When John Leonard says he's going to "use a nifty novel, Philip Kerr's A Philosophical Investigation
, as an excuse to talk about everything else under the fascistic sun," he means it, as a review of a futuristic thriller turns into a grand tour of modern culture, with stops to look at (among other things) the history of serial killers, Weimar Germany, E.O. Wilson's theories of sociobiology, the life of Ludwig Wittgenstein, the roots of psychoanalysis, a 4th-century woman mathematician, and Copenhagen's paltry commemoration of Soren Kierkegaard. In these essays, gathered from various publications (mostly The Nation
), Leonard takes on everything from Toni Morrison to the X-Files
movie in freewheeling, energetic style. Reading cultural criticism hasn't been this much fun since Lester Bangs
was on the scene. When the Kissing Had to Stop
is probably best suited for periodic dipping rather than a straight-through reading, because it is
possible to overdose on the massive amounts of cultural literacy crammed into Leonard's prose. But who could resist the rough charms of a man who notes, in the middle of reviewing Bret Easton Ellis, "I read this stuff so you don't have to"? --Ron Hogan
From Publishers Weekly
A weekly commentator on CBS Sunday Morning and a former editor of the New York Times Book Review, Leonard (Smoke and Mirrors) has distinguished himself as a cultural critic over the past two decades with his unabashedly liberal, even leftist, views. His eighth book is a collection of 30 essays, many of them expanded since their original publications in such journals as the Nation and the New York Review of Books. Part of Leonard's ongoing critique of contemporary U.S. electronic and print media, the pieces range from "Lolita Lights Our Fire," a review of Adrian Lyne's film of Nabokov's most notorious novel, to an evaluation of government funding and the arts in "Whose Television, for Which Public?" Leonard is terrific at describing and explaining everything from The X-Files to the current politics of smoking. As a materialist, he locates the roots of current culture in political and economic realities, not any vague millennialism. While his ruminations cut a wide swath, he never strays from his basic theme that post-Cold War America has been overwhelmed and undercut by deeply ingrained paranoia, as well as by a sense of incipient doom. He offers no concrete or radical solutions but hints that a better world beckons in the writings of such artists as Grace Paley, Doris Lessing and Toni Morrison. Often ecstatically urgent, these pieces are highly informed and cogently argued.
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