(Staff Favorites) John’s Picks
THE MAN IN THE RED COAT
In June of 1885, carrying a letter of introduction to the American novelist Henry James, living in London, from a fellow-American, the painter John Singer Sargent, living in Paris, a “strange trio” comprising a French Comte, a Prince, and a commoner, whose pioneering work in surgery and gynecology would soon make him world famous, leave Paris for a shopping trip and some sight-seeing together in London. So starts this quirky, charming, and agreeably discursive stroll through the Belle Epoque of London and Paris. By the end of the book, the strange trio has become a cast of many dozens—artists of all types, aristocracy, dandies, American heiresses, socialites, bohemians, satanic cultists—who cross one another’s path thrugh vicious journalistic hit pieces, slander and gossip, love affairs, rancorous politics, professional endeavors, portrayals in poems, plays, novels or paintings, or duels of honor (quite a good number in France at the time, as well as an absolutely American tendency to shoot one another with murderous intent using concealed revolvers when passions are running especially hot, which, in France, appears to be quite often). By the end there is also the matter of a world war. The author, Julian Barnes, freely interjects his own provocative asides and observations about perspectives, motives, intentions, or trustworthiness of his subjects (“one cannot know…” being his favorite warning that the we should proceed carefully), while challenging us, the reader, to consider our own assumptions abut the modern and its relation to the past. As a delightful bonus, the book is studded throughout with reproductions from the small, black and white photo cards from the collection of the grocers Felix Potin. The cards are from their series of Celebrites Contemporaines, a “rich gallimaufry of fame”—popes, athletes, politicians, royals, generals, artistes, notables—and were originally included in chocolate bar wrappers as promotional give-aways.
THE CONSERVATIVE SENSIBILITY-George F. Will
A THOUSAND SMALL SANITIES: THE MORAL ADVENTURE OF LIBERALISM-Adam Gopnik
There are a number of entry points for a review of George Will’s “The Conservative Sensibility”. I have started several for this review, and this seems as good as any. From his last chapter, summing up his effort, “This book is, among other things, a summons to pessimism. What is needed now, and what it is especially incumbent on conservatives to provide, is intelligent pessimism that is more than a mere mood. It should be mentality grounded in a philosophic tradition that has a distinguished pedigree, and that is validated by abundant historical evidence for this proposition: Nothing lasts.” 514 preceding pages of thought-provoking, carefully reasoned, and, occasionally irritating history, economics, and philosophy will allow one to judge for oneself the value of Will’s proposition. It can be a slog, but it’s worth the effort, whether one reads to buttress what one already knows, or reads to learn something new. To lighten and sweeten the load, I read Will in tandem with [New Yorker magazine] Adam Gopnik’s “A Thousand Small Sensibilities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism”. Montaigne’s essays are the historical launch point for Gopnik’s Western European liberalism, “…an evolving political practice that makes the case for the necessity and possibility of (imperfectly) egalitarian social reform and ever greater (if not absolute) tolerance of human difference through reasoned and (mostly) unimpeded conversation, demonstration, and debate”. Gopnik is ruefully aware that his preceding liberal manifesto is “anti-climatic”, “clumsy”, and bordering on the “fatuous”, but which “…enfolds some huge advance in moral understanding and effective action.” The two books’ political/philosophical projects are not the clash of opposites they might at first seem.The affinities are as numerous as are the differences—not surprisingly, as both authors take as a given the imperfect, fallible nature of human beings and proceed from there. Both books are well worth reading for what each presents about the American character and national presence in the world. Vastly superior to anything currently available elsewhere that passes for an examination of American conservatism and liberalism. -jg
THE TANGLED TREE: A RADICAL NEW HISTORY OF LIFE
A very enjoyable read of the history, personalities, and science leading to what Quammen calls the three big surprises revealed by the new method of molecular phylogenetics that compellingly invites a rethinking of “… who we are…and what we are, and how life on our planet has evolved.” Quammen understands how off-putting the term molecular phylogenics is, but his deserved reputation as one of our most reliable and readable guides through science for the curious, educated general reader is on full display here. A caveat: those looking for a linear story line or a deep dive into only the science may be disappointed by Quammen’s broad approach to the material.
Horowitz is one of the masters currently working in the whodunnit genre, and he effortlessly employs every beloved device aficionados have come to expect. In an interview, Horowitz says of Magpie Murders, “I wanted it to be more than just a murder mystery story. I wanted it to be…a sort of a treatise on the whole genre of murder mystery writing.” In addition, Magpie Murders is a bravura example of the maxim “If they liked it once, they’ll love it twice”. So, does the script of an author’s final book, in which the death is revealed of his acclaimed and very lucrative fictional detective, hold clues to his own impending suicide–or, is it, perhaps, murder? JG
A coterie of Londoners and essex country-folk are drawn into the orbit of Cora Seaborne, recently widowed and freed from an abusive marriage. Cora’s desire to become a naturalist draws her to rivers and estuaries of Essex where rumors of a water-monster have reawakened the locals’ fears of a long-ago evil. Thr rumors fuel Cora’s hopes of discovering, instead, dinosaur fossils suitable for display in museums–and, perhaps, a living throwback to the geologic past. Author Perry is remarkable in her rich evocation of the Essex weather, earth, flora, and fauna that Cora eager;y encounters. Equally remarkable is Perry’s depiction of her late-Victorian cast who are anything but the fusty, repressed characters of modern imagination. In this work of historical fiction, ancients fears and superstitions clash with a thoroughly modern gamut of passion, science, and reason to propel Perry’s cast into one another’s lives and to the threshold of the 20th century.
WW is over and the Cold War is just beginning. The setting is Istanbul, it’s feet deeply planted in both Asia and Europe, where this well-paced story of murder, espionage, love and remembrance of simpler times takes place. Honor, trust and decency seem to be in short supply, fading with the warm, summer light. It’s a very dangerous and morally confusing time, especially for an innocent forced to play a deadly game amongst ruthless amateurs and professionals. Which colleague, old friend–even lover–can one trust? Never mind Russian former-allies, side-jumping Romanians, smugglers of Jews to Palestine, or to the officially neutral Turkish hosts who play all sides against the middle.
THANK YOU FOR BEING LATE
Thomas L. Friedman
Change isn’t new, but the rate of that change today is…breathtakingly so. Friedman considers this to be the Age of Acceleration. Expect to see the words ‘exponentially’ and ‘compounded’ frequently. If you’re an optimist like Friedman, this may be a glimpse of a brave new world. If not, prepare for a mind-boggling descent down the rabbit hole. Thank You employs the classic Friedman approach: a globe-spanning range of topics on a theme, generously leavened with Friedman’s personal observations and quotes from smart, articulate, engaging experts and players. This can be read cover-to-cover or dipped into as fancy–and ability to adapt–allows. Warning: Not for the change-adverse.