Books

Bill Clinton, Book Critic

In 1991, in the early days of his presidential run, then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton would occasionally cite and paraphrase from what was clearly his favorite new book: E.J. Dionne’s Why Americans Hate Politics . The book excoriated any number of politicos, but chiefly Republicans, for posing “false choices” to the American people—as in, you’re either pro-family or pro-government (as if there weren’t a raft of government programs to help families). Clinton wove these ideas into his stump speech, now and then taking care to attribute some of them to E.J.’s book. (E.J. is a close friend, so in this blog, he gets first-name treatment). It’s 21 years later and Clinton’s doing it again. According to The Washington Post ’s Al Kamen, Clinton was answering questions at a forum put on by his Clinton Global Initiative at the London School of Economics. He was asked by Ashley Judd (who, unlike the young Mick Jagger, is not actually a student at the LSE) what he was reading, and replied that...

Friday Fiction Break

As a kid I consumed fiction like a ravenous beast. I swallowed whole whatever came my way, from Tolstoy to Heinlein, Michener to Eugene O'Neill. My fiction addiction kept up for years, dragging me through Trollope, Muriel Spark, Colson Whitehead, Dickens, Murakami, Russell Banks, Christina Stead, Alice Munro, W.G. Sebald, Chang-Rae Lee, and hundreds of others. I have always profoundly wanted to see the world through everyone else's eyes: What does it feel like to be someone else, in another part of the world, facing the unimaginable? Since most people have trouble articulating their deepest experiences, even reporters don't necessarily get to hear what others feel. Great fiction has always seemed the best way to peer into others' joys and horrors. But at some point I lost the habit, and began reading primarily for information. Maybe it's because reading is what I do all day for work. Maybe it's the parenting exhaustion, leaving so little brainpower left at the day's end. Maybe it's...

Giving Local Food the Raspberry

The Locavore's Dilemma takes aim at the sustainability movement, ignoring the broader problems plaguing our food system.

(Flickr / Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources)
(Flickr / Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources) The sustainable-food movement has finally been around long enough to face its first cold front. Pickled okra, critics want the world to know, is not as desirable as sales at the Prospect Park farmers market might indicate. The most recent round of attacks has focused on local food and locavorism: In April, Tyler Cowen took a few glancing blows at local food in An Economist Gets Lunch , and last month, Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu—two Canadians trained as economic-policy analysts—released The Locavore’s Dilemma , an all-out assault on local food in which they seek to “slaughter as many sacred cows in the food activists’ intellectual herd as [they] could.” But by focusing on local food, they end up arguing against problems that barely exist or that never will, while ignoring the real environmental costs of our food systems. Desrochers and Shimizu mention that they received support for their work from Mercatus Center at George...

Faith in Action

A review of Mark Shriver's new book about the life of his father, progressive hero Sargent Shriver.

Tributes to politicos written by their children don’t have a special place in literary hell, but they probably deserve one. Most are warm and fuzzy reminisces from kids who seem to know little more about their fathers—and it almost always is fathers—than their dads’ press secretaries. And, like the handiwork of a press secretary, their books often present a version of events so thin and sanitized that they make the History Channel look like PBS. Not so with Mark Shriver’s A Good Man: Rediscovering My Father, Sargent Shriver. Unlike Scott Stossel’s 800-page Sarge The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver (Smithsonian Books, 2004), the younger Shriver’s book doesn’t attempt to be the definitive biography of his father’s life and career. Instead, it is an elegantly written meditation on faith, public service, and parenting from someone who’s clearly spent much of his life grappling with all three. On one level, Shriver’s book is a heartbreaking account of his father’s struggle with Alzheimer...

Where to Draw the Line on Hate Speech?

Jeremy Waldron's new book tries to uncover the best way to tackle hate speech on the legal and policy front.

Discussions of free speech in the United States often call upon the adage—misattributed to Voltaire—that “while I disagree with what you have to say, I will defend to the death your right to say it.” (The quote in fact comes from Evelyn Hall, who wrote a biography of the French philosopher.) It’s a succinct summary of a the cherished American idea that speech should not be abridged because we find its content objectionable. But according to New York University Law Professor Jeremy Waldron, it’s severely flawed. In The Harm in Hate Speech , published this month by Harvard University Press, Waldron argues that freedom of speech in the United States is so absolute, both in law and in public opinion, that we lack meaningful regulation against speech intended to demean or vilify minority groups—what we casually refer to as “hate speech.” Hate-speech laws, Waldron notes, are “common and widely accepted” in every other advanced democracy. But in the United States, Waldron says, those who...

The Mother of All Girls' Books

The secret subversiveness of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women

C hristmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.” This is how Louisa May Alcott begins Little Women . She wrote it in 1868, when she was 35, after months of urging by Thomas Niles, a Boston publisher who wanted a story for girls. She had not had much luck with a serious novel, she needed money, and it was part of a deal that her father, Bronson Alcott, had proposed. If Louisa said yes, Niles would agree to publish Bronson’s philosophical treatise, Tablets . A dutiful daughter, she couldn’t say no. I know the novel by heart. I read it for the first time when I was nine years old; my father bought me a British edition of the first part—the original Little Women . ( Good Wives , the second part, appeared just over six months later. In America, the two parts were immediately combined, but in England, they are still published separately.) We were living on a hill above Florence, Italy, but Concord, Massachusetts, where the story is set and where the...

How the Gay-Rights Movement Won

(AP Photo/ Ron Lewis )
Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution—How a Despised Minority Pushed Back, Beat Death, Found Love, and Changed America for Everyone By Linda Hirshman, Harper Collins, 464 pages, $27.99 Fifty years ago, being gay put you beyond the social pale. You could be savagely beaten, kicked out of public spaces and private clubs, arrested, fired, expelled from your family, and scorned as a pariah. Today, lesbians and gay men are all but equal, with full marriage rights in view—supported by President Barack Obama in action and words. How did we win so much so fast? It’s a natural question after any major social change, especially for those hoping to apply the lessons elsewhere. How did smoking go from ubiquitous to despised? Why did feminism and black civil rights get so far, while unions gasped? Which made the difference: the low-lying social movement or the high-altitude legal and legislative efforts, the messy masses or the charismatic leaders? Historians can spend decades combing through...

Mad Men's Shark Week

This season hasn't lived up to our reviewer's high expectations.

(AP Photo/Danny Moloshok)
Maybe an excess of cultishness will just always disgruntle me. It's not like I've read every last online analysis of last week's episode of Mad Men —of course not, because I'd still be at it at age 90. But I got irked anyway when I couldn't turn up any heretics willing to opine that the big shock of Christina Hendricks's Joan consenting to be pimped out by her bosses at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce for the sake of landing the Jaguar account was kind of, how you say, jiveass. Even recappers who acknowledged that the point being made was on the sledgehammer side —wow, life in the advertising world is really all about prostitution? You don't say—did a quick 180 to praise Matthew Weiner for making it work. (That's the advantage of having a rep for subtlety; even turning crude looks clever.) And Mad Men fans are so invested in the damn thing, myself not totally excluded, that it's no fun to wonder if last Sunday's ep amounted to Fonzie donning his waterskis to jump the you-know-what. The...

Mr. Caro's Opus

Some observations on the fourth installment of The Years of Lyndon Johnson

(Courtesy of Vintage Press)
You've got no secrets from me this week. Unless you were one of the early birds who devoured the thing in vast, debilitating insomniac gobs after clawing the Amazon.com box open on publication day, you are now somewhere between page 300 and 500 of Robert A. Caro's The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Vol. IV. (Spoiler alert: JFK doesn't make it.) And you're so engrossed that you're ignoring your significant other's timid semaphore signals—ah, can't beds can be as wide as the Atlantic sometimes?—to the general effect that he or she misses sex. Meals, too, and dammit, Joey. Isn't it your turn to walk Bowser? All that is more than understandable. The thing is as absorbing as a casket stuffed with brisket or a drowned Cadillac with unknown passengers. But as the roar of coverage that greets each new installment of Caro's epic recedes, I invite you to take wing alongside me like a seagull in search of interesting flotsam. 1. The Also-Ran. You know, folks, it wouldn't kill you...

Too Big to Imagine

Steve Coll's Private Empire tells you every last thing about ExxonMobil—except what to do about it.

(Flikr and AP Images)
E ven granting that testifying to congressional committees is not on the list of an oil CEO’s favorite things to do, when ExxonMobil CEO Lee Raymond, known to his employees as “Iron Ass,” arrived at the Dirksen Senate Office building one morning in November 2005, he was in an especially reticent mood. Among other things, the Senate Energy Committee wanted to know about the corporation’s role in formulating policy with Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy task force. Raymond—who was chummy with Cheney and seven weeks away from his retirement, after 12 spectacularly profitable years at the helm first of Exxon and then Exxon-Mobil—did not think the committee needed to know. Thus when New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg asked Raymond whether he or any ExxonMobil executives participated in a 2001 meeting with Cheney, Raymond responded with a single syllable: “No.” The truth of that statement was something only a lawyer or a comedian could love, but it was consistent with how the company...

The Good Lyndon

Finally, Robert Caro lightens up on LBJ.

Courtesy AP Images
The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power by Robert A. Caro, Knopf, 736 pages, $35.00 “Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?” became a standard refrain at rallies against “Lyndon Johnson’s war” in Vietnam. The term “credibility gap,” if not the dissembling that led to it, originated with Johnson’s presidency. The Democratic Party seemed bound for permanent majority status after a landslide victory in 1964, but the polarization that stained Johnson’s last year in office spilled over into riots at its 1968 convention. Yet early in his sudden presidency, as he comforted a grieving nation and orchestrated the passage of historic measures to extend civil rights and battle poverty, Johnson appeared a good bet to have his likeness carved on Mount Rushmore. How would the fourth volume of Robert Caro’s monumental yet famously unforgiving biography of the 36th president account for Johnson’s high phase of triumph and inspiration? The charged anticipation of The Passage of...

Our Battle Scars

The Cause tells how liberals gave America the best of the 20th century. So why is it so hard to be one?

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I t’s taken me almost my entire life to come out of the closet as a liberal. In college at the end of the 1970s, I was no revolutionary, but I thought of myself as a radical. Working at “the independent socialist newspaper” In These Times in the 1980s, I tried on actual socialism, with some relief at having a name for what I thought I believed. Later I became a progressive, when that term came to stand for the Paul Wellstone-Howard Dean “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” In middle age, I’ve belatedly found solace and realism in calling myself a liberal. Eric Alterman and Kevin Mattson’s The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama explains why. The book also makes clear why it took me so long to come to terms with my sober, modest, occasionally enervating political identity. Alterman and Mattson remind us how much liberalism has accomplished over the past 75 years: protecting workers; advancing civil and economic rights for black people...

What the F@%& Is Up With Stephen King?

When I was a kid, I was plagued by nightmares. One scary TV show, and boom, I'd wake up paralyzed with terror after a night in which animal-headed people tried to kill me all night, or Nazis pursued me through the streets of New York. After awhile, my little brothers knew to protectively chase me away from the television if something even faintly Hitchcockian came on; while they'd watch, I'd hunker down in my bedroom with Anne of Green Gables or, later, Tolstoy. My basic aversion to, or caution about, horror movies and scary books lasted well into my adulthood, until I learned how to tune down the fear and sleep through the night. But horror is a taste that I've never fully developed. All of which is to say that I haven't ever been a Stephen King reader or viewer—until yesterday, when he jumped on the Warren Buffett bandwagon with his Daily Beast blast, "Tax Me, For F@%&’s Sake!" Here's the gist: At a rally in Florida (to support collective bargaining and to express the socialist...

Vive la Mère

Is breastfeeding the new patriarchy? Elisabeth Badinter overstates her case—and overlooks what the French can really teach us about raising children.

The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women By Elisabeth Badinter, Metropolitan Books, 224 pages, $25.00 Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting By Pamela Druckerman, Penguin Press, 304 pages, $25.95 Don’t smoke or drink while pregnant. Breast-feed for a year, if possible (it almost never is). Buy organic. Read to your little one every day. Don’t work full time unless you have to, line up the right schools, and if you can’t manage everything on this list, try not to wreck your kids’ fragile psyches with the guilt unleashed by your failure. The current advice to mothers makes child-rearing sound as fun as a sentence to Leavenworth. In the inevitable reaction, books attacking the escalating demands on mothers have become a cottage industry over the past ten years. Elisabeth Badinter, France’s preeminent woman intellectual, has responded to the rise of what she calls motherhood fundamentalism with a cri de coeur denouncing the...

The Queer List, Part 1: Del Martin and Phyllis Lyons

(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, Pool)
(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, Pool) Del Martin, 87, center left, and Phyllis Lyon, 84, center right, are married by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom , center, in a special ceremony at City Hall in San Francisco, Monday, June 16, 2008. Also pictured are the couple's witnesses, Roberta Achtenberg, left, and Donna Hitchens. Lyon and Martin became the first officially married same sex couple after California's Supreme Court declared gay marriage legal. Once upon a time, we all knew their names. They shaped our world and our attitudes to ourselves. We had their books on our bookshelves, since there were very few books on the subject. Or we read about their travails in our subterranean newspapers— Gay Community News, The Washington Blade —which we received in the mail, in brown manila envelopes so that we weren't outed unintentionally to our neighbors. (Yes, seriously.) For the most part, the rest of the world ignored us. And so these figures who loomed so large in our lives were invisible...

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