
Invisible Women – an addendum to Beauvoir’s The Second Sex
Of humans, women remain
The NYT recently hosted a podcast titled “Gender and Covid-19" and invited Caroline Criado-Perez, author of Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, to be one of their discussants. The podcast focused on the differences in the effects COVID-19 has on men and women. In that conversation, we learned that women’s immune systems are more active than men’s, consequently their response to vaccines are generally stronger, and that women are more subject to auto-immune diseases. This information could be part of the reason that COVID-19 kills more men than women. Given that information about the immune system and that the medical establishment is working furiously on a vaccine for the virus, one would expect that all testing would disaggregate between the sexes. Yet, while men and women are physically different, Criado-Perez argues that these differences are rarely studied, that they are not being studied in our current crisis.
This lack of examination is what Criado-Perez names in her book – the data gender bias, and she argues that it extends to every aspect of our lives. To support this position, she examines six areas of life, providing between two and five specific examples of women’s erasure in each of them. She begins with daily life: her first segment takes something as seemingly neutral as winter snow removal and provides clear evidence that clearing roads before sidewalks in Scandanavia privileges men’s needs over women’s as men drive more frequently than women, while women walk with children and are more likely to take public transportation. She moves from that example to discussing issues of bathroom design and its inequity as evidenced in every public event.
The other areas she dips into, the workplace, design of tools and clothes, medicine, the erasure of women from public life including economic erasure of the value of women’s work, and catastrophes, each provides examples as startling as the those she began with. In short, just when you thought you understood the contours of a sexist world, Criado-Perez exposes new universes of inequity. Eye-opening, thought-provoking, and at times, infuriating. A must read.
Phares, Tokyo Ueno Station by Miri Yū, Review (February 2020)
Miri Yū’s short novel, Tokyo Ueno Station (2019)—like the Bong Joon-ho’s Academy Award-winning film, Parasite—is intensely focused on family, class, place, and the ways that all the ingenuity and hard work in the world cannot make up for horrifyingly bad fortune.
The protagonist of Tokyo Ueno Station, Kazu Mori, is a man seemingly born under an ill-fated star—he is forced to leave his home in Fukushima in order to support his extended family and, as a result, he is entirely alienated from them. After a series of tragedies reveal the utter futility of the decades he has spent toiling and struggling for others, Mori simply disappears from his old life, taking up “residence” in Tokyo’s Ueno Imperial Gift Park alongside the other men and women who have slipped off the ladder of success. Virtually invisible to the people moving through the park on their way to museums, universities, shops, offices, and the train station, Mori and his fellow park-dwellers hear and see all. At the center of the novel is the notion that there are two distinct worlds running parallel to each another: one of life and one of death; one of abundance and one of privation; one of placidity and one of struggle; one of progress and one of stasis. Mori and his son, Koichi, are contemporaries of Emperor Akihito and his son, the Crown Prince, but they share little else: though poverty and loss seems hereditary, just as inherited titles are.
Yū’s novel attempts to complicate the notion that there are simply strivers and skivers, acknowledging a system that allows some to prosper while others are destroyed by a divorce, a period of unemployment, or a sudden death. These ideas are obviously not new, but in Tokyo Ueno Station, they are backlit by the promise of prosperity associated with the period of modernization after the end of World War II and with the hosting of the Olympic Games, but they are also overshadowed by the threat of an earthquake a tsunami, and, ultimately, the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Tokyo Ueno Station suggests that some places are barren long before they are laid waste by large-scale catastrophes, and that some people disappear, little-by-little, throughout a lifetime not in a single dramatic moment.
Ridinger, This Land Is Our Land by Suketu Mehta, Review (January 2020)
Immigration has become a topic incessantly discussed in almost every forum on United States foreign policy and national identity, yet among the voices engaged in debate, that of the immigrant themselves is infrequently heard. In This Land Is Our Land, journalist Suketu Mehta offers a detailed, challenging, and thoroughly sane exploration of the historical forces driving migration (colonial legacies, wars, and climate change prominent among them), and the inaccurate populist myths and negative stereotypes that have been propagated by conservatives as to why migrants ought to be feared in every field—from education, economics, and crime to loss of culture. Yet, the facts demonstrate that migrants benefit the nations that welcome them. He notes that, "this book is being written in sorrow and rage—and hope . . . I am angry—about the staggering hypocrisy of the rich nations, having robbed the poor ones of their future, now arguing against a reverse movement of peoples—not to invade and conquer and steal, but to work. Angry at the ecological devastation that has been visited upon the planet by the West, and which now demands that the poor nations stop emitting carbon dioxide. Angry at the depiction of people like my family. And the other families that have continued in my family’s path, because they had no other choice, as freeloaders, drug dealers, and rapists. I’m tired of apologizing for moving. These walls, there borders between the people of the earth; they are of recent vintage, and they are flimsy" (8-9).
Ridinger, Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson, Review (November 2019)
Writing a biography of any well-known figure, historical or contemporary, means that the author attempts to blend two sets of expectations—his own and the silent witness of the woman or man whose life-tale is being unfolded for an unfamiliar audience. Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo Da Vinci does this in a flowing easily read account that reveals “ . . . the beauty of a universal mind as it wanders exuberantly in free-range fashion over the arts and sciences and by doing so, senses the connections in our cosmos” (108). Each chapter tells a detailed story of a stage in Leonardo’s life or traces one of his numerous threads of investigation, including optics, water, flight, mathematics, geology, sculpture and human anatomy. Individual paintings and their compositions, subject matter, and subsequent history are prominently featured, with three (The Virgin of the Rocks, The Last Supper, and The Mona Lisa) covered in separate chapters. From his boyhood in Italy to his death in France, the reader experiences the Renaissance world as Leonardo saw it and the joys and storms of his exceptional life.
Phares, The Capital by Robert Menasse, Review (November 2019)
Most novels, even ambitious and experimental ones, can be distilled into some articulable precis or synopsis. But all the parts of Robert Menasse’s 2017 novel, The Capital, only coalesce into a coherent whole once you read it. If you try to enumerate the various elements, it sounds like a muddled mess: it is a narrative focused on the stories—and backstories—of about a dozen characters who live, work, or are prevented from living or working, in the de facto capital of the European Union: Brussels. The world Menasse crafts is full of bullies and bureaucrats, idealists and ideologues, pragmatists and survivors, as well as dilettantes, murderers, and one renegade pig. The book is a wry satire that gets to the heart of the problem of a body like the EU—it is supposed to transcend self-interestedness and nationalism for the betterment of all, but it is constantly hampered by the desires of each member state to advocate for their own people and advance the agenda of their homelands, and so they often make decisions that benefit no one. While The Capital highlights the absurdity of the bureaucracy and in-fighting that the populace sees in the Union, it also pays homage to the core values of a confederation conceived in the aftermath of World War II and intended to ensure that racism and extreme nationalism would “never again” be left unchecked. Many strive to build a utopia, but pesky people get in the way. There is a great deal of dark humor in this book—and Brexit is a frequent target of derision—but the central characters and their complex lives are neither scorned nor dismissed. While often misguided and not fully aware of their own motivations, they try to make a better world: sadly, they are utterly stuck in this one. The Capital is not an easy book, because it deals with issues that do not have easy solutions and it is rendered in a narrative style that asks a great deal from the reader. But it is work worth doing and a work worth reading.
Phares, The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone, Review (Novermber 2019)
The “Woman” of the title is Elizebeth Smith Friedman—a Quaker school-teacher who was recruited by eccentric Chicagoland tycoon, George Fabyan, to look for secret messages in the works of William Shakespeare. While working and living at his Riverbank Laboratories (in Geneva, Illinois), she met her husband, William Friedman— who is often regarded as the father of the National Security Agency. During both World Wars, the couple worked for the War Department, deciphering Axis messages, and ultimately helping to break the codes associated with the German Engima and Japanese Purple machines. Elizebeth also tracked smugglers during Prohibition and uncovered a Nazi spy ring in South America. But she made an enemy of J. Edgar Hoover, and he and others took credit for her work—even though she was responsible for the training of all the cryptographers at the FBI, CIA, and the NSA in the early days. For decades she was treated as simply “Mrs. William Friedman,” when, in actuality, she was an influential and valuable figure in her own right. While Fagone presents this remarkable and fascinating life as a series of adventures and puzzles, he also takes the time to put them in a larger context: first, by actually grappling with the code and trying to unpack it, and then by problematizing a system based on deception and concealment—and ultimately surveillance. Elizebeth Smith Friedman and her husband become complex figures in a complex post-war world where what initially looks like plucky determination is muddied by a morally nebulous intelligence apparatus. While there are certainly elements of John le Carré and Ken Follett, it is hard not the read The Woman Who Smashed Codes through the prism of Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and other figures who have brought attention to mass surveillance. Fagone invites these connections but leaves it up to the reader to judge whether the good outweighs the bad and whether the Friedmans would be proud that a building at the NSA bears their names.
Ridinger, Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve by Stephen Greenblatt, Review (October 2019)
It is a story instantly recognized wherever it appears- the first man and woman within and outside of the Garden of Eden, the forbidden fruit, and the loss of Paradise for the real world of work and pain as the cost of gaining the knowledge of good and evil. In The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stephen Greenblatt traces the complicated history of its origins and cultural impact from the ancient world to the nineteenth century. The opening chapter examines origin stories in the literatures of Sumeria and Babylonia (the tales of Atrahasis and The Epic of Gilgamesh) and discusses their influence on the writing of the Book of Genesis during the Babylonian Captivity by exiled Hebrew scribes. The classical world’s responses range from the widely-read first-century Greek book The Life of Adam and Eve to the theologies of Saint Augustine. Medieval paintings and woodcarvings presented varied images of the first humans, marked by a gradual transformation emphasizing their mortal flaws and emotions. Even popular political slogans drew on their presence in Christian culture, perhaps the most colorful example coined by John Ball in 1381 during the Peasant’s Rebellion in England. Greenblatt traces in detail how many of the most creative talents of recent centuries engaged with the demanding imagery of the story of Eden, among them Albrecht Durer, John Milton (a lengthy treatment of the focus on Adam and Eve in his life and writings, especially Paradise Lost), Voltaire, Joseph Smith, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, and Charles Darwin. Among the more unusual writers whose work is noted are Isaac La Peyrere (proponent of the idea that there were, as his book title says, Men Before Adam, a theory he was forced to recant) and Pierre Bayle, the 1697 author of A Historical and Critical Dictionary (at 6 million words the longest piece of scholarship to include an entry on Adam and Eve). Appendices provide samples of Christian and Rabbinical interpretations of the story from the first to twenty-first centuries and comparative stories of the beginning from ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, North America, Melanesia, Siberia and Tierra del Fuego. The sheer power of presence generated by Adam and Eve, however described across the centuries, makes for fascinating reading.
Ridinger, The Water Will Come by Jeff Goodell, Review (September 2019)
There is no longer any question that the climate of our planet is changing-and that coming generations will know a world different from our own-what remains to be decided is what options are available or can be created to adapt to the new conditions- and if humanity can prove its adaptability once again. One of the most basic consequences of the global warming is the increasingly melting of the polar ice in both hemispheres and the rise in ocean levels. The Water Will Come profiles both the basic processes generating sea level rise (together with its impacts on regional ecosystems and geology) and a complex variety of responses to it in a clear and engaging style. Some ideas are already in place or being tested at various sites around the world and others spelled out in reports commissioned by government at all levels from the coastal towns impacted by Hurricane Sandy to federal agencies and the United Nations. Topics examined include the retreat of glaciers in Greenland, how cities such as Venice, Miami, Lagos, Nigeria, Norfolk, Virginia, and New York City are exploring technologies to cope with changed climate conditions, the fates of island nations, and the complexities of world environmental change as a political factor. If you read only one book on the environment this year, make it this one.
Ridinger, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Review (September 2019)
Science books written for a popular audience became a well-established genre in the twentieth century with authors such as Loren Eiseley, Isaac Asimov and the late Carl Sagan taking readers into the depths of many different fields. Neil deGrasse Tyson continues this tradition in his newest book by tackling the complex and often confusing field of astrophysics. His approach is clearly stated in the dedication “for all those who are too busy to read fat books, yet, nonetheless seek a conduit to the cosmos.” Starting with the birth of the universe in the “Big Bang” and the creation of the first elements and stars, he readably explores topics ranging from the physical laws of the cosmos, dark matter and energy, asteroids, and exoplanets and the search for life to the evolution of galaxies. One of the more unexpected chapters is a complete tour of the periodic table of elements. “Reflections on the Cosmic Perspective,” an essay offering Tyson’s thoughts on how human lives can be viewed within the vastnesses of the universe closes the book.
Ridinger, A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived by Adam Rutherford, Review (September 2019)
Human genetics research as a part of the array of techniques which can be applied to unravelling the past history of the planet is both fascinating and complex. The author of this book, British science writer and broadcaster Adam Rutherford, makes this challenging subject very accessible through a clear writing style that presents technical information in a deft manner touched with a dry humor. Beginning with the origin of the species Homo sapiens , the discussion moves over a wide range of subjects, from Neanderthal man and the peopling of Europe ( with reportage on several genetic studies done on the population of Great Britain ) to the evidence for humanity’s arrival in the Americas and more recent cases of forensic genomic use such as the identification of the body of King Richard III and efforts to apply genetics to the still-unsolved killings of Jack the Ripper. This is a book to read slowly and savor the arguments made and data presented. Rutherford takes care throughout the book to emphasize the complex nature of genetic analysis and to debunk popular notions of what human genomics can and cannot achieve.
Ridinger, Mask of the Sun by John Dvorak, Review (September 2019)
Of all the natural wonders presented by the solar system, eclipses are among the most striking and memorable events humanity has witnessed over the millennia. Explanations for their causes and significance have ranged from complex astrological calculations to the anger of the Roman gods and two invisible planets in Hindu mythology. It is this fascinating field of scientific history that astronomer John Dvorak sets out in Masks of the Sun. His highly readable account begins with a story about an expedition chasing the eclipse shadow in 1925 with equipment mounted in the zeppelin Los Angeles, then shifts to the basic elements of the solar and lunar eclipse cycle as known in cultures as distinct as ancient Mexico, Babylon and Greece, medieval England, imperial China and even a bit of backstairs intrigue in Vatican City. Dvorak explores the questions of planetary dynamics related to the occurrence and prediction eclipses within the work of scientists such as Isaac Newton and Edmund Halley (of comet fam ) among them the investigations of the solar corona and its nature and the decades-long search for a world circling the Sun inside the orbit of Mercury (given the name Vulcan) that eventually proved fruitless. The last section notes the then-future 2017 solar eclipse whose track would cross southern Illinois. An appendix includes “An Eclipse Primer” and a map showing the total solar eclipses that will occur across the United States up to the year 2050.
Phares, Warlight by Michael Ondaatje, Review (August 2019)
Michael Ondaatje’s 2018 novel, Warlight, follows the book’s narrator, Nathaniel Williams, on his journey into the past—as he not only probes his own hazy and oblique memories of an adolescence spent in post-World War II London, but attempts to uncover the fragmentary details about the most remote and enigmatic figure in his life: his mother, Rose. At the start of the novel, we are told that in 1945, Nathaniel and his older sister, Rachel, are essentially abandoned by their parents—left in the care of a motley band of nonconformists, petty miscreants, and shadow-dwellers who offer freedom and exhilaration, but little security and virtually no answers to the questions Nathaniel poses: why did his parents leave? why were these criminals chosen as guardians? and, what did his mother do in the war? Warlight is a kind of coming-of-age novel, focusing, as it does, on Nathaniel and Rachel’s formative years. But it is also a thriller and a mystery novel. It is a surprising blend of Charles Dickens, Raymond Chandler, and John le Carré that offers fantastically unique characters operating on the periphery—whether in the seedy criminal underworld or in the files of the security services. But it also has touches of the Gothic, with its emphasis on moody landscape, abandoned spaces, and self-contained worlds. And ghosts do haunt the narrative—but they are specters born of loneliness and longing—and Nathaniel hopes to exorcise the past by dragging them into the light. Ondaatje is probably best known for his Booker-Prize-winning 1992 novel, The English Patient, or for Coming Through Slaughter (1976)—which many consider his masterpiece. Warlight is less experimental, less dense than these works, but it is also more richly textured and more focused on character. While the narrator, Nathaniel, holds his story at a distance, the reader is bidden toward the warmth and radiance of Warlight—and toward a truth that is messy and incomplete, but brilliantly rendered.