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The Jewish Cardinal
The Jewish Cardinal
DVD ~ Laurent Lucas
Price: $19.37
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23 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Dual Identity, May 16, 2014
This review is from: The Jewish Cardinal (DVD)
This French film with English subtitles is the true story of Jean-Marie, Cardinal Lustiger, who was born Jewish in France in 1926. After the German invasion of France in 1940 he converted to Roman Catholicism against the wishes of his parents and eventually joined the priesthood. Rising quickly in the Church hierarchy, he was eventually made an archbishop by Pope John Paul II. His dual heritage meant that some distrusted him while others saw in him an opportunity to bridge religious and cultural divides. Lustiger himself was conflicted over his role as an obedient son of the Church who remained attached to his Jewish heritage. The Jewish Cardinal is a superb film which ably depicts Lustiger's struggles.

The film begins with Lustiger's appointment as Bishop of Orleans in 1979. We see his reaction as well as those of his widowed father (his mother died in Auschwitz)and other family members as friends. There are some excellent scenes depicting Lustiger's meetings with Pope John Paul II, in which many of his inner misgivings about his role surface. These misgivings continue through the rest of the film, during which we observe Lustiger's roles in such controversies as the planned construction of a Carmelite convent at Auschwitz and the canonization of Holocaust victim Edith Stein. It is not entirely clear by the end of the film that Lustiger ever fully resolved his inner conflict, but viewers are left with a strong sense of admiration for him.

War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots
War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots
by Ian Morris
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $25.23
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10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Magnificently Counter-Intuitive, May 14, 2014
One of the hallmarks of a great work of history is a bold and controversial claim which is then supported by a heavily documented and fascinating text. Ian Morris, a professor of Classics and History at Stanford University, has demonstrated with War! What Is It Good For? that he fully deserves to be numbered among modern masters of the craft of producing brilliantly counter-intuitive history. I found War! What Is It Good For? to be both absorbing and provocative, filled with impresive analyses of the past and predictions for the future and supported by meticulous notes, suggestions for further reading, and a long and detailed bibliography.

It is a truism that war is a "Bad Thing," wasting resources and human potential and, even when it is brief and relatively unbloody, leaving the world much worse off. Morris does not necessarily disagree here (it is an enormous exaggeration to maintain, as have some, that he is a war-monger), but his main thesis holds that war has been beneficial to humans throughout history by encouraging the development of bigger, more complex societies with governments powerful enough (Morris aptly calls them Leviathans) to enforce law and order, thus allowing civilization to expand and prosper.

Morris amplifies and expands on this thesis in a series of five chapters tracing humanity's warlike ways from prehistory through the end of the Cold War. He freely makes use of such paradoxical terms as "productive war" and provides a series of fascinating and colorful anecdotes to illustrate his claims. I enjoyed his cross cultural comparisons and appreciated his refusal to fall into the trap of "Western exceptionalism," even in Chapter 4 which covers Europe's rise to global power. The final two chapters are probably the most important. Chapter 6: "Red in Tooth and Claw: Why the Chimps of Gombe Went to War," hearkens back to some of Morris' themes in the earlier chapters in examining what it is about human beings and our closer relatives that seems to pre-dispose us to violence, while 7 "The Last Best Hope of Earth: American Empire, 1989 -?" provides some intriguing (if sometimes disturbing) analyses of various scenarios which might play out over the coming decades.

The counter-intuitive nature of Morris' title and thesis will cause many to assume that he is advocating for war and violence as positive goods. Those who bother to read more than the blurbs will recognize that the title is not meant to be a celebration but rather an ironic acknowledgement of a truth we may be reluctant to accept. And even more importantly, they will also recognize that Morris not only explains the benefits of conflict, he also points the way towards a future in which conflict has become less necessary.

1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed (Turning Points in Ancient History)
1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed (Turning Points in Ancient History)
by Eric H. Cline
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.98
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A History, And Perhaps A Forewarning, May 8, 2014
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This well written history of the end of the late Bronze Age civilizations is part of the Turning Points in Ancient History series, but it can be read and enjoyed on its own without difficulty. Eric H. Cline is an active archaeologist as well as a professor at Georgetown, and more importantly he is also an excellent writer, able to tell some colorful and amusing anecdotes and sprinkle humorous asides and observations throughout his scholarship.

In the twelfth century B.C. the eastern Mediterranean world was enjoying a prolonged period of international contact, with goods being traded over a wide area of thriving civilizations, from Mycenae and Crete to Egypt up through Anatolia and into much of the rest of what is now known as the Middle East. There was plenty of conflict between competing empires, but even battles and long military campaigns increased cross cultural trade and other contacts. Then, beginning roughly around the year 1177 BC, a series of calamities brought these early examples of globalization to a halt. There were numerous earthquakes, the climate changed in the form of a prolonged drought, resulting in increased unrest and migrations which led to the invasions of the so-called Sea Peoples, wars over resources became bitterer and more prolonged, and the Eastern Mediterranean entered a Dark Age. Eventually new civilization centers arose, with new trade products and routes, and the old order was replaced with one from which Western civilization eventually was to develop.

Cline's experience and knowledge of archaeology led him to include many fascinating stories of discoveries, like buried cities and sunken Bronze Age sailing ships, which added color to his narrative. He does a masterly job of examining different scenarios and analyzing their strengths and weaknesses, in the end explaining that the late Bronze Age came to an end from a general systems collapse due to interconnections which had become overly complex and delicate, so that one small disruption (as in the "butterfly effect") could eventually lead to a cascading series of disasters. This, as Cline points out several times, is particularly pertinent information today as we make our way through the aftermath of a prolonged financial crisis.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 9, 2014 2:59 AM PDT

Russian Roulette: How British Spies Thwarted Lenin's Plot for Global Revolution
Russian Roulette: How British Spies Thwarted Lenin's Plot for Global Revolution
by Giles Milton
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.66
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Keen As Mustard", May 6, 2014
That's the jaunty reply of a young British recruit to the Secret Intelligence Service, better known as MI6, when asked if he was up to the challenge of infiltrating Bolshevik Russia. It's an excellent descriptor for nearly every page of this lively, highly entertaining, history of the early years of British espionage. Giles Milton has produced a well researched history that reads like a novel, only much more entertaining because it's all true. Here we have as much of the full story as it's possible to know of such legendary figures as Sidney Reilly, Robert Bruce Lockhart, Arthur Ransome, and many other intrepid men (and some women), including and most importantly Mansfield Cumming, the founder of the SIS who was always known as "C."

The SIS began shortly before World War I as a way of keeping a wary eye on German and other threats to the Britiish Empire. During World War I Cumming and his staff, as well as the rest of the British government, became increasingly worried over their Russian ally's ability to keep fighting. SIS's goal for Russia at first was simple, to keep her in the war. After the Bolshevik Revolutioin things became more complicated, as it was necessary both to keep an eye on and if possible destroy the new regime led by Lenin and Trotsky, as well as frustrate that regime's efforts to export revolution abroad, especially to Britain's "Jewel in the Crown," India. The story starts in the final days of Imperial Russia, with the murder of Grigorii Rasputin, continues through the February and October Revolutions of 1917, and through the Russian Civil War period into the early 1920s.

There are countless tales of bravado and derring-do here, as Cumming recruited and sent into harm's way large numbers of spies. Many met grisly ends, but many more survived and returned to write some hair raising memoirs. There are also many stories of the Bolsheviks who were MI6's targets, including Lenin himself, Trotsky, Felix Dzerzhinsky, and Karl Radek, who were just as implacable in their determination to bring down the British Empire and capitalism. Many of the names will be well known, while others like Mansfield Cumming himself and Manahendra Nath Roy, who planned to lead a Bolshevik/Muslim army of "liberation" into British India, who will be less so. Russian Roulette is a fascinating book, well written and researched, with an invaluable notes section and a list for further reading. Best of all, there's a hint in the Epilogue that there may well be a sequel in the works telling more tales of the SIS and Soviet Russia. I certainly hope so!
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 18, 2014 4:28 PM PDT

Sydney and Violet: Their Life with T.S. Eliot, Proust, Joyce and the Excruciatingly Irascible Wyndham Lewis
Sydney and Violet: Their Life with T.S. Eliot, Proust, Joyce and the Excruciatingly Irascible Wyndham Lewis
by Stephen Klaidman
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $21.49
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Soul Mates, May 3, 2014
Sydney and Violet Schiff were intellectual and emotional soul mates whose long and happy marriage enabled them to nurture not only their own talents but that of much of the Modernist literary movement in the early twentieth century. Stephen Klaidman's dual biography of this couple, of whom I had previously known little, really illuminates their lives and those of their many friends.

Sydney Schiff was the son of a German Jewish banker and investor who had immigrated to England, become very wealthy, and married an English woman under rather scandalous circumstances (Sydney, their oldest son, was born out of wedlock). Young Sydney had a pampered childhood but rebelled when his father expected him to follow in his footsteps in the business world. Sydney adored literature and art and refused to be tied down to an office. He traveled to the United States where he met the woman who became his first wife, a domineering sort who married Sydney for his money and cared little or nothing for him. Always a gentleman, Sydney suffered through twenty years of a loveless marriage before she set him free in order to marry another man. This was fortuitious, because it was at about that time that Sydney met Violet Beddington under highly romantic circumstances at an opera. Violet was in her thirties and unmarried, part of a wealthy family of Jewish extraction. It really was love at first sight, and Sydney and Violet were soon married and embarked upon a happy lifetime. Both loved art and literature and both were excellent writers, though Violet restricted herself to editing her husband's books and writing letters.

Sydney and Violet helped encourage the Modernist movement. They were less well known than others, like Lady Ottoline Morrell, who also nurtured poets, writers, and artists in the early twentieth century, but their contribution was invaluable. They were genuinely pleasant and patient people, and some of their artistic friends took advantage of them for it. They never seemed to mind being more "Bayswater" than "Bloomsbury," however, and were satisfied being secondary players in the artistic world. They must have been the most well grounded and mature people some of their better known companions knew, which may have been a welcome relief from all the drama.

I enjoyed Sydney and Violet very much. It was interesting to read about the many famous names with whom they associated, and I certainly came to admire their patience and forebearing. Personally, I would have shown Wyndham Lewis the door right away! I gained more insights into the lives and personalities of T.S. Eliot, Marcel Proust, and James Joyce, along with a better idea of what life must have been like in the middle of one of the most fascinating literary and artistic milieus of recent history.

Tanta Agua
Tanta Agua
DVD ~ Néstor Guzzini
Price: $16.46
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4.0 out of 5 stars Coming of Age, Or Not, April 29, 2014
This review is from: Tanta Agua (DVD)
This Spanish language film with English subtitles tells the story of Alberto, a divorced father who takes his two children, 14 year old Lucia and 10 year old Federico, on a family vacation in a South American country (probably Uruguay). Apparently he doesn't get to spend much time with his children and he's determined not to let anything ruin the trip.

Unfortunately, the hot springs resort he's picked for their vacation spot is rained out, and neither Lu nor Fed are all that excited about the trip anyway. There's no television and not much of anything to do. Lu meets some people of her own age, including a couple of boys, and she stages an act of mild adolescent rebellion by joining them for a dance party. At the party Lu realizes she's not quite as grown up as she thinks she is, and the result is some nice father/daughter time. In the end when the vacation's over father and children all realize they've had a nice time in spite of all the difficulties.

So this is a pleasant little film about growing up, or at least making an effort to grow up, and about changing family dynamics. The pace tends to be slow and the background doesn't vary that much, but that puts more of the focus on the characters, especially Lu, who is excellently portrayed.

Downton Abbey Season 4 DVD (U.K. Edition)
Downton Abbey Season 4 DVD (U.K. Edition)
DVD ~ Downton Abbey
Price: $19.99
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Crawleys And Their Staff Soldier On, April 29, 2014
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With the shocking conclusion to Season 3, many Downton Abbey aficionados wondered whither, and whether, the series could go on. Season 4 demonstrates that there can indeed be life "after Matthew" for the noble Earl and Countess of Grantham, their daughters, son-in-law, grandchildren, mother, and ever loyal staff.

It's the 1920s, and life is really getting back to "normal" again at Downton Abbey after the upsets of World War I. Lord Grantham continues to deal with the changing face of the world, assisted now by the surprisingly able Lady Mary, his eldest daughter who is now the mother of his heir. His son-in-law Tom Branson and his younger daughter Lady Edith continue to search for roles of their own. There's a new young lady in the house now, Lady Rose, a cousin of the Granthams who is making her London debut (her presentation at Buckingham Palace is marvelous). Meanwhile, below stairs the servants loyally keep the house moving smoothly most of the time, barring the occasional catastrophe here and there.

I enjoyed Season 4, though in truth I must say that I find Downton wearing a little ragged around the edges. The original concept was so quintessentially Edwardian that it doesn't seem to quite fit into the Jazz Age, though Julian Fellowes and his writing team continue to do a masterful job. As always, it's the wonderful cast that makes the series worth watching, especially Maggie Smith, Penelope Wilton, Michele Dockery, and Jim Carter.

If I Had Lunch with C. S. Lewis: Exploring the Ideas of C. S. Lewis on the Meaning of Life
If I Had Lunch with C. S. Lewis: Exploring the Ideas of C. S. Lewis on the Meaning of Life
by Alister E. McGrath
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $13.86
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Intellectual Look At Faith, April 29, 2014
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Clive Staples Lewis died 50 years ago, but his fame as a writer, scholar, and Christian apologist keeps his memory green. In an age when many intellectuals deny that religious faith has validity, and when many Christians regard intellectuals with suspicion, it is refreshing to study the works of this great Christian thinker. Alister McGrath is the author of an excellent recent biography of Lewis, and in If I Had Lunch With C.S. Lewis he has developed a short (just over 200 pages, plus appendices and notes) and highly approachable method to introduce his readers to some of the ideas of this complex and remarkable man.

C.S. Lewis was the most convivial of men, always enjoying food and conversation, so it is appropriate for McGrath to structure this book around a series of lunches which allow us to imagine posing questions to and debating with him, preferably in an English pub like the Eagle and Child in Oxford. There are eight lunches which deal with The Meaning of Life, Friendship, the Importance of Stories, the Christian Life, the Art of Apologetics, Education, The Problem of Pain, and On Hope and Heaven. THese are broad topics, and McGrath accurately imagines that a conversation with Lewis on any one of them would be wide ranging. McGrath draws on Lewis' own writings, sermons, and radio talks for source material, so that in a way this becomes a small biography. I found all eight lunches enjoyable and thought provoking, though I suppose those on Education and on The Problem of Pain were most meaningful to me. I also enjoyed the discussions on Friendship and Stories, because Lewis had long friendships with many authors whose works are important to me, especially J.R.R. Tolkien.

As with Lewis' own writings, McGrath's imagined lunches are so packed with meaning that it will really require several visits before the reader can begin to fully appreciate them. It would be wise to keep the book close at hand, so as to pick it up at odd times for quiet reading and reflection.

The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book
The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book
by Peter Finn
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.04
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8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Spring In The Cold War, April 25, 2014
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The Zhivago Affair consists of two interlinked stories. It is both a biography of Boris Pasternak, centering on his masterpiece Dr. Zhivago and his long struggle to get it published, as well as the story of the effort by Western intelligence agencies like the CIA to get Pasternak's novel, as well as the works of many other authors, into the hands of Soviet citizens. Both are fascinating tales.

Boris Pasternak was born into a prosperous family of Moscow bourgeoisie. He did well in school both in Russia and abroad, avoided military service during World War I due to an old injury, and suffered through the Revolution and the establishment of Soviet communism. His poetry was well regarded, even though he often failed to toe the Party line, and he made it through the worst of the purges unscathed (even a paranoiac like Stalin saw nothing dangerous in his work). He lived in Moscow and the writer's village of Peredelkino,troubled mainly by a series of romantic entanglements, until in the late 1940s he began to write his novel about the Revolution. Friends and associates who saw the manuscript warned him that its celebration of individualism and refusal to whitewash the excesses of the Revolution made it unpublishable in the Soviet Union and dangerous to him personally. He persevered, and eventually managed to get the novel out of the Soviet Union and into the hands of Western publishers. Dr. Zhivago was an immediate success and Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1958. Inside the Soviet Union he was denounced as a traitor to socialism and to Russian culture, and he spent the last few years of his life in deep retirement.

When Dr. Zhivago was first published Western intelligence agencies realized that it was a powerful weapon to use in their propaganda struggle against the Soviets. Russian and other Eastern European language editions were rushed into print, and every opportunity was taken to get them into the hands of Soviet citizens visiting Western Europe and to smuggle them into the USSR itself. The long term effort to get Dr. Zhivago and other books into the hands of people in Communist countries lasted until the early 1990s and can certainly be considered one of the factors that helped lead to the fall of the Iron Curtain.

I really enjoyed The Zhivago Affair. I read Dr. Zhivago many years ago and love the David Lean film adaptation, but I knew little about Boris Pasternak's own life and career. It was interesting to read of the bleakness of life in Soviet Russia and of the care with which poets and writers had to choose their words so as not to offend the government. The description of the well-orchestrated attacks on Pasternak that broke out after his book was published and after he won the Nobel Prize (which he was forced to decline) was saddening, though I was pleased to see that there were some brave souls who refused to take part in the vilification. But I have to say I was most impressed with the story of the Western campaign to get books into the Soviet Union. In these days we are not generally accustomed to thinking of our intelligence agencies as being imaginative or creative, so it was impressive to read about the efforts of those principled men and women (including Gloria Steinem) who believed words were the best weapons.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives!: A World without World War I
Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives!: A World without World War I
by Richard Ned Lebow
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.33
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Intriguing Though Uneven Counterfactuals, April 20, 2014
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Nearly one hundred years ago a man and woman were shot dead in Sarajevo. Because the man was Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, and the woman was his wife Sophie, their assassinations set into motion a series of events that culminated in the outbreak of World War I, thus affecting the lives of every person on earth, including those yet to be born. It's a pleasant pastime to study the past and ponder what might have happened if something hadn't happened, or if something else happened instead. We call these ponderings counterfactuals, and there's value in them in that they can help us better understand what really happened. Richard Ned Lebow, a political scientist at King's College London and Dartmouth, has come up with some intriguing scenarios for what might have happened had 19 year old Gavrilo Princip missed when he fired those shots back on June 28, 1914.

There are four major counterfactuals, two postulating a better world and two a far worse one. The more positive ones focus on gradual democratization, economic expansion, and declining armaments, while those predicting more negative consequences foresee authoritarianism, extended cold war, and eventually nuclear conflict. The details are plausible and the scenarios seem likely to have played out the way Lebow predicts they would. I found it interesting that even in Lebow's more positive counterfactuals there is still plenty of room for improvement: a world without World War I might feature more racism, less opportunity, less globalism, and far less technological development. I also enjoyed Lebow's predictions for the way well known figures in our world, like Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, Isaac Asimov, and even Barack Obama might have seen their career trajectories play out in his counterfactuals.

Perhaps it's an unavoidable complication when writing counterfactuals, but when predictions are piled on top of other predictions they start seeming more and more unlikely. Lebow tends to get bogged down in some inconsequentia (was it really necessary to give us a full biography of Isaac Asimov's career as a Russian science fiction writer?). But overall this book is intriguing and the main counterfactuals eminently plausible. Those interested in more counterfactuals will be interested in "Virtual History," edited by Niall Ferguson, and the two volume "What If", featuring essays by various historians.

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