MixedThe New YorkerBirdsall has a good story to tell, and tells it well, but he is one of those authors who would amuse others more if he amused himself a little less ... Birdsall is at his best when he relaxes and tells rather than judges.
David S. Reynolds
PositiveThe New YorkerReynolds’s Lincoln is very much an Honest Abe, but he is an updated Abe, fully woke and finely radical ... Reynolds updates Lincoln by doing what scholars do now: he makes biography secondary to the cultural history of the country. Lincoln is seen as a man whose skin bears the tattoos of his time. Cultural patterns are explicated in Abe, and Lincoln is picked up and positioned against them, taking on the coloring of his surroundings, rather like a taxidermied animal being placed in a reconstructed habitat in a nineteenth-century diorama at a natural-history museum. Instead of rising from one episode of strenuous self-making to another, he passes from one frame to the next, a man subsumed ... Reynolds’s cultural history illuminates Lincoln—and particularly his transformation from self-made lawyer into American Abe. Even readers long marinated in the Lincoln literature will find revelation in the way Abe re-situates familiar episodes ... Reynolds’s cultural frames become more arresting as Lincoln’s role grows more public; public people are always cultural objects ... As the war begins, Reynolds’s lens widens in ways that are less appealingly whimsical than in the Barnum case but still more genuinely illuminating ... Sometimes Reynolds’s kind of cultural history demands more suppleness of mind than he displays. When, for instance, he proposes a parallel between Mary Lincoln locked up in the White House and Emily Dickinson isolated in her home, in Amherst, we feel that we are in the presence of a similitude without a real shape: Emily was a Yankee poet of matchless genius, Mary a bewildered Southern woman in an unmanageable role. All they shared was being alone in a big house ... Even with Reynolds’s more compelling examples of anthropological patterns, small whitecaps of uncertainty may stir in the reader’s mind ... Throughout Abe, the terms \'culture\' and \'cultural\' recur with such hammering relentlessness that one wishes Reynolds’s editor had given him a thesaurus. Not having enough words means not seeing enough types ... What counts is a sense of what counts.
PositiveThe New YorkerExtremely wide-ranging and well researched, Sedgewick’s story reaches out into American political history, not to mention the history of American breakfast ... The originality and ambition of Sedgewick’s work is that he insistently sees the dynamic between producer and consumer—Central American peasant and North American proletarian—not merely as one of exploited and exploiter but as a manufactured co-dependence between two groups both exploited by capitalism. \'Cravings\' are not natural appetites but carefully created cultural diktats ... To be sure, Sedgewick recognizes that the actual history of caffeine and capitalist efficiency is more complicated than one might expect ... At the same time, Sedgewick perhaps ascribes undue propagandistic power to the public-relations exercises of coffee producers. Like many radical historians, Sedgewick has a passionate feeling for detail, but lacks a sense of irony ... Sedgewick’s approach can seem dutifully leftist, but the evidence suggests that socialist models of production have hardly humanized the demands of agricultural labor ... Sedgewick, in a tradition of protest literature rooted more in William Blake than in Marx, sees mankind chained to a treadmill of obedience leading only to oblivion.
David G. Marwell
PositiveThe New YorkerMarwell’s life has much new to tell us, both about Mengele himself and, more significant, about the social and scientific milieu that allowed him to flourish. There is nothing surprising in educated people doing evil, but it is still amazing to see how fully they construct a rationale to let them do it, piling plausible reason on self-justification, until, like Mengele, they are able to look themselves in the mirror every morning with bright-eyed self-congratulation.
PositiveThe New YorkerOne of the virtues of Steve Inskeep’s new book is that it tracks this American phenomenon back to something like a satisfying starting point ... Inskeep’s subtitle might be a bit showy, but the Frémonts turn out to be fine characters for a book, or a miniseries, for that matter ... The irony is that the Frémonts, pioneers of publicity as much as of the American frontier, are now largely forgotten, and in need of salvage operations like Inskeep’s good one.
Fergus M. Bordewich
MixedThe New YorkerAlthough the subject of the book is specific, its implications are universal ... has an aptly pugnacious subtitle ... This is popular history of a high order—Bordewich has a terrific eye and ear for the details of his chosen time—and it thoroughly reflects the larger revisionism of our day ... Bordewich is more concerned with magnifying his Radical Republican heroes than with diminishing old Abe ... Lincoln understood the great truth of liberal-democratic policies: that it is the job of a political leader, in a time of crisis, to make the unthinkable imaginable, for then it will rapidly become possible, and soon essential. Bordewich, failing to grasp this truth, reads Lincoln’s words in ways that miss his purposes. He accuses Lincoln of looking past moral concerns when he is actually looking around corners ... Bordewich—like left revisionists generally—resists a political understanding of Lincoln’s political rhetoric. What Booth grasped in a second the revisionists tend to miss at length: that throughout the war Lincoln saw, as great politicians do, that opening the door to radical reform is the hardest part.
PositiveThe New YorkerCertainly, Porter’s ghost could not ask for better care than he has been given in The Letters of Cole Porter ... Laid out with a meticulous scholarly apparatus, as though this were the correspondence of Grover Cleveland, every turn in the songwriter’s story is deep-dived for exact chronology, and every name casually dropped by Porter gets a worried, explicatory footnote. The editors have also included some secondary material that is not, strictly speaking, correspondence at all ... As an artist’s letters, they are, truth be told, disappointing. There are few flights of fancy or spontaneous improvisations in Porter’s writings to friends—for such a famous wit, there is remarkably little wit. The most arresting passages of writing and thinking arrive less often in letters-from than in letters-to ... Yet a reader, without learning much directly about Porter’s art, comes away from the book with an even higher opinion of him as an artist than might have been held before ... Clues about his creativity shine through the workmanlike surface.
PositiveThe New YorkerEach dictator’s life is offered with neat, mordant compression. Dikötter’s originality is that he counts crimes against civilization alongside crimes against humanity ... His most interesting chapters, in some ways, are on the \'tin-pot\' dictators—like Duvalier, in Haiti, and Mengistu, in Ethiopia—who, ravaging poverty-stricken countries, still conform to the terrible type ... The elements come together in almost every case to make one standard biography ... Still, Dikötter’s portrait of his dictators perhaps underemphasizes a key point about such men: that, horribly grotesque in most areas, they tend to be good in one, and their skill at the one thing makes their frightened followers overrate their skill at all things ... Where does the double tour of dictator style leave us? Dikötter, in How to Be a Dictator, seems uncertain whether he is writing an epitaph or a prologue to a new edition ... Perhaps the most depressing reflection sparked...is on the supine nature of otherwise intelligent observers in the face of the coarse brutalities of dictatorships.
Brian Jay Jones
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewJones on the whole spends more time on Seuss’ prolific drawing than on his rhyming, a reasonable choice ... Jones’s previous biographies were of Jim Henson and George Lucas, and Geisel seems intuitively a good third to add to the trilogy, or, rather, a foundation for the others.
PositiveThe New YorkerCharged, though far-reaching in purpose, is above all a study of two cases in which prosecutorial misconduct or overreach put two people through hell. She tells these stories in microscopic detail, analyzing the background of each bizarre stop along the infernal circle—why bail is so hard to get and why it exists at all; why public defenders are often so inadequate—in a way that allows the specific case stories to become general truths. Her book achieves what in-depth first-person reporting should: it humanizes the statistics, makes us aware that every courtroom involves the bureaucratic regimentation of an individual’s life. She has a good ear for talk, and a fine eye for detail ... Yet, though Bazelon’s larger points about the madness of prosecutorial power are all impeccably well taken, the two central cases she uses to illustrate these points are somewhat surprising choices ... The matter of...innocence...may be less certain than Bazelon supposes ... Charged is meant to, and does, provoke pity and terror in us at the sheer inhumanity of all imprisonment ... [the] struggle to make sense of an existence now permanently enclosed within a prison’s walls is one of the more moving accounts in Bazelon’s book.
Henry Louis Gates
PositiveThe New Yorker\"Gates is one of the few academic historians who do not disdain the methods of the journalist, and his book... is flecked with incidental interviews with and inquiries of other scholars, including the great revisionist historian Eric Foner. Though this gives the book a light, flexible, talking-out-loud texture, it is enraging to read—to realize how high those hopes were, how close to being realized, how rapidly eradicated ... Gates goes on to illuminate the complex efforts of black intellectuals, in the face of the reimposition of white rule, to find a sane and safe position against it ... At one point in Stony the Road, Gates writes wisely of images as weapons ... Gates, who is expert at both, catching fish while seeing tides, leaves us with a simple, implicit moral: a long fight for freedom, with too many losses along the way, can be sustained only by a rich and complicated culture. Resilience and resistance are the same activity, seen at different moments in the struggle. It’s a good thought to hold on to now.\
PositiveThe New YorkerA wonderfully opinionated and erudite evaluation of the whole of Diderot\'s career, of the Enlightenment, and of Russian culture ... As Zaretsky brilliantly illuminates in a discussion of the era\'s \'philosophic geography,\' Diderot grasped that what Catherine wanted, following in the footsteps of Peter the Great, was to \'Europeanize\' Russia, while what Europeans, including Diderot, wanted was to exoticize Russia ... Catherine comes off extremely well in Zaretsky\'s account.
Andrew S. Curran
PositiveThe New Yorker\"Curran does a terrific job of sorting through the crazily complicated history of the Encyclopédie’s publication ... Curran also makes a strong and convincing case that the largely forgotten Louis de Jaucourt, a chevalier, or knight, and a practicing physician, was chiefly responsible for finishing the big book; he produced seventeen thousand articles for it, gratis.\
David W. Blight
RaveThe New Yorker\"[an] extraordinary new biography ... Blight has certainly written, in the book’s texture and density and narrative flow—one violent and provocative incident arriving right after another—a great American biography.\
PositiveThe New Yorker\"When it comes to Lear, Uglow’s disability, if there is one, is that she is such an enthusiast that her enthusiasm crowds out, a little, her urge to explication. That nursery nationalism kicks in. She takes Lear’s greatness for granted, piling on limericks and sketch drawings as though we, too, had known them since infancy. Her enthusiasm can become a velvet rope separating us from her subject, more than an invitation to the dance ... What is eloquent and astonishing in Uglow’s biography is her demonstration of how embedded Lear was in Victorian art and culture ... Throughout, Uglow patiently traces the contours of a closeted gay man’s life.\
PositiveThe New YorkerThe secrets of that kind of athletic achievement are the subject of Karen Crouse’s book Norwich: One Tiny Vermont Town’s Secret to Happiness and Excellence. Crouse, a Times sportswriter disillusioned by drug-enhanced results and joyless competitions, stumbled on Norwich in the midst of her travels with more or less the same stunned enthusiasm with which Ronald Colman, in the movie Lost Horizon, stumbles on Shangri-La ... What we don’t get to see, in Crouse’s account, is the little town nearby, where, as must be the case, everyone coöperates and yet no one is a champion ... In any case, one has the sense that what Crouse has found is not a 'secret' but a well-known effect: unusual excellence emerges within tightly structured local traditions.
RaveThe New YorkerPeeking out mordantly from the start is Roth’s natural gift for comedy, which can’t help but rise to the surface even amid the seriousness. And Roth is a comedian, really, rather than a humorist or a satirist … Then there comes a last third, gathered here for the first time, called ‘Explanations,’ which is in many ways the most arresting and apropos part of the book. Roth’s great subject turns out to be, by his own account, patriotism—how to savor American history without sentimentalizing it, and how to claim an American identity without ceasing to inquire into how strangely identities are made.
PositiveThe New YorkerThough he does the usual justice to the military saga of the Civil War, and Grant’s decisive part in it, his book aims to rehabilitate Grant as a politician and as President. He makes a convincing case that Grant actually behaved nobly, even heroically, while in the White House ... Chernow tells all this rapidly and well; his talent is suited to Grant’s story ...lacking elegance of means, he covers an immense area of ground, thoroughly and relentlessly, capturing his objectives one by one ...fluent and intelligent narrative... Coming to the close of Chernow’s book, one will think that we have had, since Grant’s Presidency, very much the same politics, with the same two political parties.
PositiveThe New YorkerWright’s book has no poetry or paradox anywhere in it. Since the poetic-comic side of Buddhism is one of its most appealing features, this leaves the book a little short on charm. Yet, if you never feel that Wright is telling you something profound or beautiful, you also never feel that he is telling you something untrue. Direct and unambiguous, tracing his own history in meditation practice, he makes Buddhist ideas and their history clear. Perhaps he makes the ideas too clear ... The dwindling down of Buddhism into another life-style choice will doubtless irritate many, and Wright will likely be sneered at for reducing Buddhism to another bourgeois amenity, like yoga or green juice. Yet what Wright is doing seems an honorable, even a sublime, achievement. Basically, he says that meditation has made him somewhat less irritable. Being somewhat less irritable is not the kind of achievement that people usually look to religion for, but it may be as good an achievement as we ought to expect.
John F. Pfaff
MixedThe New YorkerPfaff, let there be no doubt, is a reformer ... But he also makes a more complicated argument, following recent sociological research: it’s not that the prohibition of drugs attracts crime, which then produces violence; it’s that violence thrives among young men deprived of a faith in their own upward mobility, making drug dealing an attractive business ... Putting aside quarrels about the specific numbers, one can accept the broad truth of Pfaff’s data without necessarily buying into his position completely.
Heather Ann Thompson
PositiveThe New YorkerThough her sympathies are entirely with the prisoners, she extends humanity and individual witness to the guards ... Thompson’s capacity for close observation and her honesty, which are impressive, are occasionally undermined by a desiccated political vocabulary.
PositiveThe New YorkerWootton, in his new, encyclopedic history, The Invention of Science (Harper), recognizes the blurred lines between magic and science but insists that the revolution lay in the public nature of the new approach.
PositiveThe New YorkerKaplan’s book turns out to be, to continue in the old reviewers’ language, hugely readable, vastly entertaining, a page-turner, and all the rest. But it’s also interesting as a fine instance of a strikingly newish kind of thing: the serious and even scholarly biography of a much gossiped-over pop figure, where the old Kitty Kelley-style scandal-sheet bio is turned into a properly documented and footnoted study that nonetheless trades on, or at least doesn’t exclude, the sensational bits.
MixedThe New YorkerPolitics and procedures obviously enabled the killings; we owe Snyder a debt for his realism about this. But the desire to maim and murder had its roots in a disease of the mind so powerful and passionate that to call it political or procedural hardly seems to capture its nature, or its prevalence.