This Sunday: John Leonard, AIDS and Carl Hiaasen, too
He was once the literary editor of the Nation and editor of the New York Times Book Review, but John Leonard was perhaps the most important literary critic in the last half of the 20th century. Our book critic David L. Ulin examines Leonard’s collected work “Reading for My Life: Writings, 1958-2008” and finds that Leonard articulated “a worldview through his criticism, to refract his reading through a wider lens.” Ulin also notes that Leonard was “widely credited with bringing such writers as Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Maxine Hong Kingston to the attention of an American readership…”
Ulin also describes his passionate commitment to writing in a passage in which Leonard describes the death threat, the fatwa, against Salman Rushdie. “It has been a disgraceful week. A maniac puts out a $5.2-million contract on one of the best writers in the English language, and how does the civilized world respond? France and Germany won’t publish 'The Satanic Verses'; Canada won’t sell it … and a brave new philistinism struts its stuff all over Mediapolis USA, telling us that Rushdie’s unreadable anyway.”
Strong stuff from a firm believer in a writer’s right to write. Ulin’s review leads our coverage in Sunday Arts & Books.
About 180 degrees away from Leonard’s work is the latest young-adult offering from Carl Hiaasen. The title is “Chomp” and the story is a sendup of reality television. In this story's case, the show is “Expedition Survival,” and its star is Derek Badger, a former Irish folk dancer, who can swallow a live salamander without actually vomiting. And while he may not throw up, he has other attributes that are a bit troublesome in a reality setting populated by cumbersome critters. He’s a klutz. And that’s how the story develops. Carpenter calls this “delightful” and “laugh out-loud” funny.
Also this week, Thomas H. Maugh, a former staffer who made science and medicine issues easily understandable for decades, turns his hand to “Tinderbox: How the West Sparked the AIDS Epidemic and How the World Can Finally Overcome It,” a history of the pandemic by journalist Craig Timberg and Daniel Halperin, a medical anthropologist and epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health’s AIDS Prevention Research Project. Repeated analyses have shown, the authors argue, that AIDS became epidemic only in regions where the number of each person’s sexual activity was high. The authors' views on controlling the spread of the disease suggest that “the best solution is a change in sexual mores.” They cite the example of Uganda, where the biggest inroads against the disease were made in the 1980s and 1990s. Leaders in that country used a potent weapon: fear.
“Thinking the Twentieth Century” is a fearless exploration of ideas from a great public intellectual, Tony Judt, while he lay dying of Amytrophic Lateral Sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease). This is Judt’s swan song, and he's joined by Timothy Snyder, a Yale history professor. Our reviewer, Martin Rubin, writes that Judt’s focus is on Europe and takes the reader “on a wild ride through the ideological currents and shoals of 20th century thought.”
More after the jump
Sarah Manguso’s “The Guardians: An Elegy” is a meditation on the loss of her friend Harris Wulfson, who threw himself in front of a train. It is a small book with some large ideas about being left behind. Our reviewer Carolyn Kellogg writes, “What does it mean in our culture to lose a friend? Can the loss be as deeply felt? If they loved each other, were they not lovers? “
Chris Barton reviews Dan Chaon’s collection of stories “Stay Awake.” Barton writes that Chaon, a National Book Award finalist in 2001, “has returned to the [short story] format with more quietly haunting stories of isolation and disconnection that stick with you like faded images from a disturbing dream.”
And we have our weekly bestsellers list with Jodi Picoult’s “Lone Wolf” making its debut at No. 2 on the fiction rolls and “Steve Jobs,” the biography by Walter Isaacson, at the top of the heap in nonfiction for its 19th week.
And in case you missed it this week, Jessica Gelt talked to Dustin Hoffman and Samuel L. Jackson about their involvement in the “A-List Collection,” Audible.com’s project of having members of the A list lend their voices to classic novels as audio books.
As always, thanks for reading,
Jon Thurber, book editor
Photo: Author and critic John Leonard. Credit: Rodney Brooks