MixedThe New YorkerCohen is English, and was the director of two London publishing houses, biographical facts that, to apply his own test, might account for (a) his willingness to treat journalism, historical fiction, and television documentaries on a par with the work of professional scholars, since, as a publisher, he is interested in work that has an audience and an influence, and (b) the Anglocentrism of his choices ... But...whatever Cohen writes about he writes about with brio ... A very good thing about Making History is that, despite the book’s premise, it is not reductive or debunking. Except when Cohen is discussing writers like the nationalist revisionists, whose bias is blatant and who aim to deceive, and some Islamic historians, who he thinks are dogmatic and intolerant, he tries to present a balanced case and allow readers to make their own judgments ... He is not sloppy, exactly, but he can be a bit breezy ... And there are (inevitably) assertions one could quarrel with.
MixedThe New YorkerDouglas-Fairhurst...takes up a single year in Dickens’s life and walks us through it virtually week by week. The year is 1851, which Douglas-Fairhurst calls \'a turning point for Dickens, for his contemporaries, and for the novel as a form.\' He never quite nails the claim. It’s not a hundred per cent clear why 1851 is a key date in British history, or why Bleak House, the book Dickens began to write that year, is a key work in the history of the novel. But Douglas-Fairhurst realizes his intention, which is to enrich our appreciation of the social, political, and literary circumstances in which Dickens conceived Bleak House. And, as advertised, The Turning Point is granular. You learn a lot about life in mid-century England, with coverage of things like the bloomer craze—a fashion of short skirts with \'Turkish\' trousers worn by women—and mesmerism.
MixedThe New Yorker... belongs to a critical strategy of attacking current inequities in American life by attacking prior representations of those inequities. This is an entry in the new culture wars ... Given her thesis, it’s a little strange that one of McHugh’s most frequent epithets, in criticizing these books, is ]arbitrary.\' She accuses Emily Post and David Reuben and even Noah Webster of arbitrarily imposing their own norms on their users. But, as she herself points out repeatedly, every book in her canon was one of many just like it being published around the same time ... McHugh ends her discussion of every book in her canon with this criticism, and the reader comes to approach those pages with dread, knowing that the mighty hammer of diversity will soon come crashing down. This is a very predictable book ... Still, who can argue with the thesis? Even if her books only reflect the unequal social dispensation out of which they arose, they also project that dispensation back. Within a world in which success was defined mainly in terms of what white male Protestants had achieved, and manners and mores mainly in terms of how middle-class heterosexuals behaved, these books can be read as telling their millions of readers, This is normal. Other ways of doing things are not.
PositiveThe New YorkerMetatheatre—is that the person or the actor?—is an underlying theme of Mark Harris’s hugely entertaining Mike Nichols: A Life [...] Who was Mike Nichols when he wasn’t playing Mike Nichols? It’s not an easy question ... Harris’s biography is filled with stories, and Nichols, who died in 2014, was, above all, a storyteller ... They’ve been polished smooth by circulation, and so have to be taken with a little salt, but they give genuine insights into how the Broadway and the Hollywood sausages are made. It helps that Harris himself is a talented storyteller.
MixedThe New YorkerTye also quotes from transcripts of the executive sessions (that is, hearings closed to the public) of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Government Operations Committee...Tye describes these transcripts—almost nine thousand pages—as \'recently unveiled . . . and never before closely examined.\' This is a little misleading. The transcripts were released in 2003, and they have been quoted from extensively, notably by Ted Morgan, in Reds: McCarthyism in Twentieth-Century America...But they are important ... As for Tye’s McCarthy-Trump comparison? He more than makes the case. The likeness is uncanny ... Tye wisely does not propose to draw many lessons for today from the story of McCarthy’s career.
Melvin I. Urofsky
MixedThe New YorkerThere is a whole library on racial inequality and efforts to address it, and The Affirmative Action Puzzle does not offer many novelties. But the book, just by the accumulation of sixty years’ worth of evidence, allows us to reach some useful conclusions, and the most important of these is that affirmative action worked ... Urofsky, perhaps because he is an academic, is more patient with the trouble that universities have had in achieving diversity than he is with the problems of labor unions, to which, in general, he is uncharitable.
MixedThe New YorkerA lot of this story has been told, but King is an intelligent and judicious writer, and he has woven a concise narrative that manages to work in a fair amount of context. His subjects were all unusual characters, and their lives are colorfully related. Obviously, legal and political actors had at least as much to do with the changes in social attitudes that King writes about as anthropologists did. But he makes a good case with the cards he has dealt himself ... King says that cultural anthropology pushes us to expand our notion of the human. That may be so, but it has nothing to do with relativism. King’s anthropologists are prescriptivists. They are constantly telling us to unlearn one way of living in order to learn a way that is better by our own standards.
MixedThe New YorkerLuxenberg has chosen a fresh way to tell the story of Plessy ... deeply researched, and it wears its learning lightly. It’s a storytelling kind of book ... Luxenberg does not engage in psychological interpretation. He doesn’t mention, for instance, that Brown’s Yale classmates called him Henrietta because they thought he was effeminate—which might have contributed to Brown’s eagerness not to appear like a man who didn’t belong. And he dismisses in a footnote speculation that Robert Harlan, a man of mixed race who grew up as a member of John Harlan’s family, might have been a half brother. Even if he wasn’t in fact related to John, however, it might have mattered if John believed otherwise ... Luxenberg skillfully works the military and the political background into his narrative. Still, despite ample quotations from letters and diaries, the three principals retain a sepia quality. They seem stiff, earnest, florid—Victorian. And there is a lot of biographical backstory. It takes four hundred pages to get to Homer Plessy; the argument and the decision are over after just twenty pages, and then the book abruptly ends. The afterlife of the case gets no real attention ... And it does seem a misjudgment to tell the story of an important civil-rights case as the story of three white men.
PanThe New YorkerThe demand for recognition, Fukuyama says, is the \'master concept\' that explains all the contemporary dissatisfactions with the global liberal order ... Fukuyama covers all of this in less than two hundred pages. How does he do it? Not well ... A lot comes from the astonishingly blasé assumption...that Western thought is universal thought ... He also thinks that people on the left have become obsessed with cultural and identitarian politics, and have abandoned social policy. But he has surprisingly few policy suggestions himself. He has no interest in the solution that liberals typically adopt to accommodate diversity: pluralism and multiculturalism ... It’s unfortunate that Fukuyama has hung his authorial hat on meta-historical claims.
PositiveThe New YorkerIt’s a slightly spoofy take on hardboiled crime fiction, a story in which the characters smoke dope and watch Gilligan’s Island instead of sitting around a night club knocking back J&Bs. It’s The Maltese Falcon starring Cheech and Chong, The Big Sleep as told by the hippy-dippy weatherman … The twist is the time period. The events in Pynchon’s story take place in the spring of 1970, something we can infer from frequent references to the Manson trial and the N.B.A. finals between the Lakers and the Knicks. And the book is loaded—overloaded, really, but Pynchon is an inveterate encyclopedist—with pop period detail … Inherent Vice is a generally lighthearted affair. Still, there are a few familiar apocalyptic touches, and a suggestion that countercultural California is a lost continent of freedom and play, swallowed up by the faceless forces of coöptation and repression.
Oona A. Hathaway and Scott J. Shapiro
PositiveThe New YorkerGenuine originality is unusual in political history. The Internationalists is an original book. There is something sweet about the fact that it is also a book written by two law professors in which most of the heroes are law professors. Sweet but significant, because one of the points of The Internationalists is that ideas matter ... Hathaway and Shapiro are lawyers, and, in making their case for the supreme explanatory power of Kellogg-Briand, they litigate themselves around some tricky historical corners ... Hathaway and Shapiro acknowledge the Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem after the Six-Day War, in 1967, but say almost nothing about the West Bank. They scarcely mention America’s two Iraq wars, and they ignore the eight-year Iran-Iraq War that preceded them, which they presumably regard as a border dispute. Part of the interest of their deeply interesting book, though, is seeing how far and in which cases you are willing to go along with them.
MixedThe New YorkerConditions in this brave-new-world Britain, and exactly how Kathy and her friends fit into them, are all spooky authorial surprises, and (as is the case with most things) when you’re reading the novel it is best to begin without too many prior assumptions. Kathy is a ‘carer’; her patients give ‘donations,’ occasionally as many as four. Inch by inch, the curtain is lifted, and we see what these terms mean and why the world is this way … The strangeness...is ingeniously evoked—by means of literal-minded accounts of things that don’t quite add up—and teasing out the hidden story is the main pleasure of the book … Unfortunately, Never Let Me Go includes a carefully staged revelation scene, in which everything is, somewhat portentously, explained. It’s a little Hollywood, and the elucidation is purchased at too high a price. The scene pushes the novel over into science fiction, and this is not, at heart, where it seems to want to be.
PositiveThe New YorkerVanderbilt is an intelligent writer, and there is a lot of interesting material in You May Also Like, but he has dived into a fathomless sea. He opens with an epigraph from Nietzsche, 'All of life is a dispute over taste,' which pretty much sums up the problem. What does not, on some level, involve taste? ... Vanderbilt is intrepid; he is also fair. He desperately wants to find a non-circular account of preferences, something better than 'People like this kind of thing because this is the kind of thing that they—or people around them, or people who are supposed to know—like,' but he has to admit defeat. There is no place outside the swirling galaxy of taste formation on which to rest a philosophical lever.
MixedThe New YorkerAs his subtitle suggests, Futterman has cast the story in a heroic mode—as a series of actions in the tradition of the storming of the Bastille, the Boston Tea Party, and the ninety-five theses nailed to the door ... Although the dramatic effect of the stories is fine, the premise is false. For everyone knows what the social role of sports is today. It is, via commercials and endorsements, to sell stuff. And everyone knows what makes that possible: television. It did not require a revolutionary genius to figure this out ... Futterman knows this perfectly well, too, and when, in his final chapters, he gets to the part played by television in modern sports, he makes his most provocative observations.
PanThe New YorkerThere is not much to disagree with here, and that is one of the intriguing things about the genre this book belongs to. Not dozens or hundreds but thousands of titles like Smarter Faster Better are published every year, and they account for a disproportionate percentage of total book sales. Yet they mainly reiterate common sense. Does anybody think it’s unwise to be lean, nimble, and innovative? Who needs a book to know that rote behavior and fear of uncertainty are not going to take us very far?
PositiveThe New YorkerThe book is a labor of love. Guralnick is an eminent authority on rock and roll and related musical styles. He is passionate about the music, but he doesn’t let his passion overinflate his prose, and he seems to know everything about everyone who was part of the Southern music world.