9 May 2010
¶ Harold Bloom on Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England, by Anthony Julius. From this excited, ultimately incoherent review, it is impossible to tell what kind of book Mr Julius has written. Literary criticism? Zionist position paper? English sociology? Mr Bloom's lurch into the demise of "genteel anti-Semitism" in the United States is characteristically irrelevant.
I am grateful to Julius for his calm balance, and I do not ask him to be Philip Roth rather than himself. There is an English passion for the grotesque, of which Shylock and Fagin are among the triumphs. American literary anti-Semitism is now sparse indeed. The new English (and Continental) anti-Semitism is hatred for Israel, which among all the nations is declared to be illegitimate. The United States remains almost free of this disease, and any current writer would not be tolerated for portraits like those of Hemingway’s Robert Cohn in “The Sun Also Rises,” Scott Fitzgerald’s Wolfsheim in “The Great Gatsby” or the several Jewish males who are Willa Cather’s villains. This is hardly to congratulate ourselves, but to point out that the United States, despite bigots left and right, does not encourage the genteel anti-Semitism that is woven into the English academic and literary world.
¶ Adam Kirsch on Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism Into Philosophy in Light of the Unpublished Seminars of 1933-1935, by Emmanuel Faye (translated by Michael Smith); and Stranger From Abroad: Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness, by Daniel Maier-Katkin. Mr Kirsch finds both of these books unsatisfying, in complementary ways, and helpfully offsets their viewpoints. Mr Faye he finds too punishing.
Faye’s achievement is to demonstrate, in these texts, the very fusion of man and thinker that Heidegger was later so concerned to deny. Yet the seminars and speeches Faye analyzes date mainly from the period 1933-35 — that is, the year of Heidegger’s rectorship and just afterward, when his Nazism was flagrant. To show that he remained a Nazi until 1945, or even for the rest of his life, would require finding similar kinds of propaganda in Heidegger’s work throughout those years. But unlike the seminars Faye has unearthed, Heidegger’s writing from that later period is well known; and aside from a few notorious instances, overt Nazi rhetoric simply isn’t there.
Mr Maier-Katkin, on the other hand, is too forgiving — of Hannah Arendt, mostly.
Least convincing of all is Maier-Katkin’s suggestion that Heidegger is to be understood as just a brainier Adolf Eichmann, “motivated less by racial ideology than by careerist opportunities, combined with thoughtlessness about others.” Arendt would be appalled by such a characterization of the man she herself called the “secret king in the empire of thinking.” For what makes Heidegger’s Nazism a challenge — as opposed to merely a scandal — is the fact that he did not drift into evil, but thought his way into it. And once we acknowledge the powerful attraction of his work, we are morally and intellectually bound to explore what part of that attraction is owed to ideas with a potential for evil. Neither Faye nor Maier-Katkin embarks on that more difficult questioning, which asks us to confront not just Heidegger but ourselves.
¶ Francis Fukuyama on Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography, by Julian Young. One might argue that Mr Fukuyama has too many dogs in the fight to serve as an altogether reliable reviewer of any book about Nietzsche, but, notwithstanding the inevitable reservations and the irresistible temptation to storytell, he manages to be moderately helpful.
One of the pitfalls of writing a biography of a great philosopher is the temptation to reduce important ideas to mere psychology, an outgrowth of some fluke in the philosopher’s personal development. Julian Young, a professor at the University of Auckland and Wake Forest University, has for the most part avoided this trap by writing a “philosophical” biography of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) in which the life story provides context but ultimately not explanation for the ideas. In so doing he has provided a serious and readable, if not exactly ground-breaking, introduction to Nietzsche’s “philosophy with a hammer.”
¶ Francine Prose on The Life of Irène Némirovsky: 1903-1942, by Olivier Philiponnat and Patrick Lienhardt (translated by Euan Cameron); and Dimanche and Other Stories, fiction by Irène Némirovsky (translated by Bridget Patterson). This heartfelt review reflects the turbulence in the literary world occasioned by the discovery of a gifted martyr who turns out not to have been much of a martyr at all.
How disturbing that a biography so passionate in its denunciation of the horrors of Russian, German and French anti-Semitism should have the effect of making us flinch each time the word “Jew” appears in its pages. What precisely are we meant to make of jaw-droppers like this: “She told herself not to spare anyone and she did not feel bound by any loyalty or any indulgence just because of the coincidence of her birth. Had ‘David Golder’ been written in 2009 by Bernard Madoff’s daughter, who would dream of accusing her of anti-Semitic views?”
Reading “Dimanche,” Bridget Patterson’s new translation of 10 Némirovsky short stories, has the effect of solidifying the impressions generated by “The Life of Irène Némirovsky.” The collection may also be a reminder of certain hesitations that were felt about “Suite Française.” One novella-length entry, “Flesh and Blood,” is a skilled, moody evocation of the ennui and resentments of family life, a bit like a Chabrol film before the killing starts. But too many of the other stories suffer from the same fault as “Suite Française”: a tendency to substitute stereotype for character. Once again, we are presented with the shallow aesthete, the self-important writer, the godly priest, the good-hearted whore, the brittle beauty, the older man mad for his cheating young wife, the bitter woman fearing age and mourning her lost youth. In “Brotherhood,” Christian Rabinovitch, an assimilated French Jew, is horrified by a chance meeting with a pathetic Jewish refugee who gesticulates comically, looks “almost like a monkey” and shares his last name. The inability to distinguish caricature from character is the hallmark of a writer unable to see the problem with doggedly insisting on the “honesty” of repeatedly painting slight variations on the all-too-familiar portrait of a long-nosed, scheming, unhygienic, miserly Jew.
¶ Paul Greenberg on Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, by Bill McKibben. Although Mr Greenberg grasps the importance of Mr McKibben's dire messages, he betrays a certain impatience with the manner in which they're delivered. The result is entertaining but incoherent.
It is in this final section, called “Lightly, Carefully, Gracefully,” that the real problems begin. If you are, like McKibben, a grudging optimist who believes that human society can willfully transform into a better version of itself, you might be persuaded by his arguments, some of them new, others a little old hat. Arguments that a smaller, diversified agriculture could add stability to our compromised industrial food-production system. That “growth” as an economic model is inherently flawed and will no longer be viable. That an “uptick of neighboring” will spread the sharing and implementation of practical, Eaarth-friendly how-to-ism. That the Internet could alleviate the rural boredom so many of us dread when we contemplate chucking it all and going back to the land, as he argues we must.
But many of these proposed solutions inadvertently resemble the list of things Christian Lander lampooned in his 2008 best seller “Stuff White People Like”: “farmer’s markets,” “awareness,” “making you feel bad about not going outside,” “vegan/vegetarianism.” It’s not that these things aren’t important. But in the absence of some overarching authority, a kind of ecologically minded Lenin, they will remain hipster lifestyle choices rather than global game changers. Which I suppose in the end is part of McKibben’s point. Eaarth itself will be that ecological Lenin, a harsh environmental dictator that will force us to bend to new rules. The question is whether we will be smart enough to bend ourselves first.
¶ Fernanda Eberstadt on The Long Song, a novel by Andrea Levy. At the end of her appreciative but storytelling-prone review, Ms Eberstadt places this book very nicely.
Readers of “The Long Song” will find little here of the maddened grief of Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” or the deep melancholy of Edward P. Jones’s “Known World.” Levy’s novelistic defense against evil and injustice is her humane sense of comedy. In “The Long Song,” she has painted a vivid and persuasive portrait of Jamaican slave society, a society that succeeded with bravery, style and strategic patience both to outsmart its oppressors and to plant the seeds of what is today a culture celebrated worldwide.
¶ Dorothy Gallagher on Lonelyhearts: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenny, by Marion Meade. This too-short review almost drips with disdain for the author's work.
And then one day when the 37-year-old West (known to be a terrible driver) was on his way back to Hollywood from a hunting trip in Mexico, he ran a stop sign, crashed into another car and killed himself, along with his new bride, Eileen. That West should die in 1940, only a few months after Leon Trotsky was assassinated in Mexico, and that Trotsky, too, enjoyed shooting small birds, is without any significance whatsoever. I mention it only because Trotsky’s name is one of the few Marion Meade doesn’t drop in “Lonelyhearts,” her breezily entertaining new book about Nathanael West and his crowded circle of friends and relations.
¶ Paul Levy on Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life, by Kim Severson. Another unhelpfully condescending review.
In fact, hero-worship might not be Severson’s thing. She does catty better — thinking she’s going to be jealous of Ruth Reichl; detailing how another former Times restaurant critic and two current writers, one after another, left the newest recruit to pick up the tab; remembering how she incurred the wrath of Marcella Hazan’s husband.
So does food provide palliative care for what’s eating Severson? Not really. But I’d be interested to read the sequel in 20 years, when she’s got a lot more to write about.
¶ Malena Watrous on American Subversive, a novel by David Goodwillie. This quietly unsympathetic review consists of a series of statements jotted down as if in desperation to be done with an assignment. I'm sure that they're all roughly correct, but they don't add up to much.
Once Aidan meets Paige, he quickly decides to throw over his life to help clear her name and protect her from harm. The real woman more than lives up to her photograph: “Paused in profile, my ingrained image of Paige Roderick finally fell away, and the woman herself came into focus: the long legs, the narrow waist, and a blossoming upper body — broad shoulders and full breasts — evident (albeit to a trained eye) under the loose T-shirt.” He persuades her to hide with him, and the two go undercover in a sweltering Chinatown tenement where they lie on a narrow mattress side by side, trading life stories. While Aidan comes to admire her political passion, her physique is a constant enticement. “She had changed into a black tank top, one I’d just washed, and it was so tight against her that her arms appeared to have punched through and escaped.” It seems oddly out of character that Paige never bristles against his obvious fixation on her looks, since she harbored such contempt for that lusty radical. But Aidan’s desire doesn’t bother her. She begins to reciprocate it as the novel turns inevitably into a love story that feels more expected than earned.
¶ Dominique Browning on Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House, by Meghan Daum. This warmly appreciative review made me want to curl up with Ms Browning's Slow Love, so I did.
Single women buy houses for themselves far more frequently than do single men; after married couples, single women are the nation’s largest group of first-time home buyers. There are probably a hundred reasons for this, ranging from the obvious (men seem to know what to do with basements, garages and attics, but not the stuff in between) to the metaphysical (you tell me, which is more reliable when you’re having a breakdown, a house or . . . ?). Daum promises she doesn’t intend to write a book with that happily-ever-after banality that’s beginning to get on my nerves — the female version of the baseball-stadium fantasy: if you build it, he will come. Is it becoming a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in possession of a good house must be in search of a husband? We’re beginning to sound desperate, in a vexing, retro kind of way. To my mind it makes far more sense, when faced with a choice between Mr. Good Enough (or, to put it another way, Mr. Not Quite Right) and a house, to put your money down on the bricks and mortar. But you can question my judgment: I’m a single woman who owns a house, and I haven’t fallen off any bar stools lately.
It speaks volumes in Daum’s favor, then, that when she does fall in love, this reader took as much pleasure in it as I hope she will someday, when she isn’t preoccupied with the important things like bursting closets, crammed bookshelves, jarring introductions of foreign (not her own) furniture and sports gear, and the detritus of combining two households, two lives. Daum has a rare gift in her ability to keep readers laughing through her own tears.
¶ Michael Dobbs on The First War of Physics: The Secret History of the Atom Bomb, 1939-1949, by Jim Baggott. Having pointed out the author of this book conducted no new research, Mr Dobbs continues with a kind of friendly blandness,
That said, this 576-page history provides an excellent introduction to a vast and complicated topic. By examining the competition among America, Russia and Germany, it knits together developments on different sides of the Atlantic into a brisk, exciting and comprehensive narrative. If anything, it may be too comprehensive. The book includes a 20-page dramatis personae with more than 250 names. Perhaps inevitably, many of Baggott’s portraits lack depth. He might have served readers better with fewer characters and more vivid descriptions of the most important ones.
¶ Niall Ferguson on The Crisis of Capitalist Democracy, by Richard Posner. This petty and palpably tendentious review seems determined to punish the author for his adherence to Keynesian ideas.
“The Crisis of Capitalist Democracy” has been written in haste, and it shows. Characteristically, Posner has not just one but two blogs and too much of this book reads as if it first saw the light of day online. But the trouble with blogging is that the more you blog, the less you read. Since he is not an economist, Posner cannot afford to take as many shortcuts as he does. The result is that confusions occasionally creep in, for example about what exactly constitutes a bank’s capital and how exactly bank leverage (the ratio of liabilities to capital) was regulated before the crisis.
Most perplexing of all, the small- government Keynesian calls for a flurry of reforms as half-baked as anything in the current bills before Congress: end the S.E.C. certification of certain credit rating agencies as “Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Agencies”; tie bank capital requirements to the business cycle, so that they rise in good times; and restore the Glass-Steagall Act that separated commercial and investment banking during the Depression. This last suggestion is especially strange as Posner must know that the preservation of Glass-Steagall would have done nothing whatever to alter the behavior of the men running Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers or A.I.G.
That last statement might be strictly true, but it is disingenuous, in the context, to ignore the prohibitive effect that Glass-Steagall would have had on Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase, and other outfits that straddled the old divide.
¶ Joanna Smith Rakoff on Losing Charlotte, a novel by Heather Clay. References to Jane Austen almost always require more than half a page to absorb the aura, and this slightly impatient review is no exception.
Ultimately, though, this is Knox’s book: a tale of a person in thrall to her juvenile rage. Interesting in theory, such a psychological study, as rendered in “Losing Charlotte,” results in a narrative that too closely resembles its heroine’s view of herself: “sad, stunted.” Then again, that may be Clay’s point. In her dark take on sisterhood — a world away from Jane Austen — everybody loses. Knox and Charlotte “love and hate each other so nakedly, and so simultaneously, that the mere existence of the other could serve as an intolerable, maddening offense.”
¶ Daniel Wallace on The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers, by Thomas Mullen. This somewhat itchy review leaves me wondering why the book was assigned in the first place.
Mullen tries to endow the Firefly Brothers with this kind of immortality, but the plot hinges less on their corporeal restoration than it does on the day-to-day ups and downs of a couple of guys who happen to be, collectively, Public Enemy No. 1. The first time they’re presumed dead they decide to take advantage of the fact by robbing just two more banks, to get the money they need to go straight. Then Jason’s girlfriend is kidnapped, and they have to rescue her. Meanwhile, the third Fireson brother, Weston, experiences some hard times, and this, coupled with envy of his older brothers’ criminal success, moves him to betray them in a way he comes to regret.
Mullen writes convincingly about the Depression, but too often the prose rides shotgun to the plot. “A surge of guilt belted Whit in the chest.” “The simplicity was an anvil dropping on her heart.” The freshness and fun of his central idea suffers through the use of some familiar themes, including a father dying in prison, a mother (“Ma”) who runs a boarding house to make ends meet and a good girl gone bad who gives up everything for the love of a gangster.
¶ Laurel Thatcher Ulrich on Betsy Ross and the Making of America, by Marla Miller. If this review's assessment's of the author's rigor is accurate, then the book has no place in the Book Review.
Miller’s admiring biography will warm the hearts of those who love the Betsy Ross legend. It may also convince skeptics (Miller refers to them as “naysayers”) that there is something in the flag stories worth considering. Unfortunately, Miller’s affection for her subject sometimes gets in the way of her otherwise careful scholarship. Nowhere is this more obvious than in her attempt to elaborate on 19th-century stories about how young Elizabeth Griscom worked in the shop of a fashionable Philadelphia upholsterer named John Webster. Webster’s work is documented in account books with Philadelphia grandees like John Cadwalader and Benjamin Chew, and while these accounts never mention Griscom, a handful mention payments to her future husband John Ross.
Miller is not content with noting these connections or with telling her readers what sort of work a young woman may have done in such a shop. She turns inferences into facts and then embellishes the facts with fiction, telling us that Betsy spent “five or six years between 1768 and 1773 working for John Webster” and that during those years, she made “among many other things, the fabulous accoutrements for the Cadwalader home.” She somehow magically knows that “when Cadwalader strolled into Webster’s shop late in May 1771, Betsy Griscom and everyone else inside snapped to attention” and that Betsy and John “for five years . . . worked alongside each other, flirted, bickered and generally sized each other up as potential partners in the life ahead.”
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