Hilary Spurling is one of the best living biographers, and in Pearl Buck she has a splendid subject: daughter of missionaries and later scourge of the missions movement; indefatigable proto-feminist; Nobel Prize-winning novelist and worldwide bestseller; interpreter of China for two generations of Americans. The interest of the narrative never flags, but you have to read it against the grain of the author's intentions. "There is a kind of insular absurdity," Spurling lectures with characteristic scorn, "about attempting to superimpose nineteenth-century biblical orthodoxy on an ancient, highly civilized culture." She seems oblivious to the spiritual ferment in China today.

The Flight of the Intellectuals
Paul Berman (Melville House)


This trenchantly argued book expands Berman's extraordinary New Republic article (itself close to the size of a short book) on the failure of Western intellectuals to come to grips with the radical Islamist movement, and in particular the way that this pattern of evasion has been exemplified in the case of philosopher Tariq Ramadan, widely hailed as the very model of a moderate Muslim. Indispensable reading, even though Berman fails to adequately acknowledge the wide range of Western intellectuals who have not failed the test.

Here Comes the Garbage Barge!
Jonah Winter and Red Nose Studio (Schwartz & Wade/Random House)


Based on an actual incident, this rollicking cautionary tale recounts the bizarre voyage of a barge loaded with garbage, all the way from Long Island to Belize and back, trying to find a place to dump its unwelcome load. The story teaches its lesson in a wonderfully inviting fashion, and the illustrations make this one of my favorite books of the year so far, whether for children ...

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