RaveThe Wall Street JournalReaders of Stephen Walker’s fine new account of how Yuri Gagarin, a 27-year-old Soviet air-force major (he was promoted from lieutenant while circling the Earth), became the first man in space will discover quite a bit about Gagarin the man, but a great deal more about the program that put him into orbit 60 years ago, on April 12, 1961 ... The story of the early space race (and particularly, perhaps, to a Western audience, its lesser-known Soviet side) is of such intrinsic interest that it would be difficult to make it dull, and Mr. Walker, a documentary filmmaker as well as a writer of nonfiction, does not. On the contrary, he tells his tale with verve ...
MixedNew CriterionIn reading the early portions of this book, my guess was that the caretaker, a Bartleby who had finally found something he would rather, was going to be absorbed into the museum ... not necessarily healthily, not necessarily uncomfortably, perhaps even literally ... Sadly, by the time this glorious catalogue brings joy to the page, the order, however offbeat, that it represents is fracturing, undermined by the combination of the machinations of a changed board with no time for it (the widow has sunk into dementia) and, partly in response, by the actions of the caretaker. His struggle to champion what has possessed him transports both the caretaker and this story to a place where I was no longer sure quite what it was that I was reading ... Almost from its very beginning The Caretaker had strayed far beyond the alternate reality necessary to any novel. But before it arrives at its enigmatic yet oddly poignant conclusion, Arbus takes the narrative into a realm where hallucination, perhaps, a trace of the supernatural, just maybe, and obsession, undoubtedly, are the only keys to the riddle that she, no mean trickster, has conjured up. And it is made even more disorienting by Arbus’s distinctive voice, calm, wry, deadpan amid absurdity, and yet capable of lyricism at unexpected moments.
Tara Isabella Burton
PositiveThe Spectator (UK)A tension runs through Strange Rites unresolved. Sometimes, Burton, a theologian who wanted, she confesses, more, and who, judging by her other writings, is a believing Christian, seems to expect seriousness from ‘religion’. But more often than not, she appears to accept that if there is enough meaning to support ritual, community and purpose then, say, even fandom can be enough, though she misses the self-irony that comes with so much of it ... Where Burton draws the line is unclear. Strange Rites, she writes, ‘is, in large part, about charlatans’ — and so, amusingly, it is. Yet she is exercised about how ‘capitalism and corporations’ peddle meaning, as if countless prophets over the millennia have not, even if their rewards might have come in a less straightforward form than cash. A greater worry would be if corporate leaders actually believed in the ‘spirituality’ they’re selling. The proliferation of ‘mindfulness’ courses being offered throughout companies from the C-suite to the cubicles suggests that they just might: evidence of a spreading credulousness, rather than greed ... Strange Rites bears witness to almost unlimited gullibility, but it has some remarkable insights — and some remarkable oversights ... While Strange Rites is not the ‘big’ book that it might have been, it is thought-provoking and frequently fascinating. It is also a cornucopia of out-there esoterica ... Burton’s politics are too deeply felt for her to be an objective guide to those areas where the right curdles into a cult, but Strange Rites elucidates, sometimes accidentally, the left’s flight from reason.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalIn an intriguing passage, Mr. Gellately argues that the movement’s early followers were not \'converted\' by Hitler. Rather, his party was a vehicle for crystallizing what they, in large part, already thought. In many respects this anticipated the way that less politically conscious Germans would eventually succumb to Hitler ... Mr. Gellately is, however, possibly too dismissive of just how much Hitler’s success owed to his own strange charisma and, by extension, his curiously personal bond with millions of Germans. This was reinforced by the way that the Nazis used ritual and rhetoric as a form of political religion, something the author acknowledges (mainly implicitly) but passes over too quickly. Yet Mr. Gellately is correct to stress that many voters had been radicalized by the inflationary spiral of the early 1920s or by the Great Depression.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalIn some perceptive passages in the earlier stages of this book, Mr. Fritzsche examines how, during the party’s years in opposition, the Nazis were able to broaden their support away from the original ideological core to voters who, for example, just thought that \'something\' had to be done to sort out a deeply unsettled country. And Mr. Fritzsche looks particularly closely at those who swung behind the party in early 1933 ... Mr. Gellately is, however, possibly too dismissive of just how much Hitler’s success owed to his own strange charisma and, by extension, his curiously personal bond with millions of Germans ... Yet Mr. Gellately is correct to stress that many voters had been radicalized by the inflationary spiral of the early 1920s or by the Great Depression.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalReadable and often grimly entertaining, Pravda Ha Ha demonstrates that Mr. MacLean has not lost his eye for absurdity...or a revealing detail. Yet Pravda Ha Ha has less of the subtlety that marked Mr. MacLean’s long-ago debut, a shortfall that extends into occasionally clumsy prose ... he hears \'the echo of marching boots\'—a symptom, mainly, of his bleak mood ... Disillusion is generally a better guide than hope, but when disillusion is, if only partly, the product of a continuing illusion—in this case, a vision of \'Europe\' to which Mr. MacLean is still in thrall—that is not necessarily so ... Failing to acknowledge how the EU has been its own worst enemy leads Mr. MacLean astray as he searches for enemies elsewhere. He exaggerates the effect of Russian efforts to \'undermine European unity\' (though these are real enough). At the same time, the author downplays the extent to which the EU’s insistence on \'unity\'...has become a force for destabilization ... Despite such sins of omission, Mr. MacLean has an acute grasp how a people’s history can be rewritten to reshape its future—even if, interestingly, he has nothing to say about the ways in which EU’s cheerleaders distort Europe’s past.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal.. the horror [is] well-described by Mr. Smith, who makes excellent use of contemporary sources ... While Mr. Patenaude’s volume remains definitive, its length will be a deterrent to some ... a well-written account of a story that should not have passed into obscurity. Less comprehensive than Mr. Patenaude’s tome, Douglas Smith’s book is still much more than an introduction.
Arthur Koestler, Trans. by Philip Boehm
RaveThe Wall Street Journal...Koestler’s depiction of one communist’s crisis of faith remains essential reading. Darkness at Noon may or may not answer the question why so many Old Bolsheviks really went crawling to their deaths, but it does clarify why they had been (and their intellectual heirs still were) prepared to send those who were in the way to theirs. Koestler had only recently abandoned communism (Darkness at Noon is also a reckoning with his own past), but he never shook off the transcendental longing it once satisfied. As such, he was ideally equipped to explain that creed’s millenarian appeal, and the ferocity that its imposition would inevitably bring in its wake ... While Hardy’s original translation and Philip Boehm’s new one retell very similar stories, the differences between them add up, and are worth noting both for their style and for the way they convey Koestler’s message. Mr. Boehm has a long track record in literary translation—and it shows ... Overall, and unsurprisingly, Mr. Boehm’s translation is better and more readable. It also enjoys a superior claim to authenticity. But it will never have the historical influence of Hardy’s. Meanwhile, the brilliance of her title, with its layers of meaning, will remain, as it should, undimmed.
MixedThe Wall Street Journal...intriguing if uneven ... he has missed an opportunity to take a deeper look at how, what and why we believe ... Readers wanting to find out are mainly left to navigate their own way through the fever swamps: Mr. Jacobson describes more than he explains, a flaw mitigated by his sharp eye and keen ear.
Masha Gessen, photographs by Misha Friedman
RaveThe Wall Street Journal\"...a short, haunting and beautifully written book ... The melancholy that saturates Ms. Gessen’s prose is reinforced by pages filled with Misha Friedman’s bleakly evocative photographs, images that convey unease, absence and loss ... This is an angry book. Ms. Gessen makes her case with a series of vignettes ranging from the discovery of a mass grave in northwestern Russia to a trip to the region of Kolyma in the country’s far east. (\'If the Gulag was anywhere, it was in Kolyma.\') The years of glasnost and Boris Yeltsin finally provided pitifully small scraps of comfort to the descendants of the disappeared—a photograph, a death certificate, something—yet the Gulag’s poison continues to seep through the generations.\