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Biography: V.S. Naipaul and McGeorge Bundy

November 30, 2008 Leave a comment

I have stacks of books to read all around the house, but now I have to add two more to the stacks. Maybe saying a few words about each will force me to read them.

First is The World is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V. S. Naipaul, written by Patrick French. It was reviewed on the cover of the NYT Book Review last Sunday by the New Yorker’s George Packer, who has an accompanying piece on Naipaul at his blog. At the blog, Packer writes, “It’s a wonderful book, engrossing to read, and it raises the question of the relation between the work and the man in its starkest form: how can a writer who is monstrously inhumane to the people closest to him endow his characters with such humanity?”

At some point around 30 years ago, Naipaul became my favorite author. I must have about 15 of his books. Maybe I started with A Bend in the River and then worked backwards through Penguin paperback editions of most of the books he wrote before that. A House for Mr Biswas was easily my favorite, but I was also quite struck by his non-fiction work India: A Wounded Civilization. And then I stopped reading him. Perhaps the biography will re-start me, but it’s clear from Packer’s articles, as well as Ian Buruma’s review in the New York Review of Books, that I’ll be in for some painful reading.

The second book is Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam, by Gordon M. Goldstein, and it is reviewed by veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke in today’s NYT Book Review. Read more…

Categories: Books, History, Politics

Thomas Friedman and Conventional Wisdom

November 30, 2008 Leave a comment

With Joel home this weekend, we have found ourselves talking about Thomas Friedman, the three-time Pulitzer Prize winning NYT op-ed columnist, on several occasions. I like Friedman. I always read him, and have done so for decades. But something about him bugs me, what I’m tempted sometimes to call a tendency towards being a know-it-all. On Wednesday I tried to be more precise in explaining this to Joel, as well as in trying to explain what bugged me about that other great mainstream sage, the New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell. (Of course, if I could write half as well as either of them, I would have much to be thankful for.)

Yesterday, Joel pointed me to the opening of Bill McKibben’s review in a recent New York Review of Books of Friedman’s latest book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution—and How It Can Renew America. McKibben, of course, is the brilliant writer and environmentalist whose 1989 New Yorker article and book The End of Nature gave convincing evidence and warning of climate change, its causes, and likely impact. And in the first paragraph of his review McKibben captures what I was trying to say about Friedman:

Thomas Friedman is the prime leading indicator of the conventional wisdom, always positioned just far enough ahead of the curve to give readers the sense that they’re in-the-know, but never far enough to cause deep mental unease. He performs a useful service as a kind of political GPS unit, telling us where the country is, and could reasonably be expected to go.

Read more…

Categories: Politics, Today's News

Cooks vs. Chefs and the Homesick Restaurant

November 30, 2008 Leave a comment

Marcella Hazan op-ed piece on cooks and chefs in yesterday’s NYT pairs beautifully with Nadeem Aslam’s backpage piece on a London Pakistani restaurant in today’s NYT Magazine. I enjoyed them all the more now that Gail is both a cook and a chef. To get you started, below is the opening to the Hazan article.

“My husband is such a great chef,” my hairdresser was saying.

“Oh,” I said. “What restaurant does he work in?”

“No, no, no, he doesn’t work in a restaurant. He is an electrician. But he does amazing things on the grill when we cook out during the weekend.”

This happens a lot. “Chef” has pretty much replaced “gourmet cook” to describe anyone who cooks well.

And here’s an excerpt from Aslam’s article.

We ordered. As always, my brother, my sister and I searched the food that evening for our mother, for our aunts and for our grandmothers. Each Pakistani woman spices her curries in her own way; each pan has a different aroma, the way each human body smells slightly different. The thickness, texture and the width of each woman’s chapati is also unique to her, depending on the size of her hands, the shape of her fingers and the strength with which she kneads the dough. And that evening all three of us were overcome very soon after we began the meal: the food — the flavor of the mutton, of the samosas — was the best we had tasted since our visits to our eldest aunt’s home in Lahore. That was 20 years ago, and the aunt had been dead for 10 years.

This article has a delightful surprise. Don’t miss it.

Categories: Food, Restaurants