All posts filed under: Books

Goodbye, Herman Wouk

On May 17, American novelist Herman Wouk died, just ten days before he was due to turn 104. If Ernest Hemingway’s life and career had been as long as those of Herman Wouk, he’d have been alive as recently as 2003 and he’d have published a book in 1999. Had John Steinbeck lived and worked as long as Wouk, he’d have seen the re-election of George W. Bush and have published a book around the same time as Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. Had Charles Dickens lived as long as Wouk, he’d have witnessed the arrival of World War I. Had Arthur Conan Doyle lived as long, he might’ve heard the Beatles first single, “Love Me Do,” on the radio in his final days. Rudyard Kipling would have been able to purchase a copy of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Wouk not only outlived all of his Lost Generation heroes (notably Thomas Wolfe and Hemingway), but also all of his literary contemporaries of the Greatest Generation (Malmud, Welty, Salinger, Bellow, Mailer, Cheever, Vonnegut, Vidal, Heller). …

The Case for Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov, whose 120th anniversary we mark this Spring, remains one of the 20th Century’s most acclaimed and enduring writers. He keeps turning up on various Greatest–Books lists, often more than once—for the novels Lolita and Pale Fire, as well as his autobiography, Speak, Memory. And yet in this day and age, Nabokov is clearly a “problematic” fave. Not only is he a dead white male of privileged pedigree, but the novel that made him a literary star is, in the scolding words of feminist essayist Rebecca Solnit, “a book about a white man serially raping a child.” What’s more, Nabokov, a Russian-born refugee from both Communism and Nazism who died in 1977, made no secret of his contempt for both progressive political causes and literature as a means to advance them. He was politically incorrect avant la lettre.  And so it is not surprising that anti-Nabokov rumblings have been bubbling up in recent years. They include Solnit’s widely praised 2015 essay “Men Explain Lolita to Me,” in which she wrote about being lectured by …

Policing the Creative Imagination

At a time when activist displeasure can sweep through social media and destabilize reputations and nascent careers overnight, publishers are taking unprecedented steps in an effort to mitigate the risks. Among these is the use of sensitivity readers—individuals tasked with reading a work of fiction prior to publication in an effort to determine whether or not offense is likely to be caused by an author’s portrayal of characters from demographics considered marginalised or historically oppressed. Many readers, I suspect, will have become aware of this emerging trend following a series of nasty controversies in the world of Young Adult publishing. In 2017, a fantasy novel by Kiera Drake entitled The Continent was attacked for its allegedly racist portrayal of Native Americans. The novel was hastily rewritten following guidance from sensitivity readers. In January of this year, Amelie Zhao’s debut novel Blood Heir, set in a fantastical version of medieval Russia, was denounced online because its portrayal of chattel slavery was deemed insufficiently sensitive to America’s own racist history. In response, Zhao thanked her persecutors profusely …

The Impassable Road to Redemption

Oops! That page can’t be found. This is what I find when I click on the author link that says “Frank Sherlock—Bloof Books.” Before clicking, I catch a preview in my search results of what was once there. A photograph of the short-haired, bearded poet, wearing a white collared shirt and black blazer, pink background behind him, a partial bio: “Frank Sherlock is the author of Life Is to Blame for Everything, Space Between These Lines, Not Dedicated, Over Here, The City Real & Imagined (w/CA Conrad), and a collaboration with Brett—“ Nothing was found at this location. Try searching or check the links below. Nothing may be found, but surely, something has been lost. The former Philadelphia poet laureate had recently admitted on Facebook that he’d played in a racist skinhead band as a poor and misguided teenager back in the late 1980s, after he was outed by another poet. Sherlock was probably nervous about the risk he was taking. Would his followers understand? Was an artist required to disclose everything about his past to the …

Timely Return to Battle for a Veteran of the Culture Wars

A review of The Case For Trump by Victor Davis Hanson. Basic Books, Hard Cover (March 2019). “I too grew up, and still live, outside a small town in California’s Central Valley,” Victor Davis Hanson writes, in his new book The Case For Trump. “For a century (1880–1980) it was a prosperous multiethnic and multiracial community of working- and middle-class families. By 2010, high unemployment was chronic, drug addiction was endemic, crime commonplace. In 1970, we did not have keys for our outside doors; in 2018, I have six guard dogs.” Hanson remains one of the rare prominent writers and theorists to throw his intellectual weight behind the new conservatism that is taking shape across the Anglosphere and broader West since the twin victories of Brexit and Trump in 2016. While there have been recent attempts from both conservative (Legutko, Hazony, Mearsheimer) and liberal(ish) perspectives (Deneen, Goodwin and Eatwell, Walt) to explain what went wrong, Hanson’s latest refers more specifically to the social conditions in the United States. It is also very different from the works of …

George Faludy: Hungarian Poet and Hero for Our Times

Had the poet George Faludy not written in his native Hungarian—arguably the most impenetrable of European languages—he would, as many have argued, be world famous. He died aged 95 in 2006, his life spanning the First and Second World Wars, the Russian revolution, and the Nazi and communist takeovers of his country. Having achieved literary fame at 20, he would be imprisoned by both regimes and spend much of his life as an exile in France, Morocco, America (where he was a tail-gunner for the U.S. Airforce), and Canada, where he fled communism, only to find his lectures picketed and disrupted by campus leftists to whom his experience was an inconvenient truth. A ladies’ man all his life, he surprised the world by suddenly entering a gay relationship with Eric, a Russian ballet dancer, who’d fallen in love with Faludy in print and then rushed across the globe to find him. In his 90s, after communism fell and Faludy, returning to Budapest, achieved living legend status, he married a poetess 70 years his junior with …

Young Adult Fiction’s Online Commissars

In the late 1930s, more than 40 years before my family emigrated from the Soviet Union to the United States, my maternal grandmother had a chance to become a published children’s author. She had been writing short stories for her two children, and my grandfather encouraged her to send them to a publisher. To her surprise, she heard from an editor. When she came to see him, he told her he liked the stories very much, except for one problem: they lacked a Soviet spirit. But that, he reassured her, could be easily fixed: for instance, in the story where a young girl who befriends a hedgehog in the woods and promises she’ll always be his friend, she could just say that she gives her word as a Young Pioneer. (The Pioneers were the Soviet mass organization for middle-school-age children.) My grandma was not a closet anti-Soviet rebel, but she did quietly rebel at being told how and what to write. She thanked the editor, picked up her stories, went home, and never tried to get published again. In recent …

What Can We Learn from Dictators’ Literature?

Dictators, of course, are terrible people. They also tend to be terrible writers. Yet many tyrants have entertained the illusion that they were literary super geniuses. Mein Kampf and Quotations from Chairman Mao (aka The Little Red Book) are the best-known works in the dictatorial canon, but they represent only a fraction of the awfulness on offer in a vast, infernal library. There are so many other books: from Lenin’s The Development of Capitalism in Russia to Khomeini’s Islamic Government to Gaddafi’s The Green Book and beyond. In the heyday of 20th century tyranny, the writings of dictators were placed at the center of their personality cults, officially revered as sacred texts, and imposed upon (literally) captive audiences. That the books were frequently unreadable mattered little when the authors controlled the printing presses and the education systems, and could imprison or execute anyone who gave them a bad review. And yet, when regimes fall, how quickly these books vanish. Those who suffered under the dictators wish to move on, while those who did not are …

Why Men Can’t Write About Sex Anymore

Back in the early 1990s, I was one of the thousands of young, idealist Gen X Americans who moved to freewheeling post-Communist Prague to relive their version of “Paris of the 20s.” Before the advent of smartphones, YouTube, and Netflix, novels were still considered the preeminent artistic form, and most of the expats who flocked to the land of Vaclav Havel were obsessed with writing the “Great American Novel.” The literary icons for our generation—those who fetishized the absinthe-tinted bohemia of Hemingway’s Paris—were mostly masculine writers like Henry Miller, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Bret Easton Ellis. Though there were plenty of women among the wine-sozzled bohemians of our expat massive, Henry Miller’s assertion that “Sex is one of the nine reasons for reincarnation, and the other eight are unimportant,” was embraced by us all, regardless of gender. Men read poems called “Women who moan” at raucous expat readings, while girls wrote about their experiences with Czech lovers twice their age. Sex was the social currency of our close-knit literary community, and writing with brutal honesty …

Thirty Years After ‘The Closing of the American Mind’

Over thirty years ago, Allan Bloom—the late American philosopher and university professor who was the model for Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein—published The Closing of the American Mind. He began with a startling declaration: “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.” Relativism, Bloom claimed, “is not a theoretical insight but a moral postulate, the condition of a free society, or so they see it.” Students “have all been equipped with this framework early on, and it is the modern replacement for the inalienable rights that used to be the traditional American grounds for a free society.” What students “fear from absolutism is not error but intolerance.” At the end of the opening paragraph, Bloom summarized the result: “The point is not to correct [their] mistakes and really be right; rather it is not to think you are right at all.” In the ensuing pages, Bloom argued that modern universities were failing their students in part because postmodern trends …