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Bound to Please

Bound to Please

From Steinbeck to speculative fiction, AP editorial board members, contributing editors, and staff share favorite off-topic reads from 2021.

American Purpose

Richard Aldous on Mick Herron’s Slough House (2021):

One of England’s finest postwar writers, John le Carré, died at the end of 2020 and his last novel, Silverview, was published posthumously this year. Among its reviewers was the novelist who might have the strongest claim to be his natural heir. Like le Carré, Mick Herron has invented a complete secret world with his Slough House series. Each book features a rogues gallery of failed agents and misfits. Everything is governed by London Rules (“cover your arse”) and has its own vocabulary of “joes,” “dogs,” “the OB,” and “First Chair.” In Jackson Lamb—the foul-mouthed, gratuitously offensive yet oddly empathetic figure who runs the “slow horses”—Herron has created one of the truly great characters of modern spy fiction. The brilliant, caustically funny, latest book in the series, Slough House, has the added piquancy of being a “state of the nation” novel, not least because in the Eighties Herron was at Balliol College, Oxford, with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. An Apple TV series is on the way next year, with Gary Oldman in the leading role—a case of George Smiley literally becoming Jackson Lamb. Le Carré’s legacy is in safe hands.

James Barnett on Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy: All the Pretty Horses (1992), The Crossing (1994), and Cities of the Plain (1998):

Characterized by sparse punctuation, Faulknerian run-on sentences, and graphic violence, Cormac McCarthy’s novels require concentration and a strong stomach. Several years ago I read The Road and his magnum opus, Blood Meridian, macabre literature that blew me away but drained my enthusiasm to work through his corpus.

I returned to McCarthy this year and was not disappointed, particularly with his Border Trilogy. These three novels are his most romantic, though the dark mysticism and morbid themes of his other works remain central to each story. Set in the mid-20th century, the trilogy tells of young cowboys who, disenchanted with the modernization of the old frontier, travel to Mexico in the naive belief that there they can find meaning in an itinerant existence. The second installment, The Crossing, is McCarthy’s overlooked masterpiece, a sorrowful tale of how the price of gaining wisdom is often the loss of everything that truly matters.

Martha Bayles on Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969):

Le Guin is the daughter of the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber and his wife Theodora, best known for their work with Ishi, the sole survivor of an extinct Sierra Mountains tribe who first encountered modern California in 1911. With this upbringing, Le Guin gained an early appreciation for the discombobulating experience of encountering an alien civilization. The Left Hand of Darkness is her masterpiece.

The main character, Genly Ai, is a male earthling serving as an envoy for an enlightened intergalactic organization called the Ekumen to a frozen planet called Gethen, in the hope of persuading its two rival nations to resolve their differences and join Ekumen. A field report by a previous envoy explains the unique biology of the Gethenians: they have no biological sex, except when in “kemmer,” a monthly cycle when they become male or female in a process they can neither predict nor control.

The genius of the novel is that it keeps this curious fact in the background, while telling a powerful tale about two clashing civilizations, and the way Genly Ai and a mysterious official named Estraven must pass through intrigue, distrust, adversity, and hardship before recognizing each other as true friends.

Ellen Bork on Sonia Purnell’s A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II (2019):

A Woman of No Importance tells the true story of Virginia Hall, an American who spied for the Allies during World War II. Overlooked and sidelined by the U.S. government early in her career, she was determined to serve, first driving an ambulance, then working for the British Special Operations Executive. Her longevity as a spy was astonishing, achieved despite the constant, deadly risk of exposure by a stray item of clothing or misplaced custom. A few male colleagues resented her, many were devotedly loyal. The book is full of jail breaks, narrow escapes, and brutal reprisals from the Gestapo, which declared her “the most dangerous of all Allied spies. We must find and destroy her.” Incidentally, she had only one leg, the result of a hunting accident in Turkey. Riveting and inspiring.

Rebecca Burgess on David Ferry’s The Georgics of Virgil (2005):

Felix, qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas. Blessed is that man able to ponder the causes of things—who opens his eyes to their signs. Virgil revels in the sentiment—a bit cheekily, too. As the Covid world doubled down on its newfound birding habit, I found myself in artistic tandem, proceeding backward through pastoral poets to unearth a copy of Virgil’s Georgics. Whether in Latin or in translation, Virgil’s survey of mankind’s labors in relation to time and seasons, soil and trees, rivers and vines, and horses, dogs, birds, and bees delights for its artfulness and its whimsical tranquility. “In order for men to know what might be coming / … Jove … provided signs,” Virgil patiently explains.

But it turns out that neither nature nor Jove can explain all the signs—when death comes mysteriously, heartbreakingly, to the bees or their represented human beings, it’s rather myth and music, Orpheus the singer and Virgil the poet, who can bring understanding and comfort through refashioning those signs. Nature alone is not enough for us. To face the eventuality of death—whether from distant civil war, pestilence, or old age—we need a human art, like Virgil’s poetry, too. 

Daniel Chirot on Anton Chekhov’s short stories:

They are not cheerful. I can never forget the one called “Vanka,” which when I first read it in high school made me cry because it so elegantly captures the tragedy of a poor little peasant boy. That was when I first realized how lucky I was to be in a good school with reasonably prosperous parents, and how that was not so common in the world.

Eliot A. Cohen on Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe detective series (1934–75):

There are few things quite as much fun as really good detective fiction, and, for me, the happiest discovery of the past year has been Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series. Over a span of forty years, Stout—who had quite an extraordinary career, to include serving as a junior sailor on board Teddy Roosevelt’s yacht—created a unique detective. Nero Wolfe strays from his brownstone on West 35th Street in New York on only the rarest of occasions, preferring to drink beer, tend to his orchids, and studiously avoid physical exertion. Meanwhile, Archie Goodwin, wise guy omnicompetent sidekick, does the legwork and provides the occasional muscle needed. A delightful escape from Covid and politics, not necessarily in that order.

Charles Dunst on C.C. Sabathia’s Till the End (2021):

Every baseball fan knows C.C. Sabathia. The hard-charging heavyweight pitcher played nineteen years in the Major League, winning the 2009 World Series with the New York Yankees. Sabathia threw a fearsome fastball, earning him millions in the process, but behind the scenes he battled demons that surfaced as alcoholism. To this point, Till the End opens with C.C. getting drunk in Baltimore to the point of belligerence and baseball impotence. Yet with the help of journalist Chris Smith, Till the End offers more than an account of Sabathia’s alcoholism—which forced him into rehab ahead of the Yankees’ ill-fated 2015 playoff run—encompassing the pitcher’s background and emotional growth. C.C.’s writing about family, race in Major League Baseball, and Crest, the Black California enclave where he grew up, is smart and nuanced. Ultimately, readers will be left rooting for the larger-than-life Sabathia, even if he’s no longer on the field.

Mike Fox on The Short Novels of John Steinbeck (1953):

One of my favorite literary escapes is to turn to John Steinbeck. No author is better at using simple prose to draw you into other lives and at making daily, often mundane struggles compelling. His sense of place and love of character always provide an instant escape. The Short Novels of John Steinbeck is an anthology that compiles several of his stories that range in setting from his beloved Monterey, California, to Nazi-occupied Norway. Steinbeck tells the tales of normal individuals embracing family, fraternity, and comradeship and fighting against greed, mundanity, and fascism. Many of the short novels include tragedy but they lift a reader’s heart thanks to the author’s compassion and universal humanism. Steinbeck’s stories are an always welcome reminder of the passing nature of current anxieties and the exceptionalism of every human life. Both are necessary lessons right now.

William A. Galston on Colm Tóibín’s The Magician (2021):

Colm Tóibín may well be the world’s best English-language novelist. His latest, The Magician, reconstructs the inner life of Thomas Mann on his journey from Lübeck to Hollywood and from an unpolitical to political man. Central to the narrative is the never resolved tension between Mann’s homosexual yearning and bourgeois respectability, including marriage and six children. His relationship with his brother, the left-wing writer Heinrich Mann, is tumultuous but enduring. 

Tóibín’s prose is unobtrusive but steadily compelling. He too is a magician.

Adam Garfinkle on Sir Walter Scott’s Guy Mannering: Or, The Astrologer (1815):

I’ve indulged in little off-the-focus reading this past year. Instead, I’ve been in search mode, re-reading the half dozen books I suspect provide the best clues to what has befallen the country: José Ortega y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses (1929); David Riesman, Nathan Glazer, and Reuel Denney’s The Lonely Crowd (1950); Philip Rieff’s The Triumph of the Therapeutic (1966); Daniel Bell’s The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976); Christopher Lasch’s The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (1996); and Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), with a sidebar to Neal Gabler’s Life: The Movie (1998).

I did this to feed my manuscript on “The Spectacle Mentality,” but once I gave the project up I did again turn—turn back, really—to a 19th-century novel. Sir Walter Scott’s Guy Mannering: Or, The Astrologer—the second of his more than two dozen Waverley novels—appeared in 1815. Once I got a feel for the lowland Scottish dialect with which the book is replete, I rollicked along with Scott in a swashbuckling, pot-boiling, romantic story complete with shining heroes and heroines, a smarmy uber-villain, and a tall, mysterious Gypsy woman tossed in to boot. The guy really knew how to tell a story.

Only a silent 1912 film has ever attempted to put Guy Mannering on the screen. Long past time for a remake, seems to me.

Suzanne Garment on Neal Stephenson’s Termination Shock (2021):

“Feral cows are bad news.”

This considered opinion was expressed by Neal Stephenson, perhaps the preeminent American science fiction writer of our generation, when he Zoomed with American Purpose last month about his most recent novel, Termination Shock. The book does begin with a feral cow, name of Snout, who makes a bad meal choice in deciding to eat little Adele, daughter of the book’s protagonist, Rufus Grant. Snout ends up pole-axed on an airport runway in Texas. Then, things get interesting. As Stephenson novels go, Termination Shock is relatively straightforward: It recounts a plan to reverse the rise in earth’s temperature through geo-engineering. But the change affects different countries in different ways, and the unintended consequences are worse than fatal.

This plot summary does not begin to do the book justice, of course: It leaves out Queen Saskia of the Netherlands, the Sikh welder, and martial artist Deep Singh, truck-stop magnate T.R. McHooligan …

You get the idea. Out of the efflorescence of detail comes a Stephensonian morality play about hubris. It’s worth every one of its seven hundred pages.

Jeffrey Gedmin on Robin D.G. Kelley’s Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (2009):

This biography is wonderful, gripping cultural history and storytelling. Monk would become known as a great jazz innovator. For much of his career, though, he was dismissed by critics and the general public. Wrongly, it was believed he was some sort of mad, untrained genius. At eleven, young Monk was studying in New York with Austrian classical pianist Simon Wolf. He worked hard and learned pieces by Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Liszt, Beethoven, and Bach. He learned the rules to break the rules, in order to produce music that would make people laugh, says his biographer—and to think differently.

Devorah Goldman on Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women (1952):

I’ve been on a bit of a Barbara Pym kick lately; her celebrations of quiet postwar life in England seem to match the tentatively post-pandemic mood (at least as it was before omicron). I especially enjoyed Excellent Women and Quartet in Autumn. But if I had to choose one for holiday reading, I’d go with Excellent Women. Everyone knows an “excellent woman:” a reliably kind and unassuming person who takes real joy in being of service to others. Such a person might be rebuked by Instagrammers, told to “put herself first,” to make more time for self-care and the examination of her own personality. But Pym knew of what she wrote; in Excellent Woman, she lets us into the wonderfully funny world of a sensible and criminally overlooked woman. Those who take the time to get to know her are in for a treat.

Anna Grzymala-Busse on Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time (1951–75):

It’s twelve (!) volumes about a loosely knit group of friends, lovers, drunks, and rivals in London before and after World War II. Friendships are forged, political careers made, bowls of sugar poured over heads, a man dies at his own birthday party. Most memorably of all, a character whose closest real-life counterpart is Ted Cruz goes from a groveling, petty, and unpleasant target of derision to an equally distasteful, but now powerful and sinister, political figure. Several other characters are based on the glittering London literary society of the 1920s and 1930s. The real joys here are not modern-day analogues, however; it’s following the narrator, Nick Jenkins, who tells us very little about himself and so much about the world around him.

Matt Hanson on Hanif Abdurraqib’s Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest (2019):

I’m a fan of—though far from an expert in—hip hop. The scales didn’t fall from my ears until I heard the immortal bassline from my beloved Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” sampled in A Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It.” Poet and music critic Hanif Abdurraqib’s Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest, with chapters addressing each member individually, with all the intimacy and incisiveness of a letter addressed to a dear, departed friend, deepened and widened my appreciation of Tribe with a loving appraisal of their beats, rhymes, and life.

Michelle High on Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics (2013):

Products of Tiger Mom tactics and au courant thinking on grooming gritty children pale in comparison to the motivation displayed by this group of young men. They grew up in the rugged Pacific Northwest during the Great Depression and found their way into the boat of one of the greatest group of eight ever to row together. The read requires patience at times—lots of detail on rowing technique, hand-crafted shells, and the like—but the glimpse of an America now seemingly vanished embodied in the character of these fine men is stirring enough to carry one through.

Zena Hitz on Serhii Plokhy’s Nuclear Folly: A History of the Cuban Missile Crisis (2021):

I loved this page-turning modern history of the most terrifying moment of the Cold War. Kennedy is guided by Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August; Plokhy prefers for comparison her March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam; I think also of Thucydides. An atmosphere of hostility is a massive generator of illusion. Grand narratives obscure the humble realities that guide sensible governance. Some people would rather destroy the world than look weak. A generation raised on world war sees possibilities that should be unthinkable as necessary or even obligatory. In short, human beings have no business in the realm of global leadership.

Josef Joffe on Jane Harman’s Insanity Defense: Why Our Failure to Confront Hard National Security Problems Makes Us Less Safe (2021):

Imagine the Keystone Cops, who were always tripping each other up and wreaking havoc, had gone to Washington to man the intelligence bureaucracy. Once, the United States had no spy outfits; now there are sixteen, whereas normal powers usually have three. Do the Brits with their MI6 do worse?

Jane Harman, a former nine-term Congresswoman and ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, had a perfect perch from which to observe what she calls “insanity defense.” She recalls how many calamities the intelligence community did not foresee—the Khomeinist Revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the collapse of the USSR, and, of course, 9/11. On the basis of false intelligence, the United States went to war against Saddam. No, he did not harbor weapons of mass destruction.

She also chronicles how various administrations massaged the data to suit their purposes. It is a story of executive aggrandizement Congress could not contain. “Unchecked and unbalanced,” she labels the presidency. Approvingly, she quotes Benjamin Franklin: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

But fewer Keystone Cops than sixteen might help (muses this reviewer). Congress could control a few services better than sixteen. As would-be maven of national security, read this firsthand account of folly, manipulation, and infighting. It is enlightening as well as entertaining, as a good book should be.

Tod Lindberg on Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real (1953):

In the spring of 2000, my wife Tina and I went to see Michael Kahn’s production of Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real at the Lansburgh as part of our Shakespeare Theater subscription series. We had seats for many years with Nick and Mary Eberstadt, and it was our custom to decide at intermission whether the play was worth the second half or whether the better move would be to adjourn next door, where a promising chef named José Andrés was putting out little shareable plates of food called “tapas,” including anchovies he promised would change your life. They did.

We ditched the play. I began to regret it over the anchovies, as I realized that this obnoxious phantasmagoria, set at some universal dead-end and by turns bombastic and mawkish, was actually shaping up as a pretty interesting exploration of failures of the heart.

At least through the interval. So twenty-one years later, I bought a copy of the script and read it. Was the rest of it a life-changing experience? No. And I did have an ulterior motive, a literary project I have been working on in which some characters find themselves inexplicably stuck. But here’s to the artists of yore, including their foibles, vanities, and misfires. A beguiling failure is its own kind of success.

R. Jay Magill, Jr. on Don and Alex Tapscott’s Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin Is Changing Money, Business, and the World (2016) and Bettina Warburg, Bill Wagner, and Tom Serres’ Basics of Blockchain: A Guide for Building Literacy in the Economics, Technology, and Business of Blockchain (2019):

Canadian father and son team Don and Alex Tapscott have long been unpacking the implications of blockchain technology’s ability to serve as an incorruptible digital ledger and to function accurately outside the purview of central authorities. In Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin Is Changing Money, Business, and the World, they offer readers a basic grasp of how the technology’s protocols work, its advantages, and how it will alter the ways we shop, bank, govern, and transact with each other. Equally illuminating is Basics of Blockchain: A Guide for Building Literacy in the Economics, Technology, and Business of Blockchain, an introductory guide to help readers understand how the technology is affecting “the economics and business of building companies in the era of decentralized computing”—written by authors who are actually involved in financing blockchain and Web3 ventures. Both books offer a clear view into the widespread implications this novel technology will have on how we transact and store value in the coming decades.

Michael Mandelbaum on British historical fiction by C.J. Sansom and Andrew Taylor:

The British have made a lot of history while giving the world luminous fiction. It is thus not surprising that they produce historical fiction of a very high order. Among the best recent examples are seven books set in the 1530s and 1540s, at the time of Henry VIII, by C.J. Sansom and five more that take place in the 1660s, in the reign of Charles II, by Andrew Taylor.

Each book is a well-crafted mystery, another literary genre at which the British excel. Each series has a compelling protagonist: Sansom’s is a lawyer, Taylor’s a minor official. Both men get entangled in the high politics of their eras; the monarch makes an appearance in most of the books. Finally, each series gives a vivid sense of what both everyday life and political life were like, with religious controversies pervading each, in those distant eras.

Joshua Muravchik on Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth (2012):

I recently read Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth, a novel about intelligence work and ideological warfare, limning a simulacrum of the cultural front of the Cold War. But it is also a novel about coming of age and love, about deception in relationships as well as in geopolitics. These parts are nicely done, if lightly, but beneath it all lies an exercise in authorial acrobatics in which a protagonist pulls off a startling trick that is actually also being pulled off simultaneously by McEwan. All in all, good-spirited and great fun.

Nicole Penn on Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita (1967):

Strange years call for strange books, and there’s nothing that fits the bill quite like Mikhail Bulgakov’s 20th-century opus, The Master and Margarita. The premise is simple: the devil comes to atheistic Moscow, and all hell breaks loose. The novel is at once a satire of Soviet society, a bildungsroman, a slapstick comedy, a feminist manifesto, a moving meditation on religion, and a work of outrageous sacrilege all bound up in a powerful story of love and courage. Its characters include talking cats, flying witches, inept Soviet cultural figures, a writer and the woman who loves him, and Jesus Christ himself. In an age that increasingly embraces Manichean interpretations of good and evil, The Master and Margarita offers the challenging counterpoint that good and evil are often inextricably bound up in each other. It also reminds us of the power of the human idea: that despite the best of censors, “manuscripts don’t burn.”

Marc F. Plattner on Allesandro Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed, 1827):

Before leaving on vacation travel to Milan and Lake Como, I decided to read Allesandro Manzoni’s classic Italian novel I Promessi Sposi, which takes place in these two locales. Although written in the 1820s, the novel is set in the 1620s and includes a powerful account of the plague that afflicted Milan in 1629–31. It is above all a story about a young couple from a small village whose plans to marry are thwarted by cruel aristocrats, but it also is filled with interesting reflections on politics and economics. The author is often described as a liberal Catholic, and his novel contains some compelling portraits of saintly priests (as well as of other Church figures who are far from admirable). Manzoni is a learned and humane writer, and I Promessi Sposi is an entertaining book well worth reading—even if you are not heading for Italy.

Carla Anne Robbins on John le Carré’s Silverview (2021):

My only regret as a reader is that I’ve already discovered John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Even after multiple re-readings, the plotting, the hushed conversations in the midst of national and personal betrayals, the unsparing character studies—the self-effacing George Smiley is far more credible than any Hollywood spymaster­—are all-enveloping. The post-Cold War le Carré, with Big Pharma and post-9/11 Washington as villains, was never as good. His (possibly) last novel, Silverview, published after le Carré’s death last year, is a return, if too short, to the classics. At the center are Julian Lawndsley, a youngish former London finance type running a bookshop in a coastal English town, and Edward Avon, a Polish émigré and retired MI6 agent who tutors Julian in literature while using the bookstore to conduct a secret effort at self-redemption. Avon is being hunted by MI6’s Stewart Proctor, another unassuming but brilliant man with a somewhat better family life than Smiley’s. All that is missing are the inner machinations of the Circus­—le Carré’s imagined headquarters for British intelligence. Even in East Anglia, the MI6 bureaucrats and their betrayals are never far away.

Dalibor Roháč on Brendan Simms and Charlie Laderman’s Hitler’s American Gamble: Pearl Harbor and Germany’s March to Global War (2021):

I’ve greatly enjoyed Hitler’s American Gamble, a riveting account of the events surrounding the attack on Pearl Harbor, culminating with Nazi Germany’s declaration of war on the United States. That decision was a decisive turning point in the Second World War; yet, as Simms and Laderman argue, a U.S.-German confrontation was far from a foregone conclusion. It was entirely possible that a U.S. war effort focused on the Pacific would have subtracted from the assistance that the Roosevelt administration was extending to Britain and the Soviet Union. The book is a genuine page-turner, providing a lot of texture and detail to the events. One is struck, for example, by how slowly information traveled, with even some of the key decision-makers (think Churchill or Ribbentrop) learning about the Japanese attack from the radio.

Gabriel Schoenfeld on Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat (2000):

Trigger warning: Come for the brutality and torture, stay for the sexual perversion. This is not a novel for the squeamish or the faint of heart. Mario Vargas Llosa takes you inside a failed coup d’état and its gruesome aftermath. The psychopathologies of ruler and ruled in an absolute dictatorship are perhaps nowhere better rendered. Too gripping to put down yet almost too horrific to continue turning its pages, The Feast of the Goat succeeds in turning a historical event—the 1961 overthrow of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic—into a literary masterpiece.

Carolyn Stewart on Thich Nhat Hanh’s Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World Full of Noise (2015):

Around the holiday season, one particular prayer is heard often: “Can’t I just have some peace and quiet?” Yet when faced with moments of silence, we’re more likely to fear it than embrace it, stamping it out with podcasts, music, and the pinging of group chats.

In Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World Full of Noise, Vietnamese Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh gives a name to this phenomenon: “Radio Station Non-Stop Thinking.” It’s our mind’s internal radio station, streaming 24/7 with a constant chatter of past regrets, future fears, and current anxieties. Through the practice of mindful breathing, Thich Nhat Hanh demonstrates how the volume on Radio Station Non-Stop Thinking can be turned down, allowing us to reclaim the gift of silence and deeply engage with the present.

A spin through the Rubin Museum of Art’s gift shop in New York introduced me to Silence five years ago. Now my copy is dog-eared, water-stained, regularly loaned to friends, and revisited when my psyche needs the balm of Thich Nhat Hanh’s simple, grounded advice.

Gary J. Schmitt on Richard Kennington’s On Modern Origins: Essays in Early Modern Philosophy (2004):

With science’s benefits versus its limits being a hot topic as a result of the pandemic, I’ve returned to reading On Modern Origins: Essays in Early Modern Philosophy, a collection of seminal essays by the late Richard Kennington that recovers the philosophic origins in the writings of Descartes and Bacon of the modern notion of nature and its conquest. Kennington, a philosophy professor at Penn State and, later, at Catholic University of America, didn’t write often but, when he did, it was always a home run.

Ben Trachtenberg on Robert Kellogg’s The Sagas of Icelanders (2001):

Despite being set about a millennium ago, the sagas show people with problems recognizable to modern readers. They seek wealth and adventure, pick stupid fights, and worry about straying spouses. Setting aside the small amount of magic and quick resort to violence, they solve problems much like people do today. Lawsuits, flattery, peer pressure, and old-fashioned bribery feature prominently. The nicknames alone justify a read. See Grim the Bald, Thora of the Embroidered Hand, Thorkel Scratcher, and—who could forget?—Sarcastic Halli, who famously dickered with King Harald over the price of an axe.

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