Culture & Literature
The New York Review of Books

The New York Review of Books November 21, 2019

For over 50 years, The New York Review of Books has been the place where the world's leading authors, scientists, educators, artists, and political leaders turn when they wish to engage in a spirited debate on literature, politics, art, and ideas with a small but influential audience that welcomes the challenge. Each issue addresses some of the most passionate political and cultural controversies of the day, and reviews the most engrossing new books and the ideas that illuminate them. Get The New York Review of Books digital magazine subscription today.

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in this issue

2 min.

ELIZABETH BRUENIG is an opinion columnist for The Washington Post. ARIEL DORFMAN, a Distinguished Emeritus Professor of Literature at Duke, is the author of the play Death and the Maiden and of the forthcoming children’s story The Rabbits’ Rebellion and a novel, Cautivos, about Cervantes’s life in a jail in Seville. J.H. ELLIOTT is Regius Professor Emeritus of Modern History at Oxford. His books include Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America, 1492–1830 and, most recently, Scots and Catalans: Union and Disunion. TIM FLANNERY’s Europe: A Natural History was published last year. PETER W. GALBRAITH is a former US Ambassador to Croatia and Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations in Afghanistan. He is the author of two books on the Iraq War, The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created…

1 min.
inherit the earth

TOM HOLLAND DOMINION How the Christian Revolution Remade the World “This extraordinary book is vintage Tom Holland: history boldly and elegantly retold, with fascinating interconnections traced to create a narrative that cannot fail to stimulate, for it leads to a neverending question.”—DIARMAID MACCULLOCH, author of The Reformation“An exhaustive, demanding, and hugely impressive interpretation of our past, bursting with fresh ideas and perspectives on every page.”—SUNDAY TIMES (UK)“Terrific: bold, ambitious, and passionate.”—PETER FRANKOPAN, author of The Silk Roads basicbooks.com…

19 min.
the defeat of general mattis

Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead by Jim Mattis and Bing West. Random House, 300 pp., $28.00 Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon with Secretary Mattis by Guy M. Snodgrass. Sentinel, 335 pp., $27.00 When Jim Mattis resigned as secretary of defense in December 2018, he was widely lauded and lamented as “the last grown-up” in the Trump administration. The tributes were commentary more on Trump than on Mattis. For if he had run the Pentagon during a normal presidency, in which grown-ups abound, his tenure would be considered undistinguished, to say the least. This isn’t to deny that for much of his time in office, Mattis—a retired marine four-star general and charismatic commander in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars—served as an effective counter to Trump’s most unstatesmanlike instincts. He assured allies in…

1 min.

I know down from up and this ain’t up.The street flows like an ice floe down the street.Buildings on either side bow from the waist mockingly,Mocking me.A center strip of green, whichFor some reason they call a mall, dividesUptown and downtown traffic from each other,Going north and going south from each other.I’m talking to the sky, which doesn’t hear me of courseBecause of the traffic noise or whatever. Never mind the ice flow.I’m thinking about how hot it is.I’m thinking about the wonderful Laure de Gourcuff,Whom many years ago I was almost in love with,Pronounced de Goorkoof.I want to say something extreme.She was as quiet as a leaf.I want to say something intense.How peculiar to have pneumonia in this heat,Which I’ve just learned I have. A patch one-inch-square that the CT scanDetected…

14 min.
the same, but different

The Grammarians by Cathleen Schine. Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 258 pp., $27.00 Each chapter of Cathleen Schine’s brilliantly funny new novel, The Grammarians, is headed by a word and its definition in Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary. A number of these words, such as “babery,” “oberration,” and “collectitious,” were surely rare in the 1750s and are now quite obsolete, though Schine finds an amusing relevance in them. She has to turn to Merriam-Webster’s, however, for a definition of “twin” that brings out a subtlety missed by Dr. Johnson: as a noun it means a couple or pair, but as a verb it can mean, unnervingly, “to part, sever, sunder.” It turns out to be something like that other Janus-faced verb, “to cleave,” which means both to cling together and to hack…

20 min.
lessons in survival

Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore by Elizabeth Rush. Milkweed, 301 pp., $16.00 (paper) The Geography of Risk: Epic Storms, Rising Seas, and the Cost of America’s Coasts by Gilbert M. Gaul. Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 286 pp., $28.00 My grandmother Mabel Raboteau fled the coastal town of Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, and the terror of Jim Crow along the northern pathway of the Great Migration, to Michigan, in order to save her life and the lives of her children. The youngest of them was my father, Albert Jr. He was still in her womb when a white man shot and killed her husband, my grandfather, practically for sport. I probably don’t need to tell you that Albert Sr.’s murderer went scot-free. The courage it took Mabel to escape…