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Contraband Cocktails: How America Drank When It Wasn't Supposed To
Contraband Cocktails: How America Drank When It Wasn't Supposed To
by Paul Dickson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $15.04
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Mixology History, with Recipes, May 4, 2016
It was called “The Noble Experiment” by some, and “The Methodist Hellenium” by others. Prohibition was imposed on the US from 1920 to 1933. Forbidding alcohol didn’t make alcohol any less available or drinking any less appealing, it caused distrust of government and amusement in how powerless government efforts were, and it famously accelerated organized crime. It didn’t make people stop drinking, but it changed the way they drank. The saloon was killed off, and the speakeasy and the cocktail bar were born, along with home bars equipped for making cocktails. A brief and informal history of prohibition, concentrating on the changes in drinking patterns and recipes, is _Contraband Cocktails: How America Drank When It Wasn’t Supposed To_ (Melville House) by Paul Dickson. It is lively and amusing, and ought to be of interest to plenty of people now that mixology is undergoing a revival. Here is how all those drinks started being mixed and especially shaken.

Speakeasies were platforms for social change, as Dickson tells it. Not only did they encourage jazz and swing music, but many were upscale places, smart clubs in which people gathered for the latest in drinks as well as music. The men in such clubs wore tuxes, and the women wore the new outfit, the cocktail dress, but new togs were not the only change for women. The bigger change was that they were there at all. Saloons had had only men as customers, but with speakeasies, there were no laws or traditions to follow. The new way of drinking advanced women’s rights, and the women were customers for an increasingly varied and fancy style of drinks. The reason for the move to mixed drinks was that the hooch available wasn’t as smooth or drinkable as had been available from the professional distillers before prohibition. Fuss a drink up with flavors and fruit juice, and shake it with ice, and it might not be half bad.

About a third of the book is devoted to “The Formulary - AKA ‘Liberty’s Libations.’” It includes recipes for drinks famous, infamous, and obscure. Some of the infamous ones bear a symbol “to signify that the drink is included for historic or literary reasons rather than as one that might be worthy of replication.” The reasons are spelled out in the “cultural context” section given for most of the drinks. You will find here how to make the favorite cocktails of various presidents, and W. C. Fields. Hilariously, the list does not include the “Cowboy Cocktail,” a concoction of iced Scotch and cream) described in _The Standard Bartender’s Guide_ of 1934, and included there for completeness, but therein listed as worthy of disapproval. The _Guide_ became such a bible in these matters that the recipe was included in subsequent guides from other sources and on web pages, but without any warning that the drink is terrible. I can’t say; I won’t be trying a Cowboy Cocktail or even the drinks listed here that are supposed to be good, since I never drink alcohol. (So maybe I am the wrong person to be reviewing this book; but it is good fun, and instructive, and if you do drink, I guess you will enjoy more than just the reading.) There is a teetotaler’s delight given here, “Mock Champagne,” made from grape juice and club soda, but I’ll just stick to orange juice.


Picture Titles: How and Why Western Paintings Acquired Their Names
Picture Titles: How and Why Western Paintings Acquired Their Names
by Ruth Bernard Yeazell
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $31.97
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5.0 out of 5 stars What's in a Name?, April 20, 2016
In _Life on the Mississippi_, Mark Twain digresses on the importance of titles of paintings, in particular while telling us about the picture “The Last Meeting of Lee and Jackson.” While acknowledging the picture’s importance because of its authentic portraits of the two men, Twain says the label is important to a historical picture, but only to get the personnel right, and he proposes other titles that would do just as well: “First Interview between Lee and Jackson”, “Last Interview between Lee and Jackson”, “Jackson Apologizing for a Heavy Defeat”, “Jackson Reporting a Great Victory”, or “Jackson Asking Lee for a Match”. Ruth Bernard Yeazell, in _Picture Titles: How and Why Western Paintings Acquired Their Names_ (Princeton University Press) doesn’t mention Twain’s thoughts on the arbitrariness of this picture’s title, but goes on to mention his further thoughts on a famous seventeenth century picture by Guido Reni of a young woman that bore the title, “Beatrice Cenci the Day before Her Execution”. Though even in Twain’s day the subject and the attribution of the artist of the picture were being questioned, people were still moved by Beatrice’s story of martyrdom and were even tearful before her portrait. It isn’t a sad picture; it merely shows a pretty young woman in a turban. “It shows what a label can do,” wrote Twain. “If they did not know the picture, they would inspect it unmoved and say, “Young girl with hay fever; young girl with her head in a bag.”

If he painted that picture, Reni didn’t give it its title. One of the surprises of Yeazell’s book is that artists didn’t get around to giving their pictures names routinely until the nineteenth century. Pictures were just pictures without titles, but by the eighteenth century, changes in displaying, inventorying, and selling pictures necessitated attaching names. Yeazell’s research shows that “middlemen” such as auctioneers and cataloguers were often responsible for titles now fastened firmly to their pictures. Other middlemen were the printmakers. Among the most successful printmakers in the eighteenth century was Jean Georges Wille in Paris, whose reproductions were found in homes all over Europe. One of the most famous was his print of a 1654 painting by Gerard ter Borch. Wille titled his 1765 engraving “L’instruction Paternelle” or “The Paternal Admonition.” He had interpreted the tableau of three figures - a young woman, a man who raises his hand in an ambiguous gesture, and an older woman sipping from a glass of wine - as a familial scene, and so his print got its title. When the print became famous, the name became attached to the painting from which it was drawn; Goethe himself composed a narrative inspired by the painting, but more by the title. We have, however, no way of knowing what ter Borch had in mind for that narrative behind the painting. Hilariously, the scholarly consensus of interpretation had shifted within the twentieth century. That was no father, mother, and daughter, but rather a client, procuress, and courtesan within an upscale bordello.

Obviously a title made a difference, though, and once titles did start getting fixed to paintings, artists wanted a say-so in the business. Yeazell’s final chapters are essays on how particular artists used, or failed to use, titles to explain, or obscure, their work. Picasso had little interest in titles, declaring that a painting could speak for itself. Whistler so disliked the idea of a title being fixed to the subject of a painting that he assigned his works musical titles, like “Symphony in White,” prompting _Punch_ to print a parody cartoon labeled “An Arrangement in Fiddle-de-dee.” René Magritte chose titles that would make his paintings even more strange. His famous declaration written below a painting of a pipe, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” is not the title of the picture, which is “La trahison des images” or “The Treachery of Images.” Let’s let Jackson Pollock have the last word in this review of Yeazell’s academic but entertaining work. He painted a colorful abstract and called it “Moby Dick.” Patron Peggy Guggenheim didn’t care for the title, and so a curator renamed the picture “Pasiphaë.” You can be excused for not knowing the derivation; Pasiphaë is far less famous than Moby Dick. She was the wife of King Minos who cuckolded him with a bull and gave birth to the Minotaur. Pollock acquiesced to the name change, but only after expressing surprise: “Who the hell is Pasiphaë?”


From the Shadows: The Architecture and Afterlife of Nicholas Hawksmoor
From the Shadows: The Architecture and Afterlife of Nicholas Hawksmoor
by Owen Hopkins
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $37.61
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Master of the English Baroque, March 29, 2016
The strange architecture of Nicholas Hawksmoor, particularly his churches in London, has survived neglect and the Blitz, but more importantly, they have survived their author’s disparaged reputation. The buildings and the reputation are the two subjects of _From the Shadows: The Architecture and Afterlife of Nicholas Hawksmoor_ (Reaktion Books) by architectural historian Owen Hopkins. Turning an architect’s reputation around takes several generations; for Hawksmoor, it took a couple of centuries for him to be recognized as one of the greatest and most original of English architects. Hopkins is a fan of the buildings, and is good at explaining how strange they are, and how they must have been especially so for Hawksmoor’s contemporaries. For us, they are old and come with the respect we attach to old buildings, although that respect was not always paid to these oddities. In a very peculiar outcome, Hawksmoor’s name has become famous because he has in the past few decades been fictionally depicted as a magus or occultist who instilled murky black magic into his buildings. The strange twists of fame are an important theme here.

Hawksmoor ought to be appreciated for his admirable factual characteristics. He learned his craft as a clerk to Christopher Wren. He designed six churches in London, which are the buildings most closely considered here. Hopkins traces the style of these buildings from the architecture of the Primitive Christians, through native British Gothic, although there are no flying buttresses or pointed arches. These are distinctly Baroque buildings. His master Christopher Wren produced Baroque with rationality; Hawksmoor is Baroque with mystery. There are weird shifts of arrangement or scale, and the masses and volumes are handled in novel ways. The buildings are not like any others, and the critics in Hawksmoor’s time and afterwards knew it. Before he died in 1736, the Palladians came into the architectural fashion of order and restraint, and condemned Hawksmoor’s work as eccentric, irrational, and capricious. Hawksmoor’s reputation fell, although the churches stood. In the twentieth century, British architects saw the buildings with new eyes, and set upon Hawksmoor’s rehabilitation. Many of the churches were lovingly restored. Hawksmoor had nothing to do with the occult, but fictional portraits of him in the novel _Hawksmoor_ and in the graphic novel _From Hell_ branded him that way, making him famous for wrong reasons.

The fictional (and fictitious) depiction of Hawksmoor points out that there is no other architect that might have been the starting point for such departures. “Few if any other architects have produced work that is so singular, so obviously out of the ordinary, so dominant over their murky and overlooked locations,” Hopkins writes. His book is full of pictures (of course, not enough) to illustrate his appreciation for the strange buildings and for the strange fate of the reputation of the architect. Hawksmoor’s reputation, readers of this admiring volume will agree, will never fall again.


Invisible Ink: My Mother's Love Affair With A Famous Cartoonist
Invisible Ink: My Mother's Love Affair With A Famous Cartoonist
by Bill Griffith
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.03
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5.0 out of 5 stars A Graphic Memoir of a Mystery Mother, March 25, 2016
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If you know the work of Bill Griffith, it is probably because you are familiar with his comic Zippy the Pinhead, one of the few survivors of the comix heyday of the early seventies to continue into daily syndication. Zippy might be known for his surreal take on popular culture and his non sequiturs, but Griffith often draws himself into the strip as a voice of cynical reason. Sometimes, given the free-form nature of the strip, there is no Zippy at all, just Griffith’s drawings and reflections about his upbringing and his past. You get the idea that he is trying to make sense of it all. He has now given us a graphic memoir, a full-scale book, to look at his mysterious family. _Invisible Ink: My Mother’s Secret Affair with a Famous Cartoonist_ (Fantagraphics Books) tells family secrets, some painful but some merely secret and now secret no longer. Along the way, Griffith rambles into some big and perplexing questions about art versus commerce, the place of women in American society before feminism, and the irresolvable mysteries of contingencies like what might have happened if he had started to draw Zippy with a specifically commercial purpose.

It all starts out with a letter from Griffith’s Uncle Alan who wonders if Griffith might come for a visit and also look through a box of memorabilia and things left by his mother after her death. It all did little to illuminate the life of Griffith’s dad, an uncommunicative and violent man who died in a bicycle accident. For sixteen of the years of her marriage, Griffith’s mother had had an affair with a striving and cultured cartoonist, Lawrence Lariar. She was smart, liked men, and liked to drink; she was as Griffith recalls, “no June Cleaver.” Lariar also published how-to books for aspiring cartoonists. In a poignant and funny series of pages, Griffith imagines what might have happened if Lariar had become his stepfather. Would he have then followed Lariar’s system of drawing a cartoon, which included starting with peanut shapes for heads and for torsos. Griffith then draws himself and Zippy according to the peanut system. They do look a little like the characters in Zippy the Pinhead, but oversimplified and without the careful inking of shade, stipple, and cross-hatch that represents the style we Zippy fans are used to seeing.

The pictures on display in this book, of course, all show those details, but they are produced in service of a heartfelt attempt at understanding family members and others who are now long gone. Griffith reflects on all the memorabilia here; he not only had his mother’s box, but also Lariar had unaccountably donated his papers to the University of Syracuse, where a librarian tells Griffith that he is the first one to ask to see them. In one panel here, he depicts himself at his drawing board looking over one of his mother’s albums. The word balloon over his head says, “She once told me the best way to deal with a difficult thing was to put it down on paper.” He has done so, and produced a thoughtful and unique memoir thereby.


Gratitude
Gratitude
by Oliver Sacks
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $10.11
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Farewell, Doctor Sacks, March 16, 2016
This review is from: Gratitude (Hardcover)
When he died last year at age 82, Oliver Sacks, the neurologist, researcher, memoirist, and author of popular tales about people with mis-wired brains, had known his death was coming, and like he did about anything in which he took an interest, he wrote about it. The essay, “My Own Life,” appeared in _The New York Times_. It is republished in a gem of a book which includes three other essays about getting old and and leaving (but loving) life, _Gratitude_ (Knopf). This tiny book shows just why people loved Oliver Sacks, and why he got such an outpouring of friendship and goodwill when he announced his imminent death from cancer. It is a humane look at his own life, and death, told with good humor, acceptance, and that charming gratitude that had such a strong hold on him. If you know his writings, this will bring them to a thoughtful and enlightened conclusion; if you do not, the little book is a not just a farewell but will do for a grand introduction. For all of us, our days are numbered, but those of us who are getting along in years might realize it a little more often than the youngsters we see around us; but even those youngsters will profit from this happy glance backwards and glance forwards.

The first essay, “Mercury,” was written when Sacks was just about to turn eighty, and had no idea that cancer was to take him. He enjoyed the prospect of being eighty, with mercury having element number eighty. He reflects, “Perhaps, with luck, I will make it, more or less intact, for another few years and be granted the liberty to continue to love and work, the two most important things, Freud insisted, in life.” Alas, in “My Own Life,” he reflects, “My luck has run out.” A rare eye tumor had metastasized to his liver, and he knew he had but months to live. He tells us, at this late hour in his life, that his predominant feeling is gratitude: “Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.” I teared up when I read those words when he first published this essay, and having read it several times more, it still makes me cry, with its grace and rightness. He is back to the elements in “My Periodic Table,” reflecting that he won’t get up to 83 bismuth, and didn’t want to get to the poisonous 84 polonium anyway. In “Sabbath,” Sacks reflects on his religious upbringing in a fairly orthodox Jewish community in London. He dropped such beliefs, but in his final words here, he reflects that it is the Sabbath of his life, time “when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.”

And rest in peace, Doctor Sacks. I am filled with gratitude.


Giambattista Bodoni: His Life and His World
Giambattista Bodoni: His Life and His World
by Valerie Browne Lester
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $21.61
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5.0 out of 5 stars A Prince of Printers, March 8, 2016
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Like many people, when I get a new book, I look toward the back pages. The acknowledgements are always interesting, and I browse the index, but what I look for first is the very back page, to see if there is a colophon. I like to learn about the type used in printing the book; I am no expert in picking out different fonts, but it is fun to read about the one I will be spending time with, where it came from, and how old it is. There was no surprise when I turned to the back of the current book: “Set in ITC Bodoni and Bauer Bodoni, both modern digital versions of the type designs of Giambattista Bodoni.” Why, of course; the book is _Giambattista Bodoni: His Life and His World_ (David R. Godine, Publisher) by Valerie Lester. These days, anyone with a laptop can select and adjust fonts, but it used to be that designing and arranging type to make the resultant words legible was only done by a few printers and designers. Bodoni was the master of such arts in a time when printers could be superstars. He was the creator of hundreds of typefaces, including the ones influenced by Roman carving, as turned into type by Baskerville and Didot, but Bodoni renewed them in elegance, upright design, and high contrast between thick and thin strokes. We are still using his letters today because they are still a model of legibility, and they are even stylish (the cover masthead of _Vanity Fair_ is Bodoni). As Lester says in her deeply appreciative and fascinating book, we will be using them a century from now, and thereon.

Bodoni was the grandson and the son of printers, born in Saluzzo, Italy, in 1740. He showed skill at the trade, and got further training in Rome, but the Duke of Parma was interested in boosting the prestige of his city, and part of the plan was to have a grand royal press. Bodoni moved to Parma in 1768, and the royal press was to be his headquarters for the rest of his life. The court knew how important the press and Bodoni were, and he got generous funding, superb staff, and high quality materials. He also established his own foundry through which he sold his own productions. The presses issued a huge variety of material: a daily paper, posters, poems, the English gothic novel _The Castle of Otranto_, classics, plays, and royal proclamations. Bodoni’s work was valued all over the world. Visitors like Napoleon came calling, as did countless scholars and other printers. He had a wide circle of correspondents, and shrewdly sent out copies of the works of which he was most proud to those who could appreciate them. One of his fans was the printer Benjamin Franklin. His magnum opus was a huge specimen book with examples of type, his _Manuele tipografico_. The two volumes consist of page after page of examples of Roman letters, as well as alphabets of Hebrew, Arabic, Oriental languages, and others. There were ornaments and examples of the printing of music, and much more. The book was published by his wife Margherita five years after Bodoni died in 1813; they had a wonderfully supportive marriage and she had great enthusiasm for her husband’s work.

Bodoni has a museum, of course in Parma. You can go there and even handle some of the punches Bodoni made; they have 22,618 of them, and every one is just as ready for use as the day Bodoni finished it. He has been gone for two hundred years, and his influence has not waned. It is here in this gorgeous book, not just in the shapes of the letters, but in design, layout, plates, and illustrations. It is simply a beautiful object, one that Bodoni would have appreciated. He had written about his four basic principles of typography: regularity, neatness and refinement, good taste, and grace. This appealing biography is mounted in a display of them all.


The Last Volcano: A Man, a Romance, and the Quest to Understand Nature's Most Magnificent Fury
The Last Volcano: A Man, a Romance, and the Quest to Understand Nature's Most Magnificent Fury
by John Dvorak
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $16.27
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Starting a Science of Volcanoes, March 2, 2016
We live in a dangerous world, with natural disasters looming anywhere you might choose to live. Among the most terrifying of such threats are volcanoes, which have delivered catastrophe regularly since long before the famous explosion at Pompeii. It was not until the twentieth century that we began to understand how the huge plates bearing Earth’s surface are colliding or grinding under or against each other, and how some of the resultant tears might bring magma in eruption. That we have gotten some scientific understanding of volcanoes is due in no small part to a man whom you probably never heard of, Thomas Jaggar. He deserves the tribute paid in _The Last Volcano: A Man, a Romance, and the Quest to Understand Nature’s Most Magnificent Fury_ (Pegasus Books) by John Dvorak, a scientist who has studied earthquakes and volcanoes for the United States Geological Survey. Jaggar’s life story is the center of this book, but our current understanding of what volcanoes do was a global scientific effort, and Dvorak has encompassed smaller portraits of other scientists, accounts of experiments, and descriptions of travel to distant eruptions. It is an illuminating view of how science works.

Jaggar had been born in Philadelphia in 1871, and was educated at Harvard. He was an average student, but became enthusiastic with his introduction to geology. Upon graduation, he began his pattern of field work, first within Yellowstone National Park. Jaggar was among the scientists rushed to study the effects of the explosion of Mount Pelee in 1902, although “rushed” at the time was a shipboard cruise of several days. When he got there, Jaggar was reminded of Pompeii, which he had visited as a child. The citizens of Pompeii had had no warning, and neither had those of St. Pierre. Jaggar wondered why human knowledge of volcanoes had not advanced to a capacity of warning about explosions. Jaggar spent his professional life chasing after eruptions and earthquakes all over the world, but he had a stable base in Hawaii. He settled for life in a volcanologist’s dream locale, close to the Kilauea volcano in Hawaii, which had a crater and a lake of lava whose changes he could monitor daily. No one, at the beginning, was doing his sort of work, and his accomplishments and innovations were considerable. He fought the notion that science could be best advanced by rushing geologists to volcanoes already in eruption; what was needed was regular observation during quieter times to monitor what was going on beneath the surface. People had known that sometimes big earthquakes preceded a volcano’s eruption, but Jaggar was the first to show that seismographs could detect smaller shakings and be used for better predictions. He also used instruments to show changes in tilt of the ground around a volcano, indicating movement below. He pioneered the collection of gas samples over a volcano, risking his safety to do so, and some of his samples are still the best ever collected. He worked out how earthquakes precede tsunamis and was the first to use a seismometer to warn people to get upland from an approaching wave. He was effective in inspiring Congress to create what was to become Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Dvorak tells us that Jaggar was responsible for laying “the foundation of almost every aspect of volcano research today,” so this book is a fitting tribute to a scientist who did mighty work but remains obscure. There are plenty of explanations of volcanology here, and examinations of the often roundabout and infuriatingly slow way that science sometimes gets done. And throughout there are field anecdotes from Jaggar or his wife. For instance, in investigating a eruption in Japan, Jaggar and his companions rowed out in a small boat to see where the lava was flowing into the sea. The thermometer trailing behind them showed that the water was at the boiling point. “It was a singular experience,” he wrote. “With steaming water all around us, we had the unpleasant thought that if we should capsize we would be cooked.”


How to Watch a Movie
How to Watch a Movie
by David Thomson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.63
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Don't Just Sit There, February 24, 2016
This review is from: How to Watch a Movie (Hardcover)
You buy your ticket, and maybe some popcorn, and take your seat in a theater. Or, more likely, you put the DVD in the player or call for a flow from the streaming service. And that’s how you watch a movie. You don’t need to know how to do it, you just do. So why look at a book called _How to Watch a Movie_ (Knopf)? Well, for one thing, the author is David Thomson, a prolific critic and author of _The New Biographical Dictionary of Film_. For another thing, Thomson probably knows a lot more about movies than you do, and thinks about them more, and could increase your enjoyment of what for many is a passive sitting and letting the movie flow in. Plus, he might just have some suggested movies that you ought to make sure you see. And also, he is an entertaining writer, and his book is a collection of essays on movies and the experience of watching them, and his love of movies is a joy to read about.

Thomson actually sympathizes with the viewers whose history of moviegoing has been “to believe we should relax, take it easy, sit back, and enjoy ourselves.” But there is no such thing as pure enjoyment without thought; and thinking about the workings of a movie can make the movie more rewarding. There is nothing wrong with “good, pleasing films that deserve no more than a single viewing... They are smart, confident entertainments, nicely played, but they have no significant ambition or sense of mystery. They are small stories, well told, and all deeply old-fashioned, even when the effects are very special.” There are for Thomson movies in another category, movies that can be watched repeatedly and seen in different ways at different times of life or with different emphases. There’s _Citizen Kane_ or Bergman’s _Persona_. But you don’t have to go to the art house for examples like this. Thomson writes that when he first saw _Casino_ he didn’t like it; it was one more Scorsese gangster movie. Ten years later, he found it playing regularly on cable and watched it repeatedly; it became a parable of Robert De Niro’s rationality versus Joe Pesci’s madness, or order versus chaos, and “the desperate comedy of De Niro being thwarted at every turn.”

So, how do you watch a movie? Keep your eyes open. Enjoy the entertainments that are worth one view, and really worth one, no more. The movies that are more complex, watch them over and over again and value how they change. And keep in mind all the valuable insights Thomson has here on music, editing, cutting, montage, screenplays, money, heroes, and more. Hollywood used to ballyhoo, “Movies are better than ever,” but use the valuable perceptions here to make them so for yourself.


Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World
Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World
by Tim Whitmarsh
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.64
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars That Old Time Irreligion, February 16, 2016
In ancient Athens two slaves are complaining about their lot, and one of them proposes that the best relief would be to get to a statue of a god and prostrate themselves before it. The other is surprised that the first believes in gods: “What’s your proof?” he demands. “The fact that I’m cursed by them,” comes the reply. This is an exchange from Aristophanes’s comedy _Knights_, and it is quoted in _Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World_ (Knopf) by Tim Whitmarsh. The author is a professor of Greek culture, and in this fascinating volume undertakes to show that disbelief in various forms was a distinct school of thought among the ancients; Whitmarsh writes, “Atheism has a tradition that is comparable in its antiquity to Judaism (and considerably older than Christianity or Islam).” Whitmarsh has not written a discourse supporting or denying atheism, but only an appreciation that its roots are far deeper than even the New Atheists usually consider. Atheism is modern, we are usually told, born of the Enlightenment and the advance of science and the secular state. This is simply not so, and Whitmarsh’s book amply proves it.

Whitmarsh has drawn on many texts of the ancient Greeks, inscriptions, plays, essays, and poems. Xenophanes wrote that humans try to explain the as-yet inexplicable in nature by proposing that gods perform the mysteries, but that the wonders of the world are physical phenomena, not supernatural. He wasn’t an atheist, but he redefined deities as not being those Olympian beings but rather the ebb and flow of matter and life. Whitmarsh posits that nothing would be lost if whenever Xenophanes writes “the one god” we substituted “nature.” This anticipates Spinoza, and Einstein’s affirmation of belief in Spinoza’s God, not a personified deity but instead the beautiful comprehensibility of nature. The stage was a venue for examining the workings of gods, or their absence. Interestingly, Athenian courts, while they might take up an occasional charge of crimes that were religious in nature, never saw themselves as instruments of the will of the gods. “Athenian law was not theological. It existed solely to determine human responsibility for human action; those who tried to shift the blame onto the gods were mocked.” Nonetheless, if you were suspected of disbelief, bad things might happen; some philosophers were taken to court for disbelief or impiety, particularly during times of social turmoil. The most famous, of course, was Socrates. What he really thought cannot be known, as his ideas come to us from descriptions by others. What threatened the citizens was that he claimed access to a direct communion with an unspecified deity, which would have left conventional religion as a mere also-ran. Socrates might have had a sort of humanism, with his insistence on questioning everything and living according to what you can justify rationally, and this may well have appeared close to atheism.

Although there was general toleration of disbelief in Greece, this did not hold so true within the Roman Empire because to question the gods was to question the divine conquering power they especially granted to the empire. This is one of the many points which ring with present day tones; many of my fellow citizens are certain that their particular deity has a particular interest in the advancement of our nation. Also, Greek and Roman citizens sometimes fretted that those who do not believe in gods could not do their part to promote a just society; I wonder if my contemporary believers will insist that ancient Greek atheists were wrong to believe that Zeus and Mars and the rest did not exist, and were bad citizens because of such disbelief. The general point Whitmarsh makes is a useful mirror to our times. In all societies, even those of thousands of years ago, you can expect to discover people who find that believing in supernatural gods raises more mysteries than it resolves, and that attempts to understand the physical world are sufficient.


My Adventures with Your Money: George Graham Rice and the Golden Age of the Con Artist
My Adventures with Your Money: George Graham Rice and the Golden Age of the Con Artist
by T. D. Thornton
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $21.30
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars King of the Con Men, February 4, 2016
Everyone knows what a Ponzi scheme is, although the man for whom it is named, Charles Ponzi, is pretty much forgotten. Everyone knows who Bernie Madoff is, although half a century from now perhaps he will be forgotten, too. We have also forgotten George Graham Rice, although his contemporaries knew the name well. There is now an entertaining biography of one of the top American con artists: _My Adventures with Your Money: George Graham Rice and the Golden Age of the Con Artist_ (St. Martin’s Press) by T. D. Thornton. It isn’t just a biography of Rice, but also a look at what he was selling and why it was so attractive, what sort of people wanted to buy from him, and how the era made it possible. Rice worked very hard, and was really good at what he did, and much of the book is a rollicking story of high-stakes tomfoolery.

Rice got an early start on bilking people by scamming his family. He was prodigiously smart, and a smooth talker, but honest application bored him. He went on to live a dandified youth by bouncing checks on the family business; the father honored the checks but had the son arrested. Jacob was sent to a reformatory where he befriended an elderly con man, Willie Graham Rice, learned some of his friend’s techniques, and adopted his name. Rice’s first endeavor was based on horse racing. He would not be the one betting on the races; he formed a race-tipping service for subscribers of his racing paper. When the paper folded, he went west to Nevada, where prospecting towns were springing up. Not for him was the toil of digging; instead, he formed a brokerage to sell penny mining stocks; he might be said to have originated the penny stock system. The mining business boomed and failed, and Rice returned to Wall Street. He wasn’t part of the official Stock Exchange, but entered the Curb Exchange, the outdoor market that was unregulated. It was within the arena of the Curb Exchange that Rice met and partnered with Arnold Rothstein, a powerful gangster who may have been America’s first organized-crime boss and who was implicated in the notorious fix of the 1919 World Series. Rothstein’s legal team was to prove invaluable for Rice, but nonetheless he did get a four year sentence handed to him a few weeks after the market crash of October 1929, and he served it in a penitentiary in Atlanta, where Al Capone invited him to share his cell and the luxuries therein. “I’ll take Al’s word,” said Rice, “quicker than anybody on the stock exchange.”

The bust of the depression years changed everything. The public was more wary, and the government more vigilant. The age of the big, flashy con was over, and it is hard to trace Rice’s last years. No newspaper included an obituary when he died in 1943. Thornton has cheekily lifted the title of his book from a memoir Rice himself wrote in 1913, a bit of pilfering that Rice would have appreciated. Rice’s book bore this dedication: “To the American Damphool Speculator, surnamed the American Sucker, otherwise described herein as The Thinker Who Thinks He Knows But Doesn’t—greetings! This book is for you! Read as you run, and may you run as you read.” It is a measure of Rice’s confidence and skill that he could write a con man’s memoir and then continue taking the suckers in. His was an astonishing, not an admirable, career, fully worthy of this lively and funny biography.


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