Back in the USSR

Elderly residents at Moscow's Labor Veterans Care House in 1975 / AP

With Secondhand Time, Svetlana Alexievich has written an astonishing book, as beautiful as it is heartbreaking. This is only the fifth work (third to be translated into English) by the 68-year-old Belarusian author who won the Nobel Prize for literature last year. And, like all her books, Secondhand Time is a narrative of interviews—in this case, the interviews she performed over the course of a decade, asking Russians what they remembered of life as Soviet rule began to crumble 25 years ago.

The answers those ordinary people gave her are so eloquent and tragic—so poetic and profound—that I found myself unable to believe a word of it.

Pulling a Breira

AP

Dov Waxman, a professor of political science at Northeastern University, says he has written Trouble in the Tribe to investigate the “internecine battle” waged over Israel in the American Jewish community. What emerges instead is an apologia for radical anti-Israel Jewish organizations and a distorted image of organized American Jewry as intolerant, elitist, and intent on silencing those who dare criticize Israel.

Double Fault

David Foster Wallace

I am not a big fan of David Foster Wallace. I can’t finish Infinite Jest, his repetitive, sprawling novel in which minutely described scenes never seem to evoke a complete image or create a connected plot, and I’m not particularly interested in his life, which he tragically ended by hanging himself from his patio in 2008.

T.S. Eliot, Poet for a Fallen Culture

T.S. Eliot / AP

Who remembers it? Who would even believe it now, when political thought, for left and right alike, lies shattered in a thousand pieces? Still, there really was a moment, from the late 1940s through the early 1960s, when all the different strands of conservative thought looked as though they might come together into a grand unified field theory—the coherent and whole answer of the West to the claims of communism. And somewhere near the center of it all stood the poetry of T.S. Eliot.

The Intoxicating War Between Science and Tradition

vineyard

What makes a good winemaker? Is it a viticulturist’s arsenal of facts and scientific techniques combined with access to the best fruit? Or is it the villager’s traditional knowledge of picking, pressing, fermenting, and bottling his grapes? It is this concern, which strikingly mirrors a conflict in politics, that divides the wine world. Two new books capture the fractured condition of 21st century winemaking: speaking for the scientific or Enlightenment left is Terroir and Other Myths of Winegrowing by viticulturist Mark A. Matthews; speaking for the romantic, traditionalist right, there is For the Love of Wine by writer Alice Feiring.

Mind the Gap

Marcus Aurelius

How many readers of this online newspaper, the content of which changes by the minute and which largely focuses on current events, will have the time or inclination to read Peter Adamson’s “History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps” (as his sub-title has it) that covers the period from after Plato and Aristotle to the death of St. Augustine? Probably not many, despite the fact that it’s clearly written, sprinkled with cute allusions to our day as well as with groan-inducing puns—yet also full of clear summaries of the main points of thinkers who once were household names. Read a history of philosophy? Most of us have too many other concerns, with rents or mortgages, maybe kids to get to school (or their tuition to be paid), deadlines to meet, dry-cleaning to pick up. Philosophy, it seems, is just too abstract to matter.

Henry James in Awe

Henry James

As a child, Henry James displayed a precocious ability to “gape,” but little else. A collection of autobiographical writings published by the Library of America, comprised of three full-scale autobiographical pieces and other revealing scribblings, indicates that the novelist possessed the sort of genius that shows itself in unconventional ways.

In the first of the self-portraits, A Small Boy And Others, James writes self-deprecatingly of his educational aptitude compared to that of his brother, the renowned 19th-century philosopher William James.

Alone Near the Top

Paul McCartney in 1976 / AP

One night this past winter, after the presentation of the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, Paul McCartney decided he wanted to go to a party. So he gathered up a pair of previous Grammy winners—the folk fusionist Beck and Taylor Hawkins, drummer for the post-grunge rock band, Foo Fighters—and was promptly turned away, denied entrance to a gathering of pop stars at the Argyle Club.

In the days after video of the incident was released by the paparazzi website TMZ, the club owners joined rappers Tyga and Bow Wow (who had performed at the party) in spinning furiously, attempting to explain away as inadvertent any rejection of the former Beatle. And maybe so. Certainly so, if they could have predicted the mockery that quickly descended upon them.