Books

The Pursuit of Knowledge

The C.S. Lewis Industry

By From the December 2013 issue

Countless books, documentaries, and news segments have been queued up to mark the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963. That was also the day C.S. Lewis died.

Unlike Kennedy, Lewis died of natural causes: likely one part weak heart, two parts kidney failure. According to Devin Brown’s new biography A Life Observed, at four that afternoon, Lewis’s older brother Warnie “carried tea to the small downstairs bedroom of his home” in the Kilns at Oxford where Lewis was resting. They exchanged a few forgettable words. At 5:30, Warnie “heard a sound and rushed to find his brother lying unconscious at the foot of his bed. A few minutes later…Lewis ceased breathing.” It was one week shy of his 65th birthday.

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Lewis and the Technocracy

By 12.6.13

The fiftieth anniversary of C.S. Lewis’s death has come and gone, perhaps little-noticed by many who were busy memorializing John F. Kennedy, murdered by an assassin on the same day, or rereading Aldous Huxley, who passed away hours later. Most of the encomiums to Lewis that were written focused on his apologetics and his children’s fiction, the Chronicles of Narnia series.

But Lewis wrote fiction for adults too. His best novel, That Hideous Strength, was published in 1945 as the third installment in his science fiction Space Trilogy. Whereas the first two novels, Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra, follow the interplanetary travels of the professor Elwin Ransom, That Hideous Strength takes place almost entirely on earth and stars academics Mark and Jane Studdock, with Ransom playing a secondary role.

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Giving Short Schiff

By From the November 2013 issue

Sydney and Violet: Their Life With T.S. Eliot, Proust, Joyce, and the Excruciatingly Irascible Wyndham Lewis.
By Stephen Klaidman
(Nan A. Talese, 268 pages, $27.95) 

PROMINENTLY QUOTED ON the dust jacket of Stephen Klaidman’s Sydney and Violet are a few words from T.S. Eliot’s postscript to the 1962 obituary of Violet Schiff in the Times of London: “I write primarily to pay homage to a beloved friend, but also in the hope that some future chronicler of the history of arts and letters in our time may give to Sydney and Violet Schiff the place which is their due.” 

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Baby You’re a Rich Man

By 12.4.13

Beatles vs. Stones
By John McMillian
(Simon & Schuster, 320 pages)

The Beatles vs. The Rolling Stones is a debate long waged, with cases mounted in high school cafeterias and counterarguments teased out in the basement dens of baby boomers. Contrarian dorm rats pick apart "With a Little Help from My Friends" and "When I'm Sixty-Four" while championing the obscure Mellotron moans of Their Satanic Majesties Request. Ragged copies of The White Album rub grooves with beat-up pressings of Beggars Banquet. Idealism and realism, order and chaos, innovation and authenticity; comparisons between The Beatles and The Rolling Stones reduce to hyperbole fraught with clichés.

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When Neither Lunch Nor Speech Is Free

By 12.3.13

The Great Dissent: How Oliver Wendell Homes Changed His Mind—and Changed the History of Free Speech in America
By Thomas Healy
(Metropolitan Books, 336 pages, $14.99)

Those of us who review books for fun and profit rarely go back to read a tome a second time. We give a review our best shot and then move on. So many books, so little time. But with this biography I have gone back to it again because of a nagging doubt I had with its very title. 

Did that whited sepulcher for civil libertarians, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Homes Jr., really change his mind on free speech? And has the constitutional guarantee of free speech really changed? And if not, as I suspect, just how great a dissent could his carefully hedged demur in a 1919 sedition case have been? 

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Is Anybody There?

By From the November 2013 issue

Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars
By Lee Billings
(Penguin, 304 pages, $27.95)

IN THE PRINCIPLES of Philosophy (1642) Descartes lamented: “We do not doubt but that many things exist, or formerly existed and have now ceased to be, which were never seen or known by man, and were never of use to him.” Descartes didn’t know the half of it. As our understanding of the natural world has improved across the past half-millennium there has been a clear trend of dethronement, of blows to the collective self-esteem of Homo sap

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Persecuting Our Heroes

By 11.26.13

Honor and Betrayal: The Untold Story of the Navy SEALs Who Captured the “Butcher of Fallujah” – and the Shameful Ordeal They Later Endured
By Patrick Robinson, with Matthew McCabe and Jonathan Keefe
De Capo Press, 356 pages, $26.99

On Veterans Day in 2010, I published an article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch about three heroic Navy SEALs who participated in a bold and successful raid to capture a notorious terrorist, and how they were later accused of “abuse” and ultimately acquitted in court martial trials. I was interested in their story as a Navy veteran and as a lawyer who has represented both companies and individuals accused of wrongdoing by our Department of Justice. Moreover, I have a connection to one of the SEALs: I know Jonathan Keefe’s parents, and his uncle Peter Keefe is a close friend; no finer people walk the planet.

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Hagiography Porn

By 11.22.13

Combine comic-book fiction with sentimental hagiography and you get trashy junk. Observe that fiction and hagiography, assisted by history, can be paths to truth, to the limited degree we can know it, but they must be done right. Illustrating how they ought not be done is an awful novel by a silly writer, Francine Mathews, Jack 1939, which was published last year (Riverhead Books, 420 pages, each one in need of re-writing, plus 3-page author’s note that adds nothing to her credibility), notwithstanding silly blurbs that one assumes were written by the author’s mother or publicist (“One of the most deliciously high-concept thrillers imaginable,” words the publisher claims appeared in the New Yorker).

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Center of Gravity

By 11.21.13

Newton’s Football: The Science Behind America’s Game
by Allen St. John and Ainissa G. Ramirez.
(Ballantine Books, 273 pages, $26)

The football doesn’t fall far from the tree, it seems. Newton’s Football: The Science Behind America’s Game, so named for the apple-pondering scientist, makes good on the description found on its dust jacket flap: “[A] clever and accessible look at the big ideas underlying the science of football.”

Various scientific and mathematical phenomena are on display in football, but most of us do not notice them any more than the millions who flourished before Isaac Newton noticed gravity. In unpretentious fashion, this book discusses (I am quoting the authors’ delightful chapter headings) “The Divinely Random Bounce of the Prolate Spheroid,” “How to Turn A Big Mac into A Linebacker,” and “Why Woodpeckers Don’t Get Concussions,” and even answers the pressing question “How Is a Quarterback Like Your Laptop?”

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Seeing Robert Redford in a Dream

By From the January-February 2014 issue

The Art of Sleeping Alone: Why One French Woman Suddenly Gave Up Sex
By Sophie Fontanel

(Scribner, 160 pages, $22)

When I was handed Sophie Fontanel’s award-winning memoir The Art of Sleeping Alone: Why One French Woman Suddenly Gave Up Sex, I flipped to the first full page of text and looked for a laugh. Here, after all, were portents of sub-Sheryl Sandberg rubbish by the editor of the French Elle, the sort of book that high-powered she-executives read when they are cut off from their email at 10,000 feet. I was expecting equal parts bolt-cutter feminism and cloying sentimentality, tossed with a few sassy self-help tips. 

Fontanel may have chosen to spend her middling years sexless, but her memoir is mum on whether everyone else ought to. On page nine she suggests duh-ishly that not having sex if you don’t feel up to it “does a world of good.” Otherwise The Art of Sleeping Alone is pretty standard memoir fare.

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