Sunday, October 10, 2010

Early Sunday Morning Review of Book Reviews

From the NY Times Sunday Book Review:

1. Here is a jaunty yet concise review of Bill Bryson's new book on the history of "private life," really a set of rooms in an old home. Having read some of the things Bryson has read, I'm not sure I can get through all 500 pages or even half the book. The review, however, gives a reader a wonderful glimpse of how we should expand our cultural perspective and try to imagine life before 1850 or even 1950, and maybe even 1750, just to help us see the contrasts and continuities of our human civilization. Dominique Browning deserves to write more reviews. She intuitively and intellectually understands the craft.

2. Here is the review of Philip Roth's new novel about a polio outbreak in Newark, New Jersey. I guess we should be glad for the monstrously overrated Philip Roth that he has a found a convert to his cause. But this review does nothing to change my view of Roth, which is that he is a hopelessly claustrophobic writer, unable to transcend anything beyond his childhood neighborhood--poorly described for anyone who did not grow up in or knew the early to mid-20th Century Newark neighborhood where my parents grew up.

3. Here is historian Alan Brinkley's take on a few books regarding the so-called Tea Party Movement. I find his perspective to be written in too shallow a manner. He knows far more than he is saying and that is too bad. The Tea Party Movement are merely disaffected Republicans for the most part, and in particular right wing, snarling sometimes racist Republicans of the past generation. The candidates they support tend to be political hucksters of an incredibly shallow type who show up on television talk shows or local news shows (think William Hurt in "Broadcast News"). And one may better describe the Tea Party Movement as an amalgamation of the 1850s Know-Nothing Movement and the later 1990s disaffected Republicans who joined Ross Perot's initially somewhat moderate Reform Party Movement. Whether the Tea Party Movement burns out like a comet in space or becomes a meteor that hits the mainland with the force to kill us all remains to be seen--but of course the future of that movement in America, like many populist oriented movements, will be something in between, as nothing is really ever that extreme a formulation.

4. Here is a haunting review by Amy Wilentz of a book of essays by a Haitian expatriate, Edwidge Danticat. This one is just worth the read, as it illuminates the sad history of Haiti, a nation that was attacked and decimated 200 years ago for having the effrontery to seek relief from white racist civilization, and then for the next hundred years punished for that effrontery. One thing that struck me was how a culture of despair can be so self-debilitating and reenforcing by the time Haiti reached the late 20th Century. I feel like saying to the entire nation, "Would you all go see 'Precious' already?" There are other reviews of books about benighted lands worth reading, too.

5. And now for the banal: A memoir of a woman rocker shows that 80s indie bands like Throwing Muses lived a rather typical rock and roll life. That she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder just lets her have a name for what ailed lots of rock stars, including Keith Moon, who is mentioned in the review. Having seen or read these sorts of books about self-destructive artists, forgive me for just being tired of them. To put it another way, I'm over a decade older than my teen-aged hero, Lenny Bruce, was when he overdosed from heroin. And if I had a chance to travel back in time, I'd slap Bruce across the face and say, Don't do this to yourself. You're going to win the damned appeal, and you'll be a hero if you just stay off the smack. He'd never listen, though, because he was, after all, self-destructive. I'm with Penn Jillette who memorably told a writer from The New Yorker that he did not engage in drug use because Lenny Bruce died from drug abuse. Yes, he was hounded by authorities, but the drug abuse is what killed him.

6. This review offers us a taste of what sounds outstanding and deeply creative: Woodcuts as a graphic art novel. The name dropping in the review gets you dizzy, but the reviewer may not have been given much space.

7. Here is a surprising review of the new biography of Justice William Brennan. It is surprising because Dahlia Lathwick, who is a wonderfully knowledgeable correspondent of the law, seems surprised that Brennan could come up with a constitutional right to abortion despite being opposed to it, or in favor of securing women's constitutional rights while holding traditional patriarchal views. Ms. Lithwick needs to pick up a few classic novels to begin to feel human irony and complexity. And maybe read about Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who understood a great judge separates his or her political philosophy from his or her judicial philosophy. It does sound, alas, like the great biography of Brennan remains to be written and the book under review sounds like a mess. For those interested in the era in which Brennan served, and interested in learning more about Brennan's colleague, Earl Warren, one would be well served to read Jim Newton's book on the great politician and jurist.

8. I've posted about the Rosenberg case before, so I'll just let people read Sam Roberts' review of the new books on the Rosenberg case (Note: I praised Roberts' book in the previous post, which is amusing to me in citing it now). I'm with Roberts on his take on the two books, as he appears to agree with Eric Foner's observation that the Rosenberg case presents for us in the 21st Century a lens to begin to understand the political cultural currents of the mid-20th Century in America. The Rosenbergs remain the only American spies ever executed since the US Constitution was ratified. There remains the indisputable evidence of prosecutors' and a judge's misconduct, and finally, the victims' own lies that contributed to their fate. I was not one of those who ever thought the Rosenbergs innocent, as stated in my last post on the subject. People like Schneir were true believers, and I wonder what motivated them other than a contrarian nature gone to extremes. Kind of like those who can't see that Mumia is probably guilty of voluntary manslaughter, but did not deserve the death penalty, and probably deserved a new trial altogether...

9. Finally, here is a thoughtful review of a thought-provoking subject, the role of religion in our society. My take is we can't destroy religion even if we wanted to. Religion in America tends to be more tolerant because of the separation of church from state, and because our sense of right and wrong has, over the past 200 years, been slowly grounded from a pluralist sensibility and due process oriented "fairness." In the "chicken or the egg" argument alluded to in the review, I'm with choosing the side that says our political and legal structure has influenced our religious structures--and thank God for that. :-)

Phew. These reviews of book reviews are getting too long, aren't they?


At October 10, 2010 at 11:32:00 AM PDT, Blogger SINVILLE said...

"[S]he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder just lets her have a name for what ailed lots of rock stars...Having seen or read these sorts of books about self-destructive artists, forgive me for just being tired of them." Holy cow, what a dismissive remark. Pen Jillette isn't an artist. Why quote him is beyond me. Why not Nancy Regan?

At October 10, 2010 at 1:11:00 PM PDT, Blogger Mitchell J. Freedman said...

Okay, okay. I was too rough on the young Kristin Hersh of Throwing Muses. I thought she was a druggie as was her bandmate drummer, but I guess not. I'm just tired of the whole "Behind the Music" stuff more than anything else.

On the other hand, Penn Jillette is a magician--and a Penn & Teller show reveal they are artists in a performance. Yes, Jillette's libertarian Peter Pan stuff has left him atrophied, and the quote from him was from nearly 20 years ago. As for Nancy "Just Say No" Reagan, I thought that was an important component of an effective drug treatment program because people need to know abusing drugs is the wrong thing to do. Unlike the Reagans, I support government paying for rehab of everyone from a poor guy on the Bowrey to Lindsay Lohan.


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