Saturday, September 25, 2010

Saturday Night Review of Sunday Book Reviews--September 26, 2010

The New York Times Sunday Book Review contains reviews of some very interesting books, though the reviewers are themselves hit and miss in their reviews:

1. Sebastian Mallaby's tempered, yet positive review of Robert Reich's new book, "Aftershock" is well worth reading. Reich has distilled important information in less than 200 pages in his new book, and I bet readers even of this blog would be rewarded in reading it. I disagree with Mallaby's lone, if significant criticism of Reich's point about lax demand and the American consumer. What Mallaby fails to appreciate is that Reich's point is that for over three decades the American family has (1) worked longer hours (2) sent the female spouse out of the home and into the workforce and (3) gone into debt in order to consume goods and services. Reich's point is that there would have been much more consumer spending these past thirty plus years if the American worker were paid in a manner that matched individual American worker productivity gains, and had the wealthiest 1-10% not gobbled up most of the income produced over that time.

Reich's more recent point is that the American family cannot get out of the fiscal and financial mess we are in by (1) working more hours, (2) finding a third spouse and (3) borrowing any more money, the last due to tight credit measures going on in banks. See here for Reich's point in a single article at Salon.com. Reich is engaging the argument that if there were a better distribution of wealth and higher taxes to provide the type of government services in education, libraries, social services we used to provide, more families would choose to allow one spouse to stay home with the kids. That this escapes the relatively younger Mallaby is perhaps not too surprising. He is part of the DC Village, after all...

2. Here is a review of a new biography of a promoter of the arts of a century ago who is nearly lost in our collective memory: Serge Diaghilev. The reviewer does a marvelous job of re-creating for us the cultural currents of the early 1900s, and how Diaghilev helped shape much of the culture of Europe and parts of America during that time.

3. An example of a review that lacks historical depth: This review of a new book on why we are supposedly addicted to scandal would have been far more helpful had it been more historically grounded. Are we as a people really more addicted to scandal than we were decades ago? How does the fact that the media incessantly cover it now, as opposed to simply holding back out of elitist decorum fit in? How does it compare to the way British subjects reacted in the 19th Century to various personal scandals among the Royal Family, a topic that would absolutely shock most Americans if they read about the scandals and the way in which regular folks gobbled up the information via word of mouth and newspapers of the time.

4. This review of the growth of "human rights" in foreign affairs deserved something better than the reviewer gave it. It was a too short and perfunctory review, and obscures the salient point the book's author, Samuel Moyn, gave to the 1975 Helsinki Accords and Jimmy Carter's demand for a more prominent place for human rights in the wake of those accords (which were pushed by his predecessor, Gerald Ford, over the sometimes objecting Henry Kissinger). If the reviewer is going to say the 1990s are the key time for the idea of human rights in foreign affairs, then she should write her own book or explain better why Moyn's book is wrong.

5. This review of Israeli novelist, prominent Israeli dove and grieving father, David Grossman, is long enough and extremely positive about Grossman's new novel. Still, at the end of the review, I wondered, Do I really want to read this novel? Is it going to capture and enlighten me in any way? I hope I am not glib in asking those questions. I hope the book gets wide circulation at least in the Jewish-American community, particularly the synagogue going American Jews, who really have no idea about the depths of contradictions within Jewish Israeli society when they go on their Potemkin Village trips there...Grossman certainly understands those contradictions better than most.

6. But let's end this week's review of book reviews on a positive note of personal triumph. This review of a new book by two African-American sisters, one of whom is a playwright of renown, was well-written and the book sounds fabulous. I opened the excerpt and went, "Whoa. Now that grabs me." The African-American story in American History has long called deep into me in a way that makes me feel more Jewish than much of what goes on in Israel. The African-American story does have parallels to the Jew in Europe, the Permanent Other, and yet, our nation's recent gains in promoting civil rights show why our nation's brief history is so much more positive in that realm than the history of Europe. There is still a long way to go, but gains can be clearly seen; plus, life for African-Americans, and how white America views African-Americans, have definitely improved despite the contingent of racists who show up at Tea Party rallies. In all, a novel about African-American history, a novel about music that strives to sing in prose is something worth reading and celebrating.

Wow. Lots to read in the NY Times Sunday Book Review this week!

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