• What We're Reading This Fall

    Hank and Jim: The Fifty-Year Friendship of Henry Fonda and James Stewart
    By Scott Eyman
    Simon & Shuster

    Reviewed by J. Kemper Campbell, M.D.

    During the middle decades of the 20th century, the movie theater became the center of American social life. Even the smallest hamlet had its own cinema house where popcorn and dreams were served nightly, and Hollywood productions were changed three times each week. The actors, actresses, and moguls of this uniquely American industry became the nation’s de facto royal family.

    Scott Eyman’s book describes the lifelong friendship between Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart, two of the most beloved and iconic members of Hollywood’s golden age.

    Readers not old enough to have settled into a plush seat as the lights dimmed awaiting the projection of Fonda or Stewart’s familiar images upon a 40-foot-tall screen may not understand the affection and respect which connected each man to the audience. Both men were decorated World War II veterans, and each acted with the honesty and simplicity that American audiences felt mirrored the country’s values.

    Remarkably, despite obvious differences in temperament, approach to acting and social priorities and the egomaniacal milieu of Hollywood, Stewart and Fonda were able to maintain their steadfast friendship to the end. In the truest sense, this book describes the love story which can develop between people who have known one another for decades.

    Fonda was born in Grand Island, Neb., where his boyhood home still stands as part of the Stuhr Museum site. His family later moved to Omaha where, as a schoolboy, he was introduced to the stage by Marlon Brando’s mother. He joined the remarkable number of Nebraskans who became major Hollywood stars, including Brando, Fred Astaire, Robert Taylor and Dorothy McGuire.

    Fonda later met Stewart, another small-town boy from Pennsylvania, as a member of an Ivy League acting troupe known as the University Players. The two became roommates in New York and California as they struggled to succeed as destitute actors.

    Both were taciturn and laconic by nature, but shared similar interests in kites, model airplanes, practical jokes and gardening. By mutual consent each man avoided topics which would have destroyed the comfort they felt when together. Stewart, whose marine stepson was killed in Vietnam, became a staunch conservative, while Fonda’s daughter, Jane, became the spokesperson for the anti-war movement. Stewart remained married to the same woman for 45 years while Fonda was married five times. These subjects were simply ignored.

    Eyman, a film historian with access to both actors’ adult children and living peers, has provided a remarkable portrait of the intertwining lives of two men who through the passing years remained faithful to their personal moral codes and to each other. 

    Kemper Campbell M.D. is a retired ophthalmologist from Lincoln, Neb. who often finds himself tuning to the Turner Classic Movie channel.

    Quantum Man: Richard Feynman's Life in Science (Great Discoveries)
    By Lawrence M. Krauss
    W. W. Norton & Co.
    Reviewed by Alfredo A. Sadun, MD, PhD

    Some men are freaks of nature. LeBron James might be such a man in the physical sense. It sometimes seems like he is a man playing amongst boys.

    The same thing could be said of Richard Feynman. In his case, however, the freak of nature is how well his mind worked. Feynman could do things quickly that other great physicists could never imagine doing. 

    Feynman’s definitive biography was probably by James Gleick and simply titled, “Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman” (Vintage, 1993). Not to be disrespectful to Gleick – perhaps the greatest science writer of our time (try both “Genius” and “Chaos Theory”) – but he was not a physicist. Lawrence Krauss is a first-rate physicist and also a great writer. Krauss tells us more about the amazing universe that Feynman opened up to mere mortals. But don’t be intimidated. Krauss remains well-grounded in the English language, and his physics comes in bite-sized chunks. 

    Feynman was well known as a prankster and often displayed both irreverence and an impish sense of humor. This became lore after his book, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman: Adventures of a Curious Character” (W. W. Norton & Co.) came out this year. But from this and other sources (I knew Feynman personally), it must be clear that Feynman was also a showman. There is the danger of writing him off as more style than substance. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    In 1965, Feynman won the Nobel Prize for elucidating quantum electrodynamics. This largely combined the theories of quantum mechanics and special relativity and provided a wonderful tool for solving quantum mechanics problems that has been used by thousands of physicists in solving all sorts of engineering problems in quantum mechanics. Feynman’s “sum over paths” approach, expressed in squiggles known as Feynman diagrams, not only proved extremely powerful, but opened up an intuitive understanding of the tiny world of subatomic particles. With Krauss’ help, it can be understood by the nonphysicist.

    At the end of his career, Feynman gave a famous lecture called, “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.” By this, he meant that very small things could take advantage of the quirks of quantum mechanics and strange and wonderful machines could be built if they were very, very small. Unfortunately, Feynman’s language has been hijacked in pedestrian ways (Consider, as an example, the common misuse of the term “nanoparticle.”) But Feynman’s predictions of how wonderful small things could be, is now the inspiration for lots of new technology, including the aspiration for the building of a quantum computer that can keep track of what quantum nanotechnology can do.

    It is interesting to speculate about Feynman’s personality. He was deeply affected by the tragedies of losing his wife in her early 20s, and of seeing his magnificent leadership in Los Alamos on the Manhattan project lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Feynman reacted by disappearing both literally (into the streets of Rio de Janeiro) and figuratively. Feynman was both very grounded and approachable, but at the same time a little detached emotionally. He famously avoided leading from the front and preferred stimulating other scientists.

    Feynman made many breakthroughs in physics. He was the giant in a world of giants. He remains a man of mythical proportions, especially in the cultures of MIT and Caltech and amongst theoretical physicists. Krauss made this accessible to us mortals, and for this, I remain grateful.

    Elephant Company: The Inspiring Story of an Unlikely Hero and the Animals Who Helped Him Save Lives in World War II
    By Vicki Croke
    Random House (Paperback)

    Reviewed by Thomas S. Harbin, MD

    Before World War II in Burma, now Myanmar, elephants once transported teak logs through the jungle in preparation for delivery by river to market. In 1920, James Williams, later known as “Elephant Bill,” entered the forests of Burma and began a lifelong love affair with elephants. He worked with them, trained them and treated their illnesses, eventually knowing more about them than any other Caucasian man.

    When war came, he formed his Elephant Company which built bridges and roads for Allied troops. He went behind the lines, rescuing elephants and saving the lives of countless refugees, winning him the Order of the British Empire for his courage and great results.

    It’s a charming and well-documented story. You will know more than you ever thought possible about these wonderful animals and be reminded of the rigors of jungle life as well as the horror of war.

    Cry, The Beloved Country
    By Alan Paton
    Scribner (Paperback)

    Reviewed by M. Bruce Shields, MD

    Every so many books, I like to intersperse one of the classics. I recently read a book that clearly deserves to be included in that genre. Many of you have undoubtedly read “Cry, The Beloved Country,” written by Alan Paton and first released in 1948. It is the story of a Zulu pastor and a white land owner in South Africa, who both lose their sons and find peaceful reconciliation through grace and understanding of each other. It is a compelling tale, but the greatest strength is the beautiful prose in which it is written (Paton has been described as one of South Africa’s greatest writers). It is short and a quick read and, if you have not already read it, I would highly recommend that you intersperse it in your stack of reading. 

    Astrophysics for People in a Hurry
    By Neil deGrasse Tyson
    W. W. Norton & Co.

    Reviewed by Samuel Masket, MD

    For many septuagenarians, astrophysics left us in cosmic dust when we completed our undergraduate education – unless we were so inclined or so fascinated as to continue learning new terms and the nuances of space, time, matter, and energy.

    But science progressed without us while we were busy learning other disciplines, and things such as dark matter, dark energy, quasars, etc. and a host of sub-atomic particles became common jargon for those studying or otherwise interested in the cosmos. For the uninitiated, however, those words can be mysterious and perhaps somewhat frightening.

    Fortunately, along came Neil deGrasse Tyson to offer a primer that explains those terms in usable language and how they all fit together in the dimensions of space. Tyson intersperses wit, wisdom and gentle political commentary to soften the subject matter and makes it entertaining as well as educational.

    Admittedly, I am less than a novice when it comes to the cosmos. But I sense that I now have a modicum of understanding of the terms, a better grasp of the “big bang” theory and the confidence to learn more, should I choose to do so. Tyson deserves great thanks for bringing this long-term bestseller to us in attempt to have us expand our knowledge base along with the universe.

    Book Review Editor: Thomas S. Harbin, MD, MBA