Commentary Magazine


Posts For: July 20, 2007

Weekend Reading

“Taking arms against Harry Potter, at this moment, is to emulate Hamlet taking arms against a sea of troubles. By opposing the sea, you won’t end it.” So wrote literary critic Harold Bloom in the Wall Street Journal seven years ago. This statement seems truer this weekend than ever before, as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh and final book in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, hits store shelves at midnight, while Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix tops the movie box-office charts.

But is the book any good? New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani praises the new book and the series as a whole: “Ms. Rowling has fitted together the jigsaw-puzzle pieces of this long undertaking with Dickensian ingenuity and ardor.” These words would not surprise Bloom, who predicted that “The New York Times—the official newspaper of our dominant counter-culture—will go on celebrating [Potter,] another confirmation of the dumbing-down it leads and exemplifies.”

A review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is unlikely in these pages, but that is not to say COMMENTARY does not acknowledge the critical importance of children’s literature. We only suggest that instead of allowing Harry Potter to be your child’s, or your own, weekend reading, choose a story for children of all ages: Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Three Stories for Children,” with illustrations by Maurice Sendak, which appeared in the July 1966 issue of COMMENTARY.

“Taking arms against Harry Potter, at this moment, is to emulate Hamlet taking arms against a sea of troubles. By opposing the sea, you won’t end it.” So wrote literary critic Harold Bloom in the Wall Street Journal seven years ago. This statement seems truer this weekend than ever before, as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh and final book in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, hits store shelves at midnight, while Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix tops the movie box-office charts.

But is the book any good? New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani praises the new book and the series as a whole: “Ms. Rowling has fitted together the jigsaw-puzzle pieces of this long undertaking with Dickensian ingenuity and ardor.” These words would not surprise Bloom, who predicted that “The New York Times—the official newspaper of our dominant counter-culture—will go on celebrating [Potter,] another confirmation of the dumbing-down it leads and exemplifies.”

A review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is unlikely in these pages, but that is not to say COMMENTARY does not acknowledge the critical importance of children’s literature. We only suggest that instead of allowing Harry Potter to be your child’s, or your own, weekend reading, choose a story for children of all ages: Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Three Stories for Children,” with illustrations by Maurice Sendak, which appeared in the July 1966 issue of COMMENTARY.

Read Less

Mao, Coming Soon to the Big Screen

Earlier this week, Variety magazine reported that Robert DeNiro and his Tribeca Productions partner Jane Rosenthal have obtained the rights to Roy Rowan’s Chasing the Dragon: A Veteran Journalist’s Firsthand Account of the 1949 Chinese Revolution. Rowan, a former correspondent for Time and Life, will be a consultant on the film.

I probably will not be asked to help on this project, so I thought I should make some notes for DeNiro. The late 1940’s were heady times for Mao Zedong. He defeated a vastly superior adversary, Chiang Kai-shek, who enjoyed substantial American support. Yet Kai-shek was corrupt, weak, and incompetent. It’s no wonder that a ragtag army of rebels led by an assistant librarian with literary aspirations defeated him—Chiang had simply lost the hearts of the Chinese people. Mao did not win, so much as he occupied a vacuum after his opponent’s forces disintegrated.

The young Mao went on to preside over the early successes of the People’s Republic. So DeNiro’s film might end up making him look pretty good. Should we complain if Mao is portrayed as a hero during the revolution and the first few years of New China?

Actually, the better Mao looks on the big screen, the worse it is for his successors, especially the ones in power now. Hu Jintao, the current General Secretary of the Communist Party, will not like moviegoers making comparisons between the charismatic Mao of the early years and the drab and corrupt leaders who infest Beijing today. Hu knows that the Party has lost the hearts of the Chinese, and someone in the audience may just get the idea that it is time for another revolution in the great nation of China. Chinese idealism, after all, did not die with Mao Zedong.

Earlier this week, Variety magazine reported that Robert DeNiro and his Tribeca Productions partner Jane Rosenthal have obtained the rights to Roy Rowan’s Chasing the Dragon: A Veteran Journalist’s Firsthand Account of the 1949 Chinese Revolution. Rowan, a former correspondent for Time and Life, will be a consultant on the film.

I probably will not be asked to help on this project, so I thought I should make some notes for DeNiro. The late 1940’s were heady times for Mao Zedong. He defeated a vastly superior adversary, Chiang Kai-shek, who enjoyed substantial American support. Yet Kai-shek was corrupt, weak, and incompetent. It’s no wonder that a ragtag army of rebels led by an assistant librarian with literary aspirations defeated him—Chiang had simply lost the hearts of the Chinese people. Mao did not win, so much as he occupied a vacuum after his opponent’s forces disintegrated.

The young Mao went on to preside over the early successes of the People’s Republic. So DeNiro’s film might end up making him look pretty good. Should we complain if Mao is portrayed as a hero during the revolution and the first few years of New China?

Actually, the better Mao looks on the big screen, the worse it is for his successors, especially the ones in power now. Hu Jintao, the current General Secretary of the Communist Party, will not like moviegoers making comparisons between the charismatic Mao of the early years and the drab and corrupt leaders who infest Beijing today. Hu knows that the Party has lost the hearts of the Chinese, and someone in the audience may just get the idea that it is time for another revolution in the great nation of China. Chinese idealism, after all, did not die with Mao Zedong.

Read Less

Low-Hanging Fruit

On the Washington Post op-ed page today, Michael Gerson, Bush’s former chief speechwriter, seconds a point I’ve been making for a while regarding the malign role of Syria and Iran in Iraq. While Iran is the bigger problem, Syria is more vulnerable to outside pressure and has fewer good options for retaliation. It is, in the words of a former Bush administration official quoted in Gerson’s article, “lower-hanging fruit.” It would make sense for either the U.S. or Israel (which has its own reasons to be aggrieved about Syrian sponsorship of terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Hizballah) to apply greater pressure to the regime in Damascus. (See here and here for past articles of mine advocating this approach.)

At a minimum, we should give our special operators the freedom to strike across the Syria-Iran border, if they think that will help stop the “ratlines” over which an estimated 50 to 80 jihadis a month are entering Iraq. (I’ve talked to some of our commandos who have told me they would be eager to get just such authority, but they have been blocked not only by cautious politicos in Washington, but also by cautious generals at Central Command.)

If that doesn’t work, there are various stronger steps that could be taken. One possible idea: Hold Damascus International Airport—the entry point into Iraq for countless Arab radicals from countries such as Saudi Arabia and Algeria—hostage. We could announce that we will use our airpower to shut down the entire facility, Syria’s only international airport, until Bashar Assad cuts off the influx of terrorists into Iraq. This would be a relatively low-risk option from the American viewpoint, but it would impose considerable pain on Syria.

I realize that this idea would be met with shrieks of horror in Washington and various European capitals, where the U.S. would be accused of “escalating” the war. In fact, it is Iran and Syria that have been doing the escalating. Shutting down the airport would represent merely a belated and limited response. Moreover, despite the inevitable political and diplomatic backlash, the American people might well applaud such vigorous action against those who have been killing American troops and our allies with impunity. And it might send a salutary signal of American toughness and resolve around the Middle East, where such qualities are more respected than they are in American and European foreign policy salons.

On the Washington Post op-ed page today, Michael Gerson, Bush’s former chief speechwriter, seconds a point I’ve been making for a while regarding the malign role of Syria and Iran in Iraq. While Iran is the bigger problem, Syria is more vulnerable to outside pressure and has fewer good options for retaliation. It is, in the words of a former Bush administration official quoted in Gerson’s article, “lower-hanging fruit.” It would make sense for either the U.S. or Israel (which has its own reasons to be aggrieved about Syrian sponsorship of terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Hizballah) to apply greater pressure to the regime in Damascus. (See here and here for past articles of mine advocating this approach.)

At a minimum, we should give our special operators the freedom to strike across the Syria-Iran border, if they think that will help stop the “ratlines” over which an estimated 50 to 80 jihadis a month are entering Iraq. (I’ve talked to some of our commandos who have told me they would be eager to get just such authority, but they have been blocked not only by cautious politicos in Washington, but also by cautious generals at Central Command.)

If that doesn’t work, there are various stronger steps that could be taken. One possible idea: Hold Damascus International Airport—the entry point into Iraq for countless Arab radicals from countries such as Saudi Arabia and Algeria—hostage. We could announce that we will use our airpower to shut down the entire facility, Syria’s only international airport, until Bashar Assad cuts off the influx of terrorists into Iraq. This would be a relatively low-risk option from the American viewpoint, but it would impose considerable pain on Syria.

I realize that this idea would be met with shrieks of horror in Washington and various European capitals, where the U.S. would be accused of “escalating” the war. In fact, it is Iran and Syria that have been doing the escalating. Shutting down the airport would represent merely a belated and limited response. Moreover, despite the inevitable political and diplomatic backlash, the American people might well applaud such vigorous action against those who have been killing American troops and our allies with impunity. And it might send a salutary signal of American toughness and resolve around the Middle East, where such qualities are more respected than they are in American and European foreign policy salons.

Read Less

New York Philharmonic: New Conductor, New Season

The hoopla surrounding the naming of a 40-year-old native New Yorker, Alan Gilbert, as the next music director of the New York Philharmonic has somewhat obscured the fact that its current conductor, Lorin Maazel, will retain his job until after the 2008-2009 season. Gilbert, who is chief conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, will next appear here in March 2008, according to the New York Phil’s newly released 2007-2008 season schedule.

Curious music lovers might meanwhile try a soon-to-be released CD of Gilbert conducting Mozart at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival on Koch International Classics. Live performances of Gilbert leading the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in works by Mahler and Mendelssohn have appeared; Gilbert has also shown a somewhat uneven interest in contemporary music, including a concerto for recorder by Swedish composer Daniel Börtz on BIS Records. All this suggests that Gilbert is still a talent-in-progress, who will be paid nothing near the reported $2,638,940, which a recent study documented as Maazel’s current annual salary.

Do New York concert-goers get enough bang for their buck? Next season’s finest musical events will surely be three concerts on April 3, 4, and 5, 2008, in which the British conductor Colin Davis leads one of America’s most profound pianists, Richard Goode, in Beethoven’s philosophical Fourth Piano Concerto. Davis, born in 1927, has produced a series of CD’s for the LSO Live label that ranks among the finest classical recordings (of anything) in recent years.

Among other soloists invited by the Philharmonic is the emotive Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili, whose EMI Recital CD of works by Bach, Brahms, and Schubert was a revelation. Batiashvili will perform Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with the Philharmonic this September 19, 20, and 21. Other parts of the Philharmonic schedule are sadly trite and predictable, none more than the September 18 season opener with the omnipresent Yo-Yo Ma playing the overexposed Dvořák Cello Concerto.

Then there are concert performances of Puccini’s “Tosca” on June 12, 14, 17, and 19, 2008 conducted by Maazel. A concert performance is most suited to a musical rarity that is almost never staged; the inescapable “Tosca” hardly qualifies. Likewise, when an admirable soloist is programmed—like the Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes playing Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto on January 17, 18, and 19, 2008—he is saddled with a conductor hardly reputed as a Brahmsian, Italy’s Riccardo Muti.

One of the two co-winners of the 2002 Maazel/Vilar Conductors’ Competition, the Chinese conductor Xian Zhang, will perform in November, but nowhere to be seen is the other superbly talented winner of the same competition, the Thai maestro Bundit Ungrangsee, a fine Mozartian on CD. Ungrangsee would himself have been a brilliant choice for music director.

Too many of the Phil’s concerts are centered around presumed “audience favorites,” like the grievously unidiomatic pianist Lang Lang, or Frenchman Pierre-Laurent Aimard, another merciless keyboard hammerer. When Maestro Gilbert takes over the Philharmonic’s helm, he might consider, as an urgent priority, hiring a new concert programmer.

The hoopla surrounding the naming of a 40-year-old native New Yorker, Alan Gilbert, as the next music director of the New York Philharmonic has somewhat obscured the fact that its current conductor, Lorin Maazel, will retain his job until after the 2008-2009 season. Gilbert, who is chief conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, will next appear here in March 2008, according to the New York Phil’s newly released 2007-2008 season schedule.

Curious music lovers might meanwhile try a soon-to-be released CD of Gilbert conducting Mozart at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival on Koch International Classics. Live performances of Gilbert leading the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in works by Mahler and Mendelssohn have appeared; Gilbert has also shown a somewhat uneven interest in contemporary music, including a concerto for recorder by Swedish composer Daniel Börtz on BIS Records. All this suggests that Gilbert is still a talent-in-progress, who will be paid nothing near the reported $2,638,940, which a recent study documented as Maazel’s current annual salary.

Do New York concert-goers get enough bang for their buck? Next season’s finest musical events will surely be three concerts on April 3, 4, and 5, 2008, in which the British conductor Colin Davis leads one of America’s most profound pianists, Richard Goode, in Beethoven’s philosophical Fourth Piano Concerto. Davis, born in 1927, has produced a series of CD’s for the LSO Live label that ranks among the finest classical recordings (of anything) in recent years.

Among other soloists invited by the Philharmonic is the emotive Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili, whose EMI Recital CD of works by Bach, Brahms, and Schubert was a revelation. Batiashvili will perform Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with the Philharmonic this September 19, 20, and 21. Other parts of the Philharmonic schedule are sadly trite and predictable, none more than the September 18 season opener with the omnipresent Yo-Yo Ma playing the overexposed Dvořák Cello Concerto.

Then there are concert performances of Puccini’s “Tosca” on June 12, 14, 17, and 19, 2008 conducted by Maazel. A concert performance is most suited to a musical rarity that is almost never staged; the inescapable “Tosca” hardly qualifies. Likewise, when an admirable soloist is programmed—like the Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes playing Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto on January 17, 18, and 19, 2008—he is saddled with a conductor hardly reputed as a Brahmsian, Italy’s Riccardo Muti.

One of the two co-winners of the 2002 Maazel/Vilar Conductors’ Competition, the Chinese conductor Xian Zhang, will perform in November, but nowhere to be seen is the other superbly talented winner of the same competition, the Thai maestro Bundit Ungrangsee, a fine Mozartian on CD. Ungrangsee would himself have been a brilliant choice for music director.

Too many of the Phil’s concerts are centered around presumed “audience favorites,” like the grievously unidiomatic pianist Lang Lang, or Frenchman Pierre-Laurent Aimard, another merciless keyboard hammerer. When Maestro Gilbert takes over the Philharmonic’s helm, he might consider, as an urgent priority, hiring a new concert programmer.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.