The Death of Truth

The Death of Truth
Michiko Kakutani

As the chief book reviewer for the New York Times for many years Michiko Kakutani had one of the most prominent platforms in the English-speaking world for her literary opinions. Despite this, I never found her reviews very original or insightful, and even referred to them as book reports on occasion. The Death of Truth is very much more of the same, reading like a summary of the vast and ever increasing field of Trumpology. Judged on its own it’s just another piece of wood on the pile, offering up an anthology of observations made by other authors, all saying similar things in different words, with little attempt at any deeper analysis or explanation.

Kakutani, who seems to have at least skimmed a lot of books, suffers from the curse of student writing, which is to quote a source or authority for everything she says, no matter how obvious or banal an observation it may be. Her conclusion, that truth is important for the proper functioning of democracy, is important, but a platitude. What we’re left with feels more like a research paper or review of the literature than a rallying cry.

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The Locomotive of War

The Locomotive of War
Peter Clarke

Why the “locomotive of war”? The expression is attributed to Trotsky and refers to the way war provides an engine for social change or revolution. Peter Clarke begins by invoking it ironically, seeing the First World War as having had more progressive results than Trotsky envisioned, at least in the English-speaking world. Aside from that initial reference, however, it’s not clear how the image fits with any larger argument Clarke is making.

Instead, this is less a book with a theme than a series of historical-biographical sketches of some of the leading British and American personalities of the period: Woodrow Wilson, Winston Churchill, David Lloyd George, and John Maynard Keynes. There seems to be a point Clarke wants to make about the moralistic bent of Anglo-American policy, with later politicians taking the grand old man Gladstone as a model, but this is not very well developed. One suspects Clarke didn’t want to be seen as only writing another centenary book on the First World War, but that’s pretty much what he got.

The Great Class War

The Great Class War 1914-1918
Jacques R. Pauwels

So much has been and continues to be written about the First World War that it’s hard for any general history to stand out. The Great Class War does stand out for the directness of its thesis: that European elites deliberately planned the war, looking for imperial gain in the form of colonies abroad and attempting to roll back the growing threat of democratization and revolution at home.

Pauwels insists that we see the First World War as having two fronts: consisting of a horizontal war between nations and a vertical war between classes. Needless to say this is painting history with a broad brush, but there’s enough in the record to give such a thesis some validity. I think things were a lot more complicated than Pauwels makes them out to be, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong.

The Red Word

The Red Word
Sarah Henstra

In his book The Once and Future Liberal Mark Lilla has a line about the so-called culture wars where he describes the process through which “the retreating New Left turned the university into a pseudo-political theater for the staging of operas and melodramas.”

That’s something that came to mind when reading Sarah Henstra’s The Red Word, which is a campus novel about a group of activist college feminists in the 1990s whose greatest coup de théâtre is presenting a rape (that’s the red word) as an act of performance art.

A Separate Peace for the MeToo generation? Henstra is a smart writer and must have been aware of the danger. I don’t think she entirely avoids it either, but The Red Word is raw and complex enough to avoid going too far down that road, indulging instead its own version of the mythic method and managing to address the politics of the moment without being political itself in any of the usual, obvious and programmatic, ways.

The Once and Future Liberal

The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics
Mark Lilla

I’ve remarked before on how narcissism has become an all-purpose diagnosis for society’s present ills. (See, for example, my review of Rod Liddle’s Selfish, Whining Monkeys.) I don’t think Mark Lilla ever uses the word in this pointed little book, but his “hyperindividualism” means much the same thing. Either way, the result has been to fragment the once great mountain of progressivism into isolated caves of identity: an identity politics not only opposed to the previous liberal dispensation’s commitment to solidarity but near indistinguishable from the guiding philosophy of the neoliberal world order.

As it now stands, liberalism has become a pseudo-politics focused on theatrics and symbols. The antidote Lilla proposes is a more practical liberal politics built from the ground up around local organizations. Is that still possible? I don’t think “social” media is going to be any help.

The Burning of the World

The Burning of the World
Béla Zombory-Moldován

I wonder when this memoir of the opening stages of the First World War in the old Austro-Hungarian Empire (on the Galician front) was written. There’s no reference to the date of its writing in the introduction, and the only clue we get is in the brief note on the author’s life that says the memoir was “probably” written sometime after the Second World War, perhaps as much as forty years after the events it describes.

The reason this is important has less to do with problems of memory than it does with the massive literature that, by the time these memoirs were being composed, had already done so much to standardize the genre. Memoir had been overtaken by cultural memory, and not just of the Great War. The indifference of nature to man’s suffering, for example, might have been drawn from The Red Badge of Courage.

As with any memoir of the First World War the contrast between life before and after is the dominant theme. 1914 is when so much came to an end. The Burning of the World gives us another perspective on this, as well as a reminder of the sheer physical unpleasantnes of war, which can have less to do with its violence and destruction than the endurance of endless cold and exhaustion, and the “sullen struggle” for survivial in wartime which takes place both at the front and at home.

Secrets in the Cellar

Secrets in the Cellar
John Glatt

Is there any point in ranking the evildoers found in the annals of true crime? If there is (and some exercise in moral judgment does seem to be part of the genre’s purpose) then surely Josef Fritzl stands as one of the worst of the worst. Even when compared to the other captive narratives that came out around the same time, Fritzl’s imprisonment and rape of his daughter and begetting of a family that he maintained in a miserable basement dungeon for over twenty years ranks as shocking.

John Glatt’s little book didn’t tell me much I didn’t already know but still left me impressed by how the full story was even worse than I imagined. One point I hadn’t been aware of showed how thoroughly wicked a person Fritzl was. Not only was he selfish and cruel, he was also cheap: not tipping at the bordellos he frequented, trying to nickel-and-dime the tenants in his apartment building, and even fostering his own children instead of adopting them because it got him a bigger government cheque. Despite this streak of vicious mean-spiritedness he was a lousy businessman and was deep in debt at the time of his arrest. Of course being a miser was far from his worst personal failing, but it just goes to show how some people are bad all the way through.