Chalk one up for the Philistines.

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KING DAVID

THE REAL LIFE OF THE MAN WHO RULED ISRAEL

A biographical narrative, in which lawyer, journalist, and amateur Bible student Kirsch (Moses, 1998) aims to strip away the pious gloss that later editors have allegedly added to the Bible.

What he manages instead is to reduce one of the most complex of figures to the constricted dimensions of a rather unsavory third-world politico: David as thug and sexual predator. Kirsch’s method is to paraphrase and expand the Bible text in the manner of paperback “novelization,” filling in the spare Hebrew narrative with invented details, the whole liberally sprinkled with “probably” and “we may imagine.” (When David first beholds Bathsheba, we are invited to “imagine that David woke from his slumber in a state of agitation and perhaps even sexual arousal.”) He then provides brief commentaries on the stories, concentrating on the most sensational scholarly conjectures (Was incest routinely practiced by Israelite royalty? Was David gay?). Kirsch takes David to task for his abuse of women and the handicapped, but he awards him extra points for possibly being Jonathan’s lover. There is a strange combination of literalness and hypercriticism at work here: the author seems to accept much of the Bible’s narrative at face value (although he does admit in his last chapter that many scholars are quite skeptical of its historicity), while discounting all the theological elements in the text as it now stands. In the end, though, the problem is one of sensibility. What can one expect to learn about David from a writer who views the great lamentation over Saul and Jonathan as “pretty sentiments,” dismisses the Deuteronomic historian as a “spin doctor,” and considers the Books of Kings (which include the stories of Elijah, Elisha, Ahab, and Jezebel) as “wholly lacking in the moments of literary grace, political acumen, and high drama that make Samuel such a compelling work of literature”? Kirsch’s David is neither the Bible’s David nor history’s: he belongs rather in our own political and cultural moment.

Chalk one up for the Philistines.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2000

ISBN: 0-345-43275-4

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Ballantine

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2000

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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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