Our Critic’s Tip Sheet On Current Reading: Week of October 1st, 2007

Bob Harris is a brave man. Armed only with his irreverent sense of humor, boldly declaring his lack of expertise, he charges into the thick of the globe’s myriad simmering wars, coolly cataloguing the gripes of each antagonistic sect and faction. The result, Who Hates Whom—Well-Armed Fanatics, Intractable Conflicts, and Various Things Blowing Up: A Woefully Incomplete Guide (Three Rivers Press, $11.95), is hilariously relaxed about all the hate out there. See, for example, his remarks on the 2006 Tehran conference on the Holocaust: “Mahmoud Ahmadinejad invited the world’s leading crackpots for a shindig of wrongitude. … Jetting the former head of the Ku Klux Klan halfway around the world for tea is legitimately creepy.”

At the other end of the spectrum … In The Stillborn God (Knopf, $26), Columbia professor Mark Lilla takes a long look at the schism in Western thought between politics and religion, just the sort of analysis you’d think would instantly hook any reader interested in the roots of lethal fundamentalism, sectarian violence and the inability of modern government to cope with messianic movements at home and abroad. Tough luck: Mr. Lilla drones on like a Sunday sermon. There’s no academic jargon here, but we know where we’re at: comfortably perched at the tippy-top of the ivory tower. “It is a matter of chance,” the author confides, “that [this] book was written and will be first read at a time when the perennial challenge of political theology has become evident for all to see.” How’s that for a sense of urgency?

Wordsworth had a nice line about our inescapable human fate: “Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course/ With rocks, and stones, and trees.” It just keeps happening willy-nilly, whether we pay attention or not. If you want to see the world turn with fresh eyes—or better yet, if you want to register the progress of earth’s diurnal course with all your senses, acquire a copy of Michael Sims’ lyrical and learned Apollo’s Fire: A Day on Earth in Nature and Imagination (Viking, $24.95).

R. B. Kitaj is back! The artist, who will be 75 in October, offers up in his Second Diasporist Manifesto (Yale, $26) what he calls “a long unfinished poem” about Jewish art—beautifully illustrated (in black and white, alas) with Mr. Kitaj’s paintings and drawings. “I’ve got Jew on the brain,” he rants. “Jews are my Tahiti, my Giverny, my DADA, my String Theory, my Lost Horizon.” You can’t beat it for relentless energy and untethered brilliance.