The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight

The Gang That Wouldn't Write StraightThe Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight
Marc Weingarten
Three Rivers Press, March 25, 2010, 338 pages
Amazon Kindle edition $4.99

I learned of this book in another book that included it in its references and bibliography. It was a fun and entertaining read.

The bulk of the book is about the new journalism of the sixties and seventies. The author goes into detail about writers such as Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson (friends and rivals) as well as the editor/publishers, such as Clay Felker and Jann Wenner, who bankrolled and supported them. Fascinating stuff.

But in the beginning of the book Weingarten takes pains to point out that Tom Wolf and his generation did not invent the new journalism, a methodology in which the writer inserts him or her self into the story rather that trying to remain objective. He describes how Charles Dickens did it in the nineteenth century and George Orwell did the same in the first half of the twentieth century.

At the end of the book the author describes how Felker for the most part, though not entirely, abandoned new journalism in New York magazine in favor of lifestyle stories catering to the Manhattan wealthy, and then in his overreach lost the magazine to Rupert Murdoch.

This is a fascinating read for anyone interested in twentieth century American journalism.


Modern Lovers

Modern Lovers coverModern Lovers
Emma Straub
Riverhead Books (May 31, 2016), 366 pages
Kindle edition $7.99, Amazon paperback $11.31

I find “college friends” novels hard to resist so I bought this one. It was actually quite engaging.

Elizabeth, Andrew, Zoe, and Lydia had a band in college, for which Elizabeth wrote many of the songs. Lydia was the face of the band, but met with an untimely death.

When the novel takes place Elizabeth and Andrew are married and living in Brooklyn. Elizabeth is a real estate agent. Andrew is living off of his family’s money. Harry is a high school senior trying to figure out college.

Zoe lives a couple of blocks away and is married to her lover Jane. The two women own a restaurant and have a daughter named Ruby who is a year older than Harry and did not get in to any of the colleges to which she applied. The novel is about the interactions among these people and the crises that they encounter. Lydia is very much present in the book, even though she is long departed.

I think I’ll leave it there. If you enjoy the college buddy ensemble genre this one is well worth reading.


Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo DaVinci coverLeonardo da Vinci
Walter Isaacson
Simon & Schuster, 624 pages (October 17, 2017)
Kindle edition $16.99, Amazon hardcover $20.32

Walter Isaacson is a superb biographer and chronicler of nonfiction, and his latest book, Leonardo da Vinci is no exception. Not only is it well written and engaging, but it is painstakingly researched. Much of the detail in this biography comes from Leonardo’s notebooks, to which Isaacson was given access. He also uses a variety of other sources, both contemporary or near-contemporary, as well as modern. He makes sure that conflicting scholarly perspectives are given fair attention.

There is a lot to learn about Da Vinci in this book. He has the surname he does because he originally came from the town of Vinci. He was illegitimate and his father never chose to legitimize him, which he could have done. That’s probably a good thing, because Da Vinci’s father was a notary and had he been legitimized Da Vinci would probably have been expected to take up that profession. He was gay, and he had a couple of male companions whom he supported throughout much of his life.

Painting was not his first love. He conceived of a variety of different machines, many of which were designed to assist whichever city-state was his current employer to be more effective in the execution of warfare. Most were fanciful; a few were actually built. One of his first jobs for the autocratic Duke of Milan was as an impresario and designer of court pageants. He missed deadlines and often failed to complete works.

Leonardo was a complex man and Isaacson does justice to that complexity. If you find Da Vinci interesting this book will be well worth your time.


NPR comes through again

Book ConciergeA few years back National Public Radio came up with an amazing innovation to allow book lovers to browse the best books of the year. Rather than simply present a list of their picks for the year’s best books, it developed NPR’s Book Concierge.

And now they have released their 2017 Book Concierge. Such a delight! NPR compiled what it considered to be the best books of the year and then labeled each book with one or more categories. Categories include things like Staff Picks, Biography & Memoir, Historical Fiction, etc.

What is great is that you can mix and match categories. So, for example, you can select Eye-Opening Reads and Historical Fiction to get the books that are tagged as both. Or you could select Biography & Memoir along with Seriously Great Writing.

It’s a lot of fun and a great way to select the next book you want to read. If you’re a book lover you’ll want to check it out.


The Futures

The Futures coverThe Futures
Anna Pitoniak
Lee Boudreaux Books (January 17, 2017), 320 pages
Kindle edition $12.99, Amazon hardcover $14.95

I returned to the world of fiction for this one.

In this novel Julia and Evan are in a relationship at Yale. Julia is from a Boston blue blood family. Evan is a hockey player from a small town in Canada. As graduation rolls around Evan has lined up a job with a brokerage house in New York City while Julia is at loose ends. Not having a lot of options, Julia moves in to Evan’s apartment.

We know from the outset that the relationship is in trouble. Julia tells us that directly in the prologue. In alternating chapters narrated by Julia and Evan we learn of their struggles. The brokerage firm deals with the effects of the Great Recession and Julia finds a job at a non-profit organization through connections her parents had. Evan becomes involved in business dealings that are not only questionable, but downright illegal. Julia is inadvertently (or not) responsible for those dealings being exposed.

Both people make mistakes and both make bad decisions. Each had betrayed the other, as Evan’s friend Arthur pointed out. The book ends a little too neatly and neither Evan nor Julia seem to have to pay for their actions.

Nonetheless, I was carried along by the book and its narrative. The Futures is not a “page turner” in the conventional sense, but I kept turning the pages wanting to know what would happen to the characters next.


Crucible of Faith

Crucible of Faith coverCrucible of Faith: The Ancient Revolution That Made Our Modern Religious World
Philip Jenkins
Basic Books (September 19, 2017), 296 pages
Kindle edition $19.99, Amazon hardcover $19.45

This is a fascinating book by the author of The Lost History of Christianity, which I very much enjoyed.

In the present volume author Philip Jenkins discusses the period between the final books of the Old Testament and the first books of the New Testament. He describes how ideas like our modern conceptions of Satan and the end times developed after the Old Testament was closed out and before the New Testament began to be written. In fact, Jenkins does write both about books of the Old Testament and books of the New Testament. His main focus, however, is the period of these “crucible years,” as he calls them. He defines this as the period between 250 and 50 BCE.

Jenkins takes the perspective that the Qumran sect (responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls) arose in protest against the Hasmonean priest-kings (the Hasmoneans arising from the Maccabees who took back the temple from the Seleucids). He sees the Qumran sect as being different from the Essenes, though many scholars believe the Qumran group was the Essene sect. In addition to Satan and the end times Jenkins points out that angels appear much more frequently in the writing of the crucible years than in Old Testament writings.

There is a lot more material as well, so if this is a topic that interests you I highly recommend Crucible of Faith.


Improbable Destinies

Improbable Destinies coverImprobable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution
Jonathan B. Losos
Riverhead Books (August 8, 2017),  382 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $13.32

It was kind of a synchronistic event that I came across this book. I was driving home from Toastmasters on a Thursday shortly after 1:00 pm listening to my regional NPR station. Normally another program was on at that hour, but for some reason they were broadcasting a segment of All Things Considered. Host Robert Siegel mentioned the name Stephen Jay Gould, of whom he said he was a fan. He then introduced Jonathan Losos, who grew up reading Gould and became a student of his.

I remember Stephen Jay Gould from the 1970’s and 1980’s when I avidly read his column in Natural History magazine as well as his books. Gould was an evolutionary biologist whom we lost way too soon in 2002. He had what were at the time some rather revolutionary theories about evolution. He was one of the first to propose the evolutionary link between dinosaurs and birds, now a widely accepted theory. He was also a proponent of “punctuated equilibrium” which stated that species generally remained stable, except for bursts of rapid change.

In the present book Losos describes his own current work and that of colleagues. Much of evolutionary theory has gone beyond Gould. One popular theory is “convergent evolution” which states “related species are more likely to convergently evolve the same traits when faced with similar selective pressures.” Take the body types of sharks and dolphins for example. The other theory presented here is that evolution can be rapid when environmental circumstances dictate.

At times the deluge of examples became a bit tedious, but in general this was fascinating reading. As Losos tells us near the end of the book, “At the end of the day, we know that evolution is not random or haphazard.”