A Pulitzer Prize–winning author reconstructs and reflects on “one of the great diplomatic triumphs of the twentieth century” and the men who made it happen.
Even though the contemplated regional framework for peace collapsed, the 1978 agreement forged at Camp David between Israel and Egypt has held, a remarkable achievement in the tortured history of the Middle East, “where antique grudges never lose their stranglehold on the societies in their grip.” New Yorker staff writer Wright (Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, 2013, etc.) presents a day-by-day account of the tense negotiations, artfully mixing in modern and ancient history, biblical allusions, portraits of the principals—Jimmy Carter, Menachem Begin, Anwar Sadat—and thumbnail sketches of key participants: Americans Cyrus Vance and Zbigniew Brzezinski, Israelis Moshe Dayan and Ezer Weizman, and Egyptians Mohamed Ibrahim Kamel and Boutros Boutros-Ghali. The author examines all the forces that shaped these historic talks: the isolation imposed by the presidential retreat high in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains; the divisions within the Egyptian and Israeli delegations; the almost unprecedented nature of detailed negotiations conducted not by subordinates but by the heads of state; the hazardous political stakes for each leader and the powerful role played by their deeply held religious beliefs; the critical part played by President Jimmy Carter, who moved adroitly from facilitator to catalyst to secure an agreement. Throughout, telling detail abounds: Rosalynn Carter spontaneously suggesting to her husband that the intransigents should come to the beautiful and peaceful Camp David to revive stalled talks; Begin startling his hosts on a brief outing to the Gettysburg battlefield by reciting Lincoln’s entire address from memory; Carter dramatically accusing Sadat of betrayal and, at one point, thinking to himself that Begin was a “psycho”; Israel’s fiercest warrior, Dayan, by then going blind, bloodying his nose by walking into a tree; Begin bursting into tears as Carter presents him with conference photos inscribed to each of the prime minister’s grandchildren.
A unique moment in history superbly captured. Yet another triumph for Wright.
An award-winning poet’s memoir of growing up in Miami as the gay son of Cuban immigrants.
Revolution changed Cuba forever. Yet Blanco’s (For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet's Journey, 2013, etc.) family seemed determined to hang on to whatever they could of the lives they knew before Fidel Castro’s takeover. Once the family settled in Miami, his parents went to work at an uncle’s bodega and ate only Cuban food. Meanwhile, Blanco dreamed of becoming like his gringo school friends who ate “Pop-Tarts, Ritz Crackers and Cool Whip.” He tried to introduce his family to American customs like Thanksgiving, only to see those traditions transformed into something with a distinctly Cuban twist. At the same time, Blanco was still fascinated by the country his family had left behind. Not only did they re-create it through the food they sold and ate, but also through the garden that his grandfather planted with the loquat, papaya and avocado trees that reminded them of their “lost [Cuban] paradise.” Born in Madrid just before his family left Spain for the United States, the author soon realized that he existed in a world that was neither completely Cuban nor American: He was “a little from everywhere.” The homosexual desires that surfaced during adolescence and which he kept hidden from his family only added to his feelings of separateness. As a cure for his love of “unmanly” things like his paint-by-number sets and his cousin’s Easy-Bake Oven, Blanco’s homophobic grandmother sent him to work at the bodega. In this space of working-class machismo, Blanco came into contact with a closeted Cuban homosexual who told him about the forbidden affair he had with another man before fleeing to the U.S. Their friendship started the author on the journey toward accepting not only his own gayness, but also the “ghosts of Cuba” that haunted him.
A reverential look at Martin Luther King Jr.’s last agonizing year that does not disguise the flaws of a saint.
The humanity and moral conviction of this great civil rights leader emerge in talk show host Smiley (Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure, 2011, etc.) and co-writer Ritz’s poignant account of King’s final struggle. In the introduction, Smiley asserts that King’s “martyrdom has undermined his message” and that during the last year of his life, the Nobel Prize winner returned to his original message of nonviolence with all the conviction of his preacher’s soul. The author catches up with the beleaguered minister as he is headed to Manhattan’s Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, for what would be a definitive and divisive sermon denouncing the Vietnam War—indeed, he attacks “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” the American government. King—whom Smiley refers to as “Doc,” since that is what his colleagues called him, and it takes him off his pedestal—was excoriated widely for his anti-war stance not only by the administration of President Lyndon Johnson (with whom King had worked closely for the passage of several civil rights bills in Congress), but especially by black critics like Carl Rowan and leading newspapers for introducing “matters that have nothing to do with the legitimate battle for equal rights in America.” Yet King believed that black soldiers dying for a senseless war in Vietnam was immoral, and he continued to insist in his speeches that “the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together.” Depressed by the rioting in cities, drinking heavily, guilt-ridden by his affairs and plagued by death threats, King nonetheless found in poverty the message that drove him finally to stand with the Memphis sanitation workers in his final hours.
An eloquent, emotional journey from darkness to light.
National Book Critics Circle Award winner Biss (Notes from No Man’s Land, 2009) investigates the nature of vaccinations, from immunity as myth to the intricate web of the immune system.
The fears surrounding vaccines are not late-breaking news, as the author notes in this literate, rangy foray into the history and consequences of vaccination. In the 18th century—and frankly, little less today—it was understandable to associate vaccination with the work of witches: “The idea…that pus from a sick cow can be scraped into a wound on a person and make that person immune to a deadly disease is almost as hard to believe now as it was in 1796.” Indeed, the idea of poking yourself with a dose of virulent organisms to save yourself from them is not an intuitive leap. Biss ably tracks the progress of immunization: as metaphor—the protective impulse to make our children invulnerable (Achilles, Oedipus); as theory and science (the author provides a superb explanation of herd immunity: “when enough people are vaccinated with even a relatively ineffective vaccine, viruses have trouble moving from host to host and cease to spread”); as a cash cow for big pharma; and as a class issue—the notion of the innocent and the pure being violated by vaccinations, that “people without good living standards need vaccines, whereas vaccines would only clog up the more refined systems of middle-class and upper-class people.” Biss also administers a thoughtful, withering critique to more recent fears of vaccines—the toxins they carry, from mercury to formaldehyde, and accusations of their role in causing autism. The author keeps the debate lively and surprising, touching on Rachel Carson here and “Dr. Bob” there. She also includes her father’s wise counsel, which accommodates the many sides of the topic but arrives at a clear point of view: Vaccinate.
Brightly informative, giving readers a sturdy platform from which to conduct their own research and take personal responsibility.
The Iranian-American author of Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003) makes a passionate argument for returning to key American novels in order to foster creativity and engagement.
Having taught literature both in post-revolutionary Iran and in America, teacher and author Nafisi (Things I’ve Been Silent About, 2008, etc.) finds in works by Mark Twain, Sinclair Lewis and Carson McCullers important lessons in combating nefarious trends in the West: insular thinking, bias and a utilitarian mindset. Literature, writes the author, is deliciously subversive because it fires the imagination and challenges the status quo. This can be dangerous in an authoritarian, repressive state such as Iran, but it is necessary for an informed citizenry. In America, however, where Nafisi became a citizen in 2008, she finds that the free access to democratic ideals and institutions have bred a complacency toward and even scorn for what cannot be used for political or ideological purposes, namely the liberal arts. In the character of Twain’s Huck Finn, Nafisi’s first and favorite example, she finds a quintessential American character from whom all others derive: a searching soul and a homeless “mongrel” whose “sound heart” gradually beats out his “deformed conscience.” In Babbitt, from Lewis’ 1922 eponymous novel, Nafisi reacquaints us with a smug, self-congratulatory figure of conformity who (still) mirrors our contemporary selves. In the fragile, childlike characters of McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940), Nafisi notes the yearning for personal integrity and shared humanity. The author’s literary exegesis lightly moves through her own experiences as a student, teacher, friend and new citizen. Touching on myriad literary examples, from L. Frank Baum to James Baldwin, her work is both poignant and informative.
A literary study that derives its emotional power from Nafisi’s personal story and relationship.
“Innovation occurs when ripe seeds fall on fertile ground,” Aspen Institute CEO Isaacson (Steve Jobs, 2011, etc.) writes in this sweeping, thrilling tale of three radical innovations that gave rise to the digital age. First was the evolution of the computer, which Isaacson traces from its 19th-century beginnings in Ada Lovelace’s “poetical” mathematics and Charles Babbage’s dream of an “Analytical Engine” to the creation of silicon chips with circuits printed on them. The second was “the invention of a corporate culture and management style that was the antithesis of the hierarchical organization of East Coast companies.” In the rarefied neighborhood dubbed Silicon Valley, new businesses aimed for a cooperative, nonauthoritarian model that nurtured cross-fertilization of ideas. The third innovation was the creation of demand for personal devices: the pocket radio; the calculator, marketing brainchild of Texas Instruments; video games; and finally, the holy grail of inventions: the personal computer. Throughout his action-packed story, Isaacson reiterates one theme: Innovation results from both “creative inventors” and “an evolutionary process that occurs when ideas, concepts, technologies, and engineering methods ripen together.” Who invented the microchip? Or the Internet? Mostly, Isaacson writes, these emerged from “a loosely knit cohort of academics and hackers who worked as peers and freely shared their creative ideas….Innovation is not a loner’s endeavor.” Isaacson offers vivid portraits—many based on firsthand interviews—of mathematicians, scientists, technicians and hackers (a term that used to mean anyone who fooled around with computers), including the elegant, “intellectually intimidating,” Hungarian-born John von Neumann; impatient, egotistical William Shockley; Grace Hopper, who joined the Army to pursue a career in mathematics; “laconic yet oddly charming” J.C.R. Licklider, one father of the Internet; Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and scores of others.
Isaacson weaves prodigious research and deftly crafted anecdotes into a vigorous, gripping narrative about the visionaries whose imaginations and zeal continue to transform our lives.
Girls creator Dunham reveals all—about losing her virginity, finding a therapist, shooting a series of Web videos about 20-somethings living aimless lives and more.
The book’s jacket recalls the 1970s, when Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown was coaching “mouseburgers” on “having it all.” Dunham opens by saying she’d like to do the same thing for today’s young women that Brown did for her when she picked up Having It All at a thrift store when she was in college: Let them know “a powerful, confident, and yes, even sexy woman could be made, not born.” Dunham then spends the first two sections of the book, “Love & Sex” and “Body,” writing mostly about embarrassing sex, bad breakups and traumatic trips to the gynecologist (“Last summer my vagina started to sting”) while forestalling criticism by saying that her “true friends,” those she imagined when she was an unhappy college student, would “never, ever say ‘too much information’ when you mention a sex dream you had about your father.” The problem isn’t that the author gives us too much information; the problem is that it’s repetitive and often boring, lacking the humor and stylishness of Nora Ephron or Tina Fey. Things pick up in the third section, “Friendship,” but it’s a bit surprising to read this on Page 129: “I know that when I am dying, looking back, it will be women…I sought to impress, to understand, was tortured by.” So why take so long to get to them? The fourth section, “Work,” provides some interesting background on Dunham’s life leading up to Girls, but the last section, “Big Picture,” feels like odds and ends that didn’t fit elsewhere, including essays on therapy, summer camp and hypochondria.
Dunham shows flashes of the humor and sharp eye that make Girls so compelling, but the pleasure of watching the TV show doesn’t translate to the page.
Best-selling author Johnson (Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, 2010, etc.) continues his explorations of what he calls the “hummingbird effect,” unforeseeable chains of influence that change the world.
An innovation, writes the author, typically arises in one field—chemistry, say, or cryptography. But it does not rise alone—“ideas are fundamentally networks of other ideas,” and those tributary ideas likely came from many sources and disciplines, conditioned by the intellectual resources available at the time. Da Vinci aside, the author notes that even the most brilliant 17th-century inventor couldn’t have hit on the refrigerator, which “simply wasn’t part of the adjacent possible at that moment.” A couple of centuries later, it was, thanks to changes in our understanding of materials, physics, chemistry and other areas. Johnson isn’t the first writer to note that such things as the can opener were game-changers, but he has a pleasing way of spinning out the story to include all sorts of connections as seen through the lens of “long zoom” history, which looks at macro and micro events simultaneously. Sometimes he writes in a sort of rah-rah way that, taken to extremes, could dumb the enterprise down intolerably, as when he opines, “silicon dioxide for some reason is incapable of rearranging itself back into the orderly structure of crystal.” Take out “for some reason” and replace with “because of the laws of physics,” and things look brighter. However, Johnson’s look at six large areas of innovation, from glassmaking to radio broadcasting (which involves the products of glassmaking, as it happens), is full of well-timed discoveries, and his insistence on the interdisciplinary nature of invention and discovery gives hope to the English and art history majors in the audience.
Of a piece with the work of Tracy Kidder, Henry Petroski and other popular explainers of technology and science—geeky without being overly so and literate throughout.
Another allusive, entertaining inquiry by veteran musicologist Marcus (The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years, 2011, etc.).
The opening is an accidental tour de force: a list that runs on for a full six pages of the inductees to date into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, one that, though full of lacunae, is still wildly suggestive of just how influential and deep-rooted the sound is in our culture. He takes Neil Young’s observation that “rock & roll is reckless abandon” and runs with it, looking into 10 songs that are particularly emblematic. Even though any other 10, 100 or 1,000 songs might have done just as well, one cannot fault Marcus’ taste. It is just right, on the reckless abandon front, that his survey should begin with the Flamin’ Groovies jittery, diamondlike anthem “Shake Some Action,” released to the world in 1976 and heard, if not widely, by at least the right people. “I never heard Young’s words translated with more urgency, with more joy,” Marcus avers, than in the goofily named Groovies’ (“a name so stupid it can’t transcend its own irony”) song. Yet there are other candidates for best paean to reckless abandon, or perhaps best inspirer thereof, including the prolegomenon to all other songs about filthy lucre and lolly, Barrett Strong’s “Money”; the lovely but portentous Buddy Holly ballad “Crying, Waiting, Hoping”; and the Teddy Bears’ 1958 hit “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” which, though tender, became something hauntingly lost in the hands of Amy Winehouse. It’s no accident that the originals of many of these tunes lay at the heart of the early Beatles’ repertoire, nor that Phil Spector played his part in the uproarious proceedings, nor that from every measure of music, thousands of tangled storylines flow—many of which Marcus follows wherever they will lead, to our edification.
Essayistic, occasionally disconnected, but Marcus does what he does best: makes us feel smarter about what we’re putting into our ears.
A TV titan on his memorable life and storied career.
Lear, best known as the creative mind behind such classic comedies as All in the Family, Maude, The Jeffersons and Good Times, recounts his extraordinarily eventful life with his signature wit and irreverence. The result is not just a vividly observed and evocative portrait of a long life, but also a fascinating backstage look at the evolution of the American entertainment industry. Born to a charismatic and wildly unreliable con man—Lear’s father would miss a chunk of his son’s childhood serving a jail term for fraud—and an unaffectionate, self-obsessed mother, Lear flailed about in various unsuccessful ventures before teaming with friend Ed Simmons to write comedy, eventually penning sketches for the likes of Jack Haley, Martha Raye, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in the early heyday of television. After a stint as a film director and producer, Lear returned to TV to create the epochal series All in the Family, which famously brought sensitive political and social issues to the family hour. Lear’s other shows struck a similarly confrontational chord, explicitly discussing race, class, abortion and a host of other controversial topics. Lear’s analysis of network politics is astute and amusingly cynical, and his sketches of such legendary figures as Milton Berle are unsparing in their honesty. It’s not all showbiz; Lear writes movingly of his service in World War II, his difficult upbringing and subsequent troubled marriages, and his commitment to liberal causes, evidenced by his founding of the advocacy organization People for the American Way and his purchase of an original copy of the Declaration of Independence. That he makes these subjects as engrossing and entertaining as his Hollywood reminiscences speaks to Lear’s mastery of storytelling and humor.
A big-hearted, richly detailed chronicle of comedy, commitment and a long life lived fully.