Book Book Book Book
Commentary Commentary RSS Reviews Podcasts_Audio Podcasts RSS Blog Links Archives Indexes

10-19-12: Jeffrey Toobin Counts 'The Nine'

Timeless Legal Non-Fiction Thriller

The stakes could not be higher; the fate of the nation hangs in the balance. The men and women involved could not be more accomplished; but they're also just men and women, with quirks and families and lives. The decisions they make directly affect the lives of millions of fellow Americans. A sea-change is at hand, changing the nature and the composition of the body in question. The world is watching, but there is much hidden from our sight.

If you pitched it as a thriller, no publisher would buy it; the story is far too incredible to believe. But Jeffrey Toobin's 'The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court,' is assiduously researched non-fiction with the narrative grip of a relentless page-turner. Toobin is a master storyteller, even as he explores a public world whose decisions and outcomes are well-known. The tension is constant, the characters are riveting, intimately created and superbly observed, and the pace, though it unfolds over years, feels relentless. This is history with an emphasis on story, and Toobin has managed to craft a superb reading experience that doubles as document essential for those who would live and participate in functioning democracy.

We meet he justices on the steps leading up to the Supreme Court, bearing the coffin of the man who had led them for so long, Chief Justice John Rehnquist. In the pages follow, Toobin takes us on a pocket history of the court in the decades that preceded, and how they shaped each of the members of the court at the time when the book was written in 2007. It does not matter that we've moved on since that time. Toobin is writing for the long run, not just to cover current events. The result is that the book is just as involving now as when it was written.

The core of the 'The Nine,' and what makes it such an engaging reading experience, is Toobin's ability to create the characters of his subjects. He works at two levels, personal and political. On the political side, he will show us a justice in the present, as the book was written, and then look back at how the politics of previous decades helped shape the character of the man or woman in question. He's a deft writer of political history, offering readers the right level of detail about the Federalist Society, the Warren Court and the law schools and legislatures that shaped such diverse figures as Sandra Day O'Connor and Antonin Scalia. He creates them in a social and political landscape that he describes with verve and skill.

We also see the Justices as human beings, with families and lives outside the courts. Their husbands, wives, or scholarly friends — or the lack thereof — all shape the Justices and inform their decisions. The men and women in the background are a gallery of familiar names that rose to prominence (and in some cases, infamy).

The through-line of tension that drives the book is the slow change that unfolds in the past Warren era, as Republican party moves farther to the right and seeks to create a Supreme Court that will help them do so. At the center of this fight is Sandra Day O'Connor, and Toobin's characterization of her offers a portrait of an American heroine in the making. It's fascinating, compelling reading.

Toobin's accomplishments in 'The Nine' are many; it's a classic work of history that has already stood the test of time; it's a book that should be required reading for those who wish to be informed voters in any year; and it's just as compelling a thriller as any work of fiction. These strengths are secondary, though, to the simple fact that this is a great story, told well. 'The Nine' is full of the exciting, unstoppable stuff of life.

10-16-12: Karen Armstrong Makes 'The Case for God'

Precisely Ineffable

Editor's Note: This book was inexplicably excluded from the master indexes; and it was one I believe that I mentioned before my interview with Bishop Gene Robinson. Armstrong's books on religion and compassion are superb and well worth searching out. Reading them is a very perfect secular version of a religious meditation.

We live in two worlds; the world of our emotions and the world of facts. They're so intimately intermingled that it's hard and not especially helpful to try to tease the two apart. It's also in our nature to try to do just that. The world of facts compels us to reduce everything to a fact, to slice and dice our lives into neat compartments, some of which might just happen to contain feelings. As it happens, emotions and feelings, and even the facts themselves, are not necessarily amenable to logical arguments. There is senseless pain in this world, and tragic loss, there are facts of death and disease and divorce that no other facts can quite counterbalance. We need something more than the facts to sustain us because we are something more than mere facts.

Twenty thousand years ago, Karen Armstrong tells us in 'The Case for God,' humans began to address needs that went beyond the facts of their existence. They created elaborate underground shrines in the caves of Lascaux, France. It was an evolutionary leap that helped to define us as human. In 'The Case for God,' Karen Armstrong argues that religion and spirituality are essential facts of what makes us human, facts that will not easily yield to factual examination. That paradox and how it has played out through history form the core of a book that may literally un-kink your mind and help you embrace the paradox at the core of who and what we are.

For an author quite concerned with examining the ineffable, Armstrong writes with precision and logic. She takes readers through the history of our relationship with religion, from its earliest incarnations to the polyglot, divisive and dangerous arguments that characterize religion today. Her writing is elegant and her prose is clear. But most importantly, Armstrong is a master of building prose effects, or setting the reader's mind in motion with gorgeous, smart sentences that will change the way you think, and change the way you view the world. The prose is dense and often quite intense. Reading 'The Case for God' is literally a mind-altering experience that describes mind-altering experiences.

Armstrong's observations of what religion was before the Enlightenment, and how the introduction of scientific thought changed our relationship with religion are gripping stuff. Along the way, she debunks cherished perceptions on both sides, for example showing Galileo to be more of a victim of his own hard-headedness than an innocent scientist sacrificed to ignorant religious dogma. The original readings of scriptures are examined, as are the birth of militant atheism and evangelical, fundamentalist religions. Armstrong manages to apply logic with a light touch, never losing the emotional core of her argument for the compassion she sees at the core of religious beliefs. At times, her approach to and visions of the divine are reminiscent of both H. P. Lovecraft and Stanislaw Lem; she firmly believes there is something beyond our comprehension that draws our attention to our own inner humanity. Call it what you like; it makes us human.

But also what makes us human is the process of reading. A large portion of this book looks at the way we read texts both spiritual and scientific, and suggests that we need to go beyond a daily recitation of the facts and engage in a dialogue with the texts we read. The depth of her writing and careful arguments in her prose draw the reader to just such a relationship with this book itself. Reading 'The Case for God' may or may not change your perception of religions and science, but it will certainly change your perceptions about the power of text — and the power of the readers who interpret that text every time they pick up a book.

10-15-12: Bishop Gene Robinson Believes in Marriage: 'God Believes in Love'

Straight Talk about Gay Marriage

"I believe in marriage," Bishop Gene Robinson tells us, to open his book 'God Believes in Love: Straight Talk about Gay Marriage.' For 200 pages, he manages to demonstrate his simple belief, address the questions implicit in his title, entertain readers of any belief, and, by virtue of having written a book, he manages to make us think. These are enjoyable thoughts to have, no matter how difficult you might believe the subject to be. Robinson's straightforward, smartly written book gets to the heart of a currently controversial subject without hyperbole or inflammatory statements. 'God Believes in Love' is the next evolutionary step following on Martin Luther's 'Ninety-Five Theses,' a quietly written FAQ for revolution in the 21st century.

After his statement of belief, Robinson begins his book with a brief biography; a rural childhood, feeling different, seminary school, therapy, marriage to a woman with two children, a realization that he could no longer live a lie — then divorce, mutually agreed and lovingly enacted, followed by another relationship, this time with a man, that has lasted twenty-five years. In a few brief pages, Robinson both introduces himself, demonstrates his own example of a Holy and loving life, and leads readers up to the ten questions he answers to discuss gay marriage and bring the practice into a new light.

'God Believes in Love' is not a book meant to preach to the converted. If you pretty much agree with Robinson, you'll get a great set of tools in the book for discussing the issue in a very sensible manner from the ultimately authoritative backup. You will certainly find a great deal of clarity, though. The FAQ format is crisp, well-organized and very easy to read. Moreover, it is bracing in the breadth of its compassion. Robinson's answers will, to those who are already won over, provide a prayer-like feeling of support and understanding.

But 'God Believes in Love' is not really meant for those who already believe. The book is clearly put together for the many who find themselves at a cross roads by virtue of knowing someone who is gay, and basically, wondering what all the fuss is about. Each chapter after the introduction is titled in the form of a question; "Why Gay Marriage Now?" or "Doesn't Gay Marriage Change the Definition of Marriage That's Been in Place for Thousands of Years?" Each chapter answers the question in a quietly conversational manner that is engaging and easy to read — even if you ultimately decide that you disagree.

But that's unlikely, even if you are ardently opposed to the notion. That's because Robinson has had this conversation literally thousands of times. Quietly, intelligently, he makes his case again and again, but does so while employing the compassion that he suggests is one of the reasons we should embrace gay marriage. Robinson's understanding — based on his upbringing and his education in the Church — of those who oppose gay marriage is what makes him pretty persuasive. In his writing, Robinson never tries to elicit sympathy or understanding. Instead, he offers a clear vision of fellow human beings. It works because it is simple, honest and engaging.

'God Believes in Love' is not going to convince everyone. But it's an important marker in the literary world, a concise summation of where we have been, where we are and where it appears we are going. How long it takes — and how hard it is — to get to the point where gay marriage is no longer an issue cannot be determined. But 'God Believes in Love' is the perfect guidebook for a journey that we are all taking.

New to the Agony Column

09-18-15: Commentary : William T. Vollman Amidst 'The Dying Grass' : An Epic Exploration of Simultaneity

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with William T. Vollman : "...a lot of long words that in our language are sentences..."

09-05-15: Commentary : Susan Casey Listens to 'Voices in the Ocean' : Science, Empathy and Self

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Susan Casey : "...the reporting for this book was emotionally difficult at times..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 213: Susan Casey : Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins

08-24-15: Commentary : Felicia Day Knows 'You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)' : Transformative Technology

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Felicia Day : "I think you have to be attention curators for audience in every way."

08-22-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 212: Felicia Day : You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)

08-21-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report : Senator Claire McCaskill is 'Plenty Ladylike' : Internalizing Determination to Overcome Sexism [Incudes Time to Read EP 211: Claire McCaskill, Plenty Ladylike, plus A 2015 Interview with Senator Claire McCaskill]

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Emily Schultz Unleashes 'The Blondes' : A Cure by Color [Incudes Time to Read EP 210: Emily Schultz, The Blondes, plus A 2015 Interview with Emily Schultz]

08-10-15:Agony Column Podcast News Report : In Memory of Alan Cheuse : Thank you Alan, and Your Family, for Everything

07-11-15: Commentary : Robert Repino Morphs 'Mort(e)' : Housecat to Harbinger of the Apocalypse

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Robert Repino : " even bigger threat. which is us, the humans..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Robert Repino : Mort(e)

07-05-15: Commentary : Dr. Michael Gazzaniga Tells Tales from Both Sides of the Brain : A Life in Neuroscience Reveals the Life of Science

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Michael Gazzaniga : "We made the first observation and BAM there was the disconnection effect..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Michael Gazzaniga : Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience

06-26-15: Commentary : Neal Stephenson Crafts an Eden for 'Seveneves' : Blow It Up and Start All Over Again

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Neal Stephenson : "...and know that you're never going to se a tree again..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 207: Neal Stephenson : Seveneves

06-03-15: Commentary : Dan Simmons Opens 'The Fifth Heart' : Having it Every Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Dan Simmons : "...yes, they really did bring those bombs..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 206: Dan Simmons : The Fifth Heart

05-23-15: Commentary : John Waters Gets 'Carsick' : Going His Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with John Waters : " change how you would be in real life...”

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 205: John Waters : Carsick

05-09-15: Commentary : Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD and 'Shrinks' : A Most Fashionable Take on the Human Mind

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : "..its influence to be as hegemonic as it was..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 204: Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry

04-29-15: Commentary : Barney Frank is 'Frank' : Interpersonally Ours

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Barney Frank : "...while you're trying to change it, don't ignore it..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 203: Barney Frank : Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage

04-21-15: Commentary : Kazuo Ishiguro Unearths 'The Buried Giant' : The Mist of Myth and Memory

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro : ".... by the time I was writing this novel, the lines between what was fantasy and what was real had blurred for me..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 202: Kazuo Ishiguro : The Buried Giant

04-17-15: Commentary : Erik Larson Follows a 'Dead Wake' : Countdown to Destiny

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Erik Larson : "...said to have been found in the arms of a dead German sailor..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 201: Erik Larson : Dead Wake

04-15-15: Commentary : Peter Bell Reflects 'A Certain Slant of Light' : Strange Stories of Modern Scholars

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Peter Bell : "...I looked up some of the old books..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 200: Peter Bell : Strange Epiphanies and A Certain Slant of Light

03-14-15: Commentary : Marc Goodman Foresees 'Future Crimes' : Exponential Potential

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Marc Goodman : "...every physical object around us is being transformed, one way or another, into an information technology..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 199: Marc Goodman : Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It

Commentary & Podcast Archive
Archives Indexes How to use the Agony Column Contact Us About Us