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.