I picked up The Island at the Center of the World because it directly targets two of my own personal obsessions: New York history and Dutch language.I picked up The Island at the Center of the World because it directly targets two of my own personal obsessions: New York history and Dutch language. Author Russell Shorto builds it upon thirty years of translation work by a man called Charles Gehring, a specialist in 17th century Dutch who resurrected the complete records of New Amsterdam, the Dutch settlement that is now New York City and environs. Shorto's thesis is that the Dutch colony was more successful and more influential than previously believed, unjustly forgotten because of the language barrier and because of Anglocentrist historians who both downplayed its significance and judged it a failure based on the criteria of the more religious New England colonies.
There is a lot here to satisfy the curious New Yorker--Broadway's origin as an Indian path, stories about the first Brooklynites--but what makes this worth reading is its portrayal of Adriaen van der Donck, who opposed the autocratic rule of Peter Stuyvesant and insisted that the inhabitants of New Amsterdam deserved the rights of Dutch citizens, as opposed to employees of the Dutch East India Company. Trained as a lawyer at Leyden University (possibly even under the tutelage of Spinoza and Descartes), he even sailed back to the Netherlands at one point to make his case before the States General. Shorto shows that the egalitarianism of the Dutch Golden Age was brought to America by van der Donck and how echoes of it even made their way, more than a hundred years later, into our founding documents. Despite all this, however, van der Donck was forgotten after his death in an Indian raid. The only sign of him left in New York is the town of Yonkers (New Amsterdammers called him "Jonker," i.e. landowner).
Most refreshing about this book is the vision it presents of a freewheeling, open society in early America--an attractive alternative for anyone who spent their school years learning about the prudent and stuffy Pilgrims. Shorto fittingly writes in a relatively breezy and unacademic style, a la Barbara Tuchman. Sometimes he takes the informality too far. On the whole, though, I found this a very worthwhile read....more
I just read Robert Reich's new book, Reason, which carries the subtitle "Why Liberals Will Win the Battle for America." It doesn't actually go too farI just read Robert Reich's new book, Reason, which carries the subtitle "Why Liberals Will Win the Battle for America." It doesn't actually go too far beyond arguing why liberals should win the battle for America (mostly trying to show that people would agree with liberal values, if only they were expressed clearly), but at the same time, it's an interesting reevaluation of the terms liberal and conservative in the context of current politics. Reich shows that the current administration is comprised of "radical conservatives" and that liberals cannot approach them as they did good old fashioned conservatives. Indeed, he says that one of the main differences is the absence of civility and decency among the radical conservatives--which he counters by taking the high road throughout this book. The nastiest thing he says is, "Baloney."
Most original is Reich's discussion of the Vietnam War and how it remains a divisive issue among the Baby Boomers now in power. This is the strongest thread running through the book....more
Tom Perotta is the best kind of writer: the kind whose profundity sneaks up on you under cover of effortless good fun. Best known for writing the noveTom Perotta is the best kind of writer: the kind whose profundity sneaks up on you under cover of effortless good fun. Best known for writing the novel that became the film Election (both versions are good, though Jessica Campbell does more justice to her character than either Reese Witherspoon or Matthew Broderick), Perotta followed that novel with Joe College which landed quietly and disappeared quickly. Apparently most people aren't interested in novels about insecure, moody Yale students of the 1980s. Well, I liked it.
I don't know whether it's because he's a man, and thus somehow immune to the scourge of writing-as-self-pity, or just because he is naturally inclined to see the humor in things, but his most recent novel, Little Children is a funny yet sadly realistic portrait of young parents in the suburbs. That's something that very few people manage to pull off. His protagonists are Sarah, a bored young mother whose arrogant husband ignores her in favor of the web-based enticements of one "Slutty Kay," and Todd, a stay-at-home dad whose wife resents having to work while he studies for the bar exam, which he has already failed twice. Sarah finds herself incapable of playing along with the self-satisfied, yet slightly desperate, attitudes of the other young mothers and starts snarking at them. Todd sneaks off to join a midnight football league while his wife thinks he's studying. They bond over what they imagine to be their rebellions.
There is a point in every one of Perotta's books where I think he takes things too far, in the sense of implausible extremes (in this case, the overwrought detail of the child-molester subplot), but this never really undermines the pleasure of reading his work....more