Books

Rebuilding the World

Anthony Shadid's final book on the remaking of a house in Lebanon

Houghton Mifflin
House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East By Anthony Shadid, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 336 pages, $26.00 T he story of making a house is one of the great and ancient archetypes of literature. You could say that it is a story as old as writing itself, since the image of a house, or bayt, underlies the B in the alphabet that the Phoenicians, inhabitants of what we now call Lebanon, invented. The word “bayt” also means family, or clan. The title of journalist Anthony Shadid’s memoir resonates with both meanings. An account of rebuilding an ancestral bayt in southern Lebanon, it is a diary of architectural adventure, a personal record of family history, a subtle examination of intricate regional politics, and an Odyssean journey home. Until a few weeks ago, House of Stone had a happy ending—a fulfillment, the house’s past, present, and future woven together in the form of traditional architecture. The new olive tree the author had planted was flourishing alongside...

Power Failure

Two new books on why nations gain and lose wealth and power miss the real story.

(Crown/Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
A mericans have never felt at ease with empire, and with good reason. Running an empire often demands that we betray our republican ideals, at least for periods of time. It can also be costly in gold and in blood. So it was no surprise that after the fall of the Soviet Union, the American people leapt at the opportunity to lay down the imperial burdens we had carried since World War II. Politicians in both parties assured us that we could off-load our responsibilities onto a “global” market mechanism, overseen by a new institution created in 1995 called the World Trade Organization (WTO). Many if not most of us said, “Good riddance.” The September 11 attacks soon reminded us that it wasn’t possible simply to lay down our arms. What we failed to grasp then or since was that our Cold War–era hegemony had not been based solely on military force but also on our ability to manipulate a complex cross-border industrial system built with care over decades. America’s approach to empire after...

The Nuclear Politics of a Poem

A look at the poem that led the Israeli government to declare Gunter Grass a persona non grata.

(AP Photo/Fritz Reiss)
As you may have read in last Sunday's New York Times , the government of Israel has declared German Nobel laureate Gunter Grass persona non grata because of a poem. True, it's a pretty lousy poem: "What Must Be Said," it's called, and that "Must" tells old Grass hands that it's musty Gunter Gasbag time. But literary criticism has never been a big priority for Benjamin Netanyahu, who followed up his Interior Ministry's PNG announcement with his own condemnation of Grass: "Shameful." The big deal, you see, was that the 84-year-old author of The Tin Drum had denounced Israel for the first time in his l-o-o-n-g career as postwar Germany's obstreperously eloquent Jiminy Cricket. That's how folks used to talk about him, anyhow: "Much of what is active conscience in the Germany of Krupp and the Munich beer halls lies in this man's ribald keeping," critic George Steiner—not a man to shrug Hitler off—lauded Grass's Dog Years back in the 1960s. I must say I miss the days when paperback...

I’ve Got Some Assignments for Rachel Maddow

(AP Photo / Chris Pizzello)
Last week, the authorities here at the Prospect were calling me the substitute teacher. I got grumpy about that at first (all kinds of anti-woman and bad childhood associations). But I’ve decided to embrace it. Rachel Maddow, here’s your homework. When Leon Wieseltier wrote a snarky review trashing the snarky tone of Rachel Maddow’s Drift— and more important, suggesting that the nation had yet more wars to fight and that Maddow was foolish not to understand this—I pledged over on Alternet to pay retail, read the whole book, and comment. I’m delighted to say that the book came onto The New York Times bestseller list at No. 1 this past weekend, even though I allowed her publicist to tempt me into a free copy. So now I’ve read the book, and I’ve read half a dozen reviews of the book, from gushing to dismissive . I think I’ve now been through all the Elisabeth Kubler-Ross stages of reaction when a prominent person writes a book on a subject one knows well: Excitement, Pleasure at content...

Part Two: Charles Murray, the Long View

Coming Apart caps three decades of faux concern for the poor.

-
The following is the second in a two-part series on Charles Murray's Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 . For part one, please click here . In Coming Apart , Charles Murray begins by describing white America on the eve of the Kennedy assassination—a unified society where everyone watched the same three networks, few people had children out of wedlock or got divorced, neighbors didn’t need to lock their doors, and most folks felt themselves to be middle class. Murray wields the symbolic power of the rupture that ripped America on November 22, 1963, to suggest a parallel break in our economic lives. He contrasts a notional working-class neighborhood, “Fishtown,” with “Belmont,” home to the most affluent 5 percent. Since 1963, he reports, our coherent world has given way to cultural and economic fragmentation. America “is coming apart at the seams.” Murray baits his trap with descriptive material that reads like an American Prospect article, quoting Robert Reich’s “...

Charles Murray, the Long View

In 1984, the right's star public intellectual wrote the book that drove welfare reform. Coming Apart is an alibi for his own failed big idea.

(Courtesy of Crown Forum)
The following is the first in a two-part series on Charles Murray's Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. F or a generation, the main story of working-class America has been the collapse of a living-wage economy due to such forces as globalization, weakened trade unions, and reduced government labor regulation. This trend has been a social catastrophe and, increasingly, a severe embarrassment to free-market ideology. Enter Charles Murray with a lifeline of alibis. His Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010 has received worshipful treatment from conservative commentators, and for good reason. Faced with the awkward truth of widening inequality, the right usually adopts a strategy of strained denial. Murray offers an alternative. Instead of waltzing around the reality, he deplores the new schisms in America and then executes a deft pivot: Both the elite and the unwashed, he says, are getting what they deserve. The rich are getting richer because their...

What's the Point of College?

A critical look at the state of the American university

.
College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, By Andrew Delbanco Princeton University Press, 240 pages, $24.95 Visit any campus bookstore, and in addition to lighthearted tracts on applied calculus and hoodies made in China, you will see a baby jumper emblazoned with the school’s logo—a sign of how anxiously and superstitiously Americans hope that their kids, still capable of only gurgling and monkey reflex reactions, will one day go to college. It is this glossily promoted hope that Columbia University professor and social critic Andrew Delbanco explores in a book that, despite its title, is no work of prescriptive policy. Wonks may be disappointed at the lack of charts and tables, but Delbanco explores American higher education in a manner befitting a scholar of Melville and the Puritans, with a humanist’s belief in lessons from history and in asking what the right thing is to do. The first American colleges were built on the British model, he reminds us, from which ancient features—dorm...

Adrienne Rich, Poet of Change

Few literary luminaries succeed in melding a passion for social justice with a love of language.

(AP Photo/Adam Rountree, file)
Adrienne Rich, a poet and essayist whose righteous, resonant voice transformed American literature and consciousness, passed away last Tuesday at her home in Santa Cruz, California. Beloved by the feminist and LGBT communities, Rich’s career spanned seven decades and more than 30 books. Though honored with a bevy of prizes (including the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant), she remained resolutely outside the establishment, her radicalism seeming only to gather steam over time. When President Bill Clinton, for instance, offered her the National Medal of Arts in 1997, she famously declined. Taking heroic advantage of the ensuing press, she criticized the cynicism of an administration willing to honor a handful of token artists while slashing funding for the arts. “Art,” she said, “means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner-table of power which holds it hostage.” Rich was born in Baltimore in 1929, to a milieu of...

History Lessons

When historian Tony Judt cared passionately about a problem he was able to redefine its terms. Pity he didn't care about a few more things.

(Joe Ciardiello)
T hinking the Twentieth Century lets us listen in on conversations between distinguished colleagues, the intellectual historian Tony Judt and the Eastern Europeanist Timothy Snyder. It conveys the sort of conversation that two scholars may have when they share the same knowledge, references, and opinions. I can think of older historians possessing a greater range of scholarship and biographies of more significance—among writers on modern Europe, Eric Hobsbawm or Peter Gay—whom one might want to hear from before Judt in this unusual format. But this book was motivated by tragic circumstances. Judt suffered from ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease. Snyder began his interviews after the point at which his senior colleague had lost the use of his hands and had begun to dictate rather than write. Judt’s courage and clarity of mind were celebrated, as he continued to deliver important public addresses in the early stages of the disease and produced two more short books. One was an impassioned defense...

The Making of a Madman

A.N. Wilson's new biography explains how losing money, mother, and mind created Hitler.

(Flickr / Daniel Semper)
How are monsters made? How do the Neros and Caligulas, the Stalins and Maos come into existence? One of the most frequent explanations for those preternatural torturers of small animals, those psychopathic murderers and genocidal maniacs is actually quite simple: It’s all the parents’ fault. As poet Philip Larkin wrote, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.” And it’s not just physical abuse that begets monsters but emotional and psychological abuse as well. Does this explain Adolf Hitler, the “ultimate demon-tyrant of history,” as British journalist A.N. Wilson, author of the short biography, Hitler , calls him? In the autobiography, Mein Kampf ( My Struggle ), while relating a third-person account of his childhood, Hitler illustrates the daily psychological, emotional, and even physical abuse inflicted by his family: “When the parents fight … their brutality leaves nothing to the imagination [and] the results of such visual education must slowly but inevitably become apparent in the...

Barbarians at the Transom

Lionel Shriver's The New Republic is a provocative and satiric novel about—of all things—terrorism. 

Harper Collins
The New Republic By Lionel Shriver, HarperCollins, 400 pages, $26.99 What if there were a war, and no journalists covered it? Alternately, what if there weren’t a war, and every journalist covered it? How might our lawmakers react? It’s worth remembering that in 1993, when Spy magazine prank-called U.S. congressmen, asking what the administration should do about ethnic cleansing in Freedonia, several of the officials demanded immediate action. Freedonia, as it happens, was not a warring Balkan land but the fictional setting of the Marx Brothers film Duck Soup . Spy soon exposed the trap it had laid, but are there not other fictions that go uncaught and unrevealed and end by affecting foreign policy? This is the provocative question that the writer and social observer Lionel Shriver sports with in The New Republic , her latest published novel and a satire about—of all things—terrorism. “Provocative” is the right word for Lionel Shriver, a North Carolina–born writer who has lived...

Hell's Belles

Tracking the teen heroines of the new dystopian thrillers

(Photo courtesy of Scholastic)
L ike the flu virus, the genre of dystopic novels for young adults has many strains. The one featuring a teenage girl battling for her life got a massive boost in the fall of 2008, when the first volume of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy was published. Collins’s franchise has more than 23.5 million books in print and a movie adaptation due out next week, while new entries in the genre keep pouring forth, eagerly welcomed by fans and Hollywood. Why have readers been so drawn to catastrophic futures when the present seems troubled enough? Why are young heroines thrust into ruined worlds and then routinely hunted, harassed, or beaten into unconsciousness? A New York Times forum on the grim dystopia boom featured one novelist in the genre asserting that teens in our mismanaged times are demanding to read “something that isn’t a lie.” Writing on the phenomenon in The New Yorker , critic Laura Miller wondered if the authoritarian societies that dominate the trend are analogues to...

A Nightstick Turned into a Song

Two new books and a documentary cue up the soundtrack of the black-power movement.

(Courtesy of Louverture Films)
I n January, President Barack Obama made his singing debut on the stage of Harlem’s Apollo Theater. During a campaign fundraising speech, he leaned into the microphone, gently slid his State of the Union baritone up to a whispery falsetto, and nailed the opening line from “Let’s Stay Together,” the Al Green soul classic that has melted hearts and warmed sheets since its release in 1971. “I-I-I-I, I’m so in love with you,” Obama cooed. The video of his impromptu performance has logged more than four million views, and the song has become an unofficial re-election theme. Obama’s rendition is available as a ringtone; inevitably, Green showed up to sing it at an event in February. Yet the power of the clipped cover version was its resurrection of the ghosts of Obamas past. The serenade was a reminder not just of the subtle swagger that found Obama brushing the dirt off his shoulders à la Jay-Z back in 2008 but also of a tradition of civil rights–era black culture and politics that Obama...

The Republican Socialist

A new biography shows that Dwight Eisenhower was a more cunning and active president than he gets credit for. 

(AP Photo/Arthur Sasse)
Does anyone else remember the Western Hemisphere's only functioning socialist paradise? In that bygone land, the top income-tax bracket for millionaires was 90 percent. Thanks to a heavily—and proudly—unionized workforce, collective bargaining resolved most labor-management disputes. To stave off recession, the government instituted the largest public-works program in Country X's history, from which its now largely unwitting citizens still benefit today. Although Country X did possess a sizable nuclear deterrent, the trade-off was a reduction in spending on conventional military capabilities. "Our most valuable, our most costly asset is our young men. Let's don't use them any more than we have to," was the typically commonsensical explanation given by paradise's wildly popular leader for his reluctance to commit Country X to adventurist foreign wars. Despite an excruciating level of world tension at the time, not a single member of Country X's armed forces died in battle on his watch...

The Part of Silence That Can Be Spoken

Jeanette Winterson’s fairy-tale search for a mother

For some writers, mothers are everywhere. They slip off windy cliffs and fall to their death; they follow a star to an orphanage and choose a child in a crib. They are the Dog Woman, fleshy and unwashed and unafraid to kill. They rescue the baby who, like some kind of Moses, is abandoned in the Thames, and they bring him up as their own. These particular mothers belong to British writer Jeanette Winterson’s fiction, which often employs fairy tales and fantastical stories to explore familial relationships and thwart gender expectations. The mothers in Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal ? are different, though: They’re real. Winterson’s memoir attempts to uncloak her two mothers, birth and adoptive. Framed by the poverty and history of industrial England, the narrative is fragmented and at times clumsy, jumping between concrete scenes and philosophical ruminations. Nonetheless, it is a book about self-discovery through emotional and mental breakdown. The woman who adopted and raised...

Pages