A provocative examination of social constructs and those who would alternately undo or improve them.

THIS IS NOT NORMAL

THE POLITICS OF EVERYDAY EXPECTATIONS

An excursus in the realm of the normal and normative and how we define them.

Covid-19, Donald Trump, cyberwarfare: All these are signs that things are not “normal.” But what does normality constitute? Norms, writes Harvard Law School professor Sunstein, are generally if sometimes loosely agreed upon guidelines that govern our behavior. We agree, by consensus and often by law, that one should not smoke in church or call 911 to report a leaking spigot. But what happens when a norm iconoclast comes into the picture? Among other things, the elevation of Trump to national power “weakened the social norm against supporting anti-immigrant groups,” and it freed many Americans to spout the vilest of sentiments. “When norms begin to loosen, people start to say what they actually think,” Sunstein adds, and what they think can be quite awful. Norms can be positively constructed, though. The author notes that the arrival of the pandemic has put new practices in place that forgo handshaking and promote hand-washing instead. Authoritarians can be what Sunstein calls “norm entrepreneurs,” but then again, so can the democratically minded, leading to the common situation where one person’s norm is another person’s form of oppression. Sunstein takes a long look at institutions that are meant to uphold democratic norms. In an especially inspired moment, he rejects Winston Churchill’s notion that democracy is the worst form of government save for all the others and instead upholds it at least in part because the citizenry establishes normative behavior. By virtue of that fact, norms can come and go for better (civil rights for all) or worse (cancel culture), leading Sunstein to conclude, “An appreciation of the paradox—the simultaneous power and fragility of the normal—attests to one fact above all: human beings are astonishingly resilient.”

A provocative examination of social constructs and those who would alternately undo or improve them.

Pub Date: Feb. 9, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-300-25350-4

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Yale Univ.

Review Posted Online: Dec. 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2021

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A solid work of investigation that, while treading well-covered ground, offers plenty of surprises.

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PERIL

An account of the last gasps of the Trump administration, completing a trilogy begun with Fear (2018) and Rage (2020).

One of Woodward and fellow Washington Post reporter Costa’s most memorable revelations comes right away: Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, calling his counterpart in Beijing to assure him that even after Jan. 6 and what Milley saw as an unmistakable attempt at a coup d’état, he would keep Trump from picking a war with China. This depiction has earned much attention on the talking-heads news channels, but more significant is its follow-up: Milley did so because he was concerned that Trump “might still be looking for what Milley called a ‘Reichstag moment.’ ” Milley emerges as a stalwart protector of the Constitution who constantly courted Trump’s ire and yet somehow survived without being fired. No less concerned about Trump’s erratic behavior was Paul Ryan, the former Speaker of the House, who studied the psychiatric literature for a big takeaway: “Do not humiliate Trump in public. Humiliating a narcissist risked real danger, a frantic lashing out if he felt threatened or criticized.” Losing the 2020 election was one such humiliation, and Woodward and Costa closely track the trajectory of Trump’s reaction, from depression to howling rage to the stubborn belief that the election was rigged. There are a few other modest revelations in the book, including the fact that Trump loyalist William Barr warned him that the electorate didn’t like him. “They just think you’re a fucking asshole,” Barr told his boss. That was true enough, and the civil war that the authors recount among various offices in the White House and government reveals that Trump’s people were only ever tentatively his. All the same, the authors note, having drawn on scores of “deep background” interviews, Trump still has his base, still intends vengeance by way of a comeback, and still constitutes the peril of their title.

A solid work of investigation that, while treading well-covered ground, offers plenty of surprises.

Pub Date: Sept. 21, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-982182-91-5

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Sept. 24, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2021

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A handful of pearls amid a pile of empty oyster shells.

THE COMFORT BOOK

Bestselling author Haig offers a book’s worth of apothegms to serve as guides to issues ranging from disquietude to self-acceptance.

Like many collections of this sort—terse snippets of advice, from the everyday to the cosmic—some parts will hit home with surprising insight, some will feel like old hat, and others will come across as disposable or incomprehensible. Years ago, Haig experienced an extended period of suicidal depression, so he comes at many of these topics—pain, hope, self-worth, contentment—from a hard-won perspective. This makes some of the material worthy of a second look, even when it feels runic or contrary to experience. The author’s words are instigations, hopeful first steps toward illumination. Most chapters are only a few sentences long, the longest running for three pages. Much is left unsaid and left up to readers to dissect. On being lost, Haig recounts an episode with his father when they got turned around in a forest in France. His father said to him, “If we keep going in a straight line we’ll get out of here.” He was correct, a bit of wisdom Haig turned to during his depression when he focused on moving forward: “It is important to remember the bottom of the valley never has the clearest view. And that sometimes all you need to do in order to rise up again is to keep moving forward.” Many aphorisms sound right, if hardly groundbreaking—e.g., a quick route to happiness is making someone else happy; “No is a good word. It keeps you sane. In an age of overload, no is really yes. It is yes to having space you need to live”; “External events are neutral. They only gain positive or negative value the moment they enter our mind.” Haig’s fans may enjoy this one, but others should take a pass.

A handful of pearls amid a pile of empty oyster shells.

Pub Date: July 6, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-14-313666-8

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Penguin Life

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2021

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