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The New Criterion

Quite simply, the best cultural review in the world
- John O’Sullivan




by Stefan Beck

Posted: Sep 22, 2009 07:55 PM

I don’t have much love for Adam Gopnik. I’ve never gotten over his horrifying and, I think, sensibility-defining comment about the smell of lower Manhattan in the wake of 9/11: “Not entirely horrible from a reasonable distance—almost like the smell of smoked mozzarella.” This unwitting Hannibal Lecter routine is the least of Gopnik’s problems, though: See this classic takedown by James Wolcott, which I could read once a month and never tire of. I do check out Gopnik’s work from time to time—usually to see if he’s outdone himself, but occasionally because I suspect I might actually like it.

For instance, I’ll read anything ridiculing Dan Brown, the richer-than-Jesus author whose Da Vinci Code rewrote the rules about what an adult can read in public without having a milkshake thrown at him. Brown’s new chapter book, The Lost Symbol, was just released to much fanfare (“THRILLING AND ENTERTAINING, LIKE THE EXPERIENCE ON A ROLLER COASTER,” raves the Los Angeles Times on the dust jacket, though in fairness this is a brazen ESL remix of the original review). In this brief piece, Gopnik makes a few interesting speculations about the distressing popularity of Brown’s work:

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Truth & consequences

by Stefan Beck

Posted: Sep 13, 2009 02:47 PM

I first came across this column by Charles Krauthammer on September 11. I was, am, in perfect sympathy with its main argument, which is that Van Jones’s association with the 9/11 “Truth” movement should have disqualified him from membership in “polite society,” to say nothing of “a high-level job in the White House.” Krauthammer can’t get too exercised by the other major complaints about Jones (his use of indelicate language, his psuedo-communism, and so on), finding them more or less beside the point. “On the eighth anniversary of 9/11,” he writes, “. . . a decent respect for the memory of that day requires that truthers, who derangedly desecrate it, be asked politely to leave. By everyone.”

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Teachers leave them kids alone

by Stefan Beck

Posted: Aug 28, 2009 04:48 PM

As anyone with an Internet connection knows, Science and Research spend a lot of time and money proving things that those of us with common sense already know. For instance, I just punched “scientific study” into Google News and pulled up this doozy: “Study of Hurricane Katrina’s dead show most were old, lived near levee breaches.” Baffling, I’m sure. Occasionally this sort of inquiry serves a valuable purpose, by putting beyond a doubt something that everyone suspects but many refuse to acknowledge. Consider this delightful review by City Journal’s Kay Hymowitz:

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Flyte plan

by Stefan Beck

Posted: Aug 25, 2009 12:38 PM

Encounter a book too early in life—for instance, the Odyssey in a ninth-grade English class—and you’re unlikely to appreciate it fully. Put a book down one too many times—perhaps The Brothers Karamazov—and you’ll probably never get around to finishing it. But discover a book at just the right time and chances are you’ll still be preoccupied with it long after you’ve stopped enjoying it, like some assassin compulsively snatching up copies of The Catcher in the Rye.

For me, that book is Brideshead Revisited. I first read it in college, and, as I’m sure is true for many of its devotees, I liked the college parts best. Life at Oxford, with its mixture of radical extravagance and ancient tradition, was a far cry from anything one could experience in the United States. The rest of the book, even after multiple readings, is curiously unmemorable, not to mention unquotable, alongside the best Animal House-in-spats passages. (Michael Weiss has done a fine job of outlining some of the books deficiencies here.)

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Travel by ordeal

by Stefan Beck

Posted: Jul 18, 2009 11:13 AM

When it comes to travel, we modern folk have it far too easy. Is it possible any longer to have an adventure when, according to this Der Spiegel piece, even “the highest point on Earth, the 8,848 meter peak of Everest” is in danger of become a tourist trap? Billi Bierling, a journalist and, as of May, the first German woman to summit Everest from Nepal, warns that “[m]any [climbers] don’t know how to put on crampons or even how to hold an ice pick. . . . Anyone looking for a mountain adventure shouldn’t go for Everest.” Blame it on “the Sherpas and infrastructure—such as fixed ropes leading right up to the summit,” not to mention the creature comforts available to climbers at surreal “base camps.”

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A tree grows in Hyderabad

by Stefan Beck

Posted: Jun 23, 2009 10:54 PM

Anyone who believes that money is the solution to every problem bedeviling the education system—and I hope that doesn’t include many Armavirumque readers—should be sure to have look at this City Journal piece. It’s a review of James Tooley’s The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journal Into How the World’s Poorest People Are Educating Themselves, a book which, from the sounds of things, deals a powerful blow to that lazy, wasteful attitude.

So how are the world’s poorest people educating themselves? The answer is shocking in its simplicity: by saying “no thanks” to state- and NGO-funded and -run schools and founding their own. “[W]hile on a sightseeing excursion to [Hyderabad, India’s] teeming slums, Tooley observed something peculiar: private schools were just as prevalent in these struggling areas as in the nicer neighborhoods. Everywhere he spotted hand-painted signs advertising locally run educational enterprises. ‘Why,’ he wondered, ‘had no one I’d worked with in India told me about them?’”

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Ireland’s Chekhov

by Stefan Beck

Posted: Jun 22, 2009 08:53 PM

Around St. Patrick’s Day I treated Armavirumque readers to my five favorite pieces of Irish literature. Number three on that list was “First Confession,” a hilarious short story about a wee lad who “had it all arranged to kill [his] grandmother.” The author of the story is Frank O’Connor. For many years “First Confession” was all I’d read of his, but I’ve been making my way through the recently published Everyman’s Library edition of his work, edited by Julian Barnes, and I’m amazed I’ve never been urged to read O’Connor before.

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The Gulag Snarkipelago

by Stefan Beck

Posted: Jun 20, 2009 02:38 PM

Remember David Denby’s Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal, and It’s Ruining Our Conversation and how badly it bombed? If you don’t think two pans equal a trend, have a look at the reader reviews. And then click over to this piece, by former TNC intern and contributor Nicholas Desai, about what snark isn’t, what it is, and finding its epitome in what seemed at first to be the unlikeliest of places:

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Hello Hellas

by Stefan Beck

Posted: Jun 19, 2009 04:14 PM

In exactly two weeks I will be on a plane to Athens, so I was delighted to stumble upon this piece by Christopher Hitchens about the new Acropolis Museum. The museum opens tomorrow—talk about perfect timing—and provided I can find an Internet cafe not too crowded with video gamers and anarchists, Arma Virumque readers are sure to get a look inside.

Hitchens is something of an expert on the Parthenon, particularly the Elgin Marbles, having written an entire book on the subject. He is squarely in the give-’em-back camp, and his brief article, apart from containing a great deal of fascinating history, manages to be very persuasive on that point.

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Furst things first

by Stefan Beck

Posted: Jun 15, 2009 04:22 PM

A couple weeks ago I suggested some potential beach reads. In Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, Alan Furst does the same, recommending his five favorite spy novels. Topping the list is one of my own favorites, Graham Greene’s amusing Our Man in Havana (1958). (Fans of Greene know that it’s probably unique among his books in deserving that adjective.)

Graham Greene’s work must be included in any survey of top-rank spy novels, and “Our Man in Havana” may be his best. The problem here is Hollywood: Just as you can’t read Greene’s “The Third Man” without thinking of Orson Welles, “Our Man in Havana” instantly brings to mind Alec Guinness, followed closely by the sublime Ernie Kovacs. But the book itself is a marvel, making fun of the espionage business while still remaining a spy novel. It brings ample suspense and expertly wrought ambience to its tale of a British vacuum-cleaner salesman in Cuba who reluctantly agrees to become an MI6 agent. He begins filing fanciful reports—including sketches of a secret military installation based on a vacuum-cleaner design—that the home office takes all too seriously. “Our Man in Havana” is a honey of a beach read, best served with rum and Coke.

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( AHR-mah wih-ROOM-kweh)


In the Aeneid, the Roman poet Virgil sang of "arms and a man" (Arma virumque cano). Month in and month out, The New Criterion expounds with great clarity and wit on the art, culture, and political controversies of our times. With postings of reviews, essays, links, recs, and news, Armavirumque seeks to continue this mission in accordance with the timetable of the digital age.


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