There are three phrases that are almost always bad news for a piece of cultural writing.
1. "The masses."
2. "Middle America."
3. "The lowest common denominator."
All three are ways to separate the writer and her sensibility — which are presumed to be congruent with the reader and her sensibility — from invisible and undefined others, for whom bad cultural content is produced and by whom it is unquestioningly gobbled up.
It used to be a truism among critics of British poetry that Keats and most of his fellow Romantic poets worked in the shadow of John Milton. I'm not making a perfect analogy when I suggest that most contemporary Japanese writers seem to be working under the shadow of Haruki Murakami, but I hope it highlights the spirit of the situation.
"What are those?" I asked my mom, suspiciously eyeing the little cardboard tub with its cellophane cover. It held a heap of pale, miniature cabbages. "They're Brussels sprouts," she said. "They're supposed to be good for you," she added, sealing my doom.
At dinnertime, the mystery vegetable reappeared, steaming hot and greenish-yellow but otherwise unaltered. It gave off a sulfurous stench. I recoiled, but I knew my job. I took a bite.
In a new book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War, journalist and author Fred Kaplan tackles the career of David H. Petraeus and follows the four-star general from Bosnia to his commands in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Central to the story are ideas of counterinsurgency. Kaplan says that while counterinsurgency is not a new kind of warfare, it's a kind of war that Americans do not like to fight.
Viewed through the lens of dogmatic perversions in the Soviet Union and China, communism is often seen as the antithesis of American society; an atheistic dystopia founded by Karl Marx, one of the post-Enlightenment's wayward secular philosophers. But Marx came from a deeply religious background — generations of rabbis on both sides — and his original motivation lay in that most Christian of principles: helping humanity's downtrodden.
Herman Koch's new novel The Dinner is a meal that may give you indigestion, but you'll relish the burn. The book begins with two couples meeting for dinner in a posh Amsterdam restaurant: Paul Lohman, the entertainingly bilious narrator, his brother Serge, a rising politician almost certain to become prime minister in the next election, and their wives. But the dinner conversation is grim, even shocking. Each couple has a teenage son, and the two boys have committed a ghastly crime — a crime that's been captured on grainy viral video.
Tuesday marks the 50th anniversary of the death of the poet Robert Frost, famous for such poems as "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" and "The Road Not Taken." Fans of Frost's works have another reason to pay special attention to his legacy this week: Jonathan Reichert, professor emeritus at the State University of New York at Buffalo, has just donated a rare collection of Frost materials to the university.
Over the past six months, the headlines from Aleppo, Syria, have been horrifying. As the conflict between rebel forces and the government continues, the city has been overrun by tanks and artillery, and assaulted by shots, explosions and fires.
But Aleppo's present belies a much richer past. It's Syria's largest city, and one of the world's oldest continually inhabited urban areas. Over the centuries, it has served as a major crossroads for trade and commerce.