We're heading into one of the most profligate and exciting seasons in publishing, when good fiction and nonfiction start coming out at such a swift pace that there are bound to be surprises. Hopefully, there are a few surprises for you in here (and pleasant ones). I know there were for me...
A lot of people think America is in decline, and if we don't do something about it soon, it will be too late. The books have arrived like waves of portentous locusts, and this Sunday the New York Times pointed out two new ones, "helpfully approaching the subject from left and right, as if to demonstrate declinism's bipartisan credentials." The books in question are Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power by Zbigniew Brzezinski and The World America Made by Robert Kagan. Both men are "big hitters in the geopolitics genre," but they originate from opposite political poles (Kagan under Reagan, Brzezinski under Carter)-- so it should come as no surprise that they disagree on the relative importance of subjects like the Iraq War, capitalism, and global warming. "And yet," reviewer Jonathan Freedland points out, "the great surprise is how much they agree with each other, especially on what matters. They both insist that reports of America's decline are exaggerated. Both note that the United States still accounts for a quarter of the world's gross domestic product, a proportion that has held steady for more than 40 years. Both note America's military strength, with a budget greater than that of all its rivals combined. As Brzezinski puts it, on every measure 'America is still peerless.'" So if you're tired of hearing about what a terrible place we live in, pick up one of these books (most likely the one that leans in the same direction as your own politics) and read one of these antidotes to fatalism. As Freedland writes, "American decline is not preordained, but neither is the status quo. If Americans want to remain on top, they will have to fight for that position, making some painful changes in the process (including, Brzezinski says, to a dysfunctional, paralyzed political system). But it's worth it, chiefly because the current international order "” more or less stable and free from world war for seven decades "” will not maintain itself. Given what else is out there, the world still needs America."
Related but reviewed separately by the Times: Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent by Edward Luce. In his review, Jonathan Rauch offers an alternative title: Time to Start Drinking.
The New York Times reviews Edward O. Wilson's 27th book The Social Conquest of Earth. Jennifer Schuessler's piece is more about the distinguished scientist than it about the book he's written-- nevertheless, she points us toward the controversy surrounding the book. Wilson, the man who was once a leading proponent of "kin selection," which he sought to prove in his widely-celebrated book Sociobiology, appears to have abandoned much of his previous beliefs in support of "group selection," which he says explains the foundations of human activity, particularly altruism. Got it? Schuessler explains the hypothesis best when she writes, "the tendency toward cooperation and collaboration that has powered our spectacular success as a species is explained not by kin selection "” in which evolution favors the genes of individuals who sacrifice themselves for the sake of relatives "” but by group selection, the tendency of evolution to favor groups that work together altruistically, beyond what might be predicted by simple genetic relatedness."
Miranda Seymour reviews Thomas Penn's The Winter King, which she describes as an "engrossing and finely written book." The novel begins with Henry VII, who built the wealth of the Tudor throne, and ends with his son, Henry VIII, who managed to drain away much of that wealth. Seymour writes that, "While Penn's portrait of the king himself (Henry VII) conjures up a figure as compellingly unpleasant as a compound of Hannibal Lecter and Bernard Madoff, the strength of this outstanding book lies in his ability to breathe life into the sorts of ceremonious scenes of court life portrayed in the books of hours belonging to Henry's great rivals on the Continent."
Steven V. Roberts reviews John Grisham's Calico Joe, remarking that "Grisham's legal thrillers are dense and hefty, full of twists and turns and tension. His latest novel," Roberts tells us, "is not like that at all. It's a sweet, simple story, a fable really. And like all fables, it has a moral." Grisham is a big baseball fan who knows the sport, but he claims to have never had a story to tell that would make a good baseball book. "He's found one," Stevens tells us, "but it's not just about baseball, of course. It's also about relationships..."-- between brothers, fathers and sons, between a small town and a "wounded young athlete come home to heal." Stevens goes on: "This story is also about faith, which is appropriate because there's every reason to believe God created baseball. She's not invoked directly in Grisham's little book, but as in all good myths, She's behind the scenes, pulling the strings."
Bruce Reidel weighs in on Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, written by Ahmed Rashid, "one of Pakistan's premier journalists and analysts." Reidel writes that Rashid "literally wrote the book on the Taliban and now has added a superb work on the future of Pakistan, a country many people deem the world's most dangerous. Pakistan on the Brink depicts a nation with a severe socioeconomic crisis, and with political leadership that has neither the courage nor the will to carry out essential reforms and is building the fastest-growing nuclear arsenal on the globe. The U.S.-Pakistan relationship is in a state of virtual meltdown, Rashid rightly contends, with both sides to blame." What are they to blame for? "Pakistanis see the United States as an arrogant superpower that views their country as a killing field. Americans see Pakistan as duplicitous and dangerous. Both are right."
I'm sure many of you know that this is the two hundredth anniversary of Dickens' birth, and despite the fact that "in September 1860 the writer made a bonfire of personal papers in a field at his house, Gad's Hill, some 14,000 missives survived." Well, I don't expect you to know that second part, but congratulations if you do. All of Dickens' letters have been collected into one volume (it appears to have taken 35 years to accomplish that feat), but that's not this volume. This is The Selected Letters of Charles Dickens, edited by Jenny Hartley. In his review, Nicholas Delbanco writes, "From first to final letter (Dickens continued to compose them till the day before his death), his sentiments are vivid." And he closes the review with the following: "We as readers must be grateful that Dickens did not burn all of his papers and that he cherished his pen. This is no epistolary autobiography; the collapse of his marriage and the details of his love affair with Ellen Ternan, for example, are glossed over by the author or were perhaps fed to the blaze at Gad's Hill. But the life of a mind is preserved; at the start of this third century, his language continues to live."
Mary McNamara points out what you can expect from an Anne Tyler novel. "It will be set in Baltimore. It will follow families populated by out-of-step characters ranging from the slightly odd to the wildly eccentric, whose actions, or non-actions, are motivated by a need for love and tangible sense of self; this need is sometimes conscious, sometimes not. It will have a provocative, often seemingly contradictory title.... It will be a pleasure to read." The Beginner's Goodbye at just over 200 pages, is slightly unexpected, if only for its lack of length. McNamara writes, "In many ways, Goodbye feels like the center slice of an Anne Tyler novel, a distillation. Of all the ghosts and dislocations, of all the miscast but still loving families, tin-eared marriages and baffling children, of all the sudden tragedies that cause even the most plodding horse to rear up and take flight, finding grace and strength he had forgotten he had." I should mention there's a ghost in this story. A husband loses his wife (Dorothy), and his "confinement is his grief, which is so great that it requires the appearance of Dorothy's ghost to assuage it. Not that Dorothy's ghost is designed to bring comfort "” instead, she forces him to examine the true dimensions of his loss, which are both greater and more manageable than he first believes."
John Grisham says that giving away first editions of his books has cost him millions.
C.S. Lewis gives some simple but helpful advice on writing.
NPR has a brief, funny interview with A.J. Jacobs, author of Drop Dead Healthy. In part... "To get healthy, Jacobs tried dozens of diets, including a raw food vegan diet. Some were more outlandish than others. 'I tried the paleo diet, which is the caveman diet "” lots of meat,' Jacobs says. 'And I tried the calorie restriction diet: The idea is that if you eat very, very little "” if you're on the verge of starvation, you will live a very long time, whether or not you want to, of course.'"
Boing Boing has a letter written by Kurt Vonnegut to a book burner that is one of the best things I've read in a while.
January has some interesting news: "The premise is astonishingly simple"¦ almost old-timey, really. Atria, a division of Simon and Schuster is stuffing four accomplished mystery writers on a bus and sending them on an eight day tour that will hit a dozen cities and cover close to 2500 miles." The real mystery is why more publishers don't try something like this.