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May 2019

The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960-1963 (Michael R. Beschloss, HarperCollins, 1991, 816 pages)

One of my favorite Beschloss books.  

During the years 1960-1963, the world came closer than at any time before or since to nuclear war. It was during this period too that the United States and the Soviet Union launched the greatest arms race in history. Beschloss here examines the tense, dynamic and very dangerous relationship between the superpower leaders, John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev, focusing largely on the 1961 summit conference regarding Berlin and the Cuban missile crisis of the following year. Drawing on newly declassified U.S. government sources and oral and written reminiscences by Soviet figures recently made available to Western scholars, Beschloss ( Mayday ) explores Soviet decision-making with material about Kremlin discussions during the Cuban crisis, behind-the-scenes maneuvers of Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet reaction to the Kennedy assassination and Khrushchev's fall from power in '64.

 


The Playboy Interviews: Killers, Assassins and Revolutionaries (various authors, Kindle Edition, 2017, 342 pages)

Five Stars! 

In mid-1962, Playboy founder Hugh Hefner was given a partial transcript of an interview with Miles Davis. It covered jazz, of course, but it also included Davis’s ruminations on race, politics and culture. Fascinated, Hef sent the writer—future Pulitzer Prize–winning author Alex Haley, an unknown at the time—back to glean even more opinion and insight from Davis. The resulting exchange, published in the September 1962 issue, became the first official Playboy Interview and kicked off a remarkable run of public inquisition that continues today—and that has featured just about every cultural titan of the past half century.

To celebrate the interview’s 50th anniversary, the editors of Playboy have assembled 13 compilations of the magazine’s most (in)famous interviews—from big mouths and wild men to sports gods and literary mavericks. Here is our collection of 10 interviews with the most notorious renegades: Albert Speer, Saul Alinsky, Abbie Hoffman, James Earl Ray, Fidel Castro, and Yasir Arafat. 

 


Our Search to Know the Lord (George W. Pace, Deseret Book Company, 1988, 229 pages)

Well worth reading.

George Pace was a professor of religious education at Brigham Young University, my alma mater.  I took two classes from him during my undergraduate studies.  His classes were always packed; he was one of the most popular professors in the Religious Department, and for good reason.  He taught with power, conviction, concern, and a wonderful sense of humor. 

I did not know it at the time, but when I first met him Professor Pace labored under a bit of cloud.  This book--Our Search to Know the Lord--first published in the early 1980's had been publicly (and to some minds unfairly) criticized by one of the most influential voices in Mormonism at the time--Bruce R. McConkie, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints' Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.  McConkie took issue with, among other things, Pace's assertion that "because the Savior is our mediator, we always pray to the Father in the name of Christ, and the Father answers our prayers through his Son" (page 30)--an assertion for which, ironically, Pace pointed to some of McConkie's own writings for support.  McConkie called this "plain sectarian nonsense," saying, "Our prayers are addressed to the Father, and to him only. They do not go through Christ, or the Blessed Virgin, or St. Genevieve or along the beads of a rosary. We are entitled to “come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16) 

The effect of McConkie's comments on Pace's career were unfortunate.  The publisher cancelled additional printings of Pace's book and it sank into obscurity for a time.  Thankfully, Pace persevered.  He kept teaching, and did so with distinction.  In 1998, the same publisher who pulled Our Search to Know the Lord republished the book and it has since enjoyed a renewed following.

Though I agree with McConkie's particular criticisms of Pace's book (though not the way he aired his criticisms), those matters ought not to overshadow the book in the main.  Pace answers convincingly many timeless questions for Christians everywhere: Why is it important to know the Father and the Son? Why was the Savior's atonement necessary?  How can we make the Atonement a powerful force in our lives?  How can we live by the Spirit?   

 


Working (Robert A. Caro, Knopf, 2019, 240 pages)

Delicious.  Might be one of my Top 5 reads thus far in 2019.  I recommend listening to the audiobook, which is done by Caro and also includes an interview with Caro at the end.   

For the first time in book form, Caro gives us a glimpse into his own life and work in these evocatively written, personal pieces.  He describes what it was like to interview the mighty Robert Moses; what it felt like to begin discovering the extent of the political power Moses wielded; the combination of discouragement and exhilaration he felt confronting the vast holdings of the Lyndon B. Johnson Library in Austin, Texas; his encounters with witnesses, including longtime residents wrenchingly displaced by the construction of Moses' Cross-Bronx Expressway and Lady Bird Johnson acknowledging the beauty and influence of one of LBJ's mistresses. He gratefully remembers how, after years of working in solitude, he found a writers' community at the New York Public Library, and details the ways he goes about planning and composing his books. 

Caro recalls the moments at which he came to understand that he wanted to write not just about the men who wielded power but about the people and the politics that were shaped by that power. And he talks about the importance to him of the writing itself, of how he tries to infuse it with a sense of place and mood to bring characters and situations to life on the page. Taken together, these reminiscences--some previously published, some written expressly for this book--bring into focus the passion, the wry self-deprecation, and the integrity with which this brilliant historian has always approached his work.

 


The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within, Second Edition (Edward R. Tufte, Graphics Press LLC, 2006, 32 pages)

I hate, no, I LOATHE PowerPoint.  The business, commercial, academic, and government worlds are awash in PowerPoint presentations, most incredibly dull, a crutch for the speaker rather than an aid to the audience, and the lazy person's preferred method of communication, even in written form.  The evidence indicates that PowerPoint, compared to other common presentation tools, reduces the analytical quality of serious presentations of evidence and actually obscures rather than clarifies critical thought and analysis.

This is why I love Edward Tufte's work on information design and data visualization.  Tufte, a Professor emeritus at Yale University, is a pioneer in the fileds of information design and data visualization.  His critique of the ubiquity and misapplication (indeed, abuse) of PowerPoint is spot on. 

Next slide, please. 

 


Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941 (Stephen Kotkin, Penguin Books, 2017, 1173 pages)

A terrific piece of work.  Marvelously researched and written. 

In 1929, Joseph Stalin, having already achieved dictatorial power over the vast Soviet Empire, formally ordered the systematic conversion of the world’s largest peasant economy into “socialist modernity,” otherwise known as collectivization, regardless of the cost.
 
What it cost, and what Stalin ruthlessly enacted, transformed the country and its ruler in profound and enduring ways. Building and running a dictatorship, with life and death power over hundreds of millions, made Stalin into the uncanny figure he became. Stephen Kotkin’s Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929–1941 is the story of how a political system forged an unparalleled personality and vice versa.
 
The wholesale collectivization of some 120 million peasants necessitated levels of coercion that were extreme even for Russia, and the resulting mass starvation elicited criticism inside the party even from those Communists committed to the eradication of capitalism.  But Stalin did not flinch.  By 1934, when the Soviet Union had stabilized and socialism had been implanted in the countryside, praise for his stunning anti-capitalist success came from all quarters.  Stalin, however, never forgave and never forgot, with shocking consequences as he strove to consolidate the state with a brand new elite of young strivers like himself.  Stalin’s obsessions drove him to execute nearly a million people, including the military leadership, diplomatic and intelligence officials, and innumerable leading lights in culture.
 
While Stalin revived a great power, building a formidable industrialized military, the Soviet Union was effectively alone and surrounded by perceived enemies.  The quest for security would bring Soviet Communism to a shocking and improbable pact with Nazi Germany.  But that bargain would not unfold as envisioned. The lives of Stalin and Hitler, and the fates of their respective dictatorships, drew ever closer to collision, as the world hung in the balance.
 
Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929–1941 is a history of the world during the build-up to its most fateful hour, from the vantage point of Stalin’s seat of power. It is a landmark achievement in the annals of historical scholarship, and in the art of biography.