Culture & Literature
The New York Review of Books

The New York Review of Books December 6, 2018

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

3 min.

MARCIA ANGELL is a member of the faculty of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School and a former Editor in Chief of The New England Journal of Medicine. MATTHEW AUCOIN is a composer and conductor. He is the Artist in Residence at Los Angeles Opera, a Co–Artistic Director of the American Modern Opera Company, and a 2018 MacArthur Fellow. MOLLY CRABAPPLE is the author of Drawing Blood and, with Marwan Hisham, of Brothers of the Gun. Her artwork is in the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art. NOAH FELDMAN is the Felix Frankfurter Professor at Harvard Law School and a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. His most recent book is The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President. ELISA GABBERT is the author of three books of poetry. The…

17 min.
saboteur in chief

The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis. Norton, 221 pp., $26.95 Writing about her friend the famously unpleasant Evelyn Waugh, Frances Donaldson reflected that the weakness in attributing any particular quality to Evelyn is that the weakness in attributing any particular quality to Evelyn is that he could not allow anyone to dictate his attitude or virtues to him. Consequently, if he was accused of some quality usually regarded as contemptible, where other men would be aroused to shame or hypocrisy, he studied it, polished up his performance, and, treating it as both normal and admirable, made it his own…. Consequently, it was never any good looking straight at him to learn the truth about him. Donald Trump is not often compared to a great English novelist, and the word “studied” does not apply—he is all…

16 min.
music without a destination

Debussy: A Painter in Sound by Stephen Walsh. Knopf, 323 pp., $28.95 The world of classical music loves an anniversary to celebrate the already celebrated. The 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth in 2006 brought performances of all twenty-two of his operas in his hometown of Salzburg, among innumerable other festivities worldwide; the 225th anniversary of his death in 2016 prompted the release of a two-hundred-CD set of his complete works. In advance of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth in 2020, the German government has declared him a “matter of national importance,” as if he were a precious, rapidly disappearing natural resource. One could be forgiven for wondering exactly why the most-performed composers in history need these promotional blitzes. The subjects of this year’s two most prominent classical-music anniversaries could hardly be more different…

18 min.
where else can they go?

Escaping Wars and Waves: Encounters with Syrian Refugees by Olivier Kugler. Pennsylvania State University Press, 79 pp., $24.95 The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees by Don Brown. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 103 pp., $18.99 Threads: From the Refugee Crisis by Kate Evans. Verso, 176 pp., $24.95 In 2016, the year Macedonia completely closed its borders to Syrian refugees, I met a young Palestinian man named Walid in a squalid army-run camp on the Greek island of Samos. I was writing a magazine story on the conditions in such camps following the deal that March between the EU and Turkey, which was intended to reduce the flow of migrants into Europe. Since media permits were not forthcoming, I ended up sneaking in through a hole in the fence. As I interviewed refugees, Walid approached me. He had been at the camp…

15 min.
the secret sculptor

Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture, 1963–2017 an exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art, April 22–July 29, 2018; and the Met Breuer, New York City, September 6–December 2, 2018. Catalog of the exhibition by Katy Siegel, with contributions by Aleesa Alexander, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Kelly Baum, and others. Baltimore Museum of Art/Gregory R. Miller, 191 pp., $55.00 There is a somewhat mystifying, what-am-I-looking-at quality to Jack Whitten’s paintings, and this spirit hovers over the exhibition “Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture, 1963–2017,” now at the Met Breuer. Whitten, who died this past January at seventy-eight, was a highly respected member of the art world, though his renown was, I think, largely among artists. He was known for making quite large abstract works that often looked at a glance like vast fields of mosaics, but they were…

18 min.
brazil’s brutal messiah

Brazil: A Biography by Lilia M. Schwarcz and Heloisa M. Starling, translated from the Portuguese. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 761 pp., $40.00 If we were to think of Brazil as a person rather than a country, as Lilia Schwarcz and Heloisa Starling encourage us to do in their sweeping new history Brazil: A Biography, it would be someone who, at the moment, seems schizophrenic. Consider, for example, the October 28 run-off election to choose the country’s next president. One candidate was a neofascist former army captain with a penchant for insulting Afro-Brazilians, women, indigenous peoples, and sexual minorities; a declared affinity for the military dictatorship that ruled the country brutally from 1964 to 1985; and a desire to fight crime by allowing citizens to arm themselves and letting trigger-happy cops take the law…