Through time & space
The following titles can take readers from the period just before the American Revolution to the future of satellite technology, with stops along the way for an examination of the roots of today's pop-culture media, a prescription for U.S. policy in the Mideast and a ground-level account of China's economic activities in developing nations worldwide.
“Our Lives, Our Fortunes and Our Sacred Honor: The Forging of American Independence, 1774-1776” by Richard R. Beeman (Basic Books, available Tuesday) — In this book, the University of Pennsylvania's John Welsh Centennial Professor of History examines a relatively neglected chapter of the American story: the 22 months from the opening of the First Continental Congress on Sept. 5, 1774, to the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. The author says the Colonies' firm allegiance to Great Britain — evidenced by King George III's portrait being commonly displayed in Colonial homes, including that of Benjamin Franklin — underwent an astonishingly swift reversal during that period, enabling secession from the British Empire. He recounts how Continental Congress delegates initially knew more about their British rulers than their Colonial neighbors, lacked consensus on responding to Britain's harsh reaction to the Boston Tea Party and had little desire to alter the status quo — all of which had to change for independence to occur. Along the way, he covers Colonial debates about seceding that can illuminate questions about U.S. intervention abroad today, how Thomas Jefferson's draft Declaration differed from the final, signed version, and the rivalry between Massachusetts' John Adams and Pennsylvania's John Dickinson, which reflected our nascent nation's dilemma.
“A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert ‘Believe It or Not!' Ripley” by Neal Thompson (Crown Archetype, available Tuesday) — His name still familiar, Robert Ripley's career predated our zillion-channel, YouTube, reality-TV age, but he should be credited — or is it blamed? — as a media pioneer and forerunner of those who today profit from fascinating so many with the exotic, titillating, weird and extreme. Billed as the first biography of a man the publisher calls “Howard Hughes crossed with P.T. Barnum” and “a lonely, buck-toothed cartoonist turned eccentric millionaire and world traveler,” this book shows how Ripley entertained Depression America and influenced the development of newspapers, radio and TV. As much an oddity as anything he covered, Ripley visited 201 countries but never learned to drive a car, went from living for 15 years in a tiny New York Athletic Club room to owning a private, 3-acre New York island complete with mansion and unusual pets, and once tried out for the New York Giants baseball team, only to break his arm. His is an American story of an oddball underdog's success through hard work — as well as a tale that shows Americans' appetite for “fluff,” as opposed to hard news, is anything but a new phenomenon.
“Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East” by David Rohde (Viking) — This book's journalist author has seen the worst of the region it addresses up close, in a way few other Westerners have: He survived being kidnapped in Afghanistan by escaping from Taliban captors after seven months, as he and his wife recounted in their 2010 book “A Rope and A Prayer.” He also won a Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for coverage of the Srebrenica massacre and shared another, awarded in 2008 to a New York Times team for coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Here, he takes a broader view, calling for dramatic change in U.S. policy. He contends that “a dysfunctional Washington squandered billions on contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, neglected its true allies in the war on terror and failed to employ its most potent nonmilitary weapons: American consumerism, technology, and investment,” according to the publisher. Surveying Tunisia, Turkey and Egypt in the wake of the “Arab Spring,” he finds that people there yearn for U.S. trade, education and technology. He argues that ultimately, Americans cannot end Islamist militancy — and that only moderate Muslims can. He'd have the United States do far more to support them than it has since 9/11.
“China's Silent Army: The Pioneers, Traders, Fixers and Workers Who Are Remaking the World in Beijing's Image” by Juan Pablo Cardenal and Heriberto Araujo, translated by Catherine Mansfield (Crown) — In this book, two Spanish-speaking, Beijing-based journalists offer a unique look at China's rise as a global power, examining how its economic investments affect developing nations, along with the role played by “the many ordinary Chinese citizens working around the world — in the oil industry in Kazakhstan, mining minerals in the Democratic Republic of Congo, building dams in Ecuador, selling hijabs in Cairo — who are contributing to China's global dominance while also leaving their mark in less salutary ways,” the publisher says. The authors traveled the world from 2009 to 2011, investigating their topic via in-depth, on-the-ground reporting and bringing outsider perspective wherever their work took them. Their resulting book offers a fresh take on China's implications for trade, business, the environment and other nations' foreign policy — one that adds to politics and economics a human element that hardly flatters the Chinese. And as Beijing acts to secure more resources and the lines distinguishing China's government, military and business sectors grow ever more blurry, its effects wherever it's involved will only become more apparent, controversial and important for other nations around the world.
“Sky Alert! When Satellites Fail” by Les Johnson (Spencer Praxis Books) — Many technological wonders we take for granted — civilian and military GPS navigation, improved weather forecasting, cutting-edge environmental and resource monitoring, imagery of hostile actions deep within nations such as North Korea, telecommunications that span the globe instantaneously — depend on Earth-orbiting satellites whose vulnerabilities threaten to disrupt terrestrial life. The author — deputy manager for NASA's Advanced Concepts Office at the George C. Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, Ala., co-writer of three previous nonfiction books about advanced spaceflight technologies and a frequent expert guest on TV and radio programs — urges swift action to avert such a celestial disaster. He says a satellite-based catastrophe could result from solar storms, the estimated 500,000 pieces of “space junk” already in orbit or warfare. Nevertheless, he's optimistic, examining ways to better predict solar storms and protect satellites against them, remove debris from orbit and curtail its growth, harden satellites against radiation and prevent military conflict in space through treaties and other cooperation among spacefaring nations. Vital underpinnings of the global economy and U.S. national security, satellites are assets all too easily overlooked despite their constant presence overhead; this book seeks to spare us all the experience of appreciating them fully only through their loss.
Alan Wallace is a Trib Total Media editorial page writer (412-320-7983 or awallace@ tribweb.com).
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