January 10, 2011

I like to think that my bookshelves hold a staggering variety of fiction, that I have the reading tastes of a true eclectic. The truth is, perhaps, a bit less exciting. A wander through my (freakishly organized) shelves will turn up a large amount of nineteenth-century literature, a smattering of modernism, and a hearty amount of “contemporary classics” (a term I despise but can find no substitute for). Some of these pages have yet to be turned, and others look like they have been through a war.

Against Despair
December 08, 2010

Partner to the Poor: A Paul Farmer Reader Edited by Haun Saussy (University of California Press, 660 pp., $27.50) On a hot August afternoon a decade ago, one of my patients collapsed at a café in Boston. She was in her early sixties and had been treated successfully with chemotherapy and radiation for breast cancer, but had suffered side effects from the intensive therapy, with damage to her heart and lungs. Her husband called 911, and EMTs arrived in short order. She was resuscitated and sped by ambulance to the Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

The READ: How Should We Teach Children About the Holocaust?
November 17, 2010

When you have children, it’s hard to do much of anything without them being aware of it. And so it hasn’t been lost on my children that for much of the past few years—for most of their lives, in fact—I’ve been working on a book. At first, this manifested mostly in negative ways: Mommy’s writing, so the door is closed, the babysitter is here, interruptions will be tolerated grouchily.

September 29, 2010

In Brown's Wake: Legacies of America's Educational LandmarkBy Martha Minow (Oxford University Press, 304 pp., $24.95) Martha Minow was born in 1954, the same year that the Supreme Court issued its historic decision in Brown v. Board of Education, and, she tells us, has been trying to understand the implications of that decision “since I can remember.” She is well-qualified for the task of interpreting the legacy of that momentous decision.

The READ: Franzen Fallout
September 07, 2010

Franzenfreude, Franzen feud, Franzen frenzy: This literary squabble, one of the most fraught in recent years, isn’t over. It started two weeks ago when Jodi Picoult, peeved that the Times had given Freedom two glowing reviews in one week, gently tweaked (should that be tweeked?) the paper via Twitter: “Is anyone shocked?

The Counter-Thinker
July 21, 2010

The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western MasochisBy Pascal Bruckner Translated by Steven Rendall (Princeton University Press, 239 pp., $26.95) I. Once upon a time, it seemed an incontestable fact that the life of the mind radiated from the Left Bank outward. Within a small quadrant of the Latin Quarter in Paris, an intellectual elite labored to produce magisterial works that lesser minds all over the world received eagerly, gratefully—and by and large uncritically.

Is English Special Because It's "Globish"?
June 21, 2010

Most of the mainline reviews of Robert McCrum’s Globish – of which there have been so many so fast that I am in awe of his publicity people -- are missing what is fundamentally wrong with the book. Herewith one linguist’s take on this peculiar book, within which all evaluators seem to perceive a certain fuzziness, but few are catching that it is based on an outright error of reasoning and analysis – as well as an infelicitous volume of downright flubs. McCrum starts with the well-known fact that English is now the world’s de facto universal language.

The Art of Antithesis
June 02, 2010

The Bars of Atlantis: Selected EssaysBy Durs Grünbein Translated by John Crutchfield, Michael Hofmann, and Andrew Shields (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 323 pp., $35) Descartes’ Devil: Three MeditationsBy Durs Grünbein Translated by Anthea Bell (Upper West Side Philosophers, 136 pp., $25.95) Durs Grünbein’s scintillating essays flare up off the page in extravagant fashion, displaying here a philosopher (Seneca, Nietzsche), there the natural world (deep-sea fishes); here a poet (Hölderlin, Rilke), there an obsession (addictive diving).

"The Book" Is Not an Event. It Is a Cultural Continuum.
January 11, 2010

The first editors of the first issue of The New Republic in 1914 began their books and arts section with what was, and still is, a bristling admonition to critics. The words belonged to Rebecca West, called “indisputably the world’s number one woman writer” by Time in 1947 (though she probably resented the gender modifier). She titled her essay “The Duty of Harsh Criticism,” and she was as harsh on herself as she was harsh on the two males she put to scrutiny, George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells, certified “great men” who have passed way into the deep past.

The Colbert Report
October 05, 2009

The Information Master: Jean-Baptiste Colbert's Secret State Intelligence System By Jacob Soll (University of Michigan Press, 277 pp., $65) That resonant piece of verbal shorthand, TMI--or Too Much Information--would make a fine epigraph for our age. Anyone with an Internet connection today has access to exponentially greater quantities of writing, images, sound, and video than anyone on earth could have imagined just twenty years ago.