Sunday Morning Review of Book Reviews: February 27, 2011
From the NY Times Sunday Book Review:
Here is a must-read review of a new book on the futility of US soldiers fighting in Afghanistan. I am saddened to read that counterinsurgency, a retread from the late 1950s and 1960s, was what led Obama to expand the war in Afghanistan. I mean, really, Mr. President, didn't you read "The Best and the Brightest" when you were at Occidental or Harvard (I read it at Rutgers)? Or maybe you might have read the "Cliff Notes" of Graham Greene's "The Quiet American"? My sense is Obama read neither the Cliff Notes or the novel. And I highly doubt Obama listened to Phil Ochs' "White Boots Marching in a Yellow Land,", either. But that only shows an older English novelist (and sometimes spy), like Greene, or twenty-something folk singer, like Ochs, had more sense than most of our politicians and military leaders then or now.
Bonus point: Apparently, Secretary of Defense (War) Robert Gates has at least learned what Vizzini in "Princess Bride" noted was the biggest blunder of all time: Getting involved in a land war in Asia.
Here is a wonderful review that neatly summarizes Susan Jacoby's new book on the truth about aging. As a person deeply moving through "middle age," I am seeing age 70 as not so "terribly strange" as a twenty-something Paul Simon did--which I find "terribly strange" to contemplate. Oh wait, that was Simon's point, wasn't it?
This is a smart, informative review that helps us understand how England came to have a sovereign who was female at the end of the medieval period. The bottom line: Tough women led England out of the Dark Ages and into national greatness. That is an interesting thesis, isn't it? Kind of makes me wish we had elected Hillary, though I doubt she would have governed all that differently than Obama...
And this review from Jennifer Homans shows us why a reviewer who really knows his or her subject can write the most devastating review of a new book exploring that subject. Homans rips into a new book dealing with various Russian czars' support of artists, including musicians, in the 19th Century and up through the time of the 1917 Revolution.
This review of a new book by a new foreign policy "prodigy" is also sharply and somewhat knowledgeably written, but the book's author is easy prey. The author, Parag Khanna, looks like the new Francis Fukuyama, whose book twenty years ago, "The End of History," received accolades it never deserved. We are nearly always on the verge of chaos, and nearly always on the way to destruction. But History is far more contingent than any neat theory, and it is the contingencies we should explore, not some overriding single theory.
Yet, the problem we Americans face is that America is now truly breaking up into regions, between haves and have nots, between those who thrive on international trade and those who lose out in that trade--and where a good portion of the semi-skilled working class in the private sector is willing to attack and delegitimize their fellow semi-skilled workers in the public sector--during a time which resembles most the Gilded Age of the late 19th Century America.
Yesterday, my son and I toured the Salk Institute as part of the Institute's outreach to high school students in San Diego. During the tour, I was again struck by another separation of haves and have nots in the matter of knowledge. There is clearly a disconnect between the incredible knowledge of the scientists engaged in research and the rest of our society. What the Salk people were also saying is that the USA is just beginning to fall behind in its pursuit of scientific knowledge (The Institute promotes this once a year "High School Day" to recruit and interest American high school students to join the world of math and science). When we compare what is going on at the Institute with what passes for intelligent discourse on poison talk radio and television, or compare the humanity and knowledge of the scientists at the Institute with the politicians who actively promote scientific illiteracy as if it was divinely inspired, we simply cannot have a sanguine view of our nation's future. Khanna is not completely wrong, but he is neither useful nor helpful in promoting public policies that will help our nation survive this century as a functioning state.
And this sort of dumbing down and promotion of short term narcissism by our corporate media is something barely remarked upon...
There is also this review about racial "passing" that delivered far less than I hoped. Better to read about the life of Walter White, a noted NAACP president during the early to mid-20th Century, or a couple of works of George Schuyler. And of course, the great "Kingsblood Royal" (1947) by Sinclair Lewis, who was a friend of White's. The novel is now beginning to be recognized as one of the great race novels of the 20th Century (see this positive discussion from the NY Times from 2002).
This week's NY Times Book Review also contains some interesting reviews of new books of fiction, as well as a review of a new biography of Ethel Waters which the LA Times reviewed last week, and in which I made mention last week in a blog post. The NY Times reviewer has written an equally outstanding review of the Waters biography, which biography should be read by those most interested in the history of early film making in Hollywood. The review is something to read on the day of the Hollywood Academy Awards, I suppose...
Well, that's it for today. Things to do and people to see, and all that...