Books

The Long Arc of Gore Vidal

The prolific man of letters spent the last decades of his life tarnishing his own reputation—but what a reputation it was.

(AP Photo)
(AP Photos) Gore Vidal in 1977 With typical cheek, Gore Vidal, who died yesterday, once reviewed a book about himself by a young academic named Ray Lewis White. This was in 1968, when “in many quarters,” reviewer-Vidal explained, author-Vidal was “still regarded with profound suspicion,” making White’s study a bit of an outlier. Expressing gratitude for what he deemed “a most interesting book” wouldn’t have suited Vidal’s act, to put it mildly. But he came close in his summing-up: “[I]n the declining kingdom of literature,” he wrote, “Mr. White has staked out with some nicety the wild marches of a border lord.” Some marches; some border. (I can already imagine Vidal’s ghost complaining: “What about ‘some lord’?”) It’s hard to think of another American writer who conducted so many campaigns on multiple fronts with such aplomb: superb essayist, undauntable political polemicist and TV jouster, unexpectedly engaging autobiographer. His other incarnations ranged from successful playwright...

Friday Poetry Break: When I Heard The Learn'd Astronomer

From Walt Whitman : WHEN I heard the learn’d astronomer; When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me; When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them; When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room, How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick; 5 Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself, In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars. (With thanks to Kevin Franck for the suggestion!)

The London Games

A new book sheds light on the ruins that always lie in an Olympics's wake. 

(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Ghost Milk: Recent Adventures among the Future Ruins of London on the Eve of the Olympics, by Iain Sinclair, Faber and Faber, 405 pages, $30.00 July 2012 marks the third time London has hosted the modern Olympics. In 1908, Britain was a rich and imperious nation, and British athletes topped the medals table. For the 1948 “Austerity Games,” London was scarred by bomb damage and suffering under a postwar regime of rationing. There was no money for new buildings, so athletes were housed in Royal Air Force barracks; the USA won the medal count, while Britain slipped to 12th place. This year, Britain is once again mired in economic gloom. Yet the 2012 contest was awarded in the heady, affluent days before the financial crash. On July 6, 2005, when news broke of the successful Olympic bid, scenes of genuine, unstaged jubilation took place in Trafalgar Square. The official talk was of inspiring a generation, transforming British sports, and regenerating East London—particularly a tract of...

Out of Work, Out of Luck

MIT Press
Back to Full Employment , by Robert Pollin. A Boston Review Book. The M.I.T. Press. 187 pages. $14.95 Achieving full employment has been at the center of the progressive project for more than a century. If work is available at decent wages for everyone who wants it, then the rest of the agenda is a lot easier. Opportunity proliferates. People feel a sense of dignity and worth. Human potential is fully utilized. In a virtuous circle, adequate purchasing power has a rendez-vous with the economy’s productive capacity. Tight labor markets give workers the leverage to bargain for decent wages. Social-transfer programs can be reserved for special needs rather than being strained to make up for the fundamental lack of decent income. As Robert Pollin writes in his important new book, Back to Full Employment , a society with jobs for all “is also the best tool for fighting poverty.” He reminds us that in the era of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, unemployment rates fell to below 4 percent,...

Why "Knowing How the Economy Works" Is Not Enough

George W. Bush has the answers.
This week will see the release of The 4% Solution: Unleashing the Economic Growth America Needs , a collection of essays from the George W. Bush Institute with a forward by the former president himself. It's true that annual GDP growth never actually reached 4 percent during Bush's two terms in office and averaged only 2.4 percent even if we generously exclude the disastrous year of 2008. But look at it this way: Who knows more about what the president ought to do about the economy than Dubya does? After all, there's only one living American (Bill Clinton) with as much experience being president, so Bush must have the answers we need. A ridiculous argument? Of course. That's because experience only gets you so far. It's obviously a good thing, all else being equal, for the president to know a lot about the economy, just as it's a good thing for him to know a lot about foreign affairs or domestic policy. But the truth is that although the government has to solve many practical problems...

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...

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