When I Was A Child I Read Books

My review of Marilynne Robinson’s When I Was A Child I Read Books was the lead book piece in today’s Sunday Boston Globe. You can find the piece here, and I’ve pasted in the start of the review below.

Here’s a representative passage from one of the collection’s strongest essays, “Imagination and Community” (If you’re interested, click here to listen to a recording of entire essay, as read by Robinson in the audiobook version of When I Was A Child I Read Books):

I have talked about community as being a work of the imagination, and I hope I have made clear my belief that the more generous the scale at which imagination is exerted, the healthier and more humane the community will be. There is a great deal of cynicism at present, among Americans, about the American population. Someone told me recently that a commentator of some sort had said, “The United States is in spiritual free fall.” When people make such remarks, such appalling judgements, they never include themselves, their friends, those with whom they agree. They have drawn, as they say, a bright line between an “us” and a “them.” Those on the other side of the line are assumed to be unworthy or respect or hearing, and are in fact to be regarded as a huge problem to the “us” who presume to judge “them.” This tedious pattern has repeated itself endlessly through human history and is, as I have said, the end of community and the beginning of tribalism.

It is simply not possible to act in good faith toward people one does not respect, or to entertain hopes for them that are appropriate to their gifts. As we withdraw from one another we withdraw from the world, except as we increasingly insist that foreign groups and populations are our irreconcilable enemies. The shrinking of imaginative identification which allows such things as shared humanity to be forgotten always begins at home.

And here’s a slice of my review:

In 1980 Marilynne Robinson published “Housekeeping,’’ a novel of staggering depth and beauty. The story of two sisters raised by a procession of their female relatives, “Housekeeping’’ is simultaneously grand and intimate, mythic and grounded in the rituals of daily life, lingering on resonances between daily domesticity and broader spiritual well-being. The novel received unanimous praise and a Pulitzer nomination, and won the PEN/Hemingway Award.

Then Marilynne Robinson stopped publishing fiction.

It’s a romantic assumption: Everyone has one novel in them. It would be more apt to say that most anyone can be induced by vanity or mania to produce a book-length manuscript. American literary history offers marquee support for this delusion, beloved books that seem solitary, brilliant flares. Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,’’ Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,’’ to name but two. So it wasn’t entirely surprising when Robinson appeared destined to occupy a small, albeit ravishing, spot in American literature.

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The Inquisitorial Impulse

The sun rises and sets on my writing today: in addition to the Thinking Small review that the San Francisco Chroncile ran today (see the previous entry), my review of Cullen Murphy’s grisly, wonderful God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World was the lead book piece in this Sunday’s Boston Globe.

Click here to read the entire review. Here’s how it gets going:

July 21, 1643 was a typical day during the Spanish Inquisition – hot and dusty, haunted by flimsy denunciations, and tinged with blood.

Over the preceding year or so a nasty, convoluted debate between some friars and members of what passed for the civil authority had raged. Each faction made accusations of witchcraft and blasphemy, and in a sudden eruption of violence a group of renegade church partisans attacked and slaughtered Luis de Rosas, a former governor. On this July day the newly installed governor apprehended eight men he divined were responsible for the killing of Rosas and, with the authority granted by the Inquisition, had the conspirators beheaded. In “God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World,’’ journalist Cullen Murphy quotes a tourist guide’s description of this town’s plaza as site of “the largest mass beheading of Europeans by Europeans in a continental American town.’’

The town in question? Santa Fe, N.M.

We rarely think of the Spanish imperial presence in North America, but that the Inquisition raged with such ferocity in what was to become US territory feels doubly strange. Like much of the world, New Mexico, Texas, and California all saw spasms of inquisitorial rage. What the world hasn’t seen, “God’s Jury’’ argues, is the Inquisition’s end. “Modernity . . . is not a time – it’s a place,’’ Murphy writes, quoting geographer David Harvey. Likewise, the Inquisition isn’t an institution so much as an instinct, one that persists.

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Das Wagensreich

Today the San Francisco Chronicle published my review of Andrea Hiott’s Thinking Small: The Long, Strange Trip of the Volkswagen Beetle. If nothing else, this must be one of the few pieces ever written that mentions both Bruce Springsteen and Adolf Hitler – and in the same sentence, no less.

You can find the review here. Here’s a bit from the piece.

The Beetle’s rise is in many ways synonymous with the ascent of the Third Reich, and the bulk of Thinking Small traces the political and economic conditions of the Reich. Apologies to Bruce Springsteen, but Hitler was born to run. The monster couldn’t drive, but he loved car culture. Hitler’s psycho-pedantry furnishes a minor theme. For instance, after seizing the Chancellorship, Hitler addressed the Berlin Auto show.  “In the next five years,” Hiott writes, “millions of Germans would die in Hitler’s war, but there he was, lecturing them about traffic accidents.”

Hitler’s autoeroticism connected to his martial dreams. By motorizing Germany and building easily navigable autobahns – the creation of a WagensReich – Hitler satisfied his fetish for German technical superiority while mobilizing a wartime population. This is well-turned soil, but Hiott masterfully aggregates an impressive amount of scholarship then overlays the Beetle’s history of failed designs and blown production schedules onto the well-known contours of the 20thth century.

Pity the Billionaire

This past Sunday – New Year’s Day – The Boston Globe ran my review of Thomas Frank’s Pity The Billionaire as the lead review in the books section. You can find the review here.

A bit from the piece:

Welcome to election year – we’ve started our initial descent. The Iowa caucus looms, and in 310 days the polls will open and we’ll respond to the ludicrously expensive carnival of recrimination, strategic cynicism, and merciless sanctimony of campaign politics. The next 11 months will deliver much over-hyped stagecraft and little statecraft. Rather than a substantive debate on the most fundamental issues confronting the country – issues that reveal radically different conceptions of politics and human nature, such as how best to steward the physical health and financial security of our fellow citizens – what we’ll receive is a series of well-financed caricatures of political engagement.

None of this is surprising.

What is surprising, according to Thomas Frank’s “Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right,’’ is that the American right not only retains legitimacy but has thrived despite the 2008 economic collapse and ongoing recession, the direct consequence, he says, of ever-expanding conservative influence. “Pity the Billionaire,’’ which inaugurates the extended political publishing season, offers a spirited, acerbic, stylish exploration of this Republican resurrection.

On Your Marx, Get Set….

Last Sunday, The Boston Globe ran my review of Mary Gabriel’s biography of Karl and Jenny Marx, Love and Capital  (even if you’re not interested in the piece it’s worth clicking on the link to see the beautifully redesigned Globe site.).

Here’s the first couple of graphs from the review:

With history or politics, ignorance is often the precondition of certainty. The less someone comprehends the world’s complexity, the more certain they are of their anemic ideas. Our current economic shambles has created a depressing amount of such lightless bluster. Each action the increasingly impotent Obama administration takes, or fails to take, is met by Tea Party denunciations of “socialism’’ or “Marxism.’’ Absurd on their face, such condemnations betray an absence of historical, economic, or political knowledge. The president is nothing like a socialist. For some members of the right, though, raising the specter of Marx is a convenient, if simpleminded, way to wrap an opponent in the cloak of an enemy of all that is good and true and American.

Such is the cultural climate that awaits “Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution,’’ Mary Gabriel’s beautifully written account of the “bittersweet drama’’ of Marx’s family life. Like all good biographers, Gabriel manages to humanize a subject who most know only as an institution or, as she writes, “a massive head atop a granite plinth at Highgate Cemetery.’’ Marx was an economist and philosopher, a historian and sociologist, but as Gabriel deftly shows Marx was most consistently a self-obsessed freelancer. The particular attraction of “Love and Capital’’ resides in the book’s unsparing portrait of a brilliant man who would never claim responsibility for his own failures when he could easily fob them off on financial, familial, or political obstacles.

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Again, Christopher Hitchens

A few weeks ago the Globe ran my review of Hitch’s new collection of essays, Arguably (I reviewed Hitchens’ memoir, Hitch 22 last year, which you can read here.). I’ve held off on posting it here because for the first time in my writing life (as far as I know) I published an absolutely idiotic factual error. In my haste to get this down below the requested word count I did a bit of quick editing which resulted in a mistake that I didn’t catch until it was too late. Feel free to try and locate the mistake yourself. That I made such an error in this review is particularly galling.

Here’s how the piece opens:

Susan Sontag famously wrote that intelligence was “really just a kind of taste: taste in ideas.’’ Over the past decade, Christopher Hitchens has proven Sontag’s pithy bit of pretension true, though not in ways she would have foreseen. Pundits typically achieve notoriety precisely because they promote the prevailing prejudices of either the right or the left. Hitchens, one time Fleet Street rabble-rouser and rhetorical pugilist of the left, turned against his former fellow travelers. Hitchens vocally supported the Iraq invasion and has renounced many of his former lefty precepts in favor of a set of hawkish foreign policy positions. On the left he’s considered a neo-imperialist apologist for the Bush administration. The right doesn’t want him either. His undeniable intelligence seems tasteless to many; his devaluation shows that, for some, intelligence is really just taste in ideology. Sadly, this debate over his perceived political apostasy may be his legacy.

I don’t care about Hitchens’s politics. Or, rather, his sometimes-shortsighted political opinions are secondary to why one should read him. One reads him despite his reputation as someone who wants to drink, argue, and tear the ornaments off the tree, because he is, first and last, a writer, an always exciting, often exacting, furious polemicist. This fact, the most salient thing about him, often gets neglected in the public jousting.

Terrorism in American History

NOTE: I was recently revisiting some older pieces in search of a few clips for a pitch, and I came across this, a 2010 review of Michael Fellman’s In the Name of God and Country: Reconsidering Terrorism in American History. Between receiving the assignment for the 1,000 word review and the deadline, a new editor came on at The Boston Globe. In the shuffle, this piece sat in their inventory until it wasn’t quite as timely as it needed to be. Rather than kill the piece, they chose to run it during the week (instead of Sunday) and cut it by 450 words or so. The edit is fine, but as I was re-reading my draft over the weekend, I decided to post the review in its entirety.

The 21st Century has been good to terror — it has reinvigorated its politics and re-imagined its aesthetics. And, as has been the case throughout American history, this collision of the politics and aesthetics of fear has produced a horrific fascination. Since 9/11, the terror industry has slyly managed to wed political and personal anxiety into a ubiquitous, engaging siege mentality. Films and TV shows like 24, and policy directives prompting travelers to adjust their uncertainty based on a color wheel, feed our conviction that vigilance requires the crimson-tinted lenses of the potential terror victim.

Academia bought stock in the terrorism industry, too. In response to the chaos and uncertainty of the past eight years, books have surged from presses. At its best, scholarship renders the world a little less incomprehensible by making critical distinctions about a culture and lending precise, if sometimes competing, definitions of political and cultural phenomena. But in a culture convinced of its own peril, nuance is often orphaned. The argument that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter incites consternation, if not outrage; what precisely constitutes terrorism and why people practice it holds little appeal to most people. We intuitively understand terrorism. Terrorism is violence directed at us.

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