Men in Black by Mark Levin (2005, Regnery)
Mark Levin’s assault on the Supreme Court was a runaway bestseller and launched his talk radio career from a handful of radio stations to being a staple of every national market. It’s plausible that the book is already on the shelves of many people reading this. The question before us is: Is it good?
Most importantly, is it good enough to burn a few days with, during bathroom trips, before Mary Trump’s book is released?
The answer is… maybe.
Levin’s book is astonishingly partisan, but one would expect no less from a blatantly political man. What matters for review are not his positions but rather his writing style, the accuracy of the information in the book, and the relevancy of the book as either a historical piece or to contemporary affairs.
His style, which I admit to once finding endearing, is now insulting. When I first read it I greatly appreciated his simplification of complex subjects because I was reading it with a bias. I was interpreting the sixth-grade writing style as a clever way to encourage those with limited vocabularies or attention spans into reading the book. I’ve come to suspect that he simply had contempt for his audience and wanted to frame arguments as if they weren’t complex, so as to better hammer home his political points.
He’s certainly not alone in taking that approach. Shelves have been filled with books presenting arguments for Democrat and Republican policy while ignoring (rather than rebutting) opposing positions. But by keeping the messaging simple, Levin produced a basic work designed to introduce people to a topic in a very biased way.
There have been multiple studies demonstrating that initial impressions become foundations for future views. Mark Levin was the inspiration for many to start paying close attention to the Supreme Court. By writing this book, he positioned himself as an expert on the topic, and in conjunction with his legal degree, as one of the nation’s leading experts on the law, particularly Constitutional law, in general.
What we are really given are a series of capsule biographies reminding people of a simple, irrefutable fact: Justices can be wrong. The book also presents some cases which were decided in ways which appear contrary to the American system and thus are “obvious” failings, and a lot of contemporaneous political discussion.
Effectively missing from any of his analysis is an important question: Why? It’s not that the question is entirely ignored. He provides the same basic answer every time: the Justices are biased. And while that may sometimes be true, it’s only very, very rarely been the rationale presented for legal decisions.
In nearly all decisions, there are conflicting points of law if the case is allowed to get to the Supreme Court. That’s why arguments are made, that’s how findings are rendered, that’s why most decisions aren’t 9-0. Levin knows this and shunts it aside, and that alone flags the book as hackwork, like a great many other books presented by punditry. While I have no inherent quarrel with partisanship, it needs to be recognized when it happens.
So, what is the value of the book, if any? It should be taken with the same gravity one reserves for Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader. It’s a good source of trivia about some Justices and some court cases and is a great launching point for actual investigations into things. But if any opinion within its pages is going to be taken as definitive fact one should probably reconsider.
In other words, perfectly servicable for a couple of trips to the toilet before the new Trump book.
Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo (2012, Henry Holt)
Bardugo’s debut book is a good way to connect with any teenage girl in your life, and it carries with it another significant social benefit which will be discussed shortly.
The book is a teen fantasy with a familiar contemporary theme: the main character is a young woman with mysterious abilities that set her apart from others, even as she feels socially awkward. There are two young men who seem to be nearly perfect in her life; one is powerful and charming but has a dark edge to him, while the other is cheerful, strong, popular and fairly clever (though not nearly as clever as the protagonist) but doesn’t seem interested in her romantically.
In that regard, it’s fairly standard fare. Where Bardugo steps into the spotlight is in her choice of setting: her “Grishaverse” is a fantasy analog of Russia, with the names of people and places, the clothing styles and the terrain repeatedly evoking images of 19th century Russian life.
The choice serves her very well, as it sets her world apart from the dozens of fantasies set in versions of contemporary America, chivalric Europe or even feudal Japan filling bookstores. It also provides echoes of actual Russian governance as plot points emerge that indicate Bardugo’s character, for all her newfound power, may be seriously over her head in dealing with the issues before her.
The book is excellent, and can be strongly recommended for teens. There’s that additional item I mentioned, though…
A television series centered around Shadow and Bone and some of Bardugo’s follow-up works was among the last things that Netflix finished filming before the coronavirus hit. They’re currently holding it back for when they need a boost of new ratings and people are hunting for something different, likely in the fall or winter.
It’s likely to become the “next big thing” because of how little competition it will have. It’s already extremely popular with the teen set, but it stands an excellent chance to be an item of strong discussion with people in a few months. Most people like being a little bit ahead of a curve, and this is an easy opportunity to be there.