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This Week’s Reading

Staff Picks: Staircases, Sister Mountains, Self-Help

November 21, 2014 | by

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A still from The Staircase.

In The Program Era, Mark McGurl illuminated postwar American fiction’s inextricable ties to universities and creative-writing programs; his new paper, “The Institution of Nothing,” undertakes a reading of David Foster Wallace in the framework of “the program,” and it’s one of the most thoughtful exegeses I’ve found of Wallace, whose work has enjoyed no shortage of critical insight. (Remember Wyatt Mason on Oblivion?) McGurl finds that the bulk of Wallace’s writing is fixated on institutions—it invokes them as a kind of safe harbor, a respite from the nihilism of the world at large. (This is borne out not just in his books but in his life, which he spent almost entirely in the thrall of institutions of higher learning.) In this light, a certain unnerving conservatism emerges in his work: what should be questions of sweeping political import are recast as matters of individual ethics. McGurl writes, “Clinging to the institutional order, clinging for dear life, Wallace’s commitment is … to a conception of therapeutic community in which what might have become political questions—and, by implication, motives for political contestation—are obediently dissolved.” —Dan Piepenbring

Natalie Lyalin’s poetry collection Blood Makes Me Faint But I Go For It has an intriguing title, but I’ve felt mildly daunted by the illustration on the cover—of a woman who stares straight into my eyes whenever I look at her. It turns out, though, that such feelings of discomfort aren’t inappropriate. Lyalin’s poems are weird, wide-eyed, and bold, and I feel uneasy reading them—in a good way. Like this, from “On the Beaches of Majorca”: “Aboard ships they snapped goodbye to their cities / They sparked like knives / And the oceans took them in with oceanic slurps / In a parallel moment we were on the beaches / Mute pastel puffs / Smoking around a cult-like fire.” Her poems remind me of Karen Russell’s fiction: at once familiar and otherworldly, tame and frightening. Lyalin’s “A Lemon Sweat Over Everything” is almost a poetic version of the title story from Russell’s Vampire in the Lemon Grove:

You can find my bones in the sister mountains
Identify me by the gold fangs
The fangs I showed you in the lemon orchard
almost two hundred years ago
You said they were sexy
The sun blinding you from my mouth
We were both smirking
and then I snarled 
It was very foreign
chasing you around the trees

Nicole Rudick

I could write about the addictive nature of Serial, the true-crime podcast from the This American Life team, but millions of others beat me to the punch. Instead, thanks to a recommendation from my friend Josh Lieberman, I advise you to fill these next two weeks until the next Serial episode with Sundance Channel’s eight-part documentary series, The Staircase. The crime saga follows the case of the novelist Michael Peterson, whose wife, Kathleen, was found unconscious at the bottom of a staircase in the couple’s Durham mansion. Was the death an accident, the result of falling down the stairs after consuming alcohol and Valium—or was she murdered by Peterson? While the twists and turns are captivating and the series is filled with a cast of characters so interesting and bizarre it’s difficult to appraise anyone involved, it’s the fly-on-the wall–style of Jean-Xavier de Lestrande’s filmmaking that kept me going from one episode to the next. —Justin Alvarez

You might have heard that Sam Lipsyte used to be in a punk band called Dungbeetle. This Saturday night at Le Poisson Rouge, they’re reuniting—with LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy on drums, no less—as part of the launch party for Radio Silence, a lit-and-music mag that’s just released its third issue. I suspect magic will be in the air. Bring earplugs and a taste for the bizarre. —DP

I had never heard of Lorrie Moore when I tried to sit in on her M.F.A. workshop at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. It was 2009, and I was barely eighteen. She kicked me out pretty quickly. Now, having spent the better part of five years recovering from the embarrassment, I have finally read Self-Help, Moore’s first collection of stories. About two-thirds are written in the second person, and this is both refreshing and compelling. It serves an almost didactic purpose in “How,” as Moore guides us, step-by-step, through the motions of dumping a (maybe) dying boyfriend. In “How To Be an Other Woman,” the second person puts a delightful twist on a recycled story: her protagonist struggles to find herself in (and as a result of) a messy extramarital affair. Witty and deft, Moore demands that her readers believe the story could be about them … not that it is about them, but that it could be. She blends comedy and tragedy so seamlessly that I found myself merrily caught between sadness and mirth, cynicism and optimism. —Alex Celia

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Staff Picks: Megg, Mogg, Maxim Maksimich

November 14, 2014 | by

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From the cover of Megahex.

Last month, Simon Hanselmann’s comic book Megahex entered the New York Times Graphic Books best-seller list at number 8, both above and below volumes by Neil Gaiman. No small feat, especially when you consider the Times’ droll description of the book: “Meet Megg. She’s a witch and has a black cat named Mogg. She is also depressed and addicted to drugs.” It’s not inaccurate, but it sure misses the point. Megg and Mogg are druggy reprobates who tease and torture their roommate, Owl, who is himself a rather unsavory fellow, but  Megg’s depression isn’t your garden-variety Prozac episode. She’s so invariably and subtly disconsolate and experiences such disturbing mood swings that it’s impossible not to feel at least a tinge of that heavy sadness. And because the book is funny, too—they smoke lots of pot—her depression seems that much more real. —Nicole Rudick

In recent weeks—when I haven’t been poring over Greif’s Crisis of Man—I’ve been unwinding with classic short stories: Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin and Randall Jarrell’s Book of Stories, in which the great poet and critic presented an idiosyncratic mix of all-time favorites, from fairy tales, to the Russian masters, to poems by Frost and Brecht. —Lorin Stein

Most writers are failures, and C. D. Rose knows that. His Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure is a compendium of fictitious authors, all of whom are spectacularly unsuccessful. Spend an hour with it—ideally not an sober hour—for a bracing, mordant reminder of why almost nothing is really worth bothering with. My personal favorite fake failures: Maxim Maksimich (“he died in 1912, impaled by an icicle, a casualty of the thaw for which he had waited so long”), Belmont Rossiter (“he challenged Dickens to a duel and allegedly tried to poison Wilkie Collins … He told George Eliot she looked like a horse”), and Elise La Rue (“she wrote longhand, naked, voluptuously, lying on her divan, usually covered in the fur of a snow leopard which she claimed she had herself skinned … accompanied by her favorite cocktail of schnapps and Dubonnet”). —Dan Piepenbring

I hate to admit this, but I found myself mesmerized by Kickended, a new archive of Kickstarter’s zero-dollar-pledged campaigns created by Silvio Lorusso with the help of Kickspy’s data analysis. Click on the Random Campaign button, and you’ll bring an array of crowdfunding flops to light, from a kid’s book on Occupy Wall Street to the restoration of The Commodores’ 1947 cargo van. It’s easy to poke fun at these projects—especially with campaigns like this and this and this. But it’s more than just an exercise in schadenfreude; it’s a fascinating look at why certain projects succeed and others don’t. Why is there a place in this world for fruit-themed plush toys but not The Amazing Spider-Pig piggy bank? A tool to shotgun beer better but not a bra that doubles as a pocket? Is one better than the other, or is it simply the way the project is presented? Maybe it’s the fact that no one wants to be the first to donate to these “abstract ideas.” Everyone knows you always put a few dollars out of your own pocket into the tip jar. —Justin Alvarez

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Staff Picks: Tom Magliozzi and Dr. T

November 7, 2014 | by

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A still from Dr. T and the Women, 2000.

“One of the striking features of the discourse of man to modern eyes, in a sense the most striking, is how unreadable it is, how tedious, how unhelpful. The puzzle is why it is unreadable.” Thus, Mark Greif in his exhilarating study The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America 1933–1973. By “the discourse of man” Greif means the vast midcentury literature on human dignity, from Being and Nothingness, to the “Family of Man” photo exhibition, to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—a discourse that Greif interrogates with verve, erudition, sympathy, and suspicion, and that he follows into the fiction of our time. I’ve been toting The Age of the Crisis of Man around for the last month, using a pencil for a bookmark, because there’s something to underline on every page—and I haven’t even got to the chapters on O’Connor and Pynchon. —Lorin Stein

Like many nineties kids, I received my first doses of NPR while buckled up in the backseat of my parents’ car; Saturday-morning drives, often to visit my grandparents, meant one thing: Car Talk. The show has been a constant in my life ever since. (In fact, if you’ve ever wondered what occupies The Paris Review’s staff on our five-hour quarterly drives to our press in Pennsylvania, look no further than the Car Talk podcast.) So many of the tributes to Tom Magliozzi, the elder “Tappet” brother who died this week of complications from Alzheimer’s disease, focused on his inimitable and infectious laughter—and rightfully so. But the somberness of the occasion reminded me of a letter Tom and Ray once fielded from a troubled freshman at Mount Holyoke College, a young listener named Lea. (You can listen to Tom read Lea’s letter here; she later called in to the show.) Give them a listen and you'll be reminded of just how much the show provided: laughter, yes, and advice about cars—but also the occasional window, especially for its young listeners, into the sort of life one might aspire toward, one where the adults of the world still engage in “water-pistol fights, with whipped cream.” —Stephen Andrew Hiltner

I can’t in good faith claim that Robert Altman’s Dr. T and the Women (2000) is a “good” movie, but it captivates, in its quietly provocative way. Imagine the eye rolls after this pitch meeting: “Well, it’s this sexy, envelope-pushing comedy where Richard Gere plays a hunky gynecologist in upper-crust Dallas, but he doesn’t boink his patients or anything lewd like that—he just treats everyone really respectfully, including his daughters and his wife, who goes insane, in fact, because of how deeply loved she is and how well her personal needs are met.” Dr. T is a farce, a riff on the “Book of Job” and the suffering of the virtuous; all of its women are kooky and dependent in some way on the ministrations of the good doctor, with his boundless patience and his way with the speculum. Altman wrings a lot of jouissance from his ensemble cast, especially Gere, who really does seem too sensitive for this milieu. But what is this milieu? Why are all these rich ladies so gabby, so troubled, so sad? That’s where Dr. T is ultimately thwarted: in spite of its lead’s genuine (and believable) reverence for the feminine, the film can’t help but lapse into misogyny. It’s called Dr. T and the Women, for god’s sake. But right up to its positively outlandish ending, it asks questions about chivalry, materialism, and gender that not many movies would dare to touch, then or now. It’s audacious filmmaking—and that alone makes it worth watching. —Dan Piepenbring

In 1892, long before the O. J. Simpson trial or the Lindbergh kidnapping, there was a court case that swept the nation’s interest. It wasn’t because the violence of the crime—one woman publicly slashing the throat of another—but the motivation: a same-sex love affair. Using love letters, archives, newspaper articles, and government records, Alexis Coe’s Alice + Freda Forever brings to life the story of Alice Mitchell and Freda Ward, who lived in a much too-familiar world intolerant of any relationship outside the norm. Coe’s narrative covers the perceptions of sexuality, women’s role in society, racial hierarchy, media manipulation, and even mental health, but she never strays too far from the heart of the story: the tragic romance between two women forty years before the word lesbian would be in circulation. —Justin Alvarez
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What Scares The Paris Review?

October 31, 2014 | by

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From a 1939 Dutch workplace safety poster by Gé Hurkmans.

The book I find myself most often recommending—Grace Krilanovich’s The Orange Eats Creeps—is perfect reading for tonight, or for any chilly evening, when the fallen leaves outside have begun to mold and decay in wet piles. I may originally have read it in the summer, but so thoroughgoing is its tone of paranoia, cold, rot, and subsumed violence that you can’t easily separate yourself from the refracted narrative of the book’s protagonist, an ESP-endowed teenage girl running with a group of “vampire hobo junkies” in the Pacific Northwest. She’s searching for her foster sister, Kim, along the “highway That Eats People,” and the novel reads like an Orphic descent into a bad dream within a bad dream, with the physical landscape—loamy, waterlogged, and dank—doubling as the psychic landscape: “The land was not to be trusted. Its climate had the potential to make those teetering on the edges of decency spill over into murderville … Psychos tried to plug up cracks with bodies, cloth, whatever’s at hand.” —Nicole Rudick

Scary things I remember: a hand coming out of a box on The Electric Company, the dying boar on the cover of my parents’ Four Seasons LP (made them skip the Autumn movement), “Ode to Billy Joe,” reading The Dead Zone by flashlight under the blanket at camp, The Shining (movie), The Exorcist (book), the prophecies of Nostradamus (had to hide the book), Let’s Scare Jessica to Death on TV on a Sunday afternoon (Sunday afternoon movie), the Twilight Zone movie (had to leave theater), Eraserhead late at night alone in my parents’ bedroom (“You are sick!”), the diner scene in Mulholland Drive (the compressed audio), the distortion of Laura Dern’s face in Inland Empire, “Don't Crash” by Front 242, in the listening room at the school library (do these still exist?), Don’t Look Now, Francis Bacon, Fleetwood Mac, The White Ribbon, the dream sequence in Amour, and the scary-doll movie Sadie made me see last month. The other things I’ve managed to forget. —Lorin Stein

Taylor Swift’s “Track 3” recently made it to number one on Canadian iTunes. The track was a glitch, eight seconds of white noise. I’m open-minded, so I gave it a try, and by lunchtime I realized, rather suddenly, that “Track 3” was stuck in my head; Swift seemed to follow me into the void, filling it with something familiar yet indefinable. In “Track 3” she’s mastered the Freudian uncanny, something that’s frighteningly unknown but brings us back to something familiar. Freud once quoted Ernst Jentsch: “One of the most successful devices for easily creating uncanny effects is to leave the [listener] in uncertainty whether or not a particular figure … is a human being or an automaton.” I maintain that Swift released “Track 3” in all its uncanniness to confess that she is, in fact, an automaton. If you think your costume is good, stew on that: Swift’s has been better, every day, since 1989. —Alex Celia

Alex jests, but I do not: I really adore Taylor Swift. And that’s scary. She’s just released the best pop record of 2014: the most exhilarating, the most addictive, and also the most inscrutable, the most frustrating. Carl Wilson, the best pop critic writing today, understands—his review of 1989 uses Swift’s famously undisclosed bellybutton as a metaphor through which to apprehend the entire Swiftian zeitgeist. He gazes into her navel “as umbilical nub,” “as median point and sore spot,” “as Jell-O shot dispenser,” “as contemplative locus,” “as camera aperture,” “as teen-pop erogenous zone,” “as pretty hate machine,” “as the whitest thing on Earth,” and “as the omphalos of capital,” among others. No one has better identified the qualities that make her such a vital force in pop, so lucid and so obscure. “You could tug forever at the ends of Swift’s elusive, invisible abdominal bundle of avarice and sentiment, art, ego, envy, love and hate, drought and flood, truth and fiction, savior and monster,” Wilson writes, “and it would never come undone.” If that’s not horrifying … —Dan Piepenbring

There once was a time when the scariest thing imaginable was what one never saw: creaks in the floorboard, the rustling of branches against the window, whispers floating in the wind. It used to be that the monsters in horror films were never seen, which got under your skin: think of the spiral staircase of the original The Haunting, the eerie sobs of an unseen woman in The Uninvited, the psychological violence in later films like The Entity. Then slasher flicks and the “video nasties” of the early 1980s came, and we evolved into the terror porn of the Hostel series to laughable films like The Human Centipede. These films are indeed horrific, but are they scary? It’s pretty unlikely that I’ll stumble upon some sadistic German surgeon, but I turn the lights off every night. So it totally makes sense that The Blair Witch Project made millions of dollars—that last image in the basement is still ingrained in my head because—besides being absolutely terrifying—you never know who was behind the terror. (I still can’t go camping without thinking of the film.) One recent film that stands out, and one that gets better with repeated viewings, is The Orphanage (2007). There’s nothing innovative in the storytelling—haunted house, missing child—but it expertly builds the atmosphere of the remote orphanage and the characters who inhabit it. There aren’t as many thrills as something like The Descent—a great example of what is still possible within creature features–but when the scares come they are genuine. The rest is waiting, anticipating, dreading; there’s nothing scarier than what haunts one’s imagination. —Justin Alvarez Read More »

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Staff Picks: Dimensions, Defacements, Darkness

October 24, 2014 | by

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Mike Kelley, Reconstructed History, 1989, ink and collage on paper, framed, in fifty parts, 11" x 8.5" each. © The Estate of Mike Kelley/Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts

It is strangely relaxing to visit Frankfurt during the book fair, if you’re not in the book business. While actual publishers were staying out late and getting up early and speed-reading manuscripts on their phones, I got to visit Lucy Raven’s 3-D film installation, “Curtains,” at Portikus gallery, confirming my own suspicion that I do not, in fact, see in 3-D. (Everything was flat and red—or flat and blue if I squinted.) I also got to read the first three books of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. It was my third attempt on Powell’s twelve-volume comedy of manners, and I could see what defeated me before—the fake-Proustian “philosophizing,” the unparsable sentences and cavalier grammar, the complete lack of believable erotic feeling, the endless talk about characters who never rise above caricature. The whole thing is amateurish in a way that only English novels like to be. And yet Powell has a genius for physical space. He can seat an entire dinner party so you remember who’s sitting where or show four friends walking down the street in such a way that you can tell, at all times, who’s walking next to whom. It’s magic. His characters may be strictly 2-D, but you always know where they are. —Lorin Stein

Last week I went to a show at Skarstedt Gallery to see a show of work by the late Mike Kelley. Kelley was a genius of an artist; to my mind, he is a genius of an artist, even though, of course, we will get no more new work from him. That present tense may be partly due to the fact that since his death, I’ve seen art by him that I hadn’t previously seen—like the installation at Skarstedt, which comprised fifty small, framed illustrations torn from American history textbooks and defaced by Kelley. The doodles are lewd and juvenile—he has Alexander Hamilton making a pass at George Washington and a signatory barfing on the Declaration of Independence—graffiti appropriate to the bored teenagers who likely suffered through the books. It’s a smart, astute work and very funny (a combination no artist does better than Kelley), but what really got me was the wall text, which was taken from Kelley’s introduction to a book of these images, published in 1990. This too-sober text turns an idealized view of American history and patriotism on its head: “Such childish resentment is the cause of the defacements presented here. The inability to accept their lower position in the order of things provokes these ‘artists’ to drag back to the surface garbage long buried–to sully, vandalize, and render inoperable our pictures of health,” he writes, adding, “Not that such a tactic is always bad.” —Nicole Rudick

“ ‘I get really affected by bestiality with children,’ she says … ‘I have to stop for a moment and loosen up, maybe go to Starbucks and have a coffee.’ She laughs at the absurd juxtaposition of a horrific sex crime and an overpriced latte.” That’s Adrien Chen in the latest issue of Wired, looking at the vast labor force (“well over 100,000”) devoted to “content moderation,” the purgation of offensive material from our social networks. If you’ve ever wondered why your YouTube experience never shades into sadism or pornography, you have content moderators to thank. Our demand for a whitewashed Internet—an uncontaminated “content stream”—comes at a steep human cost. Imagine if it were your full-time job to watch pornography, beheadings, torture, hate: the whole gamut of id and primeval desire, eight hours a day, forty hours a week. As Chen describes them, these laborers—that seems to me the only word for them, even if they’re handsomely remunerated—are at once desensitized and permanently scarred; he’s not overstating things when he writes that they’ve been “staring into the heart of human darkness.” One wants to cry foul here: Is it really necessary to expose so many people to such constant atrocity? Chen’s reporting presents a Gordian knot of ethics and exploitation. —Dan Piepenbring
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Staff Picks: Pirates, Policemen, Purple Skies

October 17, 2014 | by

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Jane Wilson, Hurricane Watch, 1990, oil on canvas, 35" x 40". Image via DC Moore Gallery.

In 1965, Jane Wilson made a print for The Paris Review. Hers was included in the first group offered by the magazine through its new print series; Wilson was joined in that inaugural endeavor by, among others, Helen Frankenthaler and Jane Freilicher, all of whom were cohorts in midfifties New York. Other than the print, I’ve only ever seen one of Wilson’s works, at a friend’s house—it’s a sizable painting of a landscape—but that’s been enough to make me covet her artwork. DC Moore Gallery has nearly a dozen of these landscapes on view right now, and they’re stunning. At almost six feet square, the paintings are large, and their size is amplified by terrific expanses of sky that take up most of the picture space. And what skies: a full range of purples, golds, blues, and greens—they appear as visions, as though you can see through time while only looking at the clouds.  —Nicole Rudick

If you call Pirate Joe’s in Vancouver during off hours, you’ll be greeted by the store’s owner, Michael Hallatt, on the recording. “We do not sell Trader Joe’s products,” he says. “You might have heard we do; we don’t. That would be unfair to Trader Joe’s, to go down there and buy groceries from them. Say you bought like maybe a million dollars worth of groceries from them over three years, that would be grossly unfair.” But that’s exactly what Hallatt has done. Trader Joe’s doesn’t have a Canadian presence, so loopholes in a gray market allow Hallatt to resell Joe’s groceries. Priceonomics has the full story, from Hallatt’s early stock runs to Bellingham, Washington, and his subsequent ban from Trader Joe’s locations to his ongoing lawsuit with the grocery chain. At the end of the day, this is a love story between a man and a store. “Hallatt’s ultimate goal with Pirate Joe’s is to ‘bring’ Trader Joe’s to Canada—before he had the store he would call them and just petition them, and he has always promised to close up shop if they ever expand north. In many ways, Hallatt would count this as the ultimate victory.” —Justin Alvarez

The Melville House blog introduced me to The Policeman’s Beard Is Half Constructed, a—novella? discourse? medium-length prose work?—composed in the early eighties by an artificial intelligence called Racter (short for raconteur). Racter likely had some editorial assistance from good old-fashioned human beings, but even so, its work is affecting. There are moments when it has an eerily sophisticated grasp of these things we call “emotions,” all the complex longings that come with personhood: love, envy, hunger. And then there are moments when it sounds utterly robotic, almost autistic. A representative sample: “A sturdy dove flies over a starving beaver. The dove watches the beaver and fantasizes that the beaver will chew some steak and lamb and lettuce. The beaver spies the dove and dreams of enrapturing and enthralling pleasures, of hedge-adorned avenues studded with immense pink cottages, of streets decorated with bushes and shrubs. The beaver is insane.” —Dan Piepenbring

I was reluctant to read Don DeLillo’s Falling Man because I don’t remember how I felt on 9/11; I was barely ten. My mom, an EMT, pulled me out of school and dropped me home with my dad before rushing to the train station where first-responders were meeting. I was in McDonald’s eating a Big Mac when the South Tower fell. Eventually my brother and I got tired of watching my dad watch CNN; we went upstairs and watched Dumb & Dumber on a nine-inch television instead. DeLillo shows incredible tact and poise in his navigation of such a delicate subject. The novel is bookended by short scenes that take place during the attacks. The imagery is vivid, horrifying, and pea-soupy with detail. But DeLillo’s voice is strongest in his enigmatic mastery of the domestic. He doesn’t attempt to evaluate fallout and fear on a national level. Instead, he shadows a single survivor who returns to his estranged wife and child. The brilliance of Falling Man isn’t in shoving the reader back through the ashes of American flags but in exploring how the tragedy affected our understanding of memory, faith, and fear. —Alex Celia

In The Guardian’s “The Long Read” this week, Pankaj Mishra critiques The Fourth Revolution, a new book by John Micklethwait and Adrian Woolridge (both editors at the Economist). It’s beyond me how Mishra isn’t completely exhausted from his tireless defense against that most damaging and useless binary, “East/West.” “The twentieth century was blighted by the same pathologies that today make the western model seem unworkable, and render its fervent advocates a bit lost,” Mishra observes. Among the “advocates” he takes to task are “such Panglosses of globalization as Thomas Friedman” and Francis Fukuyama, whose pernicious “inverted Hegelianiam” must stop being consumed by the masses. Deftly showing how ISIS is “the latest incarnation” of “the blood-splatted French revolutionary tradition” and arguing that we must look to “historical specificity and detail” rather than support totalizing ideologies, Mishra provides a much-needed, sober reading of the state of the world today. —Charles Shafaieh

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