Reviewing the Review: August 2 2009

I like an unusual thesis. A book called On Kindness by psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and historian Barbara Taylor, reviewed by Peter Stevenson in this weekend’s New York Times Book Review, offers an appealing spin on human nature:

The punch line of the book is that we are, each of us, battling back against our innate kindness, with which we are fairly bursting, at every turn. Why? Because “kindness is an exchange with essentially unpredictable consequences. It is a risk precisely because it mingles our needs and desires with the needs and desires of others, in a way that so-called self-interest never can … By involving us with strangers … as well as with intimates, it is potentially far more promiscuous than sexuality.”

They may be on to something there. I plan to read the book and find out.

This odd non-fiction title doesn’t take the cover of this weekend’s New York Times Book Review, which is instead occupied by a much more well-worn topic: Middle East politics (a favorite subject of NYTBR chief Sam Tanenhaus). I can’t say I think much of Fouad Ajami’s feature article on Christopher Caldwell’s Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, another book about the “Muslim threat”, this time described in terms of European immigration demographics. One might expect a writer named Fouad Ajami to bristle at this book’s obsession with the preservation of European ethnicity, but he loves the book. Googling the critic, I find Fouad Ajami is an American conservative scholar of Lebanese origin who made himself unique by enthusiastically supporting George W. Bush’s rush to invade Iraq in 2003.

I really wish Tanenhaus would reach further beyond his usual conservative cocktail party circuit and try to find more representative international voices to review books like these, don’t you?

I also think Fouad Ajami is borderline offensive with formulations like this:

A departure and a return: In the legend of Moorish Spain, Boabdil, the last Muslim ruler of Granada, is said to have paused on a ridge for a final glimpse of the realm he had just surrendered to the Castilians. Henceforth, the occasion, and the place, would be known as El Último Suspiro del Moro, The Moor’s Last Sigh. The date was Jan. 2, 1492.

More than five centuries later, on March 11, 2004, there would be a “Moorish” return. In the morning rush hour, 10 bombs tore through four commuter trains in Madrid.

I don’t think it’s right to refer to an act of terrorism as “Moorish”. And I thought Ajami’s type of divisive mind-set went out of style with Dick Cheney.

Today’s Book Review gets better when Jonathan Mahler praises Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. I liked McCann’s last book about gypsies, and I’ll give his novel about a striving wire-walking New Yorker a try (though I am getting a little sick of novels about Gatsby-esque New York City strivers).

I also plan to look at The Teeth May Smile But the Heart Does Not Forget: Murder and Memory in Uganda by Andrew Rice, reviewed today by Howard W. French.

And whatever risk there was that I would attempt to read William Vollman’s latest unbearable hair shirt Imperial is gone now that I’ve read Lawrence Downes’s amusing and politely mocking account of the 1,306 page dreadnaught.

Between the new Vollman and the latest puzzle book by Thomas Pynchon that just came out, I just can’t decide which one I’m more excited to not read. I think it’s a tie.

7 Responses

  1. I know there’s no chance that
    I know there’s no chance that you’ll read IMPERIAL. My own thoughts on the book will appear soon, but I think it’s important to note that not only does Downes get the book entirely wrong, but he pulls most of his quotes from the first 200 pages and quotes Vollmann out of context. This was a hit piece, and I recommend Sam Anderson’s more considered review in New York (also critical) for an effort to understand what Vollmann was trying to do (although Anderson doesn’t get it right either).

    As for Pynchon, it’s not really a puzzle book (although there are a few enigmas). In fact, it’s the Pynchon book that’s the fastest read of the bunch.

  2. Ed, it’s true that I won’t be
    Ed, it’s true that I won’t be reading Vollmann’s book, but I am looking forward to reading what you write about it.

  3. I read Fouad Ajami’s review
    I read Fouad Ajami’s review this morning and it kept making me think, “Really, dude?” I haven’t read the book in question, and I can’t say the review made me want to pick it up, either, but underlying the entire review was this incredible snobbery directed toward immigrants. It read like “Immigrants these days, coming to these countries and having the gall to remain connected to the places they left. Back in MY day, we immigrated FOR REAL and we didn’t have any of those fancy TVs with the news. And we walked to school every morning, barefoot in the snow, uphill both ways, AND WE LIKED IT. Damn kids get off my lawn. Bah!”

    Sort of.

    I guess my point is that the real offense is not using words like “Moorish” to describe acts of terrorism (though that’s not exactly a classy move), but rather in setting up some kind of good immigrant/bad immigrant dichotomy. If I hadn’t grown up in that culture with an immigrant father, perhaps my perspective would be different, but because I did, I know that people can maintain a sense of the culture they left without subverting or diluting society at large (or wanting to bomb anything). And in today’s world, where Arabs and Muslims are suspicious by default, articles like this don’t really add anything helpful to anything.

    So, you know, stay classy, NYT!

  4. Seriously though, give the
    Seriously though, give the new Pynchon a shot. It’s the most accessible and reader-friendly book he’s written since “Crying of Lot 49,” at least. Maybe ever.

  5. Also, upon further
    Also, upon further investigation, that cover story is actually even worse than you make it out to be.

    “On one side were those keen to keep their world whole and theirs; on the other was elite opinion, insisting on the inevitability and legitimacy of the new immigration.”

    Good Lord. Were Bill Kristol and Sarah Palin each too busy to write this review?

  6. I can see where kindness
    I can see where kindness could lead to more high jinks, excitement and danger along with plain old interaction with people. Most people wouldn’t know how to interpret a kind act. They would be fearful, resentful or ready to exploit you. Well, except for that guy givin’ out free hugs, I guess he did ok.

  7. The guys who pulled off the
    The guys who pulled off the Atocha bombings were Moors, from Morocco, ergo “a ‘Moorish’ return.”

    If they had been French, and the reviewer called it a “French” act of terrorism, would you still be offended?

    Although I will agree that Ajami is a little silly to suggest the bombers were motivated by revenge for la Reconquista.

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