Books And Arts Archives


Underground London

The subterranean life of Britain's capital.
Feb 15, 2016

The elevator is one of the terrifying old-fashioned kind with a metal latticework that clanks across, through which you can see the shaft as you sink below street level into the cavernous unknown. The red and yellow treads of now-unused stairways spiral past like the double helix of subterranean DNA.

There are only two of us in the elevator; both of us wear lab coats, hairnets, and blue plastic bags over our shoes. Down we go, 14 floors below the Northern Line into the heart of Clapham, a London borough south of the Thames. I am on a mission to discover some of the city’s oldest and newest attractions. And it turns out that the place where London's buried history meets its emergent future is

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Detective Fiction

The hard-boiled stories behind the mythology.
Feb 15, 2016

Conjure up the private detective. For those familiar with the novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler as well as the noir films of the 1940s and ’50s, this is easy magic. Tucked underneath a fedora, the archetypal P. I. chain-smokes cigarettes, goes nowhere without his trenchcoat, and prefers to walk the dark streets as a lonely man—described frequently as a sort of knight errant. His goals are easy: truth, justice, and a shot of whiskey. Sure, plenty of girls ("dames" in trade vernacular) come along, but they never stay. The American P. I. is just the Western cowboy in the big city, and we all know that cowboys are better off riding alone.

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Founders-in-Arms

Two very different men with the same ideas.
Feb 15, 2016

George Washington firmly believed that the “hand of Providence" was "conspicuous" in the miracle of American independence—secured by a ragged army, more than once on the brink of annihilation, against the greatest military power on earth. Certainly, astonishing fortune seemed to attend the Americans—perhaps no more so than in Washington's improbable relationship with Alexander Hamilton. Their alliance uncannily blended the strengths of both men into a vital force that launched America and changed the world.

"Indeed, no other founding collaboration was as important to achieving victory and nationhood as Washington and Hamilton's," Stephen F. Knott and Tony Williams argue persuasively in this feisty new account.

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World on the Brink

The time-honored trend toward hell in a handbasket.
Feb 15, 2016

For as long as I can remember, harbingers of doom, naysayers, outcasts at life’s rich feast, and garden-variety curmudgeons have been saying that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Or words to that effect. Politicians and religious leaders are particularly fond of this admonition. According to them, the world is going to hell in a handbasket today, it went to hell in a handbasket yesterday, and it will almost certainly go to hell in a handbasket tomorrow. As long as there is a world, there will always be a handbasket for it to go to hell in.

For such is the human condition.

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Book of David

The biblical framework for a novel of redemption.
Feb 15, 2016

The Hebrew Bible is shaped by two extended portraits, of Moses and David. Of the two stories, Moses’ is better known, but the narrative of David is more psychologically complex and dramatically vivid. As they divide the great mountains (Sinai and Zion) and two dominant terrains (desert and land) between them, Moses and David represent, respectively, the giving of the law and the attaining of ultimate redemption through the line of the Messiah.

The story of David is less familiar, partly due to its placement in the book of Samuel instead of the Pentateuch. David's story is intricate, incident-packed, and follows several different strands. Fascinating in all its parts, it requires some thought and time to weave it together.

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Money Manager

When the chairman stood on the burning deck.
Feb 15, 2016

In The Courage to Act, former Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke reveals, a little unexpectedly, that he can tell a taut tale well, and in a manner accessible to someone who wouldn’t know a CDO from an Alt-A mortgage. After a likable autobiographical beginning, the book is centered on the Fed's response to the financial crisis that started to unfold just over a year after Bernanke took office in 2006. Bernanke was right to see that catastrophe threatened to engulf more than Wall Street, and he was right to see that, in the much-mocked phrase, something had to be done.

It's easy to criticize the technical aspects of bailouts based on Depression-era powers usable in "unusual and exigent circumstances" and put together

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Pride Before Fall

Reflections on the lessons of (military) history.
Feb 15, 2016

In the classical Greek scheme of things, hubris—overweening pride—was a lurking trap for headstrong humans, not least such extraordinary figures as King Oedipus. Along with nemesis, its personified enforcer, hubris was a chronic susceptibility of the human temperament woven into the cosmic order.

Alistair Horne adopts this familiar myth as title and theme of his latest inquiry into the history of 20th-century warfare. Readers know him as a specialist whose masterworks include a definitive trilogy on French military fortunes and a biography of Harold Macmillan. Horne's treatment of the Algerian war, A Savage War of Peace (1977), has enjoyed a recent revival among professional warriors concerned with intractable

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Character Is King

Abe Vigoda, master of the second fiddle.
Feb 08, 2016

There’s a great joke about acting. One actor says to another actor, Hey, I just got cast in Hamlet. The other actor says, I know this is embarrassing, but I've never read or seen it. What's it about? The first one says, It's about this guy, Gravedigger #2 .  .  .

Nobody goes into acting to specialize in small parts, just as no one seeks a career as a middle-inning reliever in baseball or as a third-string quarterback in football. All actors want to be stars, the fixed points around which all other action revolves, onstage and off.

Stars are the primary recipients of the fame and adoration all performers falsely believe will sate the desperate hunger for attention that drives them to expose

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The Hills Beyond

How an Appalachian range became the Catskills.
Feb 08, 2016

Stephen Silverman and Raphael Silver offer a boisterous, colorful history of New York’s Catskill Mountains, but like the tummlers of yesteryear, once they depart, it's hard to remember what the noise was about. The Catskills have always been at the edge of the American experience—a hinterland of New York City. Unlike William Cronon's classic Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, which examined how 19th-century Chicago transformed the Midwest's ecology and economy, The Catskills offers loosely linked stories where the Big Apple is forever popping up to take over the narrative.

As the authors note, only in the last two centuries have people even called the Catskills a single mountain range.

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Through Albanian Eyes

A skirmish in the war between Islam and Christendom.
Feb 08, 2016

Noel Malcolm, senior research fellow at All Souls College Oxford, is a polyglot and polymath. Skillful with sources in Albanian, Romanian, Serbian, modern Turkish, Italian, and other languages, he is probably best known for books produced during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, Bosnia: A Short History (1994) and Kosovo: A Short History (1999). He has published definitive editions of the writings of Thomas Hobbes and was knighted in 2014.

His latest—Agents of Empire—a highly engaging (if complex) work began in obscure circumstances and deals with arcane matters. Still, Malcolm is gifted in moving from the microcosm to the macrocosm, and his survey of competing European and Eurasian dominions more than four centuries ago

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The Eliot Shelf

Old Possum's prose is gathered together.
Feb 08, 2016

Writing in 1920 of Algernon Swinburne, the appeal of whose enraptured lyricism was not self-evident to the generation that had survived the Great War, T. S. Eliot pronounced, in that marvelously authoritative tone of his, that "it is a question of some nicety to decide how much must be read of any particular poet" before delivering the sort of definitive verdict that his readers came to relish.

There are some poets whose every line has unique value. There are others who can be taken by a few poems universally agreed upon. There are others who need be read only in selections, but what selections are read will not very much matter.

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Down Argentine Way

The continental charms of Buenos Aires.
Feb 08, 2016

The old droll definition of an Argentine—an Italian who speaks Spanish, lives in a French house, and thinks he's an English gentleman—does not appear anywhere in Buenos Aires: The Biography of a City. James Gardner's history of the Argentine capital is a serious work that, inevitably, brings that assessment frequently to mind.

An art, architecture, and culture critic, and frequent contributor to these pages, Gardner traveled to Buenos Aires for the first time in 1999 and—like many visitors—fell under its spell, a great part of which has to do with its extreme unlikeliness. For it is a European city set down improbably in the Western Hemisphere.

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Identity Theft

A Jewish family reclaims its German past.
Feb 01, 2016

I rarely read new books about the Holocaust. Spiking European antisemitism, campus harassment of Jewish students in America, and the stabbings in Israel more than fill my quota for bad Jewish news.

But Dina Gold's new study is an unusual sort of Holocaust book, dealing with the miseries of wartime Berlin but also with her family's lives and troubles over a century-and-a-half—beginning in 19th-century Germany, moving to Mandate Palestine, and ending up in England.

The theme of the story is Gold's struggle to recover a large and valuable office building in the heart of Berlin that had belonged to her grandparents, then to the Third Reich, then to the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), and then to the government

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Hell Reconsidered

'Mad Max: Fury Road' earns a second look.
Feb 01, 2016

My friend the movie producer is a major fan of Mad Max: Fury Road. He says it’s the best film he thinks he's seen in five years. This is interesting, because it's not the kind of movie he makes; he produces "indies," meaning films with relatively modest budgets that center on character rather than spectacle. By contrast, Mad Max: Fury Road cost $150 million, has very little dialogue, and has a story you have to piece together in your head because the film itself makes almost no effort to piece it together for you.

My friend the movie producer thinks this is beside the point and that my review of the movie ("Max Redux," May 25) did not do it justice.

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His Gimlet Eye

John Aubrey and the spectacle of 17th-century England.
Feb 01, 2016

Celebrity gossip is such a fixture of modern life that it’s easy to assume we invented it. But long before TMZ, the E! channel, and People began chronicling the lives of the glitterati, the Englishman John Aubrey (1626-1697) was jotting juicy tidbits about his contemporaries and near-contemporaries in the cultural and political elite. Whether he was profiling Shakespeare or Thomas Hobbes, René Descartes or Erasmus, Ben Jonson or Sir Thomas More, Aubrey typically framed his subjects in no more than a handful of pages and sometimes as little as one. His brevity came less from design than from a native impatience with lingering on anything for very long.

Aubrey, a restless purveyor of the thumbnail sketch, defies easy

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Westward, Ho

The billowing waves get the bilious treatment.
Feb 01, 2016

Mix together John McPhee, Paul Theroux, and V. S. Naipaul—geology, travel, and history and politics—and distill the mixture, and one has a good idea of Simon Winchester's particular gift. Like these three writers, Winchester wields intelligence, observation, and masterful narrative skills to portray the modern world in which we live, a world in which the center no longer holds, the sea of faith has retreated, and the ground below our feet is literally in motion. Empires rise, empires fall. Such a transition is now in progress, according to Winchester's account in Pacific: "The future .  .  . is what the Pacific Ocean is now coming to symbolize .  .  . the

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Looking Backward

Harvard Law School as seen from 2016.
Feb 01, 2016

This history of Harvard Law School in its first century (1817-1917) appears at a time when several American colleges and universities are revisiting, and in some instances seeking to revise, their pasts. The revisionist impulses originate in a perceived dissonance between values currently endorsed by members of the educational institutions and the actions or attitudes of some of their prominent alumni or benefactors. Yale is contemplating removing the name of John C. Calhoun from one of its residential colleges, and Princeton is considering renaming its Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs.

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New and Improved

The late medieval epic gets an English update.
Jan 25, 2016

To the medieval Europeans who built magnificent cathedrals and oversaw the greatest flowering of Western culture since Rome, few stories had more resonance than that of Troilus and Criseyde. All three European languages that have given us significant medieval literatures—French, Italian, and English—also left their own versions of the tale produced by poets considered masters of their craft. It continued to resonate: Shakespeare told his own version of it, and other accounts were produced in languages as obscure as Scots. The leading Middle English version, written by Geoffrey Chaucer—and a longtime favorite of Chaucer scholars—is now the focus of a version produced by the British poet Lavinia Greenlaw.

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Conflict and Interest

A Washington muckraker writes into the sunset.
Jan 25, 2016

For all but a few, fame is ephemeral—and especially ephemeral for journalists, who are often astute observers of current events but seldom leave a lasting imprint. Drew Pearson, a powerful and much-feared muckraking columnist and broadcaster from the 1930s through the '60s, is mostly forgotten now; but his columns remain a prism through which to observe that tumultuous era. Wading through Pearson's columns, however, can be a lengthy and challenging process, as his writing could be ponderous, pedestrian, and preachy.

Fortunately, the late Peter Hannaford combed through Pearson's diaries, which often summarized his columns and contain lots of behind-the-scenes gossip and insights.

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Their Children’s Hour

The unbearable lightness of Ronan Farrow and friends
Nov 03, 2014

I don’t like to make too much of all the celebrity heirs who, in an extremely down media market, somehow keep on snagging major journalism gigs. It makes me sound bitter and envious and uncharitable, all of which I sort of am. But how can anyone help it? All the so-called smart people who run the networks keep on hiring them, at vast expense and for no good reason. 

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Ah, Wilderness!

Early-19th-century capitalism takes a $135 million hit.
Jan 25, 2016

The Revenant is beautifully photographed. Really. It’s beautiful. I mean, you've never seen such beauty. We're talking nature here, people. Rivers. Mountains. Snow. Even an avalanche. Some fog, both early morning and late afternoon. Also, it's supposed to be set in 1823, so the idea is we're seeing land that few if any human beings have ever walked on. No footprints! No signs about cleaning up your campsite!

The Oscar-winning director, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, and the star, Leonardo DiCaprio, have done nothing for months but talk about how difficult it was to film The Revenant. It was so difficult, you wouldn't believe. They were out. In the cold. They had to haul equipment up mountains.

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Big Budget Items

The starchitectural landscape of Frank Gehry.
Jan 25, 2016

If you weren’t lucky enough to see it for yourself, it's hard to describe how charming—how reassuring and inspiriting—the Los Angeles suburb of Santa Monica was in the middle 1970s. The neighborhoods spread from the bluffs above the beach through a low-rise business district and then along avenues lined with olive and fig and jacaranda. The avenues ran through a gridwork of bungalows, block after block of them, each tiny house set back a bit from the street in a private square of green. The houses were stucco, mostly, and painted pink or ochre. Half a mile away the sunlight bounced off the ocean and dappled the houses with the shade of palm trees.

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On the Bibliohunt

There’s gold in them thar shelves.
Jan 25, 2016

Social media mavens would have us believe that print media is dead, killed off by the innovative disruption of onscreen newspapers, magazines, and ebooks. But it turns out that pockets of print and print lovers still exist. Part of print’s survival is psychological. In the case of books, body weight intimates that the pages within might contain something worth a reader's time and effort. In the case of newspapers, newsprint that comes off on your hand conveys a sense that the information within is somehow "real." However subliminal, the idea of authenticity is important: Lothar Muller recently theorized in White Magic: The Age of Paper that this kind of "heavy" media enables a civilization "to anchor itself."

Some of us

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Bad Day at Red Rock

An 'itsy-bitsy whodunit' with blood.
Jan 18, 2016

Two years ago, the writer-director Quentin Tarantino announced his next picture would be a Western called The Hateful Eight. He sent his script to a few people, and it was leaked. Tarantino announced that he would not be making The Hateful Eight after all because he was so furious. Then he reversed his decision and made The Hateful Eight anyway. Having now seen the product of his filmmaking labor, I can only wonder whether his initial impulse to kill the project truly resulted from his anger—or whether it was because some part of him knew the script was terrible and the movie he would make from it would be a train wreck.

Because the script is terrible. And The Hateful Eight is a train wreck.

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Craft Warning

Classic style for the modern temperament
Nov 03, 2014

Vladimir Nabokov, who knew a thing or two about the subject, once wrote, “Style is not a tool, it is not a method, it is not a choice of words alone.

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The Klan’s All Here

Reality and myth in the Invisible Empire.
Jan 18, 2016

It is Elaine Parsons’s purpose in this timely book to measure the structure and impact of the "first" Ku Klux Klan, from its beginnings as an ex-Confederate officers' lark in middle Tennessee through its metastasis into a secretive and vicious force of murder, arson, and terror.

Despite the myth, the Klan was never centralized, and soon after its initial founding became less serviceable to the South's counterrevolutionaries as Northern fatigue with federal military enforcement of law and order set in. It is conventional history that a struggle between Abraham Lincoln and Congress for the privilege of directing the Civil War began early and persisted after Lincoln's death.

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Israel's Laureate

The sacred and secular vision of Yehuda Amichai.
Jan 18, 2016

Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000) was not only Israel’s most beloved contemporary poet and the most widely translated, but also the most profoundly persuaded, with some justice, that his own convulsions and commotions were allied with the country's at large. One of the poems included in this sumptuous collection, the largest to appear in English, begins with the line When I was young, the country was young. Another likens the poet's emotional topography to the rugged landscape. Love and hate, he writes, have made my face resemble the face of this ruined land.

Amichai was not born to this land. In the 1930s, at the age of 11, he and his family fled to Palestine from Würzburg in Nazi Germany.

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His Shining Hour

The maestro of the Great American Songbook.
Jan 18, 2016

Songwriters are the unknown soldiers of popular music. A few, like Irving Berlin and George Gershwin, have won lasting fame, but more often than not they labor in the shadows. Unless a songwriter has a parallel career as a performer, as did Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer, he does his job behind the scenes and never takes a bow. This was especially true of the songwriters of the 1930s and ’40s who worked in Hollywood. Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart got star billing on Broadway, but no sooner did they cross the Rockies than they became well-paid craftsmen who did as they were told.

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The Putin Challenge

A sobering assessment of post-Soviet Russia.
Jan 18, 2016

During his traditional year-end press conference in Moscow, Vladimir Putin delighted in toying with America’s political process by touting Donald Trump as the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. Less clear was whether Putin was delivering kudos or lumps of coal to the Trump campaign: Was this a burst of candor from an envious fellow politician (and friend of oligarchs), or an exercise in Soviet-style maskirovka, intended to achieve a more devious result? Or both?

Had anyone asked Garry Kasparov's assessment of Putin's pre-Christmas gambit, it would have been decidedly negative.

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Gore Vidal, Anyone?

The dwindling shadow of a literary celebrity.
Jan 18, 2016

Since Gore Vidal died at age 86 in 2012, the passage of time has invited the question of how—or if—he'll be remembered in popular culture.

Vidal wrote more than two dozen novels, two well-received Broadway plays, a number of screenplays, works of memoir, and countless essays on literature and politics. But he seems to abide most vividly on YouTube, a venue best known for cat videos, home movies, and smartphone clips of teenagers singing karaoke.

Vidal's online claim to fame rests in archival footage of a 1968 ABC television debate with William F. Buckley Jr., where they tangled about the Vietnam war. Vidal, a staunch opponent of the war, called Buckley a "crypto-Nazi." Buckley, who supported U.S.

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