1. Bob Dylan’s latest has received rave reviews just about everywhere. Who can doubt an honest effort from the elder statesman? In reality it is little more than a repackaged version of his last two (superb) albums and thus mostly predictable and mostly boring. By the way, it is becoming clearer — against all former odds — that he was often a horrible lyricist but he remains, even in his dotage, a remarkable vocalist.
2. I loved the first half of Samuel Beckett’s Watt, but then lost the thread of the book. Beckett’s fiction remains underread, if only because we’ve yet to figure out just how good it is (or isn’t). The best parts are astonishing, but at times I feel I am listening to one of those unfunny British radio comedy shows.
3. Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children is a novel about thirty-somethings, in a pre- and post 9-11 NYC, transitioning (or not) into adulthood. That is a recipe for literary trouble. But I bought it anyway, trusting Meghan O’Rourke, and yes it deserves the sterling reviews. I kept expecting Megan McArdle to show up as a character and give them all a good talking-to about microeconomics, which is exactly what the characters need.
4. The best world music release of the last year or so remains Amadou and Mariam, Dimanche a Bamako. It is also the best pop album of the last year. The two Mali musicmakers are blind and also married to each other. I don’t see how anyone could help but love this music. After a year from its purchase, I’m still listening to it.
5. Steven Slivinki’s Buck Wild: How Republicans Broke the Bank and Became the Party of Big Government is exactly what the subtitle suggests. How did that happen? One factor is that the Republicans found Democratic rule too horrible a prospect to bear and they became more populist. Let’s hope the Democrats don’t make a comparable mistake.
6. Stephen Miller’s Conversation: The History of a Declining Art. I loved the title, hated the subtitle. Much of the book, which considers the preconditions of good conversation, is fascinating and, despite its popular level, goes beyond the muddled arguments of Habermas. It collapses when it argues that the quality of conversation is declining in the modern world. The evidence consists solely of examples of bad modern conversations.