MixedThe Atlantic... help[s] us understand the gun control debate as one fueled by partisanship, a debate in which each side motivated its own adherents in large part by demonizing the other, and in which no one has come close to addressing the root of the problem ... If you view the Sandy Hook shooting as part of a story about the growth of misinformation in American society, then for Pozner to beat back that misinformation seems like a meaningful victory...Yet disinformation is only one front in the war over guns, while actual guns continue to claim tens of thousands of lives per year. Five of the 10 deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history have occurred since Sandy Hook, and none of those other shootings provided the same fodder for conspiracy theorists that Sandy Hook did. While Williamson investigates what leads people to invent, disseminate, and believe conspiracy theories, she devotes little space to the deeper question of violence and the ways in which the proliferation of firearms both enables and legitimizes that violence. That guns are the primary means of violence in the United States is so obvious that it’s easy to take it for granted, but most commentators still have precious little to say about the relationship between the Second Amendment and the psychological and social distortions that make people want to murder their fellow citizens for no reason at all ... The most promising avenue for gun control may be one to which Williamson gives surprisingly little attention ... That the greatest gun control victory in a generation might be the result of a legal technicality offers an object lesson about political mobilization.
PositiveThe NationWeinman is reluctant to try to explain why Smith committed the crimes he did. Instead, she lets him speak for himself, quoting extensively from his correspondence to show how he flattered the prejudices of those around him. This builds a dramatic irony more tasteful than the kind one often expects in this kind of story, though even so it’s never quite clear to what extent Smith was deluding himself as well as his confreres, or to what extent he even thought of himself as a criminal ... The loose connections between Smith’s story and the larger questions of criminality and criminal justice make Scoundrel a curious book, more a portrait of historical oddity than anything else ... The attraction of this story comes from a truth that Weinman hints at but doesn’t say outright: No matter what they may have told themselves, Wilkins and Buckley were drawn to Smith not in spite of but because of the fact that he was convicted of a heinous crime.
Olga Tokarczuk, Tr. Jennifer Croft
MixedThe New RepublicTokarczuk revives the bygone, borderless world of the eighteenth century not to teach us something about the world of the present but to create a kind of instructive disorientation: This is the world before nationalism ... The novel is a kind of metaphysical dunk tank, a means to immerse the reader in the unusual and obscure—it tries to evoke a new awareness of how much in our contemporary world is historically contingent. It’s an ambitious premise, and the resulting narrative lacks the emotional handholds that help such lessons land ... The Books of Jacob is a weird book. It reads like something Hilary Mantel might produce if you trapped her in a Polish cave, or the book Helen DeWitt might write if she lost a bet. Tokarczuk is baggy, profuse, and unembarrassed about being either ... That undercurrent of pathos is not present in The Books of Jacob. Tokarczuk sketches the outlines of a few characters but doesn’t present them with any psychological depth ... The strange effect of this central absence is that the narrative seems to grow more vivid the further it strays from the story of Frank and the Frankists ... In other places, though, Tokarczuk falters right as she gets to the good stuff: The pivotal public debate between the Frankists and their rival Talmudists feels limp, as do the scenes of Jacob in the monastic prison ... In place of this narrative meat and potatoes, we get a prose that feels at once more unbuttoned and more effortful than that of Tokarczuk’s other translated novels ... None of this should be read as a jeremiad against difficult, encyclopedic texts—The Books of Jacob is a refreshing reprieve from a ketogenic diet of Iowa realism and Rooneyesque alienation ... The Books of Jacob discounts the importance of the loud connections, the visible connections of race and religion and nationhood, and it also discounts the sentimental connections that bridge the centuries, the basic love-and-fear emotions that help make Jacob’s contemporaries intelligible to ours. In place of these bonds, Tokarczuk challenges us to focus on the invisible similarities.
John Le Carré
PositiveThe New RepublicAt a mere 200 pages, it is far from ambitious, less a late-career magnum opus than a well-aimed parting shot ... Having shown how espionage encircles the globe, le Carré attempts in Silverview to take the premise to its next logical conclusion—that is, he attempts to prove that surveillance is by nature cannibalistic.
RaveThe New RepublicThe party is now in a position to learn from its mistakes, to apply the lessons of the Obamacare fight to the big policy conflicts of today. The only problem is that no one can agree on what those lessons are ... A new book by the reporter Jonathan Cohn, one of the foremost health care journalists in the United States, purports, if not to answer that question, then at least to provide a jumping-off point ... the account hovers somewhere between journalism, the first draft of history, and a history written by the victors. And this is a story about a victory, but a Pyrrhic victory. It is a story about taking one step forward, then taking one step back, then taking one step forward, then getting your foot shot off ... Cohn also gives us what we might call the Small Man Theory of History, showing how a lot of minor players worked behind the scenes to save the law from failure. We are introduced not only to legislative titans like Baucus and Kennedy but also to an army of economists, staffers, lobbyists, and advocates who pushed or pulled the debate in one direction or another ... Thus, in a fitting paradox, the lessons of Cohn’s account may have less to do with health care than with legislative strategy in general.
MixedThe New RepublicDouthat takes an approach by turns sententious and statistical to argue that Western society has run out of gas ... In making this argument, Douthat draws on political thinkers from both the left and the right, adding a pinch of Piketty here and a flask of Fukuyama there to make a kind of pessimist’s stone soup ... He seldom engages in depth with any political thinker except to note that the thinker diagnosed a society in decline ... The further Douthat stretches this overall something-is-rotten thesis, though, the weaker it becomes in its particulars ... In suggesting that this decadence might be sustainable, he remains too star-struck to ask for whom it is sustainable—after all, there are millions of people in the United States for whom the present does not feel in any way decadent ... in truth, the main problem with our current condition is that while a small subset of the population frets about the impact of sex robots on romantic life, vast swaths of that same society still lack basic shelter and nourishment and, furthermore, that the latter condition makes the former possible.
If Douthat’s account ever managed to compass the extent to which global suffering is a structural precondition of upper-class stupor, he would be far more likely to see that the problem he describes in fact contains its own solution. Or as Brecht put it, \'because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are.\'