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Archive for the 'Reviews' Category

Thursday, January 21st, 2016

Colin Dayan’s Ethics Without Reason

With Dogs at the Edge of Life

Simon Waxman of the Boston Review recently wrote an excellent reaction/review to With Dogs at the Edge of Life, by Colin Dayan, “Colin Dayan’s Ethics Without Reason.” We have a short excerpt from his article here, and we can’t recommend the full article highly enough.

Colin Dayan’s Ethics Without Reason
By Simon Waxman

Dayan, a longtime friend of Boston Review and valued contributor to the magazine, has explored related matters in our pages before. Her discussions and conclusions are often unsettling, questioning “the pretense of humane treatment” promoted by organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and humane societies, which routinely and systematically kills the animals of whom they market themselves as protectors. Dayan also is not a supporter of animal rights, which, like the human equivalents that inspire them, can foster in their bearers the quality most desired by the elites who seek to control and exploit them: docility. Meanwhile, the rights paradigm legalizes punishment of those animals that must be lived with, as opposed to above. In essence, the animal rights agenda has enshrined in law the social acceptability of the dumb, pocket-sized accessory who can only breathe and eat—and, then, only with a human hand to feed it—while subjecting to suspicion and penalty any animal of vigor, independence, intelligence, and, yes, capacity for danger.

Alongside her perhaps-surprising misgivings about rights, Dayan harbors sympathies that many abhor. One chapter of With Dogs at the Edge of Life traces the life, legal struggle, and philosophy of Bob Stevens. A downhome pit bull breeder, Stevens has been prosecuted by the state of Louisiana for distributing dogfighting films and earned the enmity of preening urban pet owners who like to dress up their twelve-pound toys and parade them at parties. These owners lack something that Stevens, for all his hard edges, does not: “admiration and respect for an animal’s sheer bodily strength, fierce intelligence, and courage,” which “promise a reciprocal engagement that has been lost in most human experience.”

Dayan’s goal is not just to scrutinize the pieties of animal rights activists, however. Doing so is an element of a larger project in which the boundary between human and non-, between reason and simply being together with other beings, becomes unstable. Following displaced and disdained dogs, purged from increasingly genteel cities everywhere, Dayan pursues a critique of enlightenment itself, particularly that version on which capitalism is founded. “Through the dogs’ eyes, we sense a world devoid of spirit, ravaged of communion,” she writes, inspired by films shot from the standpoint of dogs. These animals who once owned the city alongside human residents are no longer welcome among “the high-rise developments, the spruced-up neighborhoods of the neo-Western globalized citizen.”

There are no answers, easy or hard, in With Dogs at the Edge of Life, and this, finally, may be the point. “The bold enmeshing of humans and dogs—and the seagulls, pigeons, chickens, and cats in their midst—requires that we suspend our beliefs and put aside our craving for final answers.” The answers are themselves the problem. We have—by force, persuasion, and trickery—been drawn to a single answer: money and the comforts it buys. Call it progress in the capitalist mode. The issue of this progress is visible everywhere, from the comfort of killing law never seen in action, to the comfort of gleaming cities devoid of untamed life, to the comfort of faith in a human reason that eradicates all ambiguity and mystery. Indeed, one of the starkest, most material visions of this progress is the puny, slavish body of the dog lived above rather than with.

The full article can be read at the Boston Review website.

Thursday, July 2nd, 2015

Thursday Fiction Corner — A New Perspective on Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf

As Anne Fernald suggests in her very thoughtful review of Virginia Woolf: A Portrait, by Viviane Forrester, we don’t suffer from a lack of books on or biographies of Virginia Woolf. However, Forrester’s work, which won the Prix Goncourt award for biography, in its distinct approach to Woolf’s life does offer something new and important in our understanding of Woolf’s life and work. Fernald writes:

[Virginia Woolf] offers unexpected insights and useful challenges to settled ideas about Woolf, her friendships, her marriage, and her imagination. Progressing in sections through five key relationships in Woolf’s life—her husband, her family of origin, her sister Vanessa Bell and Bloomsbury, other writers, and death itself…. Bad or lazy biographers draw straight lines, linking historical figures to fictional characters. Forrester never does that. Instead, she shows patterns of imagery, suggestive links, taking up seldom-quoted diary entries and juxtaposing them against less-familiar passages from the novels to illuminate something that, at its best, seems both fresh and apt.

Much like her subject, Forrester’s own life was both accomplished and complicated. As Fernald writes, these similarities color and strengthen Forrester’s book:

In short, Forrester’s life contained many of the key elements of Woolf’s, but arranged differently: haute-bourgeois family, close acquaintance with painters (a husband, a sister), intellectual background, a mixed Jewish-Protestant marriage that saw strains but endured, and suicide. These personal connections, these experiences, similar but different, add poignancy and authority to her several meditations on living in an atmosphere of anti-Semitism, the artist’s life, and the complex factors that lead to suicide.


Monday, December 22nd, 2014

Evan Thompson’s Waking, Dreaming, Being reviewed in the New York Times

Waking, Dreaming, Being

In today’s post, we are happy to present excerpts from astrophysicist Adam Frank’s recent New York Times book review of Evan Thompson’s excellent new comprehensive look at cognitive science, Buddhism, and the self, Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy:

In the endless public wars between science and religion, Buddhism has mostly been given a pass. The genesis of this cultural tolerance began with the idea, popular in the 1970s, that Buddhism was somehow in harmony with the frontiers of quantum physics. While the silliness of “quantum spirituality” is apparent enough these days, the possibility that Eastern traditions might have something to say to science did not disappear. Instead, a more natural locus for that encounter was found in the study of the mind. Spurred by the Dalai Lama’s remarkable engagement with scientists, interest in Buddhist attitudes toward the study of the mind has grown steadily.

But within the Dalai Lama’s cheerful embrace lies a quandary whose resolution could shake either tradition to its core: the true relationship between our material brains and our decidedly nonmaterial minds. More than evolution, more than inexhaustible arguments over God’s existence, the real fault line between science and religion runs through the nature of consciousness. Carefully unpacking that contentious question, and exploring what Buddhism offers its investigation, is the subject of Evan Thompson’s new book, “Waking, Dreaming, Being.” (more…)

Thursday, February 13th, 2014

“The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am” and Solitude

The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I AmAs close readers of our blog might have noticed in our recent New Book Tuesday posts, we are now distributing Dalkey Archive Press. Needless to say, we are very excited to be working with one of the leading publishers of avant-garde fiction and literature in translation.

Dalkey’s book The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am (also available in paperback) by Kjersti A. Skomsvold (translation by Kerri A. Pierce) was recently featured on NPR’s Three Books, a program which looks at three books on one theme.

The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am was one of the three novels selected for the subject of solitude:

A masterwork of control and characterization, Kjersti Skomsvold’s novel captures what it means to face one’s own legacy. Mathea Martinsen has lived so quietly that the most she thinks of human connection is that “someone might notice me on the way to the store.” But when she sees that the obituaries feature people younger than she is, Mathea realizes that her own time will soon end. So, she strikes out into the world that she’d left behind. She buries a time capsule with only one item. She calls the phone company and asks for her own number, hoping she’ll be remembered by operators as someone who set “the all-time record for requests.” She even steals jam from the grocer. All along, her memories merge with the present: she finds her late husband everywhere and nowhere, and her thoughts return to a dog she lost long ago. Mathea radiates humor and light, and by the time she understands what she’ll leave behind and how, she’s already left an unforgettable mark on the reader.

Thursday, September 5th, 2013

Donald Prothero at Skylight Books to Talk About Abominable Science! & More Good News About the Book

Abominable Science!A scientist discussing his great new book at a great bookstore equals, not surprisingly, a great author event. That is the equation in play tonight as Donald Prothero coauthor of Abominable Science!: Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids discusses the book at Skylight Books in Los Angeles tonight at 7:30.

Abominable Science!, which was written by Daniel Loxton and Prothero, has been receiving a lot of review and media attention over the past few weeks. Notices about the book have included Scott McLemee’s piece in Inside Higher Education and, from this past weekend, reviews in The Wall Street Journal and the Times (London) . Both of are behind paywalls, so for those who don’t subscribe, we can tell you that The Wall Street Journal wrote:

[Loxton and Prothero] offer us a sharp analysis of the quest for unreal critters—cryptids, as they are called—and the people who pursue them, shining an arc light onto the hoaxes and faked photos, the made-up films, faux corpses, delusions, lies and plain bad science that plague the field. . . . [An] entertaining and thoroughly documented book.

You can get a full roundup of all the reviews and interviews about the book on Skepticblog, in which a more negative review from Bigfoot Times is also included.

Monday, August 26th, 2013

The Art of Being Erich Fromm – A Review from The New York Review of Books

A review of The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet, by Lawrence J. Friedman, was published in the Summer Issue of The New York Review of Books. A link to the review is available by clicking here (you need a subscription to NYRoB for full article view). This post contains brief excerpts of the NYRB review by Alan Ryan.

The Art of Being Erich Fromm

Lawrence Friedman’s biography has many virtues; it is meticulous, detailed, friendly to its subject but not uncritical, the result of many years of archival investigation and interviews with people who knew Fromm well. Friedman is a professor of history in the Mind/Brain/Behavior Initiative at Harvard, and the author of several books on the history of psychology, including a biography of Karl Menninger. Erich Fromm himself was a far from careful scholar, but The Lives of Erich Fromm is a reassuringly solid piece of work. What makes it a model of intellectual biography, however, is the way it illuminates the Erich Fromm who became famous in America in the 1950s, by seeing him in his many different settings—geographical, social, intellectual, and emotional.


Erich Fromm was born in Frankfurt in 1900. His father was a wine merchant. More importantly, Naphtali Fromm was an Orthodox Jew who came from a long line of distinguished rabbis, and was more embarrassed than pleased at his own modest economic success, always regretting that he had become an undistinguished wine merchant rather than a more distinguished rabbi.

During the Cold war, Fromm encountered Rabbi Nehemiah Nobel, who had studied at Marburg with Hermann Cohen, a distinguished Kant scholar who welded the universalism of Kant’s moral philosophy onto the Jewish religious tradition to create a form of “religious humanism” very like the humanism of Fromm’s later writings.


Tuesday, June 18th, 2013

Rewiring the Real reviewed in the Los Angeles Review of Books

Rewiring the Real

This weekend, the Los Angeles Review of Books ran a review by N. Katherine Hayles of Mark C. Taylor’s Rewiring the Real: In Conversation with William Gaddis, Richard Powers, Mark Danielewski, and Don DeLillo. Hayles examines the way that Taylor chooses to “construct [his] own audience” rather than write for “other critics,” and after a thorough look at the insights that Taylor offers in linking literature and religion, claims that “even if Taylor would likely disagree, … [Rewiring the Real] is a provocative, engaging, significant, and resistant work of literary criticism.”

Hayle’s review begins by pointing out the differences between most works of literary criticism and Rewiring the Real, notably the fact that Taylor seems to be engaging with philosophers and theologians rather than critics:

The absence of references to literary scholarship in Taylor’s book is all the more striking because of his wide-ranging evocations of difficult works in religion and philosophy. The presumed reader has perhaps heard of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Bataille, Derrida, Kant, Fichte, and a host of others in these traditions, but may not know their philosophies in depth. Rewiring the Real dares to imagine the creature whose existence seems increasingly imperiled by web surfing, video games, and distracted attention: the general educated book reader. Significantly, Taylor does more than ignore literary criticism; he actively resists it, choosing to locate the payoff for his readings as contributions to a field that does not yet exist — literature and religion, or better still literature as secular theology — but that he strives to bring into being. As if following the mantra, “if you build it, they will come,” he aims to convince his readers not only to believe in, but also to imagine themselves inhabiting, this hypothetical field.


Monday, April 1st, 2013

The Month Ahead, The Week That Was: Reviews, Author Events, and More

Forthcoming events with Columbia University Press authors in April include talks and signings by Michael Mann, author of The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines, Kara Newman, author of The Secret Financial Life of Food: From Commodities Markets to Supermarkets, Santiago Zabala, author of Hermeneutic Communism: From Heidegger to Marx, and others.

Looking a back, here’s a round-up of reviews and author media appearances and op-eds:

“The Most Hated Climate Scientist in the U.S.”, an article on Michael Mann in Energy Wise

Michael Mann on becoming a public figure in the climate change debate in The Scientist

Plato, Our Comrade?, Berfrois reviews Alain Badiou’s Plato’s Republic: A Dialogue in 16 Chapters

A review of Michael Marder’s Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life in STIR

An translator of Li Rui’s Trees Without Wind , and a review of the novel (via Washington Independent Review of Books)

Victor Cha and David Kang argue that North Korea is a lot more dangerous than you think, but that doesn’t mean that Kim Jong Un is insane

SCOTUS: Where Pessimism Could Kill Marriage Equality, Ludger Viefhues-Bailey’s piece for Killing the Buddha

Global reviews Bonded Labor: Tackling the System of Slavery in South Asia, by Siddharth Kara

Animal People Online reviews Experiencing Animal Minds: An Anthology of Animal-Human Encounters

A list of books for Women’s History Month from Washington Independent Review of Books includes An Imperial Concubine’s Tale: Scandal, Shipwreck and Salvation in 17th-Century Japan , by G. G. Rowley

Watch Kenneth Goldsmith’s, lecture at the Museum of Modern Art

Richard Nash discusses The Late Age of Print, by Ted Striphas, and more books in his article “The Business of Literature”

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

A Good Week for Kara Newman

Kara Newman, Secret Financial Life of Food

It’s been a good week for Kara Newman (@karanewman), author of The Secret Financial Life of Food: From Commodities Markets to Supermarkets.

A recent review in the Washington Post praised the book for providing “a refreshing and much-needed look” at food as a commodity amid the plethora of other food books.

The review points to Kara Newman’s “engaging observations” about the development of such phenomena as year-round dairy products and the transformation of pepper from a financial instrument of critical value to lowly food stuff. Additionally, Newman’s tracing of the history of commodity tracing is documented “clearly and elegantly.”

In addition to the great review, Newman was also interviewed about the book by Eric LeMay on the New Books Network.

Thursday, August 9th, 2012

800CEOREAD Reviews Best Business Writing 2012

The Best Business Writing 2012

Earlier this summer the popular website 800CEOREAD reviewed The Best Business Writing 2012, edited by Dean Starkman, Martha M. Hamilton, Ryan Chittum, and Felix Salmon.

The review praises the book for collecting the most compelling and important writing of the past year. It also commends The Best Business Writing 2012 for providing a larger context to understand recent events amid our 24-hours news cycle.

The review culminates by reiterating the importance of the volume:

So often lost in the mix are the facts we should be seeking, and the stories that ferret them out. The Best Business Writing 2012 searched those facts and stories out and gathered them back up in one important and entertaining collection. Some of those facts and stories may challenge your beliefs and change your mind; I know they are doing so for me. You are also certain to find much that will comfort and/or enrage you. Most importantly, you will find excellent, purposeful writing, well-told stories, and a search for the truth.

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

Media Alert! Ross Melnick’s American Showman

Ross Melnick, American ShowmanAmerican Showman: Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel and the Birth of the Entertainment Industry, 1908-1935, Ross Melnick’s biography of one of the most colorful characters in the entertainment industry in the early 20th century, has been generating a good deal of buzz, with great reviews in a number of important newspapers. We’ve collected excerpts from some of these reviews here. And make sure you don’t miss our interview with Ross Melnick on “Roxy” Rothafel, the art of presenting silent films, and what goes into writing a biography.

From the Washington Post’s Book World:

Such wizards gave 100 percent of themselves, and some, like Roxy, died early by doing so. Second only in prestige to Florenz Ziegfeld, Roxy micromanaged every detail of the theaters he oversaw, from the creases in the ushers’ trousers, to the hiring of talent, to the frame-by-frame editing of the films exhibited. When he clashed with corporate spreadsheets, censors or others, he simply quit and went on to exert his magic in a bigger theater — or on a radio microphone for a massive international audience, who considered his voice a balm to their harried souls. The Great Depression (and perhaps personal arrogance) finally blindsided him, but, as long as the ’20s roared, his name meant a standard of quality and cultural uplift in the forum of mass entertainment.

In this 52nd volume of Columbia University Press’s outstanding Film and Culture series, Melnick has placed his subject in a huge context, chronicling not only Roxy but also the movie and music businesses, the rise of radio, issues of anti-Semitism, the development of New York and much more during the first third of the 20th century. His writing clarifies, his judgments are eminently reasonable and his research is spectacular.


Monday, April 2nd, 2012

Stalking Nabokov by Brian Boyd Reviewed in the New York Times

Stalking Nabokov, Brian Boyd

Yesterday’s New York Times Book Review included a review of Stalking Nabokov, by Brian Boyd.

The reviewer, Leland de la Durantaye, describes Brian Boyd’s discussions of his involvement (or “stalking”) of Nabokov as a reader, critic, and biographer of Vladimir Nabokov. De la Durantaye writes:

Chronicling this man’s life and art was Boyd’s task. Imagine it.

For this reason, one of the greatest points of interest in “Stalking Nabokov” is the tale of that telling: how Boyd first encountered Nabokov (“Lolita” secreted under his pillow lest his parents discover what he had), and how he came quite literally halfway around the world (from his native New Zealand) to write the biography. When he ran short of money while doing research at Cornell, he writes, he would climb aboard Greyhound buses moving like metronomes in the rural night so as to save the price of a room. He tells of the personal drama that arose from his publishing details he knew Nabokov would have wanted kept secret. And he tells of sifting through “masses of garbling, misconstruction and decomposing gossip.” The better the biography the less the reader has a sense of all the accident and incoherence out of which it was formed, and in this and many other respects Boyd’s biography is absolutely excellent. “Stalking Nabokov” gives its reader a sense of the difficulty of moving through the sheer mass of that material, out of which Boyd needed to tell a tale that would be true to the art and life of its subject.


Thursday, March 22nd, 2012

Michael Mann Responds to the Wall Street Journal’s Review of “The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars”

Michael Mann, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars

“Our national dialogue about climate change remains broken. The Journal‘s decision to publish Ms. Jolis’s review has done nothing to repair it.”—Michael Mann

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Wall Street Journal‘s review of The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines, by Michael Mann, was not entirely positive. The Journal did however give Michael Mann the opportunity to respond to Anne Jolis’s review.

As Mann explains in his response, the Journal‘s review exemplifies much of what has gone wrong in the discussion about climate science in the United States. Rather than being treated as scientific data, Michael Mann and other scientists’ research is being treated as a polemic. As Mann explains:

Every national academy of science in the world, including our own, agrees that climate change is due to increased fossil fuel use. Only politicians and ideologues want to argue about basic, established science.

Ms. Jolis repeats criticisms of research I conducted that showed modern-day temperatures are unusually high (“the hockey stick”). My book explains that research, its critics and independent studies that have since validated and extended its original findings. But Ms. Jolis tries to dismiss these scientific discussions as “score-settling” and “sound bites.”

Monday, January 23rd, 2012

The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars Reviewed in Publishers Weekly

Michael Mann, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars“Careful descriptions of the methods and models behind climate change science bear out that assertion, proving that the only way to counter dangerous lies is to expose the truth, however inconvenient it might be.”—Publishers Weekly review of The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars

The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines by Michael Mann was recently reviewed in Publishers Weekly. Here’s an excerpt from the review:

In this meticulous and engaging brief on climate change research and the political backlash to legitimate scientific work, Penn State professor Mann narrates the fight against misinformation from the inside…. The persuasiveness of the “hockey stick,” as it was dubbed, made Mann an instant political target. In the 2009 hacking scandal known as “Climategate,” emails discussing the mathematical models he used to create the figure were said to prove an international conspiracy to dupe the public. That controversy, Mann writes, is only the latest attempt by deniers to discredit scientists one by one; for decades, powerful interests have spent untold millions to tarnish legitimate research and the reputation of scholars who have dedicated their lives to understanding our world….. Mann balances the statistical analysis with charming personal anecdotes from his life and work. Careful descriptions of the methods and models behind climate change science bear out that assertion, proving that the only way to counter dangerous lies is to expose the truth, however inconvenient it might be.

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012

“You don’t have to be a geometry major to love The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan 1811-2011″

The Greatest Grid, Hilary Ballon

The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan 1811-2011, by Hilary Ballon was recently reviewed in today’s New York Times.

The exhibit currently at the Museum of the City of New York upon which the book is based was also featured in today’s New York Times. As the article points out the grid, now at 200, while not always appreciated for its aesthetic value has served the city well allowing it to expand, and became a model for other cities. Among the more obvious benefit of making the city more navigable, the grid also has promoted sociability, ecological efficiency, and of course allowed some landowners. to make a lot of money

In describing reactions to the grid, Sam Roberts writes in his review of the book The Greatest Grid:

Some planners despised the grid for its rigidity and for its contribution to gridlock, a term popularized during the 1980 transit strike by the Traffic Department engineers Sam Schwartz and Roy Cottam. But others hailed it as a utilitarian, egalitarian and resilient tool that fostered development in a city of pedestrians. It imposed a Cartesian orderliness on the city, much as this book does on its subject matter.


Thursday, December 22nd, 2011

American Force, by Richard Betts, Reviewed in Foreign Affairs

Richard Betts, American ForceAmerican Force: Dangers, Delusions, and Dilemmas in National , by Richard Betts recently received a serious and glowing review in Foreign Affairs:

Betts describes himself as a Cold War hawk who became a post–Cold War dove. In this collection of essays, he addresses all the central issues of recent U.S. strategy: the maintenance of primacy and the prospective rise of China, humanitarian intervention and the struggles in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the problems posed by weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and the possibility of a link between the two. This is not mainstream international relations scholarship. Betts combines serious thought, common sense, and deep historical knowledge, rather than simply applying abstract theories, and his conclusions are expressed in plain English, rather than with mathematical models. His judgments are therefore contingent, but they are always considered and often incisive. Betts is not opposed to the occasional use of force for the right purposes, and he explains why it is difficult to get strategic policy right. But he deplores the persistent American tendency toward military activism, especially in pursuit of what he describes as a “liberal empire.” As he himself recognizes, he is by no means a lone voice arguing for American restraint, but he is certainly among the most articulate.

Wednesday, October 19th, 2011

The Hazards of Fairyland: The Wall Street Journal Reviews Critical Children, by Richard Locke

Critical Children, Richard Locke

The Wall Street Journal recently ran a very thoughtful review of Critical Children: The Use of Childhood in Ten Great Novels.

The reviewer, Frank Cottrell Boyce, calls the book “incisive and entertaining,” and discusses Locke’s examination of novels such as David Copperfield, Peter Pan, Huckleberry Finn, and Lolita. As Boyce explains, Locke views these novels as prism to understand cultural issues ranging from economic exploitation and racism to sexuality and mortality.

Boyce concludes the review, writing

For all the exuberant genius of Twain and Dickens, for all the dangerous potency of “Peter Pan,” the most accurate book about children on Mr. Locke’s list is surely Henry James’s horror story “The Turn of the Screw”—not because it says that children are wicked or amoral but because it says that they are unknowable. Mr. Locke calls it “a perfect example of a work constructed to defeat the reader’s effort to resolve its intrinsic indeterminacy.” We do not know if the ghosts in the story are haunting the young girl and boy or haunting their governess—or if the children are on the side of the ghosts. Because it is impossible, James realizes, to know what children are really thinking. The horror at the heart of “The Turn of the Screw” is the revelation that there are places even a great story cannot take you.

Friday, October 14th, 2011

Demented Faith or Godless Mamon: The Financial Times on Denis Lacorne’s “Religion in America”

Denis Lacorne, Religion in America

We conclude our week-long focus on Religion in America: A Political History, by Denis Lacorne with some excerpts from a review of the book in the Financial Times.

In his review, Clive Crook praises Religion in America for its timeliness as well as its ability to weave together two histories: the role of religion in the United States and what French commentators, including Voltaire, Tocqueville, Sartre, and Bernard-Henri Lévy. Crook also cites Lacorne’s focus on two narratives which have competed to define America’s identity. These include the story of it being a secular state which separates church and state and a “Neopuritan” identity. Crook writes:

The second narrative, which Lacorne calls “Neopuritan”, denies the radical break and sees the American project as “the climax of a continuous progression of freedom starting with the Reformation and culminating with the first New England Puritan colonies”. This is America as the “City upon a Hill” – a biblical phrase used in a sermon by John Winthrop to the first Massachusetts colonists, and co-opted by John F. Kennedy and then by Ronald Reagan more than three centuries later. It sees the American creed as an indissoluble blend of Protestant and republican values.

Then again, Kennedy was a Catholic and Reagan was not religious. Lacorne’s point – and it is surely correct – is that both stories are true. This is what makes America so perplexing, not just to Voltaire and Sartre, but to Americans as well.

This is a country whose highest court outlawed prayer in state schools, and where taxpayer-funded Christmas nativity displays invite prosecution; yet where children recite the Pledge of Allegiance, which (since revision in 1954) declares the US to be “one nation under God”. What president – certainly not Barack Obama – neglects to end a speech by saying, “God bless the United States of America”? “In God We Trust,” says the dollar bill. The French love that one.

In phases, the two narratives gain or lose prominence, and their respective adherents become more or less angry. Lacorne applauds the American ideal of a “faith-friendly secularism”, in which people of all faiths can feel welcome. Or, for that matter, people of no faith: he notes that Mr Obama’s inaugural address was the first ever to acknowledge that some Americans do not believe in God.

Wednesday, October 12th, 2011

“The Most Important Thing,” by Howard Marks Reviewed in Barron’s

Howard Marks, The Most Important ThingOur best-selling title The Most Important Thing: Uncommon Sense for the Thoughtful Investor, by Howard Marks was recently reviewed by Martin Fridson in Barron’s (scroll down to the fourth review).

Fridson praises Marks for offering analysis that is at once commonsensical and unconventional:

Much of the advice dispensed in The Most Important Thing sounds like simple common sense. But common sense is not always common among investors. In the span from 2005 through 2007, as Marks recounts, many market participants bought the “fairy tale” that risk had been vastly reduced through astute central-bank management. What little risk remained, claimed the bulls, had been healthily redistributed through securitization and brought under control by improved computer modeling.

The ensuing financial crisis proved this all to be an illusion, as Marks and a few other clear thinkers recognized beforehand.

The book itself almost did not come into being as Firdson explains:

Oak Tree Capital Chairman Howard Marks originally planned to wait until he retired to write this book. Warren Buffett, a fan of Marks’ famous client memos, offered to contribute a dust-jacket blurb if he would accelerate the publishing timetable. With that inducement, Marks produced what Buffett describes as “a rarity, a useful book.” That assessment is vindicated by many valuable insights into the psychological roots of investors’ habitual errors.

This isn’t a book of formulas for picking stocks. Instead, it offers tips on thinking through your decisions. With a little more thought, Marks suggests, investors can overcome the emotional barriers to success. For instance, many bad purchases result from fear of missing out while others are striking it rich. Investors who compare themselves in this manner tend to jump in long after the money has been made, buying at the top of the market.

Thursday, October 6th, 2011

The New Yorker Picks Richard Locke’s Critical Children

Richard Locke, Critical ChildrenThe New Yorker‘s blog Goings On recently selected Critical Children: The Use of Childhood in Ten Great Novels as a “Book Pick.” From the review:

In “Critical Children,” Richard Locke’s analysis of the central role that children play in ten classic novels, the author explores a hundred and thirty years of literature and the lives of some of the most iconic characters in the canon—Tom Sawyer, Oliver Twist, Holden Caulfield, and Lolita, to name a few. “It’s remarkable,” writes Locke, “that so many classic (or, let’s say, unforgotten) English and American novels should focus on children and adolescents not as colorful minor characters but as the intense center of attention.”

Locke, the former editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair and now a professor of writing at Columbia University, writes passionately and persuasively about his subjects—and the result is finely tuned literary criticism that is both accessible and engaging. Proceeding chronologically from Dickens to Roth, Locke concludes with Alexander Portnoy, the eponymous narrator of “Portnoy’s Complaint.” He writes that the character “is not a wise child so much as a wised-up child, a comic performer who gets us to laugh at what he sees and how he sees it and who he is—a super-virtuosic unreliable narrator who finally just gives up and screams like an enraged schoolboy.”