All posts filed under: Books

Easy Rider: 50 Years Looking for America—A Review

A review of Easy Rider: 50 Years Looking for America by Steven Bingen, Lyons Press (November 2019) 200 pages. It was the 1990 comedy Flashback that sparked my interest in Easy Rider (1969) when I was eight or nine years old. In the former, Dennis Hopper plays an aging 60s dissident, busted after 20 years on the lam, who gets taken cross-country by a no-nonsense FBI agent, played by Kiefer Sutherland. Naturally, the straight-laced fed can’t keep his laces very straight after Hopper doses him (or pretends to dose him) with LSD, releasing the young Republican’s inner hippie. At one point, Hopper declares, “It takes more than going down to your local video store and renting Easy Rider to be a rebel.” For some odd reason lost on me now, I liked this airy nothing of a movie and so, of course, insisted that my family rent Easy Rider the next time we visited our local video store. Strangely, I liked that too, though, again, I’m not quite sure why. Maybe it was the music—all …

Woody Allen’s ‘Apropos of Nothing’—A Review

A Review of Apropos of Nothing by Woody Allen, Arcade Publishing (March 2020) 400 pages Rolling Stone has pronounced Woody Allen’s new memoir, Apropos of Nothing, “horrendously ugly.” The writer, David Fear, is not enraged that the book, originally scheduled for publication by Hachette, was cancelled and pulped after employees staged a walkout. Nor is he relieved that it was rescued by a smaller house, Arcade, and published this month. Instead he suggests that the book be thrown into the furnace, that Allen is guilty of being an “elderly man” and that he has “a whole lot of creepy comments about the younger women he’s cast.” The Washington Post suggests that the book be used as toilet paper, that it is “terrible” and “preposterous” and “a giant piece of belly button lint.” The New York Times says that Allen is “incredibly, unbelievably tone deaf on the subject of women… Every time a woman is mentioned, there’s a gratuitous pronouncement on her looks.” The most inchoate review came from a young woman at the Forward who …

Lessons in Death and Life from the Diaries of Samuel Pepys

One of the passions of my reading life—which might seem strange for a youngish man—has been devouring and re-devouring the complete diaries of Samuel Pepys, which, when stacked on top of one another, rise above my knee. If you are late to the Pepys game, it suffices to say that our man, who was born in early 1633 and went on to be England’s chief administrator of the navy and a member of parliament, was king of the diarists. Day in, day out, he kept a record of his life from January 1st, 1660, and continued to do so for about 10 years. He likely wrote for posterity, but he also seemed to write with a maxim in mind: If it was true, he would say it. And so, we have him complaining with regularity about his wife, the cat he contemplates drowning, and his weakness—for Pepys was a born peeper—for young, comely actresses. Strange as my passion for Pepys may be in the age of the meme and an apparent war on literate expression, …

Farewell, My Lovely

A review of The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood by Sam Wasson, Flatiron Books (February 2020) 397 pages. Editor’s note: the following essay contains spoilers. There’s a moment midway through the film Chinatown (1974) in which the hero, Jake Gittes, hands us a clue—not a clue about the case he’s investigating, the one involving graft and murder in L.A.’s Department of Water and Power, but a more subtextual kind of clue, hinting at the meaning of the film’s enigmatic title. Jake (Jack Nicholson) and his client, Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), are standing in her back yard, and she’s prodding him about his life before he became a private eye, when he worked as a cop in Chinatown. What did he do there, she asks? “As little as possible,” Jake replies. This bit of dialogue may seem innocuous, but it was, in fact, the inspiration for the entire film, taken by screenwriter Robert Towne from an actual Chinatown cop, whom he met in the early 1970s. In Chinatown, the policeman explained, you …

Immigration and Inequality

A big problem with the mass immigration that began in the United States in the 1970s was that it bred inequality. Its role in creating the highly stratified American social structure of the twenty-first century was as significant as that of other factors more commonly blamed: information technology, world trade, tax cuts. In 1995, the economist George Borjas, writing in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, modeled the actual effects of immigration on Americans. He found that while immigration might have caused an increase in economic activity of $2.1 trillion, virtually all of those gains—98 percent—went to the immigrants themselves. When economists talk about “gains” from immigration to the receiving country, they are talking about the remaining 2 percent—about $50 billion. This $50 billion “surplus” disguises an extraordinary transfer of income and wealth: Native capitalists gain $566 billion. Native workers lose $516 billion. One way of describing mass immigration is as a verdict on the pay structure that had arisen in the West by the 1970s: on trade unions, prevailing-wage laws, defined-benefit pension plans, long vacations, …

Romance, Race, and Retribution

I “This is a crisis of epic proportions,” wrote an alarmed Romance Writers of America (RWA) board member on Christmas Eve as the scenery started to collapse.1 Longstanding tensions within the trade organization had detonated the previous day when novelist Alyssa Cole revealed that RWA’s board of directors had suspended her friend Courtney Milan. The decision provoked a hurricane of condemnation from the membership, mass resignations from the board, and a spectacularly vicious frenzy of internecine bloodletting online. Milan’s suspension has been widely reported as the latest indignity suffered by a woman of color in an ongoing battle between RWA’s old guard and minority authors struggling against marginalization. In this version of events, Milan had exposed and confronted the scourge of racism within RWA and been crucified for it. For a few days, the 40-year old organization looked like it might tear itself to pieces, until what remained of the board agreed to commission an independent review of the events that led to Milan’s suspension. RWA retained multinational law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP …

The Decline of the Great American Family Saga

In February, the Atlantic published a much discussed essay by David Brooks entitled “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake.” Brooks noted that the conditions that once made nuclear families viable—strong unions, plenty of jobs that paid living wages, inexpensive housing and transportation and education costs, stay-at-home mothers, high numbers of churchgoers—were products of a very brief window of time that only lasted from about 1950 until about 1965. For centuries prior to that, Americans tended to divide themselves into extended families, vast networks of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other relatives, all of whom remained connected to one another by some sort of family enterprise. Here’s how Brooks sums up the extended American family: In 1800, three-quarters of American workers were farmers. Most of the other quarter worked in small family businesses, like dry-goods stores. People needed a lot of labor to run these enterprises. It was not uncommon for married couples to have seven or eight children. In addition, there might be stray aunts, uncles, and cousins, as well as unrelated servants, apprentices, and farmhands…Extended …

On the Study of Great Books

Anyone familiar with Australian universities will recognize the opportunistic hype produced by their marketing departments and distilled in titillating slogans like: “Create Change,” “Life Impact,” “Research with Impact,” “Make Change—Change Your Life, Change the World,”  “A University for the 21st Century,” “The University that Makes a Difference.” The problem with this is not just the fatuous hubris, it is the open betrayal of the ideals of liberal education. Compare the slogans listed above with the proverbs that still adorn the archaic coats-of-arms of some of the nation’s universities. Another representative sample: Sub Cruce Lumen (“Light Under the Cross”), Scientia Manu et Mente (“Knowledge by Hand and Mind”), Sidere Mens Eadem Mutate (“The Stars Change, The Mind Remains the Same”), Ancora Imparo (“I am Still Learning”). Where the new slogans are dominated by the images of change and impact, generating a sensation of hectic and thrilling novelty, the older proverbs are sober and modest, emphasising the patient and hard-won acquisition of learning and enlightenment, and suggest that a university education is more concerned with what endures than …

The Decadent Society—A Review

A review of The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success, by Ross Douthat. Simon & Schuster (February 25 2020) 272 pages.  Writing about decadence can be symptomatic of the condition. How many conservatives—this reviewer included—have eased out article-length moans about sclerotic institutions, falling birth rates and mindless popular culture without as much as a thought of having an effect on them. In our lazier moments we are not opposing decadence but merely providing a soundtrack. I suspect that Ross Douthat knew this when he wrote The Decadent Society. Douthat has long been an outpost of conservatism at the New York Times. The Grey Lady specialises in bland liberal conservatives like David Brooks, Bill Kristol and Bret Stephens but Douthat is both more traditional and more incisive. A social conservative, he also has too much mischief and curiosity about him to succumb to the stuffiness of the stereotype. Readers who might fear that a book bearing the name The Decadent Society would be humourless and cranky, then, need have no such fears. The …

Margaret Atwood Wrote a Great Novel. Unfortunately, Her Fans Turned It Into a Cult

Among the notable cultural events of the last decade, one must count the emergence of the Handmaid’s Tale franchise: the hit television series loosely based on the 1985 dystopian novel by Canadian writer Margaret Atwood, the novel’s return to bestsellerdom as a trade paperback, and The Testaments, Atwood’s 2019 sequel, which won the Booker Prize and has topped the New York Times best-seller list, where it is currently in its 16th week and in fifth place. It is a phenomenon that has made Atwood, who turned 80 last November, not only a celebrity but a cultural icon: “Queen Margaret,” as The Atlantic recently dubbed her. She was the subject of a recent 7,000-word interview in New York magazine, as well as one of Glamour magazine’s “Women of the Year” for 2019.  There is a certain irony in Atwood’s cultural queenship. The significance of The Handmaid’s Tale is not primarily artistic but political: Set in a speculative world where the United States has been taken over by an oppressive, hideously misogynistic regime, it is seen as …