Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Learning from Remarkable Lives

Twelve Books about group dynamics, American originals, French attractions, Italian masters, and other innovators and artists who changed the world

Group Dynamics

The True FlagTheodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire. Whether praised as "the large policy" or condemned as imperialism, America's expansionist military and economic moves beginning in 1898 transformed the country into an emerging empire. Driving the process was a combination of arrogance, opportunism and conflicting ambitions. In The True Flag, Stephen Kinzer sheds fresh light on the Spanish-American War, US occupation of Cuba and annexation of the Philippines, and especially the crucial roles played by war-lover Teddy Roosevelt, anti-imperialist Mark Twain and the equivocating presidential hopeful, William Jennings Bryan.

Romantic OutlawsThe Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley. This masterpiece of dual biography is filled with revelations and insights that reverberate through the centuries since Mary Wollstonecraft’s feminist breakthroughs and her daughter Mary Shelley’s literary masterpiece, Frankenstein. The complex lives, loves, politics, struggles, and defiant brillance of these two literary giants are brought vividly to life. For anyone concerned about sexual politics and human liberation, this is essential reading.

Young RadicalsIn the War for American Ideals. This vivid look at five political trail-blazers who ran headlong into the disaster of world war and repression a century ago vibrates with contemporary resonance. A great story-teller, Jeremy McCarter follows and illuminates the intersecting lives and struggles of John Reed, Max Eastman, Alice Paul, Walter Lippmann and Randolph Bourne. Both cautionary and inspiring, Young Radicals is a reminder that, even in ominous times, the battle for ideals isn't over and the vision of a Beloved Community survives.

At the Existentialist CafeFreedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails. This evocative, masterful study brings the history and key figures of existentialism into vivid focus. Sarah Bakewell's writing, rich with vignettes, biographical sketches, and lyrical passages, reveals the inspirations, missteps, and impacts that made the philosophy so influential. Warmly revisiting the intersecting lives of leading voices like Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus and Martin Heidegger — along with their flaws — Bakewell recreates an era while illuminating its still-relevant struggles.

French Attractions

The Mistress of Paris: Catherine Hewitt’s brightly written biography is both engaging and full of myth-busting revelations. Focussing on the one of most extraordinary women of 19th century France, popularly known as Comtesse Valtesse, she has revealed a brilliant, complex figure who rose from poverty to the summit of society by the 1870s. 

Known as a courtesan, and proud of that status, she was also much more — the author of a popular veiled autobiography before she reached 30, the subject of paintings by Manet and other prominent artists, the heroine of an Emile Zola novel, and the owner of marvelous homes and art financed by her many lovers. But beyond that, she was also a self-taught intellectual force who influenced culture, fashion, even the course of international politics. 

The Mistress of Paris is the amazing story — one very well told —  of a superstar celebrity who began at the bottom, and successfully recreated and liberated herself during the belle epoque. Until recently, the life of Valtesse has been veiled in mysteries. Some of them still remain. But Hewitt has taken a major step toward placing the great V back where she belongs — at the center of attention.

The Great NadarThe Man Behind the Camera. A stylish and captivating portrait of a major cultural innovator, one whose talent, imagination and prescient ideas had a profound impact on photography, publishing and flight. Long overlooked, Felix Nadar was an irrepressible spirit at the center of French life for decades, and Adam Begley’s approach is appropriately vivid and irreverent, sprinkled liberally with excellent illustrations that showcase Nadar’s diverse skills, famous associates, and thrilling adventures.

American Originals

Henry AlsbergThe Driving Force of the New Deal Federal Writers’ Project. This revelatory biography eloquently celebrates the life and legacy of a citizen diplomat and arts pioneer, a real life Don Quixote who championed cultural pluralism, prisoner rights and artistic freedom in tumultuous times. Susan Rubenstein DeMasi combines infectious enthusiasm with thorough research and great storytelling, along the way illuminating Henry Alberg's road from WWI era journalist, human rights advocate and "intellectual anarchist" to founder/ director of the Federal Writers Project, a New Deal program that transformed America's literary landscape. DeMasi's book is a vital, long-overdue addition to American literary history.

The Kindness of Strangers: A smart, engaging autobiography by Salka Viertel, screenwriter, actress, and close friend of literary and popular icons during the first half of the 20th century. Viertel’s “incorrigible heart” comes alive in a vividly told story — from her early life and theater career in Poland, Germany and Austria before and after World War I, work with Berthold Brecht and others artists, and tumultuous personal life, to her emergence in the 30s and 40s as a key figure in Hollywood’s emigre community. A close friend and collaborator of Greta Garbo, Viertel helped to create some of Garbo’s indelible film roles, and in her memoir also offers a revealing look at how films were made (and sometimes not made) in Hollywood’s “golden age.”

Orson Welles, Volume 3One Man Band. This is Orson Welles in all his complexity, from filming his landmark Othello and MacBeth through his European exile, the making of Touch of Evil, The Trial and Chimes at Midnight, and struggles as an actor, director and celebrity. Resuming his multi-volume bio after the Hollywood years, Simon Callow is honest enough to show the flaws (and there were many), but never loses sight of Welles' originality and genius.  Must-read film history.

Eyes on the Street: An engaging exploration of Jane Jacobs, the inspired writer who changed how we look at cities, economics and ourselves. Robert Kanigel's approach is intimate and sympathic, following Jane Jacobs from childhood through WWII "propaganda" writing and her groundbreaking early work on architecture to the combination of activism and bold thinking that redefined the city and defeated New York "master builder" Robert Moses. Moving to Canada in 1968, Jacobs continued to explore new ideas, influenced Toronto's development approach, and successfully managed to balance "celebrity" status with the dogged pursuit of a human-scaled, family-centered life.

Italian Masters

Leonardo Da Vinci: Walter Isaacson’s book is a revelatory exploration of renaissance art and culture, the nature of genius and the complex relationship between art and science, experiment and experience. Of course, it is also the story of how and why Leonardo da Vinci created some of the world’s great artworks, as well as his insatiable curiosity, complex personal life, remarkable imagination, and enduring influence on our world. A truly magnificant achievement.

Dante in Love: This sprawling examination of Dante’s life, writing and times revisits his doomed political career, radical philosophy, religious and sexual obsessions, and crucial role in creating the Italian identity. It also suggests that, especially in The Divine Comedy, he may have anticipated the cultural schisms, disillusionment and democratic threats currently on display. 

As author A.N. Wilson explains, “The old political systems, like the old religions, assumed that we all spoke the same language about our shared inner life. That is no longer the case....Human beings were never in history so alone as they are today, never less certain that they possessed anything in common. Dante, poet of dislocation and exile, poet of a new language, has immediate things to say to us which he has not perhaps said in history before.”

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Exposing State Secrets: From Treason to Whistleblowing

For decades federal agencies in the US conducted secret operations, questionable experiments and selective assassinations that had little to do with the public platitudes of political leaders. But now Tonio Wolfe knew, for example, that DARPA, the agency supposedly launched in response to Russia’s Sputnik, was really an R & D wing of the military industrial complex. 

And its publicly-acknowledged projects represented only a fraction of what the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency had been doing for the last half century.

From Dons of Time, Chapter 7: Secrets


The conversation was bland until coffee and dessert. Against his better judgment Tonio accepted an invitation to attend dinner with the family over the holidays. But the latest stories about kids, vacations and home improvements were followed by inevitable arguments.

As a child he’d enjoyed family rituals, despite the disputes of the era — Carter energy prices, the hostage crisis and Reagan, the meltdown at Three Mile Island and the nuke plant in East Shoreham near Long Island Sound. They would gathered in Bayside at the palatial home where Shelley, Giancarlo and their three siblings grew up. Among Tonio’s earliest childhood memories was Roman Wolfe presiding at a bountiful table in the formal dining room. 

Tonio didn’t remember much about two of his uncles — Alek and Georgie — both dead when he was around two. But he was close with Gianni and appreciated the sunny disposition of his aunt Vivian. After dinner they would spend hours opening presents, one by one, enjoying each reaction and anticipating the next surprise.

But this was Wood-Ridge and not Bayside, and Shelley was not the man his father was, a war-hardened Croatian immigrant who left Yugoslavia in the fifties with little but knowledge of construction, the phone number of a family associate in New Jersey, and a flexible attitude toward the use of illegal means and violence to achieve the American Dream. By the time Tonio was born, Roman Lupinjak, who changed his name to Wolfe, was the owner of Wolfe Enterprises, a construction business that concealed involvement in pornography, prostitution, money laundering and murder.

To Tonio he was Grandpa, the benign family patriarch who distributed candy and provided unconditional love.

Even then, however, death was no stranger to the family. In 1974 uncles Al and George perished in a plane crash during their return flight from a Florida construction site. Inconsolable, Roman deteriorated and suffered a fatal stroke in 1977. Tonio was only five years old at the time. Five years later uncle Gianni died. He never accepted the official explanation of that, a sudden heart attack at forty-two while on his regular jogging route.

Over coffee Tania, one of Vivian’s kids, brought up Wikileaks, the whistleblower group that had released a slew of State Department documents shortly after Thanksgiving. “All their dirty little secrets are out,” she chirped, “all in one big, stinking dump.”

“Tanny, that’s disgusting.”

“That’s what they call it, mom, a document dump. They released over 250,000 cables. Now we know the truth.”

“Oh really,” Shelley sniffed. “What truth is that, honey?”

He was asking for trouble. Tania, a college junior majoring in political science, was prepared to defend her position.

“The truth? Our embassies around the world are involved in spying, that’s one. Also, we’ve bribed countries into accepting detainees in exchange for aid, and then let them be tortured. Or how about this? Did you know we support the Kurdish Workers Party in Turkey? The Turks and the US say it’s a terrorist group. I mean, total hypocrisy.”

“And oh, in 2003 the CIA kidnapped a German citizen, and then took him to a secret prison in Afghanistan, and they tortured him and held him there for months. And when they were done they just dropped him off on a hillside in Albania. Afterward, they pressured the Germans not to prosecute the agents who did it.”

She was just getting started but Shelley’s hand wave said enough. “Where are you getting this?” It came off as an accusation.

“Newspapers, Julian Assange. Where have you been, gramps?”

“Oh that one, he should be in prison, that one. It’s treason, what he did.”

A few years earlier Tonio would have said nothing. More accurately, he would have had nothing much to add. But what he had learned since taking on the first serious work of his life made it more difficult to accept Shelley’s knee-jerk blustering. Tania was being provocative but she was on the right track. Tonio was no longer so willing to swallow his feelings or conceal his contempt.

“Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” he said, “that’s what G used to say. And he worked for the State Department.” He glared at Shelley. “It was State, right? I agree with Tanny. We need whistleblowers. We wouldn’t know about the secret prisons without them. And the body armor — we had troops in battle without decent armor until someone said something. Some things need to be secret, no argument. But the reason some of it stays secret is because it’s embarrassing, or against the law.”

Shelley wasn’t happy. “It’s a free country so we can have a civil discussion here,” he offered, trying to sound flexible while simultaneously playing Alpha dog and family patriarch. “But I say he has blood on his hands, Assange. I like Steve King’s idea — treat him like an enemy combatant, get him and take him to a military tribunal.”

Tonio hit back. “So, you’d rather not know what the government is doing?”

“In our name,” Tania added supportively.

“Don’t be naive,” Shelley snapped. “Things need to be done, in business, in government, in private. Not everything belongs on the Internet. Gianni knew that, by the way. He was a patriot. And he would have been the first to go after an anarchist like that albino. He worked on important projects.

“It’s always better to surprise your enemy than to be the one who gets surprised,” he finished. “G appreciated that.”

It was accurate, as far as it went. But working with Danny and Angel had introduced Tonio to a more complex and cynical view. For decades, he’d learned, various federal agencies conducted secret operations, questionable experiments and selective assassinations that had little to do with the public platitudes of political leaders.

He now knew, for example, that DARPA, the agency supposedly launched in response to Russia’s Sputnik, was really an R & D wing of the military industrial complex, engaged in everything from hypersonic research to lightweight satellites. In recent years it had been working on high-energy lasers, advanced aircraft, automatic target recognition, submicrometer electronic technology, electron devices, the Strategic Defense Initiative — also known as Star Wars — and a congressionally-mandated particle beam program directly related to Tesla’s original research. But Danny said the publicly-acknowledged projects represented only a fraction of what the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency had been doing for the last half century.

One example among the many was the suspected use of children in a series of top-secret experiments known as Project Pegasus. The name had triggered the memory of a trip with Gianni to Nutley, and standing in another cavernous room with a gang of kids to see what was described to them as the latest innovation in 3D filmmaking.

Shelley had mentioned his brother’s “important” work. “What projects?” Tonio asked, “do you know?” He had been waiting to pose the question for months. In hindsight, the likelihood that his uncle worked for the State Department looked slim. He wasn’t the type for purely diplomatic missions. More like a field operative, a guy you sent in with a team to rescue hostages or conduct sabotage.

“He couldn’t talk about it,” barked Shelley. “And he didn’t. Like I said, he was a patriot. He followed orders. Loyalty, duty — that used to make a difference.”

“Did he ever talk about DARPA?”

Shelley flinched but tried to conceal his reaction with a joke. “Yeah, I remember him dating somebody with that name.”

“It’s a government agency,” Tania injected.

Now Tonio knew Shelley was holding back. One of his own companies was a subcontractor involved in building the agency’s new headquarters in Arlington, just a few miles from the Pentagon. Shelley’s clumsy evasion added to the growing suspicion that his uncle never completely left the military, and instead went into a defense project like DARPA. It was even possible that the official version of his death was a cover up.

Read Excerpt - Enemy of the State, Part Onehttps://muckraker-gg.blogspot.com/2013/10/enemy-of-state-dons-of-time-preview.html

Part Twohttp://muckraker-gg.blogspot.com/2013/10/enemy-of-state-2-dons-of-time-preview.html

Read Excerpt - Human Traffic: https://gregguma.blogspot.com/2015/03/human-traffic-in-queen-city-dons-of.html

Read Excerpt - Bloody Sunday and the Matchgirl Strike:


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To read chapter one or buy the book: Dons of Time