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- February 28, 2005
- Vol. 63
- No. 8
Picks and Pans: Books
Backstabbing and pettiness animate every page of this packed but plodding corporate history by Pulitzer-winning New Yorker magazine contributor Stewart. His tale starts in 1984, when former Paramount exec Michael Eisner set about transforming Disney from a moribund company riding on its past glories into an entertainment powerhouse—with a culture of underhandedness to match. "The network seethed with resentments, jealousies and turf battles," Stewart writes about Disney subsidiary ABC, and it wasn't alone.
Disney's history is the story of modern pop culture, and there's fun in matching hits like The Lion King and The Sixth Sense to the executive skirmishes that birthed them. Stewart draws characters sharply; everyone's unlikable, but some are more so than others. Visionary Eisner comes across as mercurial and megalomaniacal; his brusque but talented former protege Jeffrey Katzenberg elicits more sympathy. But too often the personalities take a back seat to recitations of bonuses unpaid and backs stabbed. The shallowness and endless jockeying may fascinate Hollywood insiders (or those who think they are); they're less interesting to the rest of us.
As Eisner now prepares to step down after a shareholder revolt engineered by board member and former ally Roy Disney (Walt's nephew), the book is creepily timely, and Stewart crams in some fantastic reporting: Eisner rejected The Lord of the Rings because he thought the fantasy audience was limited; his last words before undergoing heart surgery in 1994 were "Ovitz or Diller would be good choices to succeed me." All in all, though, what could have been high drama rarely rises above palace intrigue.
By Posy Simmonds
Gemma Bovery is a beautifully tragic character, a wandering soul who wants what she doesn't have, and doesn't want what she does have. She longs for Patrick, then rejects him. She moves from London to Normandy with her husband, Charlie, but laments that "he bores her." She delights in scaling back her work as a graphic artist because it gets her off "the treadmill of earning." Four pages later, however, she cries, "I'm such a fool! I used to earn masses! Why did I stop?"
Does this wishy-washiness sound familiar? Any resemblance to Madame Bovary is purely intentional, but there's no need to brush up on French lit to enjoy Simmonds's graphic novel. A cartoonist who has written for adults and children, Simmonds adds to the charm with her illustrations, particularly as the smitten narrator Joubert comically tries to will Gemma out of an affair. Flaubert would be proud.
By Mim Eichler Rivas
If Beautiful Jim Key were alive today, he'd have a movie deal. Living at the turn of the 20th century, Beautiful Jim Key wasn't a person but rather a horse that, by using its teeth to pull out objects from racks, could seemingly add, subtract, spell and sort mail. As the horse's fame grew (it starred at the 1904 World's Fair), detractors cried hoax but eventually admitted they couldn't discover any trickery.
Showing affection for her protagonists, Rivas brings to life a lost slice of Americana. She tells the story of a horse and his African-American owner, Dr. William Key, who was born a slave but became a self-taught veterinarian. After making his horse a cultural phenomenon, Dr. Key paved the way for the animal-rights movement.
Rivas's exhaustively researched book is derivative of Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit, echoing its themes of human salvation through a tender relationship with an animal. Non-animal lovers may think the author got caught up in too much minutiae, but those who have a fascination for horses will gladly pony up.
By Dean Bakopoulos
"Don't think for a moment that because we were good, strong boys we could handle all of this: we couldn't. We almost killed ourselves with rage," says Michael Smolij, the 16-year-old narrator of Bakopoulos's endearing first novel. It's 1990 in downtrodden Maple Rock, Mich., and one by one, the fathers are leaving town. They desert their sons, their wives and their dim jobs, never to be heard from again. One leaves a note, "I'm going to the moon." Really? Or has he simply escaped to a less burdensome life? This question haunts the sons left behind. Michael's dry, honest voice tells their stories as they work brainless jobs, fail at love—and try to resist the patterns set by their fathers. It's a tale that, despite the boys' empty longing, is full of hope.
Why Gender Matters
Your daughter hates math? Son tunes out in French? They may "need a different kind of school" says psychologist Leonard Sax. In a new book he explains that, while boys and girls have equal capacities to learn, the way they are taught makes a dramatic difference.
DO BOYS AND GIRLS REALLY LEARN DIFFERENTLY? Girls hear better than boys. A boy's failure to pay attention may be interpreted as ADD, when it's merely a result of the teacher not speaking loudly enough. I can't tell you the number of times a father has told me, "My daughter says I yell at her. I've never yelled at her." [To her] he's yelling, but he doesn't realize it.
BUT SHOULDN'T WE TREAT EVERYONE EQUALLY? Neglecting these hardwired differences leads, ironically, to a reinforcement of gender stereotypes. Saying "How would you feel if someone did that to you?" works great for girls. You have to use a different strategy for disciplining boys.
IS SINGLE-SEX EDUCATION THE ANSWER?
Condoleezza Rice, Madeleine Albright, Rosa Parks, Sally Ride—every one went to an all-girls high school. And women who attend women's colleges are five times more likely to earn a doctorate in math, physics and computer science.
WHY DO BOYS SEEM TO DO BETTER IN MATH AND GIRLS IN ENGLISH? Regions of the brain develop in a different sequence. The brain of a 12-year-old boy looks like that of an 8-year-old girl with respect to language. But in the areas involved in math, the brain of the 12-year-old girl looks like that of the 8-year-old boy.
SO WAS HARVARD PRESIDENT LAWRENCE SUMMER'S SUGGESTION ABOUT GIRLS AND SCIENCE OFF BASE?
Dr. Summers has a Ph.D. in economics—he isn't knowledgeable about brain science. There aren't any innate differences in the ability of boys and girls to learn math and physics.
- Steven Zeitchik,
- Bob Meadows,
- Felicia Paik,
- Allison Lynn.
December 19, 2014
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