This is a grand biography of le grand Charles, who fought in the trenches at Verdun, who helped Poland turn back the Bolshevik tide, who may or may not have invented tank warfare, and who turned up in London in June 1940 to proclaim himself the legitimate leader of an undefeated France. With the occasional boost from Winston Churchill, and to the great annoyance of Franklin Roosevelt, he made the claim stick, and just over four years later he returned to Paris at the head of a "Free French" army. There was no question that he would rule France thereafter, first as an unelected leader of the Fourth Republic, then from self-imposed exile, and finally as creator and president of the Fifth Republic. More than the country's leader, he was France. When he resigned for the first time, in 1949, there was a rush to promote him to five-star general and the highest level of the Legion of Honor, but he refused. "One does not decorate France," he explained. De Gaulle is a magnificent read, though it does become a bit wearisome after the war is won, after the colonies win their freedom, after the Fifth Republic is established, and he must sit down and govern a fractious nation. But hang on! It gets interesting again. You might consider the Kindle edition. The physical book is so massive that it's hard on the wrists, not to mention the nose if you fell asleep during the dull bit.
Standing next to de Gaulle, Woodrow Wilson seems a pygmy against a giant, in almost every respect except arrogance, where they could well be twins. I went to college in an era when "Wilsonian democracy" or indeed "Wilsonianism" was the highest ideal of the political science and American history faculties. It was a lengthy era, which now thankfully seems to have come to a well-deserved end. In The Moralist, Patricia O'Toole gives us a portrait of the narrow-minded academic who bounded from president of Princeton to governor of New Jersey to president of the United States in just twelve years. He was just 56 when elected, but he was already an old man. He spent much of 1918-1919 in Paris, battling his French and British colleagues over the peace treaty and his dream of a League of Nations, while the US government more or less ran itself. Back in the White House, he was felled by a stroke that left him half-blind and half-paralyzed, hidden from the world by his wife and physician who in effect were co-presidents. Because he would not compromise, he lost everything -- the League, of course, but also the more generous peace terms he would have extended to Germany and that might have avoided the disasters of the 1930s.
I saw Ex Machina a couple years ago, and was blown away by it. More recently I watched it streaming on Netflix, and happily it has lost none of its enchantment. The "machina" is played by Alicia Vikander, who for most of the hour or so she's on film is represented only by the mask of her face, which has the eerie effect of magnifying her eyes. She grew up in Sweden as a child actor and ballet dancer, which may in part explain her extraordinarily slender build; that (plus her eyes!) made her a natural for the robot Ava, who not only passes the Turing test (do you know whether you're talking to a human or a computer?) but condemns both her tester and her inventor to death, while she goes off to wreak havoc on the rest of us. It's great sci-fi, and a parable of our times. Blue skies! — Dan Ford
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