PositiveThe New Yorker[A]s Robert Kanigel shows in the new biography Hearing Homer’s Song [Milman] Parry, as an undergraduate at Berkeley, had been seized by Homer, in much the same way that the deities in the Iliad seize their favorite humans ... But, as great as Parry’s accomplishment was, it’s not obvious that biography is the best genre for taking stock of it. Because he died almost a century ago, there is no one alive for Kanigel to interview, no new sources to unearth ... It is Parry’s consuming idea that is the real subject of Hearing Homer’s Song.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Prochnik’s book passes quickly over Heine’s Paris years, the second half of his life. Partly this is due to space limitations, but it’s also because Mr. Prochnik is primarily drawn to the youthful rebel and idealist in Heine. He offers a portrait of the poet as a crusader for truth and beauty in a world where both were in short supply. Less to the fore in Mr. Prochnik’s treatment is Heine the ironist, who made fun of everybody’s ideals and passions, including his own ... Mr. Prochnik’s subtitle is \'Writing the Revolution,\' but for Heine the writing was more serious than the revolution.
PositiveThe New Yorker... a lively and accessible introduction to this much written-about group. Rather than plumbing the depths of the Vienna Circle’s work, which is formidably technical, Edmonds mainly explores how its ideas reflected the group’s tumultuous time and place. His research has also uncovered important new biographical information, including about its lesser-known female members ... Edmonds brings to life the volatile political and cultural scene in nineteen-twenties Austria, a small country created after the First World War out of the German-speaking lands of the former Habsburg Empire.
PositiveThe New RepublicRoss’s impressive research has uncovered hundreds upon hundreds of Wagnerian references, allusions, and influences in the art and literature of the last 150 years—some famous and significant, others just curious. The book is packed with descriptions of paintings, plot summaries, and biographical anecdotes, from Baudelaire and Whitman all the way to Philip K. Dick and Apocalypse Now. At times this plenitude threatens to make Wagnerism read like an encyclopedia. But Ross also offers insightful discussions of Wagner’s most significant legacies—for theater direction and narrative technique, for feminism and queer culture, and for revolutionary politics.
MixedThe New YorkerThe intimate connection between Kierkegaard’s thought and his personal life has made him a compelling subject for biographers ... Yet Kierkegaard also resists biography. The genre is inherently opposed to the way he thought about human existence ... Carlisle, who has published three previous books about Kierkegaard, has tried to avoid this problem by writing what she calls \'a Kierkegaardian biography of Kierkegaard,\' one that \'does not consider Kierkegaard’s life from a remote, knowing perspective, but joins him on his journey and confronts its uncertainties with him\' ...In practice, this means that Carlisle tells the story out of chronological order and adds passages of novel-like scene-setting ... a cumbersome and sometimes confusing method ... The vignettes feel like packaging that the reader must unwrap to get to what is really excellent in the book: Carlisle’s analysis of Kierkegaard’s intellectual milieu.
Anton Chekhov, Trans. by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
PositiveThe New York Review of BooksA reader who doesn’t know Russian, of course, has no way of judging if Pevear and Volokhonsky accurately capture the tone of the original. But their direct, plainspoken approach feels particularly appropriate for Chekhov, who once wrote that \'a writer must be as objective as a chemist\' ... There is certainly variety in these stories, as well as some familiar Russian types ... while Chekhov clearly relished the challenge of moving between ages and classes, the variety of his settings only highlights the continuities in his work—above all, his increasingly profound interest in comedy. Because Fifty-Two Stories is arranged chronologically...it reveals this development with fascinating clarity ... Several of the tales in Fifty-Two Stories feel like self-conscious trials of empathy, in which Chekhov the doctor tries to imagine his way into the minds of textbook \'cases\' ... But the most powerful tales in Fifty-Two Stories are the ones that revolve around laughter and being laughed at.
PositiveThe New YorkerThe uniquely strange atmosphere of Appelfeld’s fiction comes from the fact that, because he could not remember his own past, he was forced to imagine it ... In his novels...Appelfeld writes with entranced certainty about experiences that could never have been his and worlds that don’t quite resemble the real one ... In To the Edge of Sorrow, the society...is a band of Jewish partisans during the Second World War. Numbering fewer than fifty, they hide in the Ukrainian countryside, raiding farms for supplies and hoping to hold out until the arrival of the Red Army. This sounds like the premise of a wartime adventure story, but, although we do hear about shoot-outs and sabotage missions, Appelfeld’s narrative style is inherently unsuspenseful. His novels are not about waiting for what will happen next but about immersion in a timeless present, a bubble world that is all the more enthralling because you know it is about to pop.
RaveSlateIf modernism is history–in both senses of the world–then the modernist novel must be a historical novel, a deliberate reconstruction of a world and a way of thinking that are no longer our own. And that is what C is, at bottom: a brilliant historical novel, packed with the kind of information that is such novels’ stock-in-trade ... He is at his best when he writes in revelatory, estranging detail about the way things look, feel, sound, work ... C is a novel obsessed with codes and connections. Like Thomas Pynchon, to whom he is deeply indebted...McCarthy believes that the 20th century ushered in a paranoid age, that we are ruled and ensnared by our technology ... This kind of unabashed anachronism marks the difference between C and an ordinary historical novel. McCarthy is not trying to imagine what it felt like to live in the past. Rather, he is reimagining the past as a prologue to our encoded, networked present.
PositiveSlateIt may seem unpromising for a writer as young as Batuman (she was born in 1977) to attempt a memoir based on such a conventional CV. Yet in writing about her own education, Batuman manages to make it sound wonderfully grotesque, like a cross between Borges and Borat. What makes this possible is her wry, detached sense of humor, always on the lookout for scholarly absurdity, and the understated wit of her writing ... Experiences like these help to convince Batuman, who started out wanting to be a novelist, that the academic study of literature is not the end of literary pleasure, but a new, deeper beginning. She even argues that theory can help us navigate our own lives ... By fusing memoir and criticism, she shows how the life of literary scholarship is really lived—at its most ridiculous, and at its most unexpectedly sublime.
RaveThe New York SunMystification and outrage are still Mr. Seidel\'s most effective tools, and he has seldom employed them to better effect than in his new book, Ooga-Booga ... Lust, in fact, is Mr. Seidel\'s great theme, and few poets have written better or more honestly about the way desire dehumanizes both its subject and its object ... The revelations and disclosures in Ooga-Booga get much more explicit than that, and they extend from the sexual to the political (in a sequence called \'The Bush Administration\') and finally, fundamentally, the existential ... You would have go back to confessional masters like Lowell and Berryman to find poetry as daringly self-revealing, as risky and compelling.
PositiveTablet... its irony is profound rather than merely satirical ... In a novel so concerned with who has the right to be heard, it is a fruitful irony that much of the story is narrated not by Adam himself but by Jonathan and Jane, in alternating monologues. In a sense, this is a generous gesture, since Adam is surrendering his domination over the story ... These stories enrich the scope of the novel, allowing us to see what autobiographical novelists often forget—that theirs is not the only story taking place, that parents’ lives can be as complex and conflicted as their children’s. Yet in the end, inevitably, it is only Lerner whose words we are reading, raising the question of whether literary ventriloquism may itself be just a form of \'spreading\'—a way of crowding out other voices ... Lerner, it seems to me, is less interesting as a political novelist than as an imaginative stylist. The politics that are implied in The Topeka School are admirable, but they will be familiar to most readers and writers of literary fiction. (When was the last time you read a novel in favor of toxic masculinity?) What Lerner does that few other novelists can takes place on the level of language. He wrote several books of poetry before turning to fiction, and the texture and organization of his fiction is essentially poetic ... a kind of writing that is self-consciously literary and intellectual, sometimes to the point of being precious, but that also has a thrilling imaginative vigor. By fusing therapeutic monologue, allusive poetry, critical theory, and social commentary, Lerner has turned a familiar genre—the adult writer revisiting his painful high school days—into something genuinely new.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalAs it turns out, \'secular faith\' and \'spiritual freedom\' each have precise meanings in Mr. Hägglund’s argument. Together they make up an overarching theory that is meant to place This Life in dialogue with the classics of modern philosophy ... The concept of \'secular faith\' would be enough for a book all by itself. But in This Life it is only the prelude to Mr. Hägglund’s discussion of \'spiritual freedom\' ... democratic socialism is Mr. Hägglund’s name for a utopia in which everyone divides all necessary tasks, allowing us all to enjoy more free time. What this might mean in practice remains vague, but Mr. Hägglund gives one example: As a professor at Yale, he could contribute to the general good by \'spending an hour per day mopping classroom floors and running the dishwashers in the cafeteria\' ... This suggestion inadvertently points to some of the problems in Mr. Hägglund’s utopian vision ... But the unreality of Mr. Hägglund’s socioeconomic vision is not the main problem with This Life, which is not, after all, a work of economics. More important is the thinness of its understanding of human psychology ... This Life is undone by its failure to reckon convincingly with sin and death—precisely the themes of human experience about which religion has so much to say.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMr. Leader devotes a lot of space to reinvestigating these cases [of real-life corruption recounted in Bellow\'s The Dean\'s December]—too much, really, for their significance in Bellow’s story. One can understand his temptation, however: These are moments of high drama that require real detective work, while most of the story that Leader has to tell is outwardly undramatic. For while Bellow’s family and romantic lives were full of conflict, his public and professional existence, in the years covered by this book, was largely made of up teaching and writing, punctuated by lectures and visiting professorships. One reason the book is so long is that it contains too many sentences along the lines of \'after visiting Milan on a side trip, they flew to Nice, where Bellow rented a car and drove through pouring rain to Aix-en-Provence\' ... After reading Mr. Leader’s comprehensive account of an all-too-human life, one is grateful to be able to return to Bellow’s books, where he remains faultlessly alive.
Giorgio Bassani, Trans. by Jamie McKendrick
PositiveTabletThe book includes a number of short stories, but at its heart are four novellas, including Bassani’s best-known work, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis...Bassani’s masterpiece ... But Garden gains in meaning and resonance as part of The Novel of Ferrara, where it forms one panel in a tapestry representing the lost world of Ferrara’s Jewry ... he evokes it in richly realistic detail, filling his pages with descriptions of streets and cafes and churches, encircled by the old city walls. Characters who appear as passing names in one story return as protagonists in another, creating a sense of intimate community. And certain events—above all, a massacre in late 1943, in which Ferrara’s Fascists killed 11 people—serve as landmarks, visible in the background of many different tales. In these ways, The Novel of Ferrara can be compared to Joyce’s Dubliners or Balzac’s La Comédie Humaine; but a more fitting parallel is the yizkor books that were produced after the Holocaust to commemorate so many vanished Jewish towns.
PositiveThe AtlanticIf Kafka could read Kafka’s Last Trial, Benjamin Balint’s dramatic and illuminating new book about the fate of his work, he would surely be astonished to learn that his \'scribbling\' turned out to be incredibly valuable—not just in literary terms, but financially and even geopolitically. At the heart of Balint’s book is a court case that dragged through the Israeli judicial system for years, concerning the ownership of some surviving manuscripts of Kafka’s that had ended up in private hands in Tel Aviv. Because the case was widely reported on at the time, it’s not a spoiler to say that in 2016 control of the manuscripts was taken from Eva Hoffe, the elderly woman who possessed them, and awarded to the National Library of Israel ... In Balint’s account, however, the case involves much more than the minutiae of wills and laws. It raises momentous questions about nationality, religion, literature, and even the Holocaust—in which Kafka’s three sisters died, and which he escaped only by dying young, of tuberculosis.
Bill Clinton & James Patterson
PanThe AtlanticThe book makes no claims to serious consideration, either literary or political; it is a standard-issue product, similar in plot and tone to a thousand other suspense stories in print and film ... I read The President Is Missing with the sense that [Clinton] relished the opportunity that fiction provides to give the public a perfected version of himself ... Clinton and Patterson are far from the first people to imagine the president as an action hero ... But it has always been a sinister trope, and to see it endorsed by an actual ex-president only makes it more so ... In The President Is Missing, Clinton gets to play at being one of those rule-breaking presidents, rather than the battle-scarred veteran of the Lewinsky scandal ... when an ex-president can put his name to such fantasies and see them become a bestseller, it is a sign that something is very wrong with the American imagination of power.
PositiveThe Atlantic...even in these accessible pieces, Chabon is in a certain way inhibited by his subject. His children function in the book less as subjects in themselves than as occasions for musing on general themes ... None of these are exactly new themes, though Chabon handles them with appealing sincerity and self-deprecating wit ... Chabon avoids turning his authorial imagination directly on his children, knowing that there is something aggressive about a writer’s gaze ... These are determinedly entertaining and uplifting essays, with little room for the more unpleasant byproducts of family life, such as ambivalence, resentment, hostility, or shame. Chabon has written deeper and more challenging books about family in the guise of fiction.
RaveThe AtlanticWhat happens when a person like DeWitt comes up against the world of \'the arts,\' which is finally an economic sector like any other—dominated by the profit motive, bureaucratic inertia, and polite evasiveness? The answer, in these stories, is a kind of anguished comedy ... Remarkably, DeWitt manages to keep the theme fresh through the power of her style, which is unique in contemporary fiction. If it resembles anything, it is the elliptical, syncopated, highly artificial prose of certain English writers like Ronald Firbank or the early Evelyn Waugh ... How do you get a complacent world to stop talking and pay attention? Some Trick suggests that the answer involves stubbornness, oddity, and a great deal of talent.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalFor this author the big question facing the left in particular is how to frame its economic aims. Should it advocate for equality, in the spirit of socialist movements past—ensuring that everyone has roughly the same share of the world’s goods? Or should it choose the more modest goal of sufficiency, so that every human being is guaranteed a bare minimum of what he needs to live well, even if a few lucky ones end up with vastly more wealth? ... Mr. Moyn is a historian of ideas, not a political philosopher, and he doesn’t set out to address these questions head-on. Rather, in Not Enough, he examines how they have been answered by international lawyers, political philosophers and human-rights activists since the end of World War II. He concludes that, while the human rights movement has not deliberately supported the growth of material inequality during this period, it has also not done enough to combat it ... This book, like the author’s last, is the rare academic study that is sure to provoke a wider discussion about important political and economic questions. As the left thinks about how to formulate its goals in a changing ideological landscape, arguments like Mr. Moyn’s may have a decisive influence.
Alfred Döblin, Trans. by Michael Hofmann
RaveThe Nation\"...an impressively wild and fearless new translation of the book ... Berlin Alexanderplatz transcends its genre elements, largely because of Döblin’s deep lack of hope about what can be expected of human beings ... It is the language of modern urban life that is being blown up and rebuilt in these pages ... Franz reflects in the novel’s final pages. \'The words come rolling towards you, you need to watch yourself, see that they don’t run you over.\' And that may be the best definition of Berlin Alexanderplatz: Döblin’s transcription of what it sounds like to be run over by words.\
RaveThe Washington Post\"While Sarvas’s book is full of cunningly prepared surprises, it is also a fundamentally thoughtful and meditative story, whose real plot is Matt’s achievement of a kind of perspective on his past.\
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewReaders of that book [The Stranger's Child] will find much that is familiar here, stylistically and thematically. As always, Hollinghurst writes classically beautiful prose, which like James’s is constantly intelligent, alert and mobile. Though he is a wonderful noticer and describer — of skies, paintings, bodies — it is his party scenes that are most famous, and justly so. Few writers are so good at capturing the currents of intention and emotion that circulate in a crowded room ... The times allow him possibilities his father could never have dreamed of, and Hollinghurst — who belongs to the same generation as Johnny — writes with subtlety and sympathy about all the stages of his progress ... As the story moves forward in time, Hollinghurst achieves the kind of symphonic effect we normally associate with much longer books, like Proust’s In Search of Lost Time or Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time ... By the end of the novel, the mystery of David Sparsholt hasn’t quite been solved, but it has served its purpose — as the absent center of a beautiful and complex design.
RaveThe Atlantic\"...a book whose unusual structure is part of its fascination … It becomes clear that Asymmetry can be read as Halliday’s response to one of Roth’s own most famous books, The Ghost Writer. This, too, is a tale of apprenticeship, but in this case the sexual dynamics are different, since both idol and worshipper are straight men … The leap from the novel’s first section to its second is so great, and yet so intuitively logical, that it forces the reader to rethink the Alice section entirely: It is now clear that she is not a version of Lisa Halliday, but just one of the many voices Halliday can invent, if she chooses. In its subtle and sophisticated fable of literary ambition, and the forms it can take for a young woman writer, Asymmetry is a ‘masterpiece’ in the original sense of the word.\
Jenny Erpenbeck, Trans. by Susan Bernofsky
PositiveThe Barnes and Noble ReviewThis time, however, her subject could not be more contemporary: she is writing about immigration, the mass movement of peoples from the global South to the North, which over the last several years has transformed the politics of Europe and America ...Go, Went, Gone is a very earnest book, its every page designed to force the reader — in the first instance, the German reader — to confront the human realities behind today’s refugee crisis ... By choosing to focus on the relatively small number of immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa — including Niger, Nigeria, and Ghana — Erpenbeck is able to sidestep the largest political, cultural, and economic questions raised by mass migration ... The hard question, which Go, Went, Gone does not directly address but unavoidably raises, is how far we are morally obligated to remedy this injustice.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMr. Crews aims not just to debunk Freud, but to defame him, to banish him from serious consideration forever … Mr. Crews’s quest remains self-contradictory, for you can’t destroy a thinker’s legacy by attacking him; only oblivion can do that, and criticism is the opposite of forgetting. Reading this book, you can’t help feeling that Freud must be important indeed to inspire such anger and warrant such effort … Mr. Crews’s full-spectrum attack has the unintended effect of undermining Mr. Crews’s valid insights into the deep flaws of Freud’s thinking. It would be enough to prove Freud was not a scientist, and that psychoanalysis is not a science—claims that are now widely accepted. But when Mr. Crews adds that he was a liar and thief, or speculates that he practiced incest with his sister and adultery with his sister-in-law, the reader starts to lose faith in his impartiality.
Roberto Bolaño, Trans. by Natasha Wimmer
PositiveSlate...2666 is made up of five sections that are so independent Bolaño originally planned to release them as separate books...not as installments or sequels but, rather, as five planets orbiting the same sun. With their very different stories and settings, they seem to describe a single plummeting arc — the trajectory of a universe on the verge of apocalypse ... He does not take advantage of the novelist's privilege of going anywhere — into the mind of the victim as she suffers or of the killer as he kills ...the eeriness of Bolaño's account lies in its complete exteriority, the deadened affect of its relentless cataloging of deaths ... 2666 is an epic of whispers and details, full of buried structures and intuitions that seem too evanescent, or too terrible, to put into words ...demands from the reader a kind of abject submission — to its willful strangeness, its insistent grimness, even its occasional tedium — that only the greatest books dare to ask for or deserve.
Minae Mizumura, Trans. by Juliet Winters Carpenter
PositiveThe New York Review of BooksMizumura’s realism embraces family dynamics and bodily decline, both of which are anatomized without a hint of sentimentality. But it is perhaps most evident in her candid treatment of money ... Mizumura depicts the ordeals of middle age with intelligence and empathy. The very modesty of Mitsuki’s needs is demoralizing ... The reader shares in Mizumura’s sheer pleasure in invention as she raises narrative possibilities and discards them, changes focus and atmosphere, and adds new characters to keep the momentum going ... Even readers who have no particular interest in that literary history will find in Mizumura a fascinating example of how a writer can be at the same time imaginatively cosmopolitan and linguistically rooted.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal[Ms. Smith] creates full, sympathetic characters; she writes a smart, funny, but never too-knowing prose; and she remains an unerring observer of behavior and language, of the way people today talk, dress, act and feel (and even how they send text messages). These strengths combine to make her, as so many of the best English novelists have been, a sharp diagnostician of class … Each of the novel's sections ends with a scene of violence, something Ms. Smith presents as inescapable in northwest London. Some characters die from it, others survive, but none are unscathed. What Ms. Smith offers in this absorbing novel is a study in the limits of freedom, the way family and class constrain the adult selves we make.
MixedTablet MagazineIf Reno herself feels underdrawn, less than fully alive, that is because her primary purpose in the novel is to be an audience for the endless self-dramatizing performances of everyone she meets … What’s fascinating about The Flamethrowers is the way its interrogation of performance, of image-making, is entwined with its own commitment to performance … What is missing from The Flamethrowers is a sense of what all its characters are like when they are not aflame, not performing their selves but simply being. As a result, even Kushner’s critique of artificiality ends up reading like a celebration of it: The novel itself is, if not 'mansplaining,' at least always insisting on its own mystique … The Flamethrowers is too cool, too stylish.
PositiveThe Barnes & Noble ReviewThe genius of George Prochnik, in his new book Stranger in a Strange Land, is that he surfaces this subtext and makes it his explicit subject. The result is an immersive, passionate work that is really two books spliced together ... Sections of these two tales alternate, creating a meaningful counterpoint, for they are really variations on the same story ... Prochnik performs impressive feats of concise elucidation, taking the reader through Scholem’s life, times, and work in under 500 pages ... Still, it is impossible to fully capture Scholem’s significance in a single book for a lay reader, and anyone who comes to Stranger in a Strange Land without some prior knowledge of Judaism and Jewish history is likely to find it challenging ... This book is worthy of the rich, ambivalent, complex, and compelling stories it has to tell; more than a work of history, it is a document of the living spirit of Judaism.
Peter Handke, Trans. by Krishna Winston
MixedThe New York Review of Books...at its core is a defense of his highly idiosyncratic vision of what Serbia, and the Balkans in general, mean or ought to mean ... the book, in all its portentousness and grandiosity, is best understood as a restatement of Handke’s myth of the Balkans. This involves a nostalgic resistance to modern life, progress, and homogenization—in short, to everything associated with the European Union and the borderlessness it sponsors ... One might say that The Moravian Night is the story of a Balkan soul in search of Balkanness wherever he can find it ... Yet Handke wants nothing to do with the traditional instruments of storytelling, such as continuous plot and developed character. What interests him is the evocation of very brief moments, epiphanic instants when the trappings of the world fall away and a more immediate, intuitive truth shines forth ... Handke seals himself in his own self-righteousness: anyone who criticizes his art or his politics is a petty, spiritless cosmopolitan. Luckily he will always have the Balkans to go back to—if not the real Balkans, then the ones he has built for himself out of obstinacy and pride.
PositiveThe Barnes & Noble Review...[a] comprehensive and sympathetic new biography ... on the whole his seems like a very enviable life, pleasant to read about, pleasant to have lived. He enjoyed the high life but escaped its insipidity; he did good for millions and helped art and culture to thrive. Reading Kenneth Clark: Life, Art and 'Civilisation' you can only wish that our own billionaires were as conscientious.
MixedThe NationSwing Time is a sober book, even—at times—a depressive one. It feels like the kind of book novelists write when they have come to the end of their own favorite themes and techniques. There is less of the excitement of discovery, of getting things down on paper that have not been observed before, and more of the resigned pleasure of understanding. There is less seeing, and more seeing through ... As Smith shows with delicacy and penetration, dance is a subject that cannot be entirely understood separately from race ... there is something about Swing Time that seems to undermine its own attempts at building narrative momentum. In part, this is caused by the dual time frame, which keeps the reader poised between two story lines that never quite meet ... feels like a chronicle of partial, compromised victories and foreordained defeats.
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewHitler sometimes disappears from Ullrich’s narrative for pages at a time. But if Hitler: Ascent is as much a work of history as a biography, this is only appropriate. For Hitler was a man who evacuated his inner self, as much as possible, in order to become a vessel for history ... What is truly frightening, and monitory, in Ullrich’s book is not that a Hitler could exist, but that so many people seemed to be secretly waiting for him.
PanThe AtlanticThe Whole Harmonium tends to dissolve into a summary of Stevens’s letters and an expansive running commentary on his poetry. As a critic, Mariani is less penetrating than predecessors such as Helen Vendler, and he might have delved more deeply into the background of Stevens’s intellectual life. Hefty though the biography is, the office work Stevens engaged in every day for more than four decades goes largely undescribed. The result is a portrait of a man floating, detached—which may, in fact, be an accurate impression of how it felt to be Stevens.
PositiveBarnes & Noble ReviewThis tendency to mythologize, to turn an artist’s life and work into a hybrid narrative that exemplifies certain moral values, is everywhere in Keeping an Eye Open, and it is what makes the book so readable.
MixedThe Daily BeastBlack Earth is a challenging book in part because it has not just one historical thesis, but a whole handful, whose connections are not always obvious. It reads less like a chronological history than like an extended essay, in which Snyder zeroes in on particular themes and problems that he believes are misunderstood by the educated public.