Dr. No

Dr. No
Ian Fleming

It’s never advisable to return to¬†favourite books of your early youth. I read all of the Bond series as a child and thought them wonderful stuff. The experience of dipping into them again lo these many years later has been depressing. Like so much iconic literature – from Dracula and Frankenstein to the Harry Potter franchise¬†– the writing itself is terrible. In this book we even have bad guys – the villainous “Chigroes” – who go “Tee-hee!” And who is James Bond, anyway? (Sean Connery, by the way, doesn’t count as an answer.) Has any fictional character of similar stature ever been such a total cipher? At least in this book the generic supporting cast of Bond Villain (Dr. No) and Bond Girl (Honeychild Ryder) are above average. But like so much iconic literature – from Dracula and Frankenstein to the Harry Potter franchise¬†– the movie is better.

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A Death in Belmont

A Death in Belmont
Sebastian Junger

“The predatory serial murder that lacks a component of sex – or more specifically, sexual sadism – has not yet been committed.” Nonsense. What about the DC snipers, or Harold Shipman? This isn’t even good journalism. Sebastian Junger’s foray into true crime has a personal connection – when the murder in Belmont took place, Albert “The Boston Strangler” DeSalvo was working as a handyman fixing up the Junger family home – but not much else going for it. The courtroom coverage is as dull as usual (the availability of full trial transcripts has, I think, been the ruin of many a true crime book), and the question of the killer’s identity is finally left up for grabs, leaving the reader with a “just suppose” story. After giving the language a metaphor for all seasons in The Perfect Storm, it’s starting to seem as though Junger has shot his bolt.

Postwar

Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945
Tony Judt

Postwar is certainly an informative, bordering on comprehensive and essential, survey of its subject, but the writing finally isn’t strong enough to sustain a work of such length. A useful companion to Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes, it never achieves the same easy grace of expression and compression. Judt’s major themes – Europe’s diminishment on the global stage, the evolution of a “European model” of state politics, the ethnic homogenization (and looming de-homogenization) of its populations – could have been made more forcefully with less detail and opinionizing, including the repetitive animus toward the French and even more repetitive straining to enshrine the Holocaust as the major generative fact of postwar Europe.

Ideas That Matter

Ideas That Matter: A Personal Guide for the 21st Century
A. C. Grayling

British philosopher A. C. Grayling has prepared a “personal dictionary of ideas” that he thinks will be important to understanding our world in the coming century, covering topics political, religious, scientific, and cultural. Representative of the wave of “new [post-9/11] atheism,” Grayling “does not hold any brief for religion in general,” and so proceeds to kick it as often as he can (with “Religion” itself being the longest entry in the book). But at least, unlike many of the subjects surveyed, religion is something he knows a bit about. Neither informative nor comprehensive enough to be a true reference in the age of Wikipedia (there is, for example, no mention of global warming or climate change), nor opinionated and original enough to be a collection of essays, the book falls into a gap of inutility.

The Culture of Narcissism

The Culture of Narcissism
Christopher Lasch

This early example of the American jeremiad returns us to 1979, the “me decade,” and a time when Freud was taken seriously as having something to say about human psychology. Lasch’s psychoanalysis of the culture, putting an entire zeitgeist on the couch and asking it how it feels about its mother (answer: not good) has dated badly, and is unsupported by any real evidence, but nevertheless makes a handful of interesting general points, some of which have gained in salience over the past thirty years. One of those books you certainly don’t want to read all of, but that you should be familiar with nevertheless.

Lost to the West

Lost to the West
Lars Bronworth

Though its title suggests a pointed account of the Byzantine Empire as a lost and forgotten civilization that nevertheless “rescued” the West, this isn’t the way it plays. Lars Brownworth’s book is, instead, a very fast, breezily written overview of the Byzantine Empire’s thousand-plus year history, with an emphasis on the rise and fall of prominent ruling dynasties. Cultural and religious matters receive short shrift, and the Muslim hordes are just that – the sinister other that Byzantium rescued the West from. Not for advanced students of the period, but a good general introduction to all of the important names, dates, and monuments.

No Impact Man

No Impact Man
Colin Beavan

Feeling that the health of the planet is in grave danger, and that a life spent producing waste is a wasted life, Manhattanite Colin Beavan spent 2007 trying to reduce his negative environmental impact to as near zero as possible. Steps taken include producing no garbage (he doesn’t even use toilet paper), not burning any fossil fuels (he only travels as far as he can bike), eating locally, using almost no electricity, and volunteering to clean up and restore the natural environment. The results have to be qualified by the fact that Beavan never gets outside the larger, wasteful, economy and culture – and is thus always still a part of the problem – but he does describe practical steps that can be taken to change one’s life, and the good reasons for trying to do so.