All posts filed under: Books

At a Time Like This, the West Could Use Its Own Vladimir Voinovich

Two years ago, the world lost a great Russian novelist and essayist whose eye for the surreal would have made him a perfect witness to the current moment—and whose satires had a way of turning prophetic. Even when Vladimir Voinovich’s fiction took a fantastic turn—most notably, in his futuristic 1987 novel, Moscow 2042—his writing remained rooted in the realities of Soviet and then post-Soviet Russia. In 2020 America, his work takes on a new relevance. Voinovich was just two months short of his 86th birthday when he died of a heart attack in Moscow on July 27th, 2018. It’s a ripe old age, especially in a country where the average male life expectancy is 65. And yet his death still feels untimely. While his star dimmed in his twilight years, his mental and creative faculties did not. His final novel, The Crimson Pelican, published in 2016 (and still awaiting its day in English), is a work of superb wit and imagination. Voinovich’s legacy has a personal aspect for me. I first fell in love with …

Lord Over All: Alexander the Great’s Conquered World of Priests and Pagans

Alexander’s Europe emerged from a cataclysm. For many millions of years, North Africa’s Atlas Mountains had reached north across what later became the Strait of Gibraltar and merged with the Spanish Cordillera. The Atlantic Ocean lay to the west of the mountains, and to the east a large lake stretched as far as the undivided lands of Italy and Sicily. A second lake lay farther east, beyond Italy, alongside Asia and Egypt. Then, about five million years ago, the bed of the ocean shuddered, the mountains linking Spain and Africa cracked open, and a torrent moving more than 60 miles an hour flowed through. The lake to the east rose by as much as 10 yards a day for two years. The Greeks thought it took a Titan, Atlas, to steady the land beside the waterway. Italy became a peninsula; Macedon acquired a coastline. The entire seacoast filled with bays and channels, the short hops for sailing that made sea voyages the best way to travel the Mediterranean. The one great river, the Nile, acquired …

Jeffrey Epstein’s Money Tainted My Workplace. Then Ronan Farrow’s Botched Reporting Trashed My Reputation

“You really need to pull over. You can’t drive all the way to Illinois without some rest,” my spouse implored, as he tried to speak sense to me on the phone while looking online for hotels in Eastern Pennsylvania. I could stop in Bethlehem, he said without irony. He had found a Hampton Inn that looked nice. It was already one in the morning. But I didn’t stop. I didn’t want to. I wasn’t tired and I couldn’t bear the thought of it. I didn’t want to wake up in some chain hotel and see my picture on five different TVs in the breakfast room. I kept on driving. Earlier that evening, the night of Sunday, September 8th, 2019, I’d run into my apartment building near the Brown University campus in Providence, Rhode Island, and grabbed my clothes, a toothbrush, some deodorant, and my house plants—all the stuff I thought I’d want to have with me over the next few weeks. I jammed everything into my 2005 Corolla for the drive to Illinois. It was …

The Room Where It Happened—A Review

A review of The Room Where It Happened—A White House Memoir by John Bolton, Simon and Schuster (June 2020), 592 pages. Donald Trump’s White House is fast approaching the end of its first term. Meanwhile, the consequences of the administration’s early insouciance about the onset of COVID-19 are manifest across a country experiencing a ferocious new surge in cases. The US President offers his leadership to those who would scrap the sheltering and distancing rules, characterising them as the imposition of a despised bureaucracy—evidence, as one protestor put it, of a “Communist dictatorship.” Trump is, in most moods, fond of Communist dictators, as China’s Xi Jinping and North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un have been pleased to discover. The head of his National Security Council (NSC) from April 2018 until September last year, John Bolton, fears and hates them. These two men, both in their early 70s, were yoked together for 18 months, a period that ended in predictable acrimony, and which has now produced a memoir from Bolton. Several books have already sought to illuminate the malign …

Interpreting Italo Svevo—When Literary Orthodoxy Misses The Mark

The orthodoxy among literary scholars  In 2019 I attended the annual conference of the Associazione degli Italianisti (ADI, The Association for Scholars of Italian Literature), in Pisa. The conference’s theme was “Literature & Science;” I was invited to participate in a panel, along with some other scientists, and attended as many presentations and debates as possible. Although I was relieved to learn that literature in Italy has not been taken over by social justice activism as has happened in the U.S., Italian literary studies are not immune to rigid orthodoxies. The study of 20th-century Italian literature is strongly “theory-driven,” and dominated by two schools of thought: the Marxist, and the psychoanalytical (or Freudian) school. In the past, there was also a Catholic school in Italian literary studies, but it is no longer prominent. The Marxist school is based on Marx’s axiom that art and literature are the product of socio-economic processes, and therefore that novels must be understood from the perspective of class struggle. The psychoanalytical school is based on the premise that, insofar as …

The Libertarian History of Science Fiction

When mainstream authors like Eric Flint complain that the science fiction establishment, and its gatekeeper the Hugo Awards, has “drift[ed] away from the opinions and tastes of… mass audience[s],” prioritizing progressive messaging over plot development, the response from the Left is uniform: Science fiction is by its very nature progressive. It’s baked into the cake, they say. This is a superficially plausible claim. With its focus on the future, its embrace of the unfamiliar and other-worldly, and its openness to alternative ways of living, it is hard to see how the genre could be anything but progressive. In fact, studies indicate that interest in SF books and movies is strongly correlated with a Big Five personality trait called openness to experience, which psychologists say is highly predictive of liberal values. But openness to experience also correlates with libertarianism and libertarian themes and ideas have exercised far greater influence than progressivism over SF since the genre’s inception. From conservatarian voices like Robert Heinlein, Larry Niven, Vernor Vinge, Poul Anderson, and F. Paul Wilson to those of …

The Coming of Neo-Feudalism—A Review

Review of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class by Joel Kotkin, Encounter Books (May 2020) 288 pages. Writing books which make bold predictions about the future of the Western world can be risky, so I naturally approached Joel Kotkin’s The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class with caution. Could feudalism really be making a comeback in the West, as Kotkin argues? The answer might not be a straight “yes,” but Kotkin’s overall argument that deep currents of history and economics are pulling us towards a more stratified and ideologically orthodox society is persuasive. Particularly in light of recent events, as we shall see. Feudal societies were hierarchical, with clearly-defined roles and responsibilities for everyone. The knights fought for all, the priests prayed for all, and the peasants worked for all. Times of upheaval could force open the door to social mobility, but otherwise, people kept their station. These barriers were broken down by the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and the rise of the modern democratic state. …

Return to ‘The Unheavenly City’

The late senator, statesman, sociologist, and New Yorker Daniel Patrick Moynihan once famously observed that, “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” Moynihan balanced one truth with another, in part to show that neither side enjoyed a monopoly on wisdom. Had he offered these competing visions of politics and culture without describing one as “conservative” and the other as “liberal,” however, it would have admitted the possibility that one was more accurate than the other. And whether or not that is in fact the case matters—not merely for philosophical reasons but for political and social reasons, too. In 1970, American political scientist Edward Banfield had explored this apparently innocuous question in a monograph entitled The Unheavenly City: The Nature and the Future of Our Urban Crisis. The book proved to be so divisive that a slightly revised version appeared just four years later entitled The Unheavenly City Revisited (the …

Barney Rosset and the Unending Struggle to Read Freely

It is by now a familiar truism that the Internet—and social media, in particular—has awarded the intolerant, the narrow-minded, and the censorious unprecedented power. To this challenge from below, publishers have, by and large, responded with dismaying timidity. Large multinational publishing firms have hastily withdrawn controversial titles and it has become distressingly common to read apologies issued to those vilifying their authors from the blogosphere, along with undertakings to “listen” and “do better” in the future. With these regrettable circumstances in mind, it is worth recalling the life, career, and example of renegade American publisher Barney Rosset. During the 1950s and 1960s, Rosset turned a tiny publishing company named Grove Press into one of America’s most provocative and effective instruments of free expression. He published some of the most controversial books of the 20th century and he never apologized for anything. In 1968, his offices were firebombed by anti-Castro Cuban reserve officers in the American Air Force because he had published excerpts from Che Guevara’s diaries in Grove’s magazine, the Evergreen Review. The same year, …

Decadence and Depravity in Louisville, Kentucky

Fifty years ago today, Hunter S. Thompson and Ralph Steadman drunkenly negotiated the pitfalls of Louisville’s Churchill Downs, home of the world-famous Kentucky Derby. At the time, Thompson was a moderately successful writer who had published an acclaimed book a few years earlier about his time among the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang. Steadman was a talented young artist from Wales who had traveled to the United States in search of work. For Steadman and Thompson, it would be their first meeting, but it was hardly Thompson’s first derby. He had grown up in Louisville’s Cherokee Park area and was familiar with the whisky gentry who would be in attendance. As a teenager, Thompson’s wit, charm, intellect, and surly insubordination had made him popular among the city’s wealthy young men and women. However, he had never felt fully accepted and, when he was arrested along with a couple of classmates for holding up a car just shy of his graduation, his rich friends abandoned him to his fate—two months in prison. After 10 years of surviving …