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The Barnes & Noble Review (42 found)

Northwest to the Sea

March 22, 2018  | 

In the late eighteenth century, the fur trade in North America entailed a huge and costly detour. Beaver pelts, harvested in Canada and the United States and destined for China, had first to be shipped east to London. From there they traveled southwest, around Cape Horn, and then west halfway around the world to the …

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The Sound of the Future

December 11, 2017  | 

Beethoven was the first great Romantic composer, and if you listen closely you can hear the moment he launched a new era in music. It occurs about a minute into the third movement of his Symphony No. 3, Eroica. After ninety-two bars of indeterminate pianissimo throat clearing, the orchestra suddenly scales upward and erupts in …

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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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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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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 Pigeon Tunnel

September 6, 2016  | 

One of John le Carré’s boyhood memories is clutching his mother’s hand while waving to his father, who stood high up behind a prison wall. Ronnie Cornwell was a charming rogue, a confidence man who ran frauds and visited jails all over the world. He once sent the teenage le Carré to St. Moritz to …

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The Ordeal of the Presidency

May 23, 2016  | 

During the early 2000s, a friend and I liked to discuss George W. Bush’s motives. Neither of us were fans of his presidency, but my friend would occasionally defend President Bush — or perhaps try to understand him — by contending that he did not seem like an evil man out to destroy the country. …

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The End of the Cold War

December 8, 2015  | 

Who deserves credit: Reagan or Gorbachev? It is a question that drives many a book about the downfall of the Soviet Union. Yet to Robert Service, the eminent British historian of Soviet Russia, the question overlooks the complex and dynamic mechanics of history. In The End of the Cold War: 1985–1991, Service masterfully weaves a …

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Give Us the Ballot

August 5, 2015  | 

The dogs. The lunch counter. The “whites-only” sign. These enduring images of the civil rights movement are visceral symbols of separation and resistance. Yet they obscure a less tangible but more profound civil right: the right to vote. President Lyndon Johnson viewed the franchise as the right on which all other rights depend: “the meat …

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To Fame and Fortune

May 11, 2015  | 

As a young man, Saul Bellow radiated confidence about his future as a writer. Alfred Kazin observed that “he carried around with him a sense of his destiny,” as though he “expected the world to come to him.” Referring to Bellow’s uncanny gift for language, another friend told him, “You don’t dive for those pearls …

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Man in Profile

May 6, 2015  | 

In 1944 Joseph Mitchell wrote one of the great profiles in the storied history of The New Yorker. Its subject was Old Mr. Flood, a 93-year-old “seafoodetarian,” comfortably retired after the sale of his demolition and salvage business and established in rooms at the Hartford Hotel. Mr. Flood’s aspiration was to live to the age …

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Gateway to Freedom

January 16, 2015  | 

A fugitive slave never stops running. During the nineteenth century, escaped slaves from the American South looked over their shoulders until they reached Canada, which stoutly refused to extradite them. Slave catchers roamed the cities of the North. Federal law and even the American Constitution abetted their awful work. Whites were more likely to betray …

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The Georgetown Set

November 3, 2014  | 

Sunday dinners at Joe Alsop’s Georgetown home followed a strict protocol. The evening began with dry martinis to disinhibit the guests: ambassadors, justices, reporters, and members of Congress. Ladies had to be escorted into the dining room, and the sexes disbanded after dessert: men to the library and women upstairs. (Alsop, a syndicated columnist for …

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Anguish and Triumph

August 12, 2014  | 

Ludwig van Beethoven, titan of Romanticism and sublime poet of music, was himself no poem. A misanthrope with a volatile temper and slovenly appearance, he was once mistaken for a tramp and hauled off to spend the night in jail. One of the women who rejected his marriage proposals described him as “ugly and half …

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Notes on a Scandal

June 4, 2014  | 

In the fall of 1973, as Watergate rumbled from a tremor into an earthquake, The New Yorker assigned its new writer Elizabeth Drew to keep a journal of Washington’s tumultuous events. Toward the end of the project, which ended with Richard Nixon boarding Marine One for the last time in August 1974, an exhausted and …

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Of Human Bondage

February 10, 2014  | 

We no longer live in an age of moral suasion, when earnest arguments addressed society’s problems head-on and without guile. Today our great social and political debates are proxy fights, and many are conducted in bad faith, as a kind of dodge. Thus the healthcare law ostensibly concerns socialism rather than the uninsured poor, and …

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Big Brother’s Keeper

August 13, 2013  | 

George Orwell toiled in poverty for many years, but after writing Animal Farm he had to start turning down invitations. In August 1947 the literary magazine The Strand asked him to write something for its pages and to give an account of his life. A prolific essayist and book critic, Orwell was at the time …

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Retreat to Victory

June 13, 2013  | 

The United States did not need to win the Revolutionary War: the United States merely needed to avoid losing the Revolutionary War. So argues historian Joseph J. Ellis in this brisk and astute history of the intertwined political and military developments of the summer of 1776. That summer, of course, saw the fledgling nation declare …

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A Book of Voyages

May 24, 2013  |  ,

One of the pleasures of the late Patrick O’Brian’s novels about the British navy during the age of sail is O’Brian’s enchantment with the fascinatingly diverse world we inhabit. Travel widely enough with him and you encounter sultans and pashas, geographical marvels and zoological specimens, bejeweled parasols, Hamlet’s grave, hussars, Cossacks — maybe even a …

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Oral Arguments

March 20, 2013  | 

When Sandra Day O’Connor retired from the Supreme Court in 2006, she was the most famous judge and most powerful woman in America. Appointed by President Reagan in 1981, she had been the first female justice in the Court’s history. She was also its swing voter, a moderate conservative who preferred pragmatic solutions over her …

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Iron Curtain

November 9, 2012  | 

Imagine yourself at a summer soccer game. The day is fine, the play is lively, and 20,000 fans cheer alongside you. Halftime arrives. Instead of a marching band or cheerleaders, a handful of politicians takes the field. In stiff, bureaucratic language, they urge all present to vote in tomorrow’s three-part referendum on parliamentary reform, the …

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The Oath

September 12, 2012  | 

President versus chief justice: it’s a compelling narrative. Everyone knows the power of the president, with his launch codes, legislative veto, and ability to get network air time whenever he wants it. The Supreme Court, though, wields a bazooka of its own: the power of judicial review, which allows the Court to invalidate laws that …

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The Years of Lyndon Johnson

May 13, 2012  | 

For proof that the greatest stories come from history rather than imagination — that we can best discover the outer limits of the human experience by measuring what those before us have done — we have the lifework of Robert Caro. The author of the multivolume biography The Years of Lyndon Johnson has won shelves …

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Isn’t She Wonderful?

March 21, 2012  |  ,

“Mr. President, the prime minister is on the phone.” So said the White House butler to Ronald Reagan on October 25, 1983, during a briefing on the United States’ impending invasion of Grenada. Margaret Thatcher was upset that Reagan had disregarded her advice against attacking the Caribbean nation (and Commonwealth member), where Marxist rebels had …

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Nixon’s Court

November 1, 2011  | 

Richard Nixon assumed the presidency in 1969 with a rare gift in hand: a lame-duck chief justice presiding over the Supreme Court. The great progressive Earl Warren had announced his retirement in June 1968 in hopes that Lyndon Johnson could appoint his successor. But the Senate rejected Johnson’s man, Justice Abe Fortas, and soon clouded …

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August 30, 2011  |  ,

In September 1941, as the German Wehrmacht sped east toward Leningrad, Josef Stalin struck a blow against sentimentalism in warfare. His advisers told him that the Germans were putting Russian children and elderly at the front line and ordering them to beg the Red Army to surrender the city. Soviet troops recoiled from orders to …

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Is “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” a force for good?

June 18, 2011  |  ,

A new book reassesses the controversial anti-slavery novel and explores its mixed legacy. Is “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” a force for good, or is it just a mediocre book? More than any other written work, it helped to provoke the Civil War and hasten the end of slavery. In its day (it was published in 1852) …

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The Life of a Maverick Lawyer

May 16, 2011  |  ,

On the first page of this biography, Andrew Kersten calls Clarence Darrow America’s greatest lawyer. That’s not quite right. The title cannot belong to a man who tried to bribe a jury, represented the mafia, and defended unrepentant murderers and terrorists for the right fee — not when there are Thurgood Marshall, Louis Brandeis, and …

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Cunning, Vision, and Immense Resolve

January 17, 2011  | 

Although he is remembered as the first African-American Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall in his day was one hell of a civil rights lawyer. As general counsel to the NAACP from 1938 to 1961 he argued 32 cases before the Supreme Court, winning an astounding 29. These seminal precedents include Smith v. Allwright (1944) (invalidating …

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The Civil War of 1812

November 26, 2010  | 

The War of 1812 is an uncertain affair in American memory and legend.  Its touchstones—the composition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the burning of Washington—tend to overshadow the roots and consequences of the three-year conflict. Historian Alan Taylor offers a corrective in The Civil War of 1812, arguing that the United States used the war …

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The Early Abortion Wars

June 18, 2010  |  ,

Abortion partisans tend to date the onset of war to 1973, when the Supreme Court held that a Texas statute banning most abortions was unconstitutional. Before Roe v. Wade reminds us that the national debate over abortion was not only under way in 1973, but voices were already growing hoarse. Editors Linda Greenhouse, a journalist, …

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John Brown’s Trial

January 16, 2010  | 

Eight days after the militant abolitionist John Brown was arrested while raiding the federal armory at Harpers Ferry in 1859, he stood trial for treason and murder in a Virginia court. Brian McGinty persuasively contends that Brown’s trial was even more consequential than the raid itself — for had he died during the fighting, he …

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November 27, 2009  | 

Before reading a single page of Andre Agassi’s autobiography, Open, I determined to evaluate it according to the standards established in a lovely little essay called “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart,” by David Foster Wallace.  Austin was a tennis star in the 1970s whose memoir Wallace, an exuberant observer of the game, agreed to …

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No Impact Man

September 21, 2009  | 

In this companion volume to the documentary film and popular blog, writer Colin Beavan chronicles a year spent making “as little environmental impact as possible” while living and working in New York City. The rules are: no elevators, subways, planes, cars, consumer purchases, plastics, paper goods, electricity, or non-local food; also, he must plant trees …

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Empire of Illusion

July 27, 2009  | 

In this short, grim, fiercely argued book, journalist Chris Hedges explains that we are doomed. He catalogues in essay-length chapters four examples of what he calls modern America’s “moral nihilism”: its fawning celebrity culture, sadistic pornography industry, insipidly vocational universities, and pervasive corporate influence. Hedges concludes with a wake-up call for a society that, he …

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By His Own Rules

July 6, 2009  | 

Few will be surprised to learn that Donald Rumsfeld’s signature wrestling move was a body slam. His preferred version, euphemistically called the “fireman’s carry,” is neither subtle nor delicate, a creature more of the Rowdy Roddy Piper school of bruising than the staid and honorable Greco-Roman tradition. Throughout his successful wrestling career in high school, …

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The Foie Gras Wars

April 30, 2009  | 

If a single dish could be said to embody the very pinnacle of man’s decadence, vanity, and moral ruin, it would be Pâté de foie gras de Strasbourg. This French specialty is made of a whole goose liver — unnaturally fattened to many times its normal size through force-feedings — wrapped in veal, the tender …

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The Philosopher and the Wolf

April 21, 2009  | 

What distinguishes friendship between two people from friendship between a human and an animal? There are the drinking games, of course. And human friends also offer each other more complex reciprocal qualities (humor, shared experience, perspective) than humans and animals do (patience, dependability, loyalty). But more than that, admiration seems to be a subtly important …

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The Art Instinct

December 31, 2008  | 

God bless contrarians. When the chumps in the audience start clapping on the downbeat, it’s the contrarians who score one for hipness by hitting the backbeat; roving around like members of some cerebral street gang, they buck trends, scorn fashions — always smirking — and generally look for a thinker’s scrap where first principles can …

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The Irregulars

October 20, 2008  | 

This breezy, gossipy, beautifully written book traces the early life of the writer Roald Dahl as he made the rounds and unmade the beds in 1940s Washington as one of His Majesty’s dashing spies. Intent on bringing the United States into World War Two, England established a clandestine agency called British Security Coordination, which undercut …

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The Dark History of Mind Control

December 11, 2005  | 

In perhaps the most famous psychological experiment of modern times, Stanley Milgram proved that most of us are no better than Nazis. In 1961 the Yale psychologist divided pairs of paid volunteers into test-takers and shock therapists; each wrong answer from the former earned an electric shock by the latter, who could hear but could …

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