Review: The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides

I’ll be the first to concede that I enjoy pretty much everything I read—not just because I happen to have impeccable literary taste (kidding) but also because I firmly believe there is something of value in all but the very worst books, and I plant myself firmly in the so-called “reader response” camp of literary criticism: Novels, which do not exist in vaccums,  may be assessed based on the unique reactions they elicit in individual readers, making said reader’s experience an integral part of the work itself. On that note, while I recognize that Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, isn’t “perfect” in any real sense, I can’t remember enjoying a contemporary novel (with the possible exceptions of anything in Curtis Sittenfeld’s oeuvre) more. I loved every single second of it, and I’m not sure there’s a better feeling in this world than immersing yourself in a book you hope never ends.   Continue reading

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Summer Reading

I’m becoming increasingly incensed over the whole value-of-a-college-degree debate (The New Yorker and The New York Times, among others, have recently chimed in), mostly because the benefits of a liberal arts education in and of themselves are either given shockingly short shrift or neglected completely. The idea of all but the “top” colleges and universities refurbishing themselves into glorified trade schools, as Nicholas Lemann in the New Yorker portends, is horrifying, not simply because I lionize the liberal arts (I am a political science doctoral student, after all), but also because such a scenario would in effect endorse and further the elitism that politicians like Rick Santorum claim to decry —that is, learning for learning’s sake is fine for the students who score the highest and are deemed the “smartest,” but everybody else either doesn’t deserve it or can’t hack it, so let them focus on “practical skills” that, incidentally, won’t necessarily lead to more stable or satisfying jobs).   Continue reading

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Review: They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? by Christopher Buckley

I personally believe that Christopher Buckley is about the best thing to happen to the human race since the invention of the wheel. I read his blistering, hilarious No Way to Treat a First Lady six years ago and became a full-on convert to the worship of his wit and brilliance. (For the record, I think NWtTaFL is superior to Thank You for Smoking, the one reviewers always hold up as his seminal contribution. Though the latter is pretty great as well.) So my hopes were high for his latest satirical novel, They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?, which tackles US-Chinese relations and opens, promisingly, on a Senate committee hearing full of pompous, pontificating policymakers “droning about drones.” Defense lobbyist Walter “Bird” McIntyre and his boss, the CEO of aerospace weapons manufacturer Groepping-Sprunt, have lost their battle to get funding for their pet project—a drone named DUMBO—approved. “On top of the ‘funding factor’ (Washington-speak for ‘appalling cost overruns,’ Bird and Groepping-Sprunt were up against a bit of a ‘perception problem’ (Washington-speak for ‘reality.’)” So with the ultimate goal of shoring up the defense giant’s bottom line and tacitly promoting its new, top-secret project that “has something to do with China,” Bird sets up a phony foundation called “Pan-Pacific Solutions” and teams up with a blonde Ann-Coulter-esque think-tanker named Angel Templeton to gin up anti-Chinese sentiment and convince America that having preemptive weapons systems in place to take on the authoritarian powerhouse is a good idea. (Angel is the CEO of, in yet another touch of nomenclatural brilliance, the Institute for Continuing Conflict, or ICC.) The plan is to somehow make it look like the Chinese government poisoned the Dalai Lama and, as you can imagine, hijinks ensue.   Continue reading

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Review: The World America Made, by Robert Kagan

Robert Kagan’s latest book, The World America Made, makes such a strong case against American decline that an excerpt published in The New Republic won rave reviews from Barack Obama and commandeered a pre-State of the Union meeting between the President and top US news anchors. (Kagan, incidentally, serves as an advisor to Mitt Romney.) TWAM is better than Kagan’s Of Paradise and Power, in which he takes on the trans-Atlantic divide, though the basic theses of the two books are pretty much the same: US hegemony in the West and later in the entire world is directly responsible for the approximately 70 years of relative global peace and the extant international order.  The waning of American power is not simply an overstated case (at the moment), but it also would portend dangerous instability in foreign affairs and a possible erosion of the liberal institutionalism that scholars like G. John Ikenberry have argued is under no real threat from the rise of the so-called authoritarian great powers. Kagan makes an altogether convincing case for the past and the future, but less so for the present—in other words, his argument that US power is not declining is less convincing than his historical analysis and his predictions of the effects of this seismic shift.   Continue reading

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Review: The Help, by Kathryn Stockett

Three years after it was published and became an international bestseller, I’m jumping on the The Help bandwagon. I’ll admit that I expected to like the book nowhere near as much as I did; in fact, I picked it up almost grudgingly, as with the Twilight books, believing I needed to rectify a cultural deficiency of some sort that I could talk about (because I read my Entertainment Weekly and know my shit) and even form shallow opinions on but not truly understand. (A few more examples of these cultural blind spots: I’ve never seen The Godfather all the way through. I’ve neither read any of the Harry Potter books nor seen the movies. And I still haven’t read War and Peace.) I saw the film adaptation of The Help last August and thought it was fine but not spectacular, though the performances were all Oscar-worthy. The book was not only marginally better than the movie, it was gripping in a way the film version was not—the latter sort of plodded along while the book propelled me. I stayed up until 4 AM on a weeknight to finish it, which I haven’t done since Nineteen Eighty-Four, and that’s got to mean something.   Continue reading

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Review: Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime, by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin

Generally speaking, I’m a bit wary of books with more than one author, but Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime is smooth, reading like a less-sharp, less-funny episode of “The West Wing.” (Not even John Heilemann and Mark Halperin can top Aaron Sorkin.) The book is a chronicle of the 2008 presidential election for wonks and laymen alike, providing big-picture analyses of the late-aughts zeitgeist as well as the gossipy details that a book like this has got to offer in spades. Most of the Obama-Clinton parts are old news: the dysfunctional Clinton operation versus the clear-headed and laser-focused no-drama Obama campaign; the “Bill problem”; Mark Penn’s, shall we say, volatile personality and Patti Solis Doyle’s being out of her league; the increasingly desperate tactics in Hillaryland to salvage her candidacy (cf. “hard-working Americans, white Americans”); everyone coming together at the convention in Denver. I was a full-fledged Hillary (who requires only one name, like Cher or Madonna) supporter back in the day, though I don’t think she would have necessarily done a “better” job as President. And, in hindsight, it’s easy to point out exactly why she lost, and where the tipping point was. Her loss in Iowa? But then Obama got cocky and Hillary cried in New Hampshire. The South Carolina primary and Bill’s outbursts? But then came the Jeremiah Wright revelations and Hillary’s Super Tuesday wins in the big states. Ultimately, though, there can only be one winner and, despite the campaign dialectics that form when the race is finally over, I really believe it could have just as easily been Hillary than Obama. And Game Change did a pretty good job of recounting events exactly as they happened, with all the murkiness and insecurity and “we’re screwed” proclamations, on both sides, that went along with them.   Continue reading

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Review: Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse, and Breaking Dawn

What the Kindle Daily Deal hath wrought: A couple of weeks ago, I saw the first in Stephenie Meyer’s teenage-vampire YA series, Twilight, online for $1.99. I stared at the screen for a couple of minutes, weighing the reality of several of my smart and serious friends who sheepishly admitted they couldn’t put the novels down against the equally valid recognition that I have a limited number of hours on this Earth and there had to be better ways to spend them than reading four (because of course I’d have to read all four) dumb books about vampires. What ultimately reeled me in, though, was a simple desire to see what all the fuss was about. (After all, I’d read and liked The Hunger Games trilogy; maybe I’d like these as well, despite Meyer’s reputation for abstinence-only agenda-pushing. After all, when the sex in question is between a fragile human and a vampire who fears killing his true love, maybe the message wasn’t as nefarious as I’d been led to believe by the liberal media that can’t wait to destroy good Christians and everything they’ve ever stood for.)   Continue reading

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