Our Critic’s Tip Sheet On Current Reading: Week of August 6th, 2007

A.A. Gill’s amusingly intemperate book on the English national character, The Angry Island: Hunting the English (S&S, $24), is a classic case of pot/kettle calumny. He thinks the “lumpen and louty, coarse, unsubtle, beady-eyed, beefy-bummed herd of England” is seething with repressed rage. Whether or not he’s right (my own experience leads me to suspect he’s wrong), I’m very glad that he’s made no attempt to bottle up his own bile, or else we might have had to do without his description of English politics (see page C16) as “puce-faced, finger-jabbing, spittle-flecked.”

A laudable sign of editorial flexibility: Referring to the war on terror in The New Republic last month, Sam Tanenhaus, editor of The New York Times Book Review, warned against the temptation “to see the Bush administration as the sole author of our present troubles.” Fast-forward to the current issue of the Book Review (July 29, www.nytimes.com), to the blunt 4,000-word essay by Samantha Powers that begins by blasting “the fallacies not simply of Bush’s post-9/11 policies but also of his post-9/11 premises.” Ms. Powers has no trouble at all locating the source of “our present troubles”: “In short, although the United States has not been directly hit since 9/11, we are less safe as a result of the Bush administration’s rhetoric, conduct and strategy.”

In his characteristically intelligent review of The Grand Surprise: The Journals of Leo Lerman in The New York Review of Books (August 16, $5.50), Daniel Mendelsohn zeros in on Lerman’s inability to write the big, consequential book that he and his legion of friends expected him to produce. As early as 1949, Lerman had noted in his journal with poignant honesty, “I say such wonderful things about books and people and … when I come to write it’s all gone.” Which brings to mind Gertrude Stein’s stern warning to Hemingway: “Remarks are not literature.”