Category Archives: Books and Arts

Starlight Detectives: How Astronomers, Inventors, and Eccentrics Discovered the Modern Universe, by Alan Hirshfeld ’73

Alan Hirshfeld '73

Alan Hirshfeld ’73

The book: A cadre of 19th-century amateur astronomers and inventors played a significant role in the birth of modern astronomy. In Starlight Detectives, Hirshfeld reveals the stories of those ambitious dreamers, among them William Bond, who turned his home into a functional observatory, and a father and son who were trailblazers in astrophotography. The tales Hirshfeld recounts reveal the persistence and imagination required for scientific progress.

The author: Hirshfeld, who has written several books about scientific discoveries, is a professor of physics at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, and an associate of the Harvard College Observatory. Continue reading

A Fictional Romp Through Reality TV and the Absurdities of Our Celebrity Culture

Christopher Beha '02

Christopher Beha ’02

Christopher Beha ’02’s new novel, Arts and Entertainments, is a hilarious send-up of our celebrity culture, but his inspiration came not from watching marathons of The Real Housewives, but from reading Edith Wharton.

A Wharton short story — about an impoverished poet who cannot make money from his poems but is offered the chance to sell a piece of gossip to a newspaper — sparked the idea for the novel, which follows a failed actor who, desperate to afford fertility treatments for his wife, sells a sex tape made with a former girlfriend who now is famous. When his identity is revealed, he is unwittingly drawn into the world of reality TV, which quickly takes over his life. The novel expertly skewers our obsession with the world of celebrities — a newspaper headline reads “Nation Mourns” when a reality TV star dies — and the way in which social media has transformed how we think about our lives.

ArtsEntertainment pb cThere has been “a real debasing of interior life,” Beha says, with the pervasiveness of the idea “that everybody’s life is meant to be broadcast, and that your life has meaning to the extent that it is known about by as many people as possible.” The book’s reality TV maestro, a shadowy figure named Brian Moody, spends a year in the seminary before realizing his true calling, enabling Beha to explore the way celebrity culture “substitutes in some way for what religion used to provide.”

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The Confessions of Frances Godwin, by Robert Hellenga *69

Robert Hellenga *69

Robert Hellenga *69

The novel: Frances Godwin’s long career as a high school Latin teacher ends abruptly because of budget cutbacks. She then begins writing her stories — confessions, really — that recount her “torrid” affair with Paul, her Shakespeare professor and eventually her husband, and the surprising turn her life takes after his death. Frances, now on the cusp of old age, has lived her life as a non-believer. But when Frances becomes entangled in her daughter Stella’s relationship with an abusive husband, her actions lead her to a new relationship with God.

The author: Since 1968, Hellenga has taught English literature at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., where he has been Distinguished Writer-in-Residence. He is the author of The Sixteen Pleasures and Snakewoman of Little Egypt. The Confessions of Frances Godwin is his seventh novel. Continue reading

Poet and Journalist Grabell ’03 to Read from Macho Man

Michael Grabell '03

Michael Grabell ’03

The Poet: Michael Grabell ’03 is an investigative reporter with ProPublica, a nonprofit journalism organization dedicated to in-depth stories in the public interest, for which he writes about air safety and the economy, among other topics. But outside of his professional life, Grabell enjoys a different kind of writing: poetry. His first collection of poems, Macho Man, won the Finishing Line Press chapbook competition and was a finalist for the Pushcart Prize. His work also has appeared in the Best American Poetry anthology.

The Poetry: The title Macho Man might mislead the reader into thinking about a Hemingway-like machismo. But the title is ironic, says Pushcart Prize winner Bruce Bennett, who wrote that the poems are “effortlessly fluent” with a consciousness that “is exquisitely sensitive and attuned to the slightest nuance.” The poems cover a range of subjects, from musings on childhood to sexual longing. National Book Award finalist and Princeton professor James Richardson ’71 wrote, “Grabell arranges the head-on collision of his restless desire with its immovable objects, and somehow walks away from the wreck with poems of utter lucidity, sharp insight, and perfect pace.”

Macho Man_CovThe Readings: Sept. 6th at 1pm, Poets House, 10 River Terrace, NYC; Sept. 10th at 6:30pm, Caffe Reggio, 119 MacDougal Street, NYC; Sept. 12th at 6pm, Cornelia Street Café, 29 Cornelia Street, NYC. Continue reading

O’Hanlon ’82 *91 Deciphers the U.S.-China Dilemma

steinberg-o'hanlon coverStrategic Reassurance and Resolve: U.S.-China Relations in the 21st Century by James Steinberg and Michael E. O’Hanlon ’82 *91 (Princeton University Press).

The Authors: O’Hanlon ’82 *91 is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, where he specializes in national security policy, and a visiting lecturer at Princeton. Steinberg is a former deputy secretary of state.

The Book: Strategic Reassurance and Resolve sets out to determine whether conflict with China is inevitable. As U.S.-Chinese tensions grow, many argue that the burgeoning rivalry between the two countries will result in a showdown, while others think that economic interdependence will bring about peaceful collaboration. In Strategic Reassurance, Steinberg and O’Hanlon chart a middle course, arguing that confrontation is possible, but avoidable. To prevent conflict, they suggest specific policies designed to help the two nations reassure one another of their cooperative intentions.

Opening Lines: “On March 7, 2012, in a speech to mark the 40th anniversary of President Nixon’s historic trip to China, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton observed that ‘the U.S.-China project of 2012…is unprecedented in the history of nations.’ ” Continue reading

Seife ’93 Exposes the Everyday Deceptions of the Internet

Virtual Unreality: Just Because The Internet Told You, How Do You Know It’s True? by Charles Seife ’93 (Viking)

Seife_Charles_photo credit Sigrid Estrada

Charles Seife ’93 (Photo by Sigrid Estrada)

The Author: Charles Seife ’93 is a professor of journalism at New York University and the author of Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea, which won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award.

The Book: The Internet, according to Seife, is making humans better at something they have been doing since the dawn of civilization: lying. The Internet allows people to spread false information more efficiently and less expensively than ever before, rapidly infecting every corner of society with digital fabrications masquerading as reality. Virtual Unreality provides tools to help separate fact from fantasy in the online world. Seife exposes the new methods of manipulation and deception made possible by the digital revolution. He tackles everything from news coverage to online dating, while offering practical tools for discerning the truth online.

Opening Lines: “On October 5, 2001, the world learned what evil can lurk in the heart of a Muppet. He was first spotted in Bangladesh, in Dhaka, at an anti-American rally. He was in the background, almost hidden from view, but there was no question: it was his unmistakable visage…”   Continue reading