Interesting, but not insightful.

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THE DEVIL IS A GENTLEMAN

EXPLORING AMERICA’S RELIGIOUS FRINGE

A quirky, ultimately unsatisfying investigation of religious belief.

Journalist Hallman (The Chess Artist, 2003) set out to get at the essence of religious commitment by exploring communities that inhabit the “fringe” of America’s faith landscape, from Druids to the monks of New Skete. He lunched with one of the nation’s leading Satanists, and with members of the evangelical Christian Wrestling Federation. He joined a group of Michigan-based atheists in their Godless March. While hanging out with Wiccans, he discovered some contradictions in this Goddess-worshipping, earth-friendly spirituality: Though ostensibly feminist and green, modern-day Wicca was founded by men and flourishes in cities. William James’s 1902 study The Varieties of Religious Experience guides this inquiry. Indeed, the great fin-de-siècle psychologist becomes the author’s spiritual doktorvater, and woven throughout these reports from the religious front are reflections on James’s life and thought. Sometimes the forays into his writing are illuminating: Hallman’s description of the monks of New Skete, who breed and write books about dogs, is enriched by James’s observations about the relationship between dogs and their owners. But often such asides are more distracting than instructive, and at times—when, for example, the author detours from a Wiccan conference in Seattle to a paragraph about James’s distaste for the Emerald City—they seem no more than an elaborate game of association. Hallman’s reporting is vivid, his prose sure and clear. But the book has a voyeuristic tone; both intrigued and repelled by his subject, the author trades in spectacle. He asks incidental ironies to do too much work, as when he hears a Satanist sneeze and says, “Bless you!” Hallman fails, finally, to offer enough analysis. The trip into Wicca, Satanism, canine monasticism and devout atheism has been fun, but what are we to make of it?

Interesting, but not insightful.

Pub Date: May 23, 2006

ISBN: 1-4000-6172-5

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2006

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

THE 48 LAWS OF POWER

The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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The author’s sincere sermon—at times analytical, at times hortatory—remains a hopeful one.

THE ROAD TO CHARACTER

New York Times columnist Brooks (The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement, 2011, etc.) returns with another volume that walks the thin line between self-help and cultural criticism.

Sandwiched between his introduction and conclusion are eight chapters that profile exemplars (Samuel Johnson and Michel de Montaigne are textual roommates) whose lives can, in Brooks’ view, show us the light. Given the author’s conservative bent in his column, readers may be surprised to discover that his cast includes some notable leftists, including Frances Perkins, Dorothy Day, and A. Philip Randolph. (Also included are Gens. Eisenhower and Marshall, Augustine, and George Eliot.) Throughout the book, Brooks’ pattern is fairly consistent: he sketches each individual’s life, highlighting struggles won and weaknesses overcome (or not), and extracts lessons for the rest of us. In general, he celebrates hard work, humility, self-effacement, and devotion to a true vocation. Early in his text, he adapts the “Adam I and Adam II” construction from the work of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Adam I being the more external, career-driven human, Adam II the one who “wants to have a serene inner character.” At times, this veers near the Devil Bugs Bunny and Angel Bugs that sit on the cartoon character’s shoulders at critical moments. Brooks liberally seasons the narrative with many allusions to history, philosophy, and literature. Viktor Frankl, Edgar Allan Poe, Paul Tillich, William and Henry James, Matthew Arnold, Virginia Woolf—these are but a few who pop up. Although Brooks goes after the selfie generation, he does so in a fairly nuanced way, noting that it was really the World War II Greatest Generation who started the ball rolling. He is careful to emphasize that no one—even those he profiles—is anywhere near flawless.

The author’s sincere sermon—at times analytical, at times hortatory—remains a hopeful one.

Pub Date: April 21, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9325-7

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Feb. 16, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2015

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