All posts by bhuerster

Women in 1950s England; the woman behind a medical miracle; and a 19th century murder mystery set in Russia.

When my book group read “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot a few years back we had an unusually large turnout for the discussion. I found the book very interesting so I was excited to see that it was featured in one of my favorite book discussion programs, Books and Authors, on the BBC on 6/24/14. Harriet Gilbert is the host of the show. She and each of her guests pick a book and they all discuss each one in turn. Financial adviser Alvin Hall picked the book about Henrietta Lacks and lead the discussion, including his perspective as an African American who grew up in segregation around the time a scientist removed some cancer cells from Ms. Lacks, also an African American, without her permission, and without informing her family. These cells were widely used in medical research, including the development of the polio vaccine.

Journalist and author India Knight chose the novel “Jane and Prudence” by Barbara Pym and lead that discussion. This novel, about the lives of two women in England in the 1950s couldn’t be more different than the book about Henrietta Lacks. I never thought I would be interested in reading a book by Ms. Pym, but after hearing about her witty social observations I might give this one a try. The discussion was at times hilarious. The last book, recommended by Harriett Gilbert, was “The Winter Queen” by Boris Akunin, which according to Ms. Gilbert was very popular in Russia recently. In addition to being a very good story, it was noted that the translation from Russian is outstanding.

This edition of Books and Authors was especially entertaining because of the wit, humor, and insightful comments from Ms. Gilbert and her two guests. To listen to the program, or download a podcast to listen to at your convenience, visit the URL below, then scroll down until you come to the program entitled “A Good Read: India Knight and Alvin Hall,” and dated 6/24/14.

How much would you pay for this blog post?

Online publishers are trying to figure out how they can afford to deliver quality digital journalism when so much content from competitors is available to consumers for free. Publishers have tried different experiments with paywalls over the years, some more successful than others. As explained in NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday on May 03, 2014, Slate was one of the first online magazines to try a pay wall in 1998, but the effort failed and they had to stop charging for content. David Folkenflik of NPR points out that Slate “can’t simply expect that online advertising and some of the revenue they get from their podcasts, from which they derive about 20 percent of their revenues, will be enough to sustain the journalism” people have come to expect from them.

In a new effort to earn money to run the site, Slate has launched Slate Plus, described on the site as “an all-access pass for readers who support our journalism and want a closer connection to it.” For $5 a month or $50 a year, members will have exclusive access to Slate writers, as well as access to private events, and enhanced podcasts. Articles will still be free to those who don’t sign up for Slate Plus, says Folkenflik. Jacob Weisberg, the chairman of the Slate Group, reportedly “wants readers of Slate to think of themselves as customers of Slate, or even as members of Slate.” It will be interesting to see if this model, akin to the way NPR funds its journalism, will work for Slate.

To listen to the program, or download a podcast to listen to at your convenience, visit the URL below:


Long articles on short screens.

Magazines are struggling to remain viable in the face of competition from Internet publications, and changes in how readers consume journalism. The New Republic is a century-old high-brow magazine that is adapting to the changing way that people read, including the growing popularity of reading on mobile devices. According to the magazine’s web site, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes purchased the magazine in 2012 “to help build a future for substantive journalism in a digital age.”

While some might argue that the kind of long-form journalism in the New Republic would not appeal to a mobile audience, Hughes told NPR’s Morning Edition in a January 29, 2013 interview that 20 percent of their traffic was coming from mobile devices. He went on to say “So we’ve redesigned our website so that it’s optimized for not only a mobile reading experience, but for the tablet as well. We’ve added in all kinds of features like cross-device syncing, so that if you start a piece at your desk and you get halfway through it, when you come back to the same article on your phone, it picks you up right where you left off. … Increasingly, that’s the way we read.” When asked if the New Republic would remain a print publication, Hughes said “we make money off of print,” and added that on the weekend he loves sitting down and paging through a print magazine.

To listen to the Morning Edition program, or download a podcast to listen to at your convenience, visit the URL below:

What Would Lincoln Do?

Abraham Lincoln is a fascinating figure and all the more interesting because he emerged as one of the greatest statesmen in American history in the midst of the worst crisis to face the United States: the Civil War. As a long time Lincoln enthusiast I listened to the 2/21/13 edition of OnPoint, hosted by Tom Ashbrook, with great interest. In this program he talked to Brandeis English professor John Burt about his book entitled “Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism: Lincoln, Douglas, and Moral Conflict.” In addition to looking at Lincoln through a moral lense, this conversation showcases Ashbrook’s unique talent as talk show host. He engages in a very thoughful conversation with professor Burt, digging deep into Lincoln’s thinking about democracy and morality.

To listen to the program, or download a podcast to listen to at your convenience, visit the URL below:

Monsignor Quixote, a novel of ideas

Graham Greene has written some of my favorite novels, including The Heart of the Matter,  A Burnt Out Case, and The Human Factor. Monsignor Quixote, another favorite of mine by Greene, was the subject of discussion on the BBC program Books and Authors on 10/22/13. Harriet Gilbert is the host of the show, and her guests for this edition were Gabriel Gbadamosi, a poet, playwright and essayist and author of the novel Vauxhall; and Brendan O’Neill, editor of the online magazine Spiked and author of Can I Recycle My Granny And 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas. The format of the show is that Ms. Gilbert and each of her guests pick a book and they all discuss each of the books in turn. Mr. O’Neill chose Monsignor Quixote.

Briefly, the book is about a road trip that Father Quixote, a Spanish priest, and his friend Sancho, a former Communist mayor, take to Madrid. They have lots of adventures along the way and argue about religion and politics while acknowledging struggles with doubt. Mr. O’Neill makes the interesting observation that this is one of the “last great ideas novels.” While the story is ostensibly a portrait of a friendship, it’s really a vehicle for the characters to talk about two great ideologies, Catholicism and Communism. In contrast, Mr. O’Neill argues, modern fiction tends to be based on personal identity rather than ideas, citing fiction by contemporary authors like Zadie Smith, for example.

To listen to the program, or download a podcast to listen to at your convenience, visit the URL below, then scroll down until you come to the program title, dated 10/22/13.

Navigating Your Twenties.

Dr. Meg Jay, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Virginia, was on the Brian Lehrer show on WNYC four times in May 2013 to talk about her advice for people in their twenties. She is the author of the book “The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter – and How to Make the Most of Them.” The segments focus on how Facebook can be frustrating for twenty-somethings (5/10); the physiology of the brain (5/17);  confidence at work (5/24); and “the urban tribe and network” (5/31/13). The point of the final segment is that people need to reach outside of their circle of close friends and acquaintances to increase their chances of finding and attaining new opportunities. I listened to all four segments and I am now about halfway through her book. I am struck by the insight and wisdom she brings to this subject. My twenties came and went a long time ago, but her insights resonate powerfully with the lessons I learned along the way and many of them are relevant to adults of any age.

Visit this URL to listen to the “urban tribes” segment, or download a podcast to listen to at your convenience:

Modern India

Something draws me to stories of the immigrant experience, which often include insightful observations from the vantage point of a newcomer, and sometimes conflicts when children adopt the values of the new country to the dismay of their parents. One of my favorite books in this vein is a collection of short stories called “The Interpreter of Maladies” by Jhumpa Lahiri, about immigrants from India living in the U.S. “The Inheritance of Loss” by Kiran Desai is a great novel that takes place both in New York City and India. In addition, I enjoyed the 1991 film “Mississippi Masala,” directed by Mira Nair, about an Indian family forced to leave Uganda during the reign of Idi Amin. While most of the story takes place in Mississippi, there are many evocative flashbacks to the family’s time in Uganda. Another great movie from 2002 is “Bend it Like Beckham” directed by Gurinder Chadha, about a young British woman of Indian heritage who comes into conflict with her parents over her love of soccer. Aside from being a great story, this movie has a fabulous sound track.

Drawn to the subject of India, I was intrigued by the the 9/12/13 edition of OnPoint, hosted by Tom Ashbrook, entitled: “Modern India: Big Growth, Big Problems.” Tom has a long conversation with Anand Giridharadas, columnist for The New York Times and author of “India Calling: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation’s Remaking.” Mr. Giridharadas makes many interesting points, and contends that the media places too much emphasis on the Indian economy, and calls for a different narrative beyond India’s growth rate. He goes on to elaborate on social aspects of Indian society, and puts them in historic and international context. 

Tom’s other guest is Arvind Subramanian, Senior Fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and at the Center for Global Development and author of ”Eclipse: Living in the Shadow of China’s Economic Dominance.” Mr. Subramanian cites positive developments in some Indian states as hopeful signs for the nation’s future. 

Visit this URL to listen to this program, or download a podcast to listen to at your convenience:

Letting Go.

The Forum is an “ideas discussion show” available on the BBC web site, hosted by Bridget Kendall. The program on 8/31/13 was entitled “Letting Go” and featured the following guests: Bulgarian-American writer Miroslav Penkov; medical doctor and  philosopher Raymond Tallis; and Chinese choreographer Xu Rui. The topic of the program was letting go of “places, people, the past, or ideas and traditions.” This was an eclectic discussion that is hard to summarize, but I will call out some of the ideas expressed that I found very interesting.

On the topic of letting go of places, Ms. Kendall asked Miroslav Penkov about what it was like to let go of his homeland when he moved to America to go to college, then stayed there. Mr. Penkov said that, paradoxically, leaving Bulgaria made him realize how much he cared for it and heightened his sense of belonging there. As he put it, “not only did I not let go, but in fact I found it, it’s just that I found it in Arkansas in America.” I had a similar experience when I moved from Cleveland to New York City in the mid-eighties. I had lived in Cleveland all my life, except for two years in nearby Kent, Ohio. When I finished graduate school I actually wanted to stay in Cleveland, but couldn’t find suitable employment there.

After I moved to New York I found myself thinking about Cleveland a lot, and grew to appreciate it much more than I did when I lived there. I always look forward to returning for a visit, especially to visit my family. I could go on for pages about aspects of Cleveland for which my appreciation has grown, but for the sake of brevity some of the highlights include the many beautiful buildings, including homes in older neighborhoods that were built between about 1890 and 1930; old churches in the inner city (one of which, St. Theodosius, was used as a setting in the 1978 film “The Deer Hunter”); old downtown office buildings; a beautiful arcade opened in 1890 that runs between the city’s two main thoroughfares, known as “The Arcade;” Lake Erie; and the Metroparks, a beautiful park system that must be experienced to be fully appreciated.

Ms. Kendall invited Raymond Tallis to talk about paradoxes in letting go in relation to thinking. He cited the benefits of letting go when trying to solve a difficult problem by first thinking hard to try and come up with a solution, then putting the problem out of your mind and taking a walk. As he put it, “the rhythm of walking is a continuous trickle of elsewhere that endlessly refreshes your mind,” and that this kind of “irrigation of the mind” “shakes up the categories” in your brain, helping you to see things in a new light, with new perspective that might help you in solving the problem you were working on.

To listen to the program, or download a podcast to listen to at your convenience, visit the URL below, then scroll down until you come to the program title, dated 8/31/13. Note that as of 9/8/13 the program will only be available for another 22 days.

The War of the North in America.

In the Spring of 1864 U.S. Grant took control of the Union Army and launched an all-out assault aimed at destroying Lee’s forces. From May 1864 until the end of the war the two armies were never out of contact. Grant stayed on the move, attacking Lee’s Army relentlessly, at a great cost in Union casualties. Earlier in the war the two sides took a break after big battles and then engaged again after resting and regrouping.  One of the many bloody battles in Grant’s final campaign was at Cold Harbor in Virginia. Just before a Union assault there at dawn on June 3, 1864 hundreds of Union soldiers pinned papers on their uniforms with their names written on them so their bodies could be identified. By early afternoon Grant realized the attack was a mistake, at the cost of 7,000 Union casualties, compared to less than 1,500 for the Rebels, as pointed out by James McPherson of Princeton University in his book “Battle Cry of Freedom.” What motivated Union soldiers to march to their deaths, and why did people in the North tolerate the terrible loss of life as the Civil War ground on for four years? This question is addressed in the BBC Radio 3 documentary entitled “Dr Adam Smith on the War of the North in America,” which aired on 7/25/12.

The documentary summarizes the complex reasons for the war from a Northern perspective, and the nuanced meaning of the outcome. In his second inaugural,  Abraham Lincoln said that slavery was “somehow, the cause of the war,” alluding to the difficulty of summing up the cause definitively. He didn’t celebrate Northern victory with a righteous note of triumph, and acknowledged that both the North and the South shared responsibility for the sin of slavery. In addition, it  isn’t clear that the Civil War redeemed the nation from this sin, as Edward L. Ayers, President of the University of Richmond, points out. The Civil War was followed by one hundred years of segregation.

A post I added to this blog on 8/29/13 describes a companion documentary from the BBC that looks at the Civil War from a Southern perspective. These two programs  provide a broad, but very informative overview of the Civil War and feature comments by many scholars who have written major books about the history of the conflict, including  Eric Foner of Columbia University, Gary W. Gallagher of the University of Virginia,  David Blight of Yale University, and the aforementioned James McPherson and Edward L. Ayers.

To listen to the program, or download a podcast to listen to at your convenience, visit the URL below, then scroll down until you come to the program title, dated 7/25/12.

The War of the South.

Reading about the ferocity of Civil War battles and the massive numbers of casualties, one can’t help but wonder how things got so out of hand and resulted in such a cataclysm, and why so many soldiers were willing to subject themselves to such danger and sacrifice so much. BBC Radio 3 ran a documentary series on the history of the American Civil War that offers a very concise but illuminating overview of the causes of the Civil War from southern and northern perspectives. The segment from the southern perspective is called “Dr Adam Smith on the War of the South in America,” and aired on 7/25/12. The program includes brief comments by several professors, some of whom have written major books on the Civil War, including James McPherson of Princeton University, Eric Foner of Columbia University, Gary W. Gallagher of the University of Virginia, David Blight of Yale University, and Edward L. Ayers, President of the University of Richmond. This program provides a fascinating overview of many of the key causes of Southern secession.

My daughter attended Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Virginia,  founded in 1749. “Lee” is in the name of the school because Robert E. Lee was president of the University for a short time after the Civil War. He is interred there in a beautiful building on the campus of W&L called “Lee Chapel.” Virginia Military Institute is also in Lexington, Virginia, right down the street from W&L. Thomas Jonathan Jackson was a professor there before he joined the Confederate Army and earned the nickname “Stonewall Jackson.” General Jackson is buried in a cemetery in Lexington, very close to VMI and W&L. For a Civil War buff like myself, it was fascinating to be in such close proximity to the graves of these icons of the Confederacy. I once had the opportunity to go inside the house that Robert E. Lee lived in when he was president of the school. The current president of W&L lives in the house now, and when my daughter graduated he and his wife held a reception for people who attended the ceremony.

W&L is a gorgeous, historic campus and the Chapel where Lee is interred is serene and beautiful. This image is in stark contrast to the horrifying carnage of Civil War battles, an example of which is described in an account written by Samuel R. Watkins, a confederate soldier who fought at the battle of Dead Angle on the Kennasaw Line, near Marietta, Georgia. This documentary includes a dramatic reading of a fascinating and beautifully written account of that battle by Watkins, striking for the
vivid picture it paints of battle.

To listen to the program, or download a podcast to listen to at your convenience, visit the URL below, then scroll down until you come to the program title, dated 7/25/12.