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American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocquevilleby Bernard Henri Levy
Hoping to gauge the success of America's experiment in democracy, France's leading journalist follows Tocqueville's journey across our once nascent nation to rediscover what it means to be an American. Here in opposing and quick succession, we meet Americans, from the destitute to the famous, as well as glance inside the communities that comprise our land. Much of our culture is exposed in startling but sympathetic light, but Lévy's perspective and perceptiveness provide a unique portrait of a country filled with promise.
"The convoluted style...cannot be blamed on the translator alone. In many instances, the English version faithfully reflects the bombast of the original. Lévy never uses one word when ten will do, and repeats them....Instead of giving a feel for a place or an institution through subtle details, Lévy numbs his readers with hyperbole." Henri Astier, The Times Literary Supplement (read the entire TLS review)
Synopses & Reviews
What does it mean to be an American, and what can America be today? To answer these questions, celebrated philosopher and journalist Bernard-Henri Lévy spent a year traveling throughout the country in the footsteps of another great Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, whose Democracy in America remains the most influential book ever written about our country.
The result is American Vertigo, a fascinating, wholly fresh look at a country we sometimes only think we know. From Rikers Island to Chicago mega-churches, from Muslim communities in Detroit to an Amish enclave in Iowa, Lévy investigates issues at the heart of our democracy: the special nature of American patriotism, the coexistence of freedom and religion (including the religion of baseball), the prison system, the "return of ideology" and the health of our political institutions, and much more. He revisits and updates Tocqueville's most important beliefs, such as the dangers posed by "the tyranny of the majority," explores what Europe and America have to learn from each other, and interprets what he sees with a novelist's eye and a philosopher's depth.
Through powerful interview-based portraits across the spectrum of the American people, from prison guards to clergymen, from Norman Mailer to Barack Obama, from Sharon Stone to Richard Holbrooke, Lévy fills his book with a tapestry of American voices–some wise, some shocking. Both the grandeur and the hellish dimensions of American life are unflinchingly explored. And big themes emerge throughout, from the crucial choices America faces today to the underlying reality that, unlike the "Old World," America remains the fulfillment of the world's desire to worship, earn, and live as one wishes — a place, despite all, where inclusion remains not just an ideal but an actual practice.
At a time when Americans are anxious about how the world perceives them and, indeed, keen to make sense of themselves, a brilliant and sympathetic foreign observer has arrived to help us begin a new conversation about the meaning of America.
"Lévy's journey through this 'magnificent, mad country' is indeed vertiginous as he loops from coast to coast and back, mounting to the heights of wealth and power — interviewing the likes of Barry Diller and John Kerry — and plunging into the depths of poverty and powerlessness, in urban ghettoes and prisons. (In this last, he truly follows Tocqueville, whose assignment in the young America was to visit prisons.) Each scene is quite short, which is frustrating at first, but soon the quick succession of images creates a jostling, animated portrait of America, full of resonances and contradictions. Sharon Stone in her luxurious home, railing about the misery of the poor, is quickly followed by Lévy's chat with a waitress in a Colorado town struggling to make ends meet. A gated retirement community in Arizona seems to the author like a prison, while Angola, a prison in Louisiana, has lush grounds that resemble a retirement community's. Lévy (Who Killed Daniel Pearl), the celebrated French thinker and journalist, is a master of the vignette and the miniature, whether explaining why he could feel at home in Seattle or pondering whether Diller's apparent amorality is 'too flaunted to be completely sincere.' In France, where anti-Americanism has been so popular, Lévy has been an anti-anti-Americanist, and while he finds serious fissures in this country's social landscape, in the end he is an optimist about the future of a country he admires for the richness of its culture and its political vision." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Bernard-Henry Lévy does nothing that goes unnoticed. He is an intellectual adventurer who brings publicity to unfashionable political causes." The New York Times
"[Lévy] provides fascinating vignettes....The result is an engaging but often-disturbing portrait of our nation from an eloquent, brutally honest foreigner who wishes our country well." Booklist
"Lévy's writing has always been an arms race between shrewd observation and rapt self-absorption, but that's not the only problem here....Lévy's hortatory prose seethes with provocation and paradox; the trouble is that so many of his observations are so stale and predictable." The New Yorker
"Those sharing Levy's politics will find comfort in his analysis; others will be dismayed by his banal observations and tiresome predictability." Kirkus Reviews
"[A] wide-ranging exploration....Many readers may feel more vertigo from his shoot-from-the-hip commentary than Lévy himself experienced in his travels." Library Journal
"A vibrant and rollicking travelogue....If you can stomach a few sucker punches, American Vertigo has its gems. Lévy ends the book with a critical but fair view of the US, one that even the most patriotic reader can appreciate." The Christian Science Monitor
"It's been said that Lévy writes fast and publishes his work unedited. American Vertigo could have benefited from a more considered presentation." The Oregonian (Portland, OR)
"Lévy's American Vertigo is blessed and cursed by its own dizzy complexity. At turns, it's obvious, obtuse and insightful....If scale is a problem, how about the size of some of Lévy's sentences? They're constructed as if ideas and words were colliding bumper-cars." USA Today
"There's no reason for it to exist in English, except as evidence that travel need not be broadening and one should be wary of books with Tocqueville in the title." Garrison Keillor, The New York Times Book Review
France's leading writer travels the country to discover what it means to be an American, and what America can be, at the dawn of the 21st century.
About the Author
Bernard-Henry Lévy is a philosopher, journalist, activist, and filmmaker. He was hailed by Vanity Fair magazine as "Superman and prophet: we have no equivalent in the United States." Among his dozens of books are Barbarism with a Human Face and Who Killed Daniel Pearl? His writing has appeared in a wide range of publications throughout Europe and the United States. His films include the documentaries Bosna! and A Day in the Death of Sarajevo. Lévy is co-founder of the antiracist group SOS Racism and has served on diplomatic missions for the French government.
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