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American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville Paperback – April 10, 2007

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Lévy's journey through this "magnificent, mad country" is indeed vertiginous as he loops from coast to coast and back, mounting to the heights of wealth and power—interviewing the likes of Barry Diller and John Kerry—and plunging into the depths of poverty and powerlessness, in urban ghettoes and prisons. (In this last, he truly follows Tocqueville, whose assignment in the young America was to visit prisons.) Each scene is quite short, which is frustrating at first, but soon the quick succession of images creates a jostling, animated portrait of America, full of resonances and contradictions. Sharon Stone in her luxurious home, railing about the misery of the poor, is quickly followed by Lévy's chat with a waitress in a Colorado town struggling to make ends meet. A gated retirement community in Arizona seems to the author like a prison, while Angola, a prison in Louisiana, has lush grounds that resemble a retirement community's. Lévy (Who Killed Daniel Pearl), the celebrated French thinker and journalist, is a master of the vignette and the miniature, whether explaining why he could feel at home in Seattle or pondering whether Diller's apparent amorality is "too flaunted to be completely sincere." In France, where anti-Americanism has been so popular, Lévy has been an anti-anti-Americanist, and while he finds serious fissures in this country's social landscape, in the end he is an optimist about the future of a country he admires for the richness of its culture and its political vision. (Feb. 1)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From The New Yorker

When Tocqueville wrote "Democracy in America," in the eighteen-thirties, it seemed as if only a foreigner could identify the essence of American culture. Now Lévy, a new kind of French aristocrat, has retraced his steps, travelling through our malls and megachurches and prisons. Lévy's writing has always been an arms race between shrewd observation and rapt self-absorption, but that's not the only problem here. The outsider's advantage is to see things fresh; his disadvantage is that he doesn't know when his observations are anything but fresh. In recent decades, our national self-scrutiny has spawned a library of its own—Joan Didion, Christopher Lasch, Mike Davis, Richard Sennett, Thomas Frank—and the time is long past when extracting profundities from the Mall of America seemed daring, rather than trite. Lévy's hortatory prose seethes with provocation and paradox; the trouble is that so many of his observations are so stale and predictable.
Copyright © 2006 The New Yorker --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks; Reprint edition (April 10, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0812974719
  • ISBN-13: 978-0812974713
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (64 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #577,119 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

28 of 32 people found the following review helpful By Latour07 on July 4, 2008
Format: Paperback
As a French citizen who likes the USA, I am not a supporter of Bags Of Wind. BHL has for a long time decided to stop thinking. "American Vertigo" is another expression of the wind which blows in the brain of this pedantic writer.

I totally agree with the good criticism written by William Grimes "A Modern-Day Tocqueville Finds an Uncertain America", February 4, 2006 in the New-York Times. I quote an extract of this relevant analysis.

"Mr. Lévy is, in some ways, a good traveling companion. He takes a keen interest in American politics, and he loves American literature. His voyage of discovery owes as much to Jack Kerouac or Walt Whitman as it does to Tocqueville, a writer whom, he notes in his preface, he barely knew before setting out. But because he lives almost entirely inside his head, he does a remarkably poor job at communicating the sights, sounds and smells of American life. There are many moments, riding in the car with him, that you want to tell him to shut up for five minutes and take a good look at what's out the window.

He is lazy. Tocqueville, faced with the bewildering logic of American politics and American habits, rolled up his sleeves and tried to account for what he saw. Mr. Lévy dashes off a few lines, shrugs his shoulders and tosses out rhetorical questions. Some are long and involved, others quite brief, like the "Who knows ?" that caps his musings on the inner life of President Bush. At least half of the provocative questions that make up "American Vertigo" should have been written down as homework assignments for the author rather than lobbed in the face of the reader. He does not bother to chase down elusive facts, like who finances Medicaid. Instead, he wraps them in an "I'm told," or "it's said that."
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83 of 102 people found the following review helpful By Peter on January 30, 2006
Format: Hardcover
That probably the best book on America was written by a remarkable Frenchman has been known since about 1830, but that fact doesn't seem to bother Americans one whit. On the contrary, we're glad to have it. Especially these days, when the question of American character and integrity seem to be on the chopping block, both here and abroad. But it does seem to irritate the French a good deal, because even though they can lay claim to having authored the best book on America (although one certainly can't forget Mark Twain in this context), they still don't seem to understand it. Alexis de Tocqueville's `Democracy in America' set the bar very high for French intellectuals, and it's become something of a great-great-grandfather complex for them. Tocqueville threw down the gauntlet, and Bernard-Henri Lévy has picked it up in his `American Vertigo.'

Whatever else they disagree on, French intellectuals - of which Bernard-Henri Lévy is certainly one (his initials BHL are often compared in France to a fashion brand, and he prefers shirts that can't be buttoned to turtleneck sweaters) - seem nevertheless destined to share one thing in common: at some or other point in their careers they are compelled to try and 'understand' America. This is the pretext for Lévy's new book, a fast-paced jog through the US that aims to sample the patchwork that makes up the fauna (the political animals, Amish people, strippers, etc.) and the flora (usually restricted to natural wonders like the Space Needle, megachurches and certain well-known prisons) of our American culture, or American Vertigo. Lévy travels to America precisely because he doesn't understand it.
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20 of 23 people found the following review helpful By BH on April 12, 2007
Format: Paperback
For the best review of this one, check the NY Times.

"You meet Sharon Stone and John Kerry and a woman who once weighed 488 pounds and an obese couple carrying rifles, but there's nobody here whom you recognize. In more than 300 pages, nobody tells a joke. Nobody does much work. Nobody sits and eats and enjoys their food. You've lived all your life in America, never attended a megachurch or a brothel, don't own guns, are non-Amish, and it dawns on you that this is a book about the French. There's no reason for it to exist in English, except as evidence that travel need not be broadening and one should be wary of books with Tocqueville in the title."

".... every 10 pages or so, Lévy walks into a wall. About Old Glory, for example. Someone has told him about the rules for proper handling of the flag, and from these (the flag must not be allowed to touch the ground, must be disposed of by burning) he has invented an American flag fetish, a national obsession, a cult of flag worship." MYTimes

As far I can tell, Lévy is a "self-styled" philosopher and a boring writer, except to the French who treat him like a film star. It makes you wonder about the French. I have known some who are fine people; but this man makes me recall the English indictment: "France; a lovely country. Too bad about the people." Too bad their taste in writers isn't as good as their taste in food and fashion!
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54 of 67 people found the following review helpful By immortal pickwick on February 14, 2006
Format: Hardcover
After reading Garrison Keillor's review of this book in the NYT I feel compelled to weigh in my opinion of American Vertigo, by Bernard-Henri Levy. Keillor's review, for those of you who have read it and are consequently skeptical about shelling out the money for this book, was one long shamelessly insulting piece of invective, totally unfair, totally off the mark and illustrating a complete lack of understanding and forebearance. Because Levy was at times (admittedly, quite often) long-winded, philosophically minded, and revelled, it's true, in frequent references (sometimes obscure) to novelists, philosophers, movie directors, to support his theses, Keillor trampled all over this book without digging any deeper. He accused Levy of being superficial, harping on his writing style, and hypocritically wrote an embarassingly superficial review of this admirable book.

What can you expect from this book? Don't go in hoping for all of the answers. No one person, American or not, understands all of the nuances of this broad and diverse country (Whitman of the US: "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes"). But I consider this perspective from an outsider commenting on our culture, a la Tocqueville, to be an invaluable insightful piece of journalistic writing. He sets out on a cross-country ramble, with the opinions and misconceptions of his countrymen surely ringing in his ears, and reports with admirable honesty having been shocked by how many of his preconceived notions were utterly shattered. True he is still set, and couldn't possibly budge (what would be the use to us?) from his French-ness. And so his itinerary is surely not one an American would choose in pursuit of cultural enlightenment.
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