Sunday, August 09, 2009

Sunday Morning Review of Book Reviews--August 9, 2009

The NY Times Sunday Book Review is on fire today!

First up, there is a nice, succinct review of Douglas Brinkley's magesterial tome about Teddy Roosevelt's environmentalism, and its largely glorious impact upon our nation. It should be required reading for future Republican leaders far more than most Democrats.

There's also a solid review of a couple of books, and first hand recollection of Woodstock from noted NY Times columnist, Gail Collins. Collins is often only insightful when standing next to Maureen Dowd, but the "Woodstock generation" is Ms. Collins', after all. I love the story about Pete Townsend "bonking" his guitar on the head of that shameless self-promoter, Abbie Hoffman, for example--even if Hoffman was trying to say something important about a man who had been imprisoned for narcotics abuse when he was really being prosecuted for political heresy.

But what Collins and most of her brothers and sisters of that era don't get is that Woodstock is not as much part of the 1960s in terms of political history, but is really the gate that opened to the 1970s. Woodstock was about partying. It was about having sex, taking drugs and just screwing off. Compare it to the teach-ins of the mid-1960s where people learned why America's war against Vietnam was wrong, and the differences become very apparent. At Woodstock, it was "I don't wanna go to war so I can stay home and get high." Many of the Woodstock generation ended up at--or really pining to get into--Studio 54 or worse, Plato's Retreat, and we can now begin to see how Woodstock had far more in common with those places than UC Berkeley's teach ins. Woodstock is ultimately about narcissism and apathy far more than "rebellion."

And for personal reminicences, starting in the late 1980s, my wife and I became friendly with the parents of one of the Woodstock promoters, Artie Kornfeld. The parents were wonderful union lefties (especially his mom, Shirley, who protested Truman's Cold War policies and was a freedom rider in the 1960s). Artie himself was a musical- promoting genius--the youngest executive at Capitol Records in the mid-1960s--who was also a casualty of the spread and use of narcotics. He lost his first wife and his daughter to drugs in the 1980s. Artie's backstory is here. But again, I don't share the nostalgia about Woodstock that others do. Yes, I like some of the bands, starting with the Who, but Woodstock remains for me the gateway to the nadir of the political culture of the 1970s, which was based upon narcissism and apathy.

Again, however, today's NY Times Book Review section is amazing. There are reviews concerning new books about the financial meltdown, with the first by Paul Krguman attacking his own profession's role in creating the financial edifice which collapsed in 2008, and this one, which ends up correctly castigating Alan Greenspan as emblematic of the stupid libertarian (is that redundant?) view about how nations economically develop or are maintained.

And here is an interesting review of a book that helps us realize something Stephen Jay Gould told us at least indirectly in so many essays, which is that we do our very young children an injustice if we assume they can't morally reason. I think the case is overstated, as children can often be manipulated into admitting fictions, but the research into this area is both worthy and helpful to how we human beings deal with each other, and with other animals on the planet.

Here too is a great review of a book that highlights the cultural importance of Mad magazine, though I am somewhat surprised the reviewer dances around the fact that Mad magazine played the role of an American samizdat in the repressive Red Scare atmosphere of much of the 1950s. It's there, just not bluntly stated in a way I would have expected. I was very pleased, however, that the reviewer discussed in some detail the great Paul Krassner, who is that rare individual who "lived" the 1950s through the 1970s, and has his footprints firmly embedded throughout that overall era we may generally call "the post-World War II era." He may or may not agree with my Woodstock analysis, but that's okay either way. He is a veteran of the era and my dispute is less with him than with how posterity sees that era.

And finally, here is a smart, though less than fully positive review of what may well be an important novel of modern England by Monica Ali. It is heartening to see a young novelist dare to tackle larger social issues rather than stare at her navel in that Updike-ian sort of way...Having read the excerpt from the opening chapter online at the NY Times book review, her novel seems stronger than perhaps the reviewer believes it to be. His attack is that her novel is "meandering," which may ultimately be correct. But I sense that he is wrong in that opinion.

Oh well. Happy reading!

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