Our Critic’s Tip Sheet on Current Reading: McCain’s Scary Hagee; Plymouth Rock; Manhattan Watercolors

The scary YouTube videos of televangelist and McCain ally John Hagee don’t quite do justice to his talent as a preacher, at least according to Matt Taibbi’s vicious, funny, heartbreaking tour of the American scene, The Great Derangement (Spiegel & Grau, $24):


By any standard, Pastor John Hagee is an orator of unusual ability. His physical form is clownish; apart from the central-casting head of white, swept-back preacher hair, he has short, stubby arms and the body of a beach ball. He is one of those perfectly round fat men whose whole body seems like a platform for a straining top suit button that might at any moment shoot out skyward like a champagne cork. But when it talks, this beach ball has tremendous oratorical range, zooming back and forth from wry folksy humor to humility to booming fire-and-brimstone hellfire and back to humor again with effortless ease. When he asks for money, he sounds like he’s asking you the time. John Hagee could, as they say down here in Texas, talk a dog off a meat truck.


No wonder John McCain was eager for Pastor Hagee’s endorsement—despite his awkward habit of linking the Roman Catholic Church with Adolf Hitler and explaining that Hurricane Katrina “was, in fact, the judgment of God against … New Orleans” for planning a gay pride parade.

If Mr. Hagee is the archvillain of Matt Taibbi’s villain-filled book, another preacher, the Rev. Peter J. Gomes, pops up in the last chapter of Tony Horwitz’s A Voyage Long and Strange (Holt, $27.50) in the more flattering role of Benign Sage. A breezy, peripatetic history of European exploration of the New World, Mr. Horwitz’s book begins and ends at Plymouth Rock (which is housed in a columned enclosure known to the locals as “the Greek Outhouse”). Why, Mr. Horwitz repeatedly wonders, are the Pilgrim Fathers credited with “historic primacy” when Europeans had in fact been exploring the continent for centuries before the Mayflower sailed into the shallow bay near Plymouth? “Why elevate the Pilgrims to iconic status and ignore all the others who came to America before them?” Mr. Gomes has the answer:


Myth is more important than history. History is arbitrary, a collection of facts. Myth we choose, we create, we perpetuate.


He adds that the story of Plymouth Rock “may not be correct, but it transcends truth. It’s like religion—beyond facts. Myth trumps fact, always does, always has, always will.”

Fresh, friendly, charming, Robert L. Bowden’s Manhattan in Detail (Universe, $17.95) may be the prettiest new book on sale. It consists of 44 watercolors by Mr. Bowden—scenes of the city’s most famous monuments (the Met, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Flatiron building) mixed with glimpses of spots only locals are likely to care about (Elaine’s, Striver’s Row, a brownstone on St. Luke’s Place). The title is a bit of a misnomer: Watercolor is never the best medium for showing off detail. In fact, Mr. Bowden’s Manhattan is airbrushed, idealized, flattered by a warm, scrummy palette. It’s the city we carry with us in our hearts.

Our Critic’s Tip Sheet on Current Reading: McCain’s Scary Hagee; Plymouth Rock; Manhattan Watercolors