With careful attention to the underlying political and cultural issues, Quinn cogently retells this sad story of “a brief...

FURIOUS IMPROVISATION

HOW THE WPA AND A CAST OF THOUSANDS MADE HIGH ART OUT OF DESPERATE TIMES

Insightful, judiciously selective history of the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), the most controversial branch of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration (WPA).

There have been quite a few books about the FTP, most notably Arena (1940), the comprehensive first-person account by FTP head Hallie Flanagan. Nonfiction pro Quinn (Human Trials: Scientists, Investors, and Patients in the Quest for a Cure, 2001, etc.) sensibly opts to craft a focused narrative that takes a few representative productions from the FTP’s sprawling repertoire to highlight the project’s evolution and the difficulties that plagued it. In early 1936, Ethiopia initiated the Living Newspapers, which dealt with current events in a dramatic, experimental style, fulfilling Flanagan’s vision of a truly democratic national theatre that would educate as well as entertain. The sensational “voodoo Macbeth” spotlighted the talents of the FTP’s Negro unit and the genius of 20-year-old director Orson Welles. The FTP’s enlightened racial policies, Quinn suggests, enraged conservative politicians even more than its alleged left-wing sympathies. It Can’t Happen Here, which opened at 15 theatres on October 27, 1936, reiterated Flanagan’s commitment to challenging political theatre. But by mid-1937, when the storm over Marc Blitzstein’s labor opera The Cradle Will Rock led to Welles’s departure from the FTP, Flanagan could no longer count on the unwavering backing of WPA head Harry Hopkins. The New Deal did not have the same overwhelming public support that had launched the WPA in 1935. Emboldened critics ignored the diverse array of popular theatre produced by the FTP across America—nicely sketched by Quinn in several chapters about Flanagan’s cross-country travels—and painted the entire outfit as a hotbed of communists in the egregiously unfair hearings held by the House Committee Investigating Un-American Activities (which later became HUAC). On June 30, 1939, to save the rest of the WPA, President Roosevelt reluctantly signed a bill that eliminated the FTP.

With careful attention to the underlying political and cultural issues, Quinn cogently retells this sad story of “a brief time in our history [when] Americans had a vibrant national theatre almost by accident.”

Pub Date: July 1, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-8027-1698-9

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Walker

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2008

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A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular...

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WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

A neurosurgeon with a passion for literature tragically finds his perfect subject after his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer.

Writing isn’t brain surgery, but it’s rare when someone adept at the latter is also so accomplished at the former. Searching for meaning and purpose in his life, Kalanithi pursued a doctorate in literature and had felt certain that he wouldn’t enter the field of medicine, in which his father and other members of his family excelled. “But I couldn’t let go of the question,” he writes, after realizing that his goals “didn’t quite fit in an English department.” “Where did biology, morality, literature and philosophy intersect?” So he decided to set aside his doctoral dissertation and belatedly prepare for medical school, which “would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” The author’s empathy undoubtedly made him an exceptional doctor, and the precision of his prose—as well as the moral purpose underscoring it—suggests that he could have written a good book on any subject he chose. Part of what makes this book so essential is the fact that it was written under a death sentence following the diagnosis that upended his life, just as he was preparing to end his residency and attract offers at the top of his profession. Kalanithi learned he might have 10 years to live or perhaps five. Should he return to neurosurgery (he could and did), or should he write (he also did)? Should he and his wife have a baby? They did, eight months before he died, which was less than two years after the original diagnosis. “The fact of death is unsettling,” he understates. “Yet there is no other way to live.”

A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular clarity.

Pub Date: Jan. 19, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-8129-8840-6

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2015

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Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

GOOD ECONOMICS FOR HARD TIMES

“Quality of life means more than just consumption”: Two MIT economists urge that a smarter, more politically aware economics be brought to bear on social issues.

It’s no secret, write Banerjee and Duflo (co-authors: Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way To Fight Global Poverty, 2011), that “we seem to have fallen on hard times.” Immigration, trade, inequality, and taxation problems present themselves daily, and they seem to be intractable. Economics can be put to use in figuring out these big-issue questions. Data can be adduced, for example, to answer the question of whether immigration tends to suppress wages. The answer: “There is no evidence low-skilled migration to rich countries drives wage and employment down for the natives.” In fact, it opens up opportunities for those natives by freeing them to look for better work. The problem becomes thornier when it comes to the matter of free trade; as the authors observe, “left-behind people live in left-behind places,” which explains why regional poverty descended on Appalachia when so many manufacturing jobs left for China in the age of globalism, leaving behind not just left-behind people but also people ripe for exploitation by nationalist politicians. The authors add, interestingly, that the same thing occurred in parts of Germany, Spain, and Norway that fell victim to the “China shock.” In what they call a “slightly technical aside,” they build a case for addressing trade issues not with trade wars but with consumption taxes: “It makes no sense to ask agricultural workers to lose their jobs just so steelworkers can keep theirs, which is what tariffs accomplish.” Policymakers might want to consider such counsel, especially when it is coupled with the observation that free trade benefits workers in poor countries but punishes workers in rich ones.

Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-61039-950-0

Page Count: 432

Publisher: PublicAffairs

Review Posted Online: Aug. 29, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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