Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | July 14, 2013

Book Reviews and Lists of Books

1. Todd Zywicki at the Volokh Conspiracy reviews Back to Blood, by Tom Wolfe. Zywicki believes that the book is fundamentally optimistic: “The two major characters in the book are a couple of Cuban-American children of immigrants. The other characters are really sort of supporting characters for those two. … What strikes me as significant is that Wolfe superficially suggests (especially with the title) that the process of immigrant assimilation is different from earlier eras. But digging just slightly deeper, I was left with a distinctly optimistic impression–that the process of assimilation and Americanization is largely the same today with modern immigrants as with the Irish, Poles, and Germans who immigrated a century ago. And that even as they become Americans they contribute to remaking America in their image.”

2. In The New Yorker, Ian Buruma reviews a prison memoir by Chinese poet Liao Yiwu: “Liao was incarcerated for writing a poem, ‘Massacre’ — a long stream-of-consciousness memorial to the thousands of people who were killed on June 4, 1989, when the pro-democracy movement was crushed throughout China. … Unlike his friend Liu Xiaobo, a Nobel Prize-winning critic and a writer with strong political convictions, Liao never wished to stick his neck out. He describes himself as an artist who simply wanted to be free to write in any way he liked. As recently as 2011, he told the journalist Ian Johnson, ‘I don’t want to break their laws. I am not interested in them and wish they weren’t interested in me.’ But, in 1989, he put himself ‘on a self-destructive path’ by performing his poem in bars and dance clubs, howling and chanting in the traditional manner of Chinese mourning. … Liao is a literary man, and this actually makes his prison memoir even more compelling. For one thing, he is ruthlessly candid about his weaknesses, and his fears. There is nothing especially heroic about him. Watching the guards in combat training on his first day in prison, he ‘shuddered like a nervous rat.’ Forced to sing songs over and over again with a parched throat in the freezing cold to entertain the guards, he is beaten with an electric baton.” (H/T: Duck of Minerva.)

3. In The New York Times, Thomas Nagel reviews John Gray’s The Silence of Animals. Gray basically rejects and attacks the idea of progress – including, especially, the idea that improvements in science and technology can lead to a fundamentally better society. At one point, Gray writes, “Science and the idea of progress may seem joined together, but the end result of progress in science is to show the impossibility of progress in civilization.” Reviewing the book, Nagel is underwhelmed: “The question Gray poses is of fundamental importance, so one wishes the book were better. It is not a systematic argument, but a varied collection of testimonies interspersed with Gray’s comments. Half of “The Silence of Animals” consists of quotations, some of them very long, from dozens of authors — some prominent, like Koestler, Orwell, Borges and Beckett, some deservedly obscure.” (H/T: Tyler Cowen.)

4. Stephen Holmes reviews The CIA, a Secret Army and a War at the Ends of the Earth, by Mark Mazzetti. The book is mainly concerned with the increased use of drones under President Obama. An extract from the review: “A central thesis of Mark Mazzetti’s book is that the CIA and the Pentagon have opted to hunt and kill suspected enemies in order to avoid the extra-legal tactics of capture and interrogation adopted under Obama’s predecessor. … Mazzetti adds, as a second unspoken and perhaps unspeakable explanation for Obama’s escalation of drone warfare, that the members of the intelligence establishment were afraid they could be held legally responsible for engaging in torture, a felony under American law. If we follow this account, Obama’s controversial ramping up of drone killings was driven in part by rumblings of rebellion at the CIA, where fear of being hung out to dry by bait-and-switch politicians is legendary. By the time Obama stepped smartly into office, the agency was apparently preoccupied by the possibility that ‘covert officers working at the CIA prisons could be prosecuted for their work.’ This dampened the interrogators’ enthusiasm for extracting information by physically and psychologically abusing their prisoners: ‘each hit the CIA took for its detention-and-interrogation programme pushed CIA leaders further to one side of a morbid calculation that the agency would be far better off killing, rather than jailing, terror suspects.'” And from the conclusion: “Under Bush, the US justified holding enemy combatants by classifying their captivity as law-of-war detention. But law-of-war detention presupposes that the war in question will end and that the detainees will then be released. Once Obama concluded that this war will never end, he presumably drew the sensible inference that traditional law-of-war detention is wholly inapplicable to the unconventional conflict in which the US is now engaged. That is when he made his fateful choice: the moment when he turned to the only form of incapacitation appropriate to a war without end. In so doing, he has bequeathed to us not a war that will be easier to contain, but one that is borderless and self-sustaining…”

5. The Guardian has a list of the top 10 classic spy novels. Seven of those ten were published before 1930. John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy made the list, but, given that the list realistically could only fit one title per author, that meant that The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was omitted. There are some surprising authors on the list, including Joseph Conrad, James Fenimore Cooper, and W. Somerset Maugham. Via Jim Henley, who has some thoughts on this list.

6. Here is a list of “The 100 Greatest American Novels, 1893 – 1993.” Some rules: each author only gets one book. For the most part, each calendar year is represented by one title – although some years have multiple tiles (1959 has four, as does 1969). Not every year is represented, but every decade is. Ernest Hemingway’s representative novel is The Sun Also Rises, rather than A Farewell to Arms or For Whom the Bell Tolls. Pearl S. Buck makes the list, as do Philip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury, and Ralph Ellison. I was pleased to see The Bridge of the San Luis Rey, by Thornton Wilder, representing 1927. I must admit that I did not recognize most of the titles after 1970. (H/T: Erik Loomis.)

7. Tara the Librarian reviews the “Top Ten Books I’ve Read So Far in 2013.”

8. The Africa is a Country blog has a Winter reading list (I guess because part of Africa is south of the Equator and currently in Winter). Among the titles reviewed is Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: “The story is about Ifemelu — a Nigerian woman who moves to the US to study, and who later starts a blog commenting on race or rather, ‘blackness’ in America — and her relationship with her high school boyfriend, Obinze. … Like many other authors before her, she also deals with the complexities and contradictions that bedevil any migrant’s relationship with ‘home’. I found it nuanced, intelligent and thoroughly enjoyable.” They also have a Summer Reading List (for people north of the Equator).

9. A syllabus for reading Roberto Bolaño, dividing his works into “the Essential,” “the Merely Excellent,” and “Necessary For Completists Only.” H/T: Tyler Cowen, of course. I suspect that in a few years Bolaño would have won the Nobel Prize for Literature, had he lived. Here is Tyler Cowen’s short review of Bolaño’s Between Parentheses. And here is a speech that Bolaño gave in 2000, “Literature and Exile.” The speech reminds me of Bolaño’s style of writing: rambling (in a good way).



  1. Too bad for Mazzetti that his bk appeared before Obama’s fairly recent speech announcing new guidelines (somewhat vague, admittedly) for drone use; I believe drone strikes have been decreasing, though prob. not drastically.

    re the 100 greatest American novels list: some predictable choices, but i wd note in particular that Blood Meridian and Beloved, among the entries for the ’80s, are very deserving of their place on the list.

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