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Reviews and Essays

Another Reason to Rejoice Greatly

December 8, 2017  | 

It is a December evening, and you’re trapped in a school auditorium for the holiday concert. The long-suffering music director raises a baton, the violins screech horribly and some petrified high-school tenor, all puberty and nerves, squeaks out the first few notes of “Comfort Ye,” the opening aria of Handel’s “Messiah.” Your soul convulses as …

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Da Vinci’s Diaries

October 26, 2017  | 

Leonardo da Vinci — bearded sage of the Renaissance, anatomist, engineer, inventor, and creator of two of the most famous paintings in history (Mona Lisa and The Last Supper) — was first and foremost a mensch. He was, according to an acquaintance, handsome and kind, a gay vegetarian, “friendly, precise, and generous, with a radiant, …

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Russia’s Founding Father

August 24, 2017  | 

When Mikhail Gorbachev rose to give his first address as general secretary of the Communist Party in 1985, listeners could be forgiven their low expectations. The previous three Soviet premiers were walking fossils. Their mumbling speeches inspired no one. Konstantin Chernenko, Gorbachev’s immediate predecessor, wheezed and coughed and was as yellow as old fingernails; a …

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How the Thug Became a Dove

June 10, 2017  | 

While serving as attorney general, Robert Kennedy wore his hair close-cropped in the style of the early 1960s. After a trip to the barber it could almost resemble a crew cut. But after President Kennedy’s assassination, he began growing it out. By the time he became a candidate for president in 1968, he had an …

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Where the Water Goes

May 5, 2017  | 

Some miles south of the Mexican city of Los Algodones, near the Baja Peninsula, the Colorado River ends. It used to flow to the sea, emptying into the Gulf of California. As recently as midcentury, its delta was a wetland ecosystem, with lagoons, fish, and jaguars. Now the drainage basin is an arid wasteland. Motorists …

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Six Encounters with Lincoln

May 1, 2017  | 

How do we gauge the success of a presidency? The media has recently found itself asking this question. There are standard measures like passing durable legislation and responding well to crisis. Equally important, at least for the current president, are keeping campaign pledges and maintaining popularity through statements and speeches. President Obama’s goal seemed to …

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Action Figures

April 27, 2017  | 

MARGARET THATCHER A Life and Legacy By David Cannadine 162 pp. Oxford University, $14.95. So much has been said about Margaret Thatcher that the only thing left to do is to say less. Cannadine’s life of the strident and indomitable prime minister is quick as a sprint and a joy to read. Initially prepared as …

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Why We Eat Octopus But Not Cat

April 8, 2017  | 

The debate over eating animals has become as toxic as our politics, with even more fake blood. The positions of both sides are best understood in the context of reaction. Carnivores ­unsurprisingly dislike vegetarian ­finger-wagging and want to enjoy their suppers in peace. Animal-­welfare advocates, for their part, see such an acute ethical crisis that they …

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The Worst Job in the World

March 20, 2017  | 

In 1981, the Atlantic Monthly published a devastating critique of supply-side economics called “The Education of David Stockman.” The article was a major embarrassment for the Reagan administration: Stockman was the president’s budget director, and had publicly undermined the theory and numbers behind Reagan’s entire economic program. The cover of the magazine even featured a …

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Travels with Henry James

November 30, 2016  | 

What is the difference between the Great Lakes and the ocean? A scientist will tell you that the ocean contains saltwater, of course, and a vast ecosystem; the moon’s gravity also exerts a greater pull on it, establishing the tides. Asked the same question, a gifted novelist — indeed, a master — will tell you less, …

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The Musings of the Maestro

November 19, 2016  | 

An orchestra’s conductor is a remote and mysterious figure. Known to the listening public for intensity of gesture during a concert and expansive waving after it, he seems rarely to speak. Leonard Bernstein was an exception at the New York Philharmonic, forever interrupting rehearsals to tell a story about what happened at so-and-so’s place and giving introductory remarks …

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Cold War Cadenza

October 8, 2016  | 

A year after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik and two years after it crushed a democratic uprising in Hungary, the Russian people surprisingly adopted a young American pianist named Van Cliburn. Twenty-three years old, he was as tall and thin as a stalk of corn, with all the guile of a newborn baby. His electrifying …

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