Gustav Niebuhr: Beyond Tolerance

Gustav Niebuhr: Beyond ToleranceSo when, exactly, is tolerance a bad, or at the very least counterproductive, thing? Former New York Times religion writer (and current Syracuse professor) Gustav Niebuhr sets out to answer that question in Beyond Tolerance: Searching for Interfaith Understanding in America , a far-ranging overview of the work that’s gone on in our recent past toward fostering religious understanding and cooperation.

At some point early in our education, we’re told that the United States was founded in no small part by religious dissidents, and on the basis of religious freedom. What this manages to overlook–though Niebuhr, thankfully, does not–is that this freedom was most likely to be extended to one’s own, but not as much to those who believed and worshipped in a way that was different from the rest of the community. As with other freedoms we cherish (see last week’s reviews of Commager and Lewis on the First Amendment), our religious freedom has long been a work in progress.

Somewhere amid all this research and development, among all the intramural squabbles among the various Christianities that flourished in the new soil of the New World, and between the fits and starts of schisms within schisms, a Christian consensus of sorts started to emerge. That consensus didn’t often–well, to be honest, didn’t usually–take in other religions. Beyond Tolerance is driven by the efforts, from America’s earliest days, to rectify that error. Continue reading “Gustav Niebuhr: Beyond Tolerance”

Book Reivew: Freedom, Like it or Not

Henry Steele Commager: Freedom, Loyalty, DissentAnthony Lewis: Freedom for the Thought That We Hate With the inauguration of Barack Obama looming, and soon-to-be ex-president Bush embarking on a round of image rehabilitation and retroactive whitewashing, it seems as good a time as any to look back over the Bush legacy and look ahead–create a wishlist, if you will–to what one might hope from the Obama administration. Thousands, if not millions, of words have been written over both the past eight years, and America’s prospects for the future. While it’s true that only the passage of time will provide sufficient perspective on all that we’ve experienced since November of 2000, we still have to live in the present with the consequences of all that’s been done since.

The aftermath of the Bush presidency, for the short term, has been an evisceration of the Constitution, of our rights, and of our civil liberties. Those on the Right seem to have been concerned with the Second Amendment, but precious little else; we’ve seen the Bill of Rights otherwise consigned to the shredder. The NSA and the government’s wiretapping programs have given the lie to the Fourth Amendment; the holding of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay without the right to trial, and without access even to counsel, makes a mockery of both the Fifth and Sixth Amendments; and the First Amendment–the “first freedom,” as Nat Hentoff once dubbed it–has been honored more in the breach.

It’s against this backdrop–a dismal near past, and what one would hope would be a brighter future–that we take up two books published half a century apart. The first, Henry Steele Commager’s Freedom, Loyalty, Dissent, was published at the height of McCarthy-inspired hysteria and anticommunist witch-hunts; the second, Anthony Lewis’s Freedom for the Thought We Hate, appeared just shy of two years ago. Continue reading “Book Reivew: Freedom, Like it or Not”

William Least Heat Moon’s Long and Winding “Roads”

William Least Heat-Moon: Roads To QuozWilliam Least Heat-Moon’s Roads to Quoz is subtitled “An American Mosey.” While that’s appropriate enough, it’s equally applicable to his previous offerings, Blue Highways, PrairyErth, and River Horse. And therein lies, or doesn’t lie, the problem, depending on your particular take on the author’s meanderings, and his equally peripatetic prose.

Because of that, this isn’t the kind of book that’ll have Scott Turow calling it a “Gripping page-turner!” on the dust jacket. Most books are concerned with getting you somewhere. Fiction relies on its narrative tricks and tropes to create the sense of pacing and urgency that the author hopes will lead to his book being optioned by a Hollywood studio; memoir attempts to tidily tie together its subject’s life with a cohesiveness it didn’t have when it happened the first time, sometimes for a didactic purpose, but generally because this will lead to her book being optioned by a Hollywood studio; and nonfiction concerns itself as much, it seems, with settling scores as with accuracy. What’s left tends to be more inductive than deductive or (God forbid) discursive.

But then, I’ll admit from the beginning that I’m biased. Continue reading “William Least Heat Moon’s Long and Winding “Roads””

Book Review: History Repeating?

Susan Quinn: Furious ImprovisationNick Taylor: American MadeOdds are better than even that neither Susan Quinn nor Nick Taylor thought, much less knew, that their respective books on the WPA and the Great Depression would end up being quite so topical. Inadvertently or not, though, neither Taylor’s American Made: When FDR Put The Nation to Work nor Quinn’s Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art out of Desperate Times could have been timelier.

In the latter part of last year, Wall Street posted losses the likes of which had not been seen in nearly 80 years. This has led to no small amount of talk and speculation about Depression 2.0, and whether the United States, and the world, are headed down the same long, dark road last travelled in the early 1930’s. Similarly, programs promising jobs and economic stimuli have nearly invaribly drawn comparison to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s litany of “alphabet soup” agencies–the NRA, AAA, CCC, and especially the WPA–formed to fight the poverty, joblessness, and despair that the 1929 crash left in its wake. Reams have been written trying to study, debate, and make sense of what happened, and (more recently) whether it might happen again, so neither Taylor nor Quinn are exactly covering new ground; but given the overall shape of recent events, both books are uncanny in their timing. Continue reading “Book Review: History Repeating?”

Luis Alfredo Garcia-Roza: Blackout

Blackout, by Luis Alfredo Garcia-RozaIf I were one of those people paid to write breathless accolades for things, I’d probably call Luis Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s Blackout, the latest installment in the Inspector Espinosa series, a “taut psychological thriller.” But I’m not one of those people, so I’ll have to try to find a better way than that to describe the book, and to let you know that you should probably go and get yourself a copy.

A disclaimer, of sorts: I’m not a huge fan of mystery writing. It’s not that I don’t like the genre; I just think it’s capable of being much more than what it generally passes for these days. I know that Agatha Christie continues to sell in the thousands (besides apparently keeping PBS viewers glued to their sets), but I’ve always preferred the likes of Chandler, for instance, or people like Elmore Leonard. As I’d written elsewhere (reviewing Pursuit, Garcia-Roza’s last offering), a lot of current stuff in the genre “seems to consist of either A: Softcore porn and a handful of dead bodies, or B: recipies for baked goods, a cat, a few chaste kisses, and a handful of dead bodies–and yes, I’m aware that there are exceptions, but please, go to the Mystery section of your local bookstore and see if the selection doesn’t bear me out–this is a rare bird: creative, thoughtful, literary, and sometimes given to flights of fancy.” Continue reading “Luis Alfredo Garcia-Roza: Blackout”

Colin Grant: Negro With A Hat

“Marcus Garvey’s words come to pass
Marcus Garvey’s words come to pass
Can’t get no food to eat
Can’t get no money to spend…”
–Burning Spear, Marcus Garvey 

Colin Grant: Negro With A HatSo what and who, exactly, was Marcus Garvey? It all depended, apparently, on who you asked. To the faithful–who, from the early part of the twentieth century to about 1940 were legion–he was equal parts Black Moses, visionary, and prophet without honor. To his detractors–who were just as numerous, and highly vocal–he was a charlatan, a mountebank, or (in W.E.B. DuBois’ memorable phrase) simply the “negro with a hat.” Colin Grant takes on the unenviable task of sorting out the mess that was Garvey’s life and legacy, wisely leaving some loose ends to the reader’s imagination and judgment.

The life contained in this book is a study in contradictions. Marcus Mosiah Garvey was, in no particular order, a one-time Anglophile, a conservative who’d do Stanley Crouch proud, and a staunch Roman Catholic. He was also, however, an IRA supporter, a Black nationalist who made common cause with the KKK, a one-time Zionist turned anti-Semite, and a man who proudly claimed to have invented Fascism before Mussolini. For all his talk of self-reliance and entrepreneurship, he seems neither to have had much of a head for business, nor the sense to take the advice of those who did; numerous business ventures foundered amid a fatal blend of good intentions, poor planning, and intramural squabbles.  Continue reading “Colin Grant: Negro With A Hat”

Magic and Loss: The Nick Hornby Songbook, Love is a Mix Tape

Rob Sheffield: Love is a Mix TapeNick Hornby: SongbookWhen is a music book not about music? It’s a valid question to ask if you stop to consider Nick Hornby’s Songbook, and Rob Sheffield’s Love is a Mix Tape. Both are ostensibly about music, and the role it plays in our lives. But if you’re serious–in a passionate sort of way, not a pipe-smoking, suede-patch-wearing sort of way–about music, you get on some instinctive level what it means to say that music is the soundtrack of our lives, something that provides not just background noise but also meaning and context. It’s in that context that both of these works fit.

This isn’t either writer’s first go-round with music. Hornby first came to wide attention with High Fidelity, whose protagonist and his friends are a handful of music-addicted arrested development cases, and drew further acclaim with the book About a Boy, over which the ghosts of pop and Kurt Cobain loom large. Sheffield, on the other hand, has contributed some great music writing to the Village Voice and Rolling Stone, turning in his first book with Mix Tape. That both books are about music would seem to be one of the few things they have in common, save for a biting sense of humor. Continue reading “Magic and Loss: The Nick Hornby Songbook, Love is a Mix Tape”

The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, by Alex Ross

Alex Ross: The Rest Is Noise (2007)Books on music are always a bit of a crapshoot. Even the best-intentioned authors can deliver works that sound flat and uninspired, struggling to bring to life on the page what would give you goosebumps if it came through a pair of halfway decent speakers. So it’s a pleasure reading New Yorker music critic Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century.

It would be enough to read the writer’s lively warts-and-all portrayals of some of the giants of twentieth century music. Happily, Ross doesn’t take the Alka-Seltzer approach (“I can’t believe I ate the whole thing”), preferring instead to have a smallish handful of composers–the likes of Mahler, Strauss, Stravinsky, Sibelius, Cage, Glass, Reich, Britten, et al.–stand in for entire movements and scenes. It also helps that he doesn’t sketch the evolution of the century’s music as merely a sense of inevitabilities, where one thing follows from another as though it must. The parts are a mess, a set of accidents happy, unhappy, or contrived; the whole isn’t much tidier, and it’s to Ross’s credit that he doesn’t try to make it so. Continue reading “The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, by Alex Ross”

John Heartfield

John Heartfield: Hurrah, Die Butter Ist Alle! (1935)John Heartfield: 5 fingers make a hand! With these 5 grab the enemy! (1928)John Heartfield: Justice and the Executioner The Dada painters and poets aren’t exactly on the tip of people’s tongues these days. Styles and tastes change, and what seemed fresh and shocking in 1920 doesn’t have the same impact now that it did then. Hell, things done more recently than that don’t shock like they used to, either. Just ask Damien Hirst.

But as I was saying. John Heartfield (1891-1968) has faded into obscurity, known mostly to art history students, artists, and a handful of other people. It’s a shame, really, because Heartfield presaged some of the methods, and the esthetic, of Pop art, influenced his contemporaries, and helped–whether he either realized it, wanted it, or not–to usher in a breed of contemporary artists (Cindy Sherman comes to mind) who would mine the same vein that Heartfield did, but without his insight or mordant humor. Continue reading “John Heartfield”

Salman Rushdie: The Enchantress of Florence

Salman Rushdie: The Enchantress of FlorenceI remember sitting through a recital and lecture once by pianist Balint Vazsonyi. It was an evening of Beethoven sonatas, with the pianist’s commentary on the pieces, and on music in general, padded generously in between. One thing that he said has always stuck with me. Musicians and others, he remarked, use their art as a means to solve problems, their works being scratch-pads of sorts on which dilemmas both artistic and personal are ironed out.

Those remarks came back to me as I read Salman Rushdie’s latest work, The Enchantress of Florence. The novel contains all the writerly flourishes that are Rushdie’s stock in trade: lovingly wrought descriptions, witty and insightful quotations, a plot that rambles across time and place, and an ethos of free-ranging thought that takes in philosophy, religion, mythology, or anything else that happens to pop into the writer’s head.

This is all well and good, but somewhere around the halfway point of the book, one has to wonder: what is it that Rushdie is puzzling over, exactly? Continue reading “Salman Rushdie: The Enchantress of Florence”