All posts filed under: Review

The War of Return—A Review

A review of The War of Return by Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf, All Points Books (April 2020) 304 pages  In a story that may be apocryphal, the late Christopher Hitchens claimed that he had once seen legendary Israeli diplomat Abba Eban comment that the most striking aspect of the Israeli-Arab conflict is how easily it can be solved: It is simply a matter of dividing the land of Israel into a Jewish state and an Arab state. The only thing standing in the way of this solution is the intense religious or nationalist attachment of both sides to the idea of an undivided nation between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea. Indeed, this assumption that partition alone can bring peace has been the foundation of all of the international community’s peace efforts since the 1967 Six Day War. The only difficulty, it is believed, is persuading the two sides to agree to it. Not so, argue former Israeli Knesset Member Einat Wilf and journalist Adi Schwartz in their new book The War of Return. …

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 …

The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire—A Review

A review of The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease and the End of an Empire by Kyle Harper, Princeton University Press, 417 pages (October 2017) Why did the Roman Empire fall? The classic answer is given by Edward Gibbon (1737 — 1794), in chapter 38 of the third volume of The History of the Fall and Decline of the Roman Empire (1776 — 1789): The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight. Kyle Harper, Senior Vice President and Provost of the University of Oklahoma, seeks to complement Gibbon’s account by emphasising the role of nature, and specifically climate change and infectious disease, in the fall of Rome in his provocative, exceptionally well-written book The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease and the End of an Empire. Is Harper correct? Were plagues and …

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 …

‘10% Less Democracy’—A Review

A review of 10% Less Democracy: Why You Should Trust Elites a Little More and the Masses a Little Less by Garrett Jones, Stanford University Press (February 2020) 248 pages In ‘Federalist Paper #10‘, James Madison mused on the problem of political factionalism. Factionalism was inevitable in a free society, he wrote, as it stems from human nature itself, but it presents a real barrier to good government. His proposed solution was a constitutional republic which could restrain extremes and promote compromise. Pure democracies, he argued, “have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” However, a constitutional republic would “…refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary …

Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family—A Review

A review of Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family by Sophie Lewis, Verso, 224 pages (May 2019)  Why is it that when we grab for heaven—socialist or capitalist or even religious—we so often produce hell? I’m not sure, but it is so. Maybe it’s the lumpiness of human beings. What do you do with people who somehow just don’t or won’t fit into your grand scheme? So writes Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale, the most influential vision of a misogynist dystopia ever created. But Sophie Lewis, author of Full Surrogacy Now, has little time for Atwood. She is suspicious of the “‘universal’ (trans-erasive) feminist solidarity” that seems to be promised by the novel. In the fictional country of Gilead, women are valued for their reproductive capacities alone, while their social status is stripped away. This foregrounding of bodies, and what those bodies can do—or not do—seems to make Lewis uncomfortable, and she is not alone in that view. In 2018, Michael Biggs, Professor of Sociology at the University of Oxford and Quillette contributor, …

Humanity’s Greatest Foe: Pandemics Through the Ages

A review of Plagues and Peoples by William McNeill, Anchor, 365 pages (1998) Readers seeking a longer historical perspective on the coronavirus pandemic would do well to consider William H. McNeill’s brilliant book, Plagues and Peoples. Originally published in 1976, Plagues and Peoples shows, in less than 300 pages (not including the appendix, notes and index), “how varying patterns of disease circulation have affected human affairs in ancient and modern times.” Not everyone, understandably, will wish to dwell upon the endless series of calamities infectious diseases have exacted in our collective past. The uncertain, terrifying ordeal immediately before us is quite enough. But along with well-informed worry, McNeill’s masterful account induces both awe and hope at our species’ capacity to endure the worst from its most ancient adversaries. To adapt words McNeill wrote in a slightly different context: The history of mankind’s long struggle against infectious diseases “will not solve contemporary dilemmas. It may, nonetheless, provide perspective and, as is the wont of historical awareness, make simple solutions and radical despair both seem less compelling. …

‘Against Democracy’—A Review

A Review of Against Democracy by Jason Brennan. Princeton University Press (September 2016) 304 pages.  Many voters can find democracy exasperating, particularly when watching the TV on the night of an election which hasn’t gone their way. But most would still likely endorse Winston Churchill’s observation that “democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” (Unlike most of the quotes attributed to Churchill he actually said this, in the House of Commons on November 11th, 1947, but he didn’t claim it was original to him.) Few citizens in a democracy want to delimit or do away with their democratic institutions entirely, and most are genuinely grateful that they do not live in an undemocratic state. Georgetown professor Jason Brennan dissents from this prevailing view. In Against Democracy, he argues in an engaging and witty fashion that we would, in fact, be better off ditching (or at least seriously curtailing) democracy. The book pre-dates the Brexit referendum and the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, so …

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 …