PanThe Wall Street JournalSeabrook has written One Person, One Vote: A Surprising History of Gerrymandering in America chiefly to contend that Democrats in the 2020s are losing elections they would win if it weren’t for Republicans’ skill at electoral topiary. He doesn’t put it as directly as that. He insists that the effort to curb gerrymandering is a matter of \'democratic best practices\' and \'good government reform that protects the interests of all citizens.\' And he acknowledges that Democrats gerrymander their opponents, too, or at least that they used to do it more effectively than they do now ... But Mr. Seabrook is clearly a man of the left—Republicans who gerrymander do so for nefarious purposes, Democrats do so in the service of \'securing justice\' for \'marginalized communities\' and the like—and the book’s overarching argument fits rather snugly with the left’s post-2016 fixation on gerrymandering.
RaveWall Street JournalMr. Campbell, back in Glasglow, found he had a flair for interviewing the misfit writers he admired...His flowering curiosity and bookishness led eventually to his admittance, at 23, to Edinburgh University and a long career in literary journalism...But this deftly written memoir, like Lord of the Flies, is about more than it appears to be about...It is the story of a writer finding his own voice...\'The hardest thing of all in writing is to sound like yourself,\' [Campbell] reflects. \'The kind of writing I liked kept its feet on the ground. It was a Scottish style: commonsensical, skeptical, impatient of cant, alert to the value of subterranean humor.\'
MixedWall Street JournalAn exhaustively researched and discretely focused biography of the great Frenchman ... Mr. Zunz’s biography situates Tocqueville’s great treatise in its French context ... Mr. Zunz, for reasons that escape me, avoids broader interpretations of Tocqueville’s life and work. Some readers will prefer this narrowly factual approach. I do not ... Mr. Zunz also declines for the most part to engage with Tocqueville’s ideas beyond accurately rendering them and occasionally pointing out oversights. This is a biography, not an argument. But anybody who publishes a full-length treatment of Tocqueville...bears some obligation to connect the man’s ideas to the present ... I may be wrong about the reasons for Mr. Zunz’s reticence, but about this I am pretty sure: The people who would profit most from the man who understood democracy think they already understand it.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe Right: The Hundred Year War for American Conservatism paints a messier, and for that reason far more accurate, portrait of 20th- and 21st-century American conservatism ... Mr. Continetti captures beautifully the ad hoc, rearguard nature of American conservatism. Not until the end of the book does he make explicit what becomes clearer as the narrative moves forward: \'Over the course of the past century, conservatism has risen up to defend the essential moderation of the American political system against liberal excess. Conservatism has been there to save liberalism from weakness, woolly-headedness, and radicalism\' ... The American right, Mr. Continetti’s account makes clear, has always had its cranks and dreamers.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalRice has written an engaging, deftly constructed but conspicuously partisan account of the brief period that changed the United States for the worse ... Mr. Rice is a gifted writer and an assiduous reporter, and his book will delight readers who share his interpretation of the events he relates. But the word \'history,\' at least to my old-school sensibilities, implies a greater attempt at detachment and fairness than anything found here ... Mr. Rice sounds like a conspiracy theorist himself on the subject of the Florida recount ... Mr. Rice may be right that America broke at the turn of the century. But he is wrong about who broke it.
MixedWall Street JournalThe book’s preliminary pages and dust jacket are replete with zealous endorsements from literary VIPs ... Writes Walter Isaacson: \'Beckerman shows that new ideas need to incubate through thoughtful discussions in order to create sustained movements.\' That this accurate synopsis is almost a truism would seem to indicate a problem. Who needed to be told that new ideas need thoughtful discussion? ... The book’s first half relates six stories of how painstaking, relentless work produced \'radical\' social or political change. Some of these early chapters support their claims better than others ... The lesson Mr. Beckerman draws from [one story], that collaboration moves scientific inquiry forward, is less than astonishing ... [A] chapter considers \'zines\' (homemade magazines) created by the fans of all-girl punk bands of the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s. High marks for eccentricity, but the idea that these photocopied serials contributed to \'radical change,\' rather than simply being evidence of it, strikes me as far-fetched ... I cannot know, but I wonder if the reason for these oddball choices is that the more obvious historical models of \'first act\' idea-making turned out badly ... Criticism of social media will mean more to readers on the political left than it does to this reviewer, but Mr. Beckerman’s own analysis upends it. The activist-driven uprisings he describes...are too recent to judge their long-term consequences ... But—and this is where the book becomes unintentionally hilarious—there is one kind of protest movement, according to Mr. Beckerman, that goes from strength to strength in the era of the internet: white supremacy ... This lengthy chapter makes for dreary reading, not least owing to the author’s meandering attempt to make a march consisting of a few hundred nutjobs and doofuses sound like a long-term threat to the American experiment ... The Quiet Before is a confused and confusing book. Part of the confusion, I suspect, arises from the simple fact that the American left no longer has much to resist.
PanWall Street JournalThe latest in [a] series of backhanded apologias ... The 9.9 percent, according to Mr. Stewart, is a \'state of mind,\' a \'way of thinking,\' a \'system of values.\' The 9.9 figure, in other words, is a gimmicky way to headline a book about the dreary topic of economic inequality ... Mr. Stewart indicts one supposed convention of upper-middle-class American life after another—helicopter parenting, marrying for status, maniacal fitness regimes. Each one, he contends, ultimately serves to keep the rich rich, and the poor poor. His arguments are dizzyingly complex and rife with a social-science-fueled inferentialism. He bombards you with statistics and jumps from one point to the next ... You soon get the sense, though, that these indictments are cleverly arranged to avoid blaming any individuals or institutions associated with the political and cultural left. Whatever your politics, that’s a tough sell ... In a chapter on how American culture perpetuates a racist economy, Mr. Stewart proposes the existence of what he calls the \'race dividend\': the added income and privilege a white person gets for being white. It’s a 30-page chapter, laden with statistics and citations to studies, and honestly I’m not sure I get it ... The only actual racists named in the chapter—I am not making this up—are the Republican strategist Lee Atwater and Republicans generally ... It’s a tricky business to arraign an entire society as bigoted and repressive without in any way admonishing its dominant class. Mr. Stewart has done it with élan.
PanThe Wall Street JournalChafkin accounts for these and other contradictions by casting his subject as a soulless opportunist and an intellectual fraud. Mr. Chafkin doesn’t put it as strongly as that—he prefers insinuation and the passive voice—but at no point in the book does he credit Mr. Thiel with a sincere belief or an honorable motivation. Mr. Chafkin, an editor at Bloomberg Businessweek, wrote the book, he says, to \'understand\' Mr. Thiel. But The Contrarian reads as though the author assumed he understood his subject already and set out to take him down a few notches ... Occasionally he provides counterevidence to his own blithe assessments ... Some of Mr. Chafkin’s arrows appear to me to hit their mark...But Mr. Chafkin’s need to portray his subject’s every decision, every utterance as either dishonest, shameful or unethical makes me think, in my own contrarian way, that Mr. Thiel must be a decent guy. It also turns what ought to be a riveting story into a dreary morality play ... Equally tiresome is Mr. Chafkin’s tortured effort to tag Mr. Thiel with regressive opinions on race ... Mr. Chafkin clearly means to suggest Mr. Thiel is a racist, but the author’s reasoning on this score is so circumlocutory that I remain firmly skeptical ... It is a mystery to me why a certain kind of journalist, having decided a public figure is bad in some way, must treat that public figure as irredeemably malign and the source of limitless evil. Whatever the reasons for this convention, it has the effect of turning complicated stories of human frailty and achievement into petty legal briefs. Mr. Chafkin has succeeded in making the story of Peter Thiel the one thing it isn’t—boring.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMr. Ginsberg is too loyal a Clintonite to state plainly that Mr. Gore’s \'friend deficit,\' as he delicately puts it, made him ill-suited to the presidency. But clearly it signaled a problem. It is a problem that, as Mr. Ginsberg shows, presidents usually manage to avoid. This is Mr. Ginsberg’s first book after a career as a communications executive at various companies, including News Corp. The book’s strongest chapters relate friendships in which the president might have been expected to lose touch with an old friend but didn’t, and in which the friend never tried to take advantage of his valuable new connection ... The author is even more protective of John Kennedy ... the effort to present the 35th president as a swashbuckling intellectual, working out the implications of highfalutin conversations about democracy and leadership he’d once had with his Oxford-educated friend, is straight from the Camelot School of Kennedy Studies ... The sloppy dependence on liberal mythmaking shows up in the Nixon chapter, too ... The book’s earlier chapters—Thomas Jefferson’s reliance on James Madison, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s catastrophic loyalty to Franklin Pierce—work well as history. But the closer Mr. Ginsberg gets to the present, the more he recites the consensus views of his chosen party. By the last chapter, on Bill Clinton’s friendship with the late Vernon Jordan, we aren’t reading historical inquiry so much as political opinion on familiar controversies—and I need no more of that.
John B Judis
PositiveWall Street JournalMr. Judis begins with what should be, but among many allegedly smart commentators isn’t, the obvious point that some nationalisms are healthy and some are pathological. \'Abraham Lincoln and Benito Mussolini were ardent nationalists\' is his terse summation ... Mr. Judis writes, as usual, with clarity and wit, and his knowledge of modern politics in Europe and North America is vast. As in his volume on populism, also collected here, he makes a strong economic case for the nationalist impulse and all but ignores cultural conflicts leading sensible people to vote for nationalist candidates.
MixedWall Street JournalMs. Wolff surveys and reflects on ideas of the afterlife in the ancient world, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and post-Christian spiritualism. She also interviews adherents of a wide variety of faiths ... Ms. Wolff writes with clarity and style, and she attempts to understand each conception of heaven, however distant from her own Roman Catholic belief, on its own terms ... full of absorbing detail ... The author of a wide-ranging book of this sort can’t be expected to have read every work she treats, but Ms. Wolff relies too heavily on secondary sources ... But by the end of the book, Ms. Wolff’s Muggeridgean respect for any acknowledgment of divinity has grown into a gingerly expressed universalism ... Other readers may take a kindlier view of the author’s permissive outlook. I remain stuck in the antediluvian habit of believing that some religious doctrines are true, and some false.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalHe is right, and he deserves credit for documenting the duplicity of the people who gave us the Steele dossier. Mr. Meier neglects to mention that two columnists in these pages have chronicled the treachery of Fusion GPS and Steele in detail, but put that to one side. He has said what hardly anyone else in his circle of elite mainstream journalists has had the courage to say ... The problem is that Mr. Meier’s aptly profane phrase for the media’s handling of the dossier isn’t accompanied by any substantive criticisms of his industry. The few sentences of censure he does offer are so gentle as to be exculpatory, and they are immediately followed by formulaic harrumphs about Mr. Trump’s badness. It is precisely that need to signal opposition to the 45th president that keeps Mr. Meier from acknowledging the immense damage not only to journalism but to the country brought about by the dossier scam. Mr. Meier barely mentions the fact that the FBI used the dossier to justify surveillance warrants, fails to note that Mr. Steele’s source had once been investigated by the FBI as a suspected Russian agent, and seems to regret the whole collusion madness because it gave Mr. Trump a cudgel with which to beat his enemies.
PanThe Wall Street JournalIt is amazing to me that intelligent people in 2021 can survey the past year and conclude that some alternative set of non-pharmaceutical interventions would have made an appreciable difference in the spread of this magnificently resilient virus. But many such people do believe that, including the author of this book and its ostensible heroes ... The supposition that an earlier and stricter shutdown would have appreciably suppressed the virus may be a comforting counterfactual but bears no relationship to observable reality. The shutdowns did not save lives. The idea that they would have done so if only they had been imposed earlier—even supposing such a thing were politically feasible—is a species of historical fiction ... Much has gone wrong in America since the spring of 2020, but thank God we were saved from this rogue group of patriots.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalRough Ideas is a gathering of Mr. Hough’s writings on music and performance, and a few on religion ... Mr. Hough reminds me a little of Saul Bellow’s character Moses Herzog, who can’t stop scribbling his thoughts about everything, day and night. Do we really need a squib about Mr. Hough’s elderly Russian landlady who made a wonderful meal of beef stroganoff but who wouldn’t give him the recipe ... Then again, maybe these ramshackle observations work; Herzog is a great book ... Part of what makes Mr. Hough’s writing on music so appealing is that he writes as a performer, as if somehow from the inside of the music ... Mr. Hough’s essays on religious faith—he is an observant Catholic—strike me as less interesting ... Mr. Hough is an excellent writer, but some of the thoughts he scribbles on scraps of paper ought to stay there.
PanThe Wall Street JournalEvery page is heavy with stock phrases, and the author is constantly remarking on things he’ll \'never forget as long as I live.\' Occasionally the writing is dreadful ... Mr. Boehner’s criticisms of his former antagonists on the right have almost exclusively to do with tactics, not with substance. He fails to acknowledge the distinction, although he insists repeatedly that he agreed with their stated goals ... It’s easy to appreciate Mr. Boehner’s frustrations with the crazies of his party. But after two or three decades of the GOP \'getting stuff done,\' what did he expect?
MixedThe Wall Street JournalKristin Swenson, who teaches religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, has written A Most Peculiar Book: The Inherent Strangeness of the Bible to reignite our interest in the Bible. She seeks to do this by calling attention to Bible’s weird parts ... I remain doubtful that Ms. Swenson’s breezy tour will convince anybody who isn’t already so inclined to study the Bible further. I say this in part because Ms. Swenson fully accepts the dead-end premises of the historical-critical method ... Ms. Swenson’s chirpy, informal tone frequently turns to derision. She seems to think her more orthodox readers are nincompoops ... The reader may suspect that Ms. Swenson takes her ability to read ancient Hebrew as license to find whatever she wants in biblical texts ...
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMany of Mr. Konczal’s complaints aren’t, by my reckoning, against markets themselves but against various sorts of cronyism and even government itself ... Mr. Konczal has no great talent for describing the views of those with whom he disagrees in ways they would appreciate.
David O. Stewart
RaveThe Wall Street JournalI was prepared to dislike the book. What I suspected was that Mr. Stewart would present Washington as a canny careerist who failed upward—that is, who escaped accountability for his mistakes and rose to the top of Revolution-era political life by means of charm and guile. Again I was wrong. The book is nothing like that. Mr. Stewart has written an outstanding biography that both avoids hagiography and acknowledges the greatness of Washington’s character, all while paying close attention to his rarely voiced but no less fierce political ambitions. He does not flinch from the cruelty of American slavery and Washington’s part in it, but situates him in the time and place of his origins rather than in ours. Mr. Stewart’s writing is clear, often superlative, his judgments are nuanced, and the whole has a narrative drive such a life deserves.
MixedWall Street JournalIt is a useful exercise to consider the attitudes and presuppositions that impelled members of a generational cohort to act as they did ... Ms. Andrews, an editor at the American Conservative magazine, is a gifted essayist with a delightful penchant for subversive and tersely worded insights ... The chapters in Boomers aren’t portraits in the way Strachey’s were. They are essays, and often they stray pretty far from the subject ... \'The theme that connects all these seeming digressions,\' Ms. Andrews writes, \'is . . . the essence of boomerness, which sometimes manifests itself as hypocrisy and other times just as irony: they tried to liberate us, and instead of freedom they left behind chaos.\' I’m not convinced that this theme, if that’s what it is, sufficiently connects all the discursive wanderings in these essays; you sometimes get the sense that Ms. Andrews wants to bring up a few points of irritation before she takes leave of the subject. But I don’t complain—she’s worth following.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalCraig Fehrman’s anthology [...] arrives at either the best possible moment for such a book, or the worst ... There is a lot of excellent writing here, some of it from the pens of nameless ghostwriters (even George Washington, Mr. Fehrman reminds us, borrowed heavily from his friends), but all of it chosen and shaped by the chief ... Has [Fehrman] chosen the \'best\' presidential writing, or are these selections meant to tell the American \'story\'? It’s not a book to be read cover to cover, as your faithful reviewer did, but I sometimes had the sense that selections were made based on the importance of the president rather than the quality of the writing ... The best parts of The Best Presidential Writing are taken from the least-known works.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMr. deBoer’s book deserves attention for the way in which the author honestly faces one of modern liberalism’s great inanities and addresses it using only the tenets of the political left. It is an extraordinary effort ... I don’t think I have ever read a scholar of the left concede, as Mr. deBoer does readily and to his credit, that after-school and pre-K programs do virtually nothing to improve educational outcomes. But he believes these programs ought to be dramatically expanded on the grounds that it is society’s duty to afford equal justice to all ... since charters are premised on the idea that some schools perform their function better than others, Mr. deBoer feels he must discredit them. It’s too bad ... Mr. deBoer rightly criticizes an education system that condemns the academically indifferent to second-rate status. You wonder, though, what the world would look like after the sort of revolution he proposes: a revolution in which the educated—it’s always the educated who carry out revolutions—assume the power to remake society. I prefer the Cult of Smart, for all its problems, to the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... moving and lucidly written ... Mr. Salter’s admiration for his old boss is profound, but he is aware, too, of McCain’s complexity ... Mr. Salter is of course right to resent the press corps’ malevolence in 2008, but his defense strikes this reviewer as naive and indicative of the candidate’s self-importance ... Still, reading Mr. Salter’s fine memoir, I am confirmed in an old opinion: that it is one of the great tragedies of our politics that John McCain was never elected president. America was just unlucky, I guess.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalI am not typically in sympathy with Mr. Yglesias’s views, but he is a lucid writer and enough of a contrarian for even a conservative like me to appreciate and learn from ... The problem with One Billion Americans isn’t its radical aims but its glib insincerity. Mr. Yglesias is proposing to reorder the entire American economy and effect sweeping changes to its political system and social conventions, but he presents it all as a neat-o solution ... ach big idea he explains in the chirpy style of a Vox.com \'explainer\' and each objection he dismisses with a quick citation of a social-science study or a flourish of abstract wonkery ... a form of intellectual tourism. The author visits a grand site, takes a few selfies, indulges in some local fare, and leaves. I guess he’s off to the next big idea. Maybe he’ll send us a postcard.
PanThe Wall Street JournalI mention all this simply to point out that the book’s one headline-making revelation is noteworthy only if you already believe that any terrible thing in the world is probably in some way the fault of Mr. Trump. But if that is your outlook, you don’t need a hefty book to tell you that Mr. Trump is a terrible guy. What is the point of Rage, then? ... I find it easy to ignore the author’s consensus-liberal interpretations of events and enjoy the books for what they are: aggrieved cabinet officials and senior White House staffers anonymously grousing ... There is some of this in Rage, but not enough. And the sources rarely reveal anything worth knowing ... What ruins the book—what makes it one long retelling of what everybody already knows—is the presence, on the record, of the president of the United States ... unbearably boring, like reading transcripts of White House press briefings ... Mr. Trump has turned what might have been an engaging book into a dud.
Tara Isabella Burton
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalStrange Rites is a bracing tour through the myriad forms of bespoke spiritualism and makeshift quasireligions springing up across America: the ersatz piety and self-veneration of “wellness culture”; the startlingly earnest and deeply strange world of Harry Potter fan fiction; the newer, woker forms of sexual utopia, witchcraft and satanism that are now prevalent among the affluent young ... The book, despite its occasionally lurid material, is easy to enjoy. Ms. Burton writes fluently, doesn’t take herself too seriously as an authority, and keeps her own political and metaphysical views mostly to herself.
MixedThe Wall Street Journal... a perceptive and readable account, although I found the final section, covering presidencies from Gerald Ford to Donald Trump, rooted in a liberal conventional wisdom I do not share ... the analyses offered feel[s] clichéd to me ... Anybody—including his supporters—can see that Mr. Trump has a peculiar relationship with the truth. But to suppose his feud with the news media is a contest between truth and propaganda is itself an exercise in self-delusion ... Mr. Holzer has written a fine book, but it exemplifies rather than illuminates the problem. In common with vast segments of today’s mainstream news organizations, it places a misguided faith in objectivity (a word both use without irony). In [Holzer\'s] view—a view bound up with the technocratic outlook of midcentury liberalism and still common in journalism schools—reporters simply relate uninterpreted facts and let news consumers figure out what those facts mean ... What we ought to argue about is whether the Trump Show is rattling our faith in objectivity, and whether that’s such a bad thing.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThe book’s writing is clear, if sometimes heavy with sarcasm, and its author does what few writers today are capable of doing—he criticizes his own side. Mr. Frank is a firm believer in redistributionist economics and social liberalism, but he has written his book mainly to scold the American left ... The title is odd—it’s an allusion to Carl Sandburg’s poem \'The People, Yes\'—but the thesis is straightforward ... The book’s chief problem is semantic. Mr. Frank sharply criticizes pundits who use the word \'populist\' to describe mass political movements that do not accord with the policy aims of the original Populists. I assume he understands that the same word can have a variety of legitimate applications, but he gives no indication that he understands it. For Mr. Frank, the term \'populism\' and its cognates can only apply to political movements that Mr. Frank approves of.
PanThe Wall Street JournalIf Ms. Sullivan’s book had been published 10 or 20 years ago, I suspect she would have found much more room to discuss the need for diversity in the newsroom ... Ms. Sullivan dutifully mentions that, as editor of the Buffalo News, she \'aggressively hired people of color\' but otherwise leaves the topic alone ... Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that a Washington Post columnist couldn’t find a negative word to say about the practice of journalism in America’s newsrooms, but I thought perhaps she might give it a throwaway paragraph. Nope. Ms. Sullivan writes of \'journalism\' sometimes of journalistic \'talent,\' as though it’s a natural resource, the same in quantity and quality at all times ... But perhaps I’m naive to think \'America’s premier media critic,\' as the book’s back cover proclaims Ms. Sullivan to be, would dare to criticize the media.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalVery few books, and certainly not a 500-page memoir about national-security policy making, could measure up to the media event that is its publication. Even so, The Room Where It Happened is a competent piece of writing. Readers looking mainly for stories about Donald Trump’s unorthodox behavior may find it tough to get through the author’s detailed discussions of U.S. policy on Venezuela and the inner workings of America’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, but Mr. Bolton moves the story along quickly enough ... The book has what every good political memoir must have: a cast of believable and idiosyncratic characters ... Most of the news media, caring only about the event and not the book, will see it as just another collection of anecdotes proving Mr. Trump’s awfulness. Mr. Bolton’s memoir is more interesting than that ... I do not understand, for instance, why [Bolton] needed to publish the private comments of Secretary Pompeo, who still serves—and by Mr. Bolton’s account serves well—in the administration ... well-aimed.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalStacey Abrams has a different explanation for the lack of racial progress in America: voter suppression ... Ms. Abrams believes, if I may put her argument in my own words, that liberal orthodoxy on race would have fulfilled all its promises, but Republicans stopped it and reversed decades of progress by making it more difficult for blacks and other minorities to vote ... Her words are strong, her arguments weak. She inveighs, for instance, against voter \'purges,\' the removal from voter lists of names of people who haven’t voted in recent elections, claiming that these are undertaken to hassle minority voters. But state officials have a duty to remove from the rolls the names of people who’ve died or moved away.
Peter J. Thuesen
RaveThe Wall Street JournalThe book is a superb work of scholarship, distilling a vast array of work on meteorology, theology and American history. Mr. Thuesen, a professor of religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, has a special interest in violent storms, especially tornadoes, and writes about them with narrative skill ... Mr. Thuesen ends his book with a lengthy discussion of religious responses to climate change, and as an account of recent history it’s accurate and helpful.
Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMost books on Lincoln are imbued with a sense of tragic melancholy—like those on JFK, only more so. The Lincoln Conspiracy, by Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch, is a refreshing counterinstance to this generality ... Mr. Meltzer, the author of popular thrillers and a host on the History Channel, and Mr. Mensch, a historian and television producer, have written a tale that begs to be a movie. The book is narrated in the present tense, like the script of a documentary, and its 81 short chapters typically end on a note of heavy suspense. There are constant and unnecessary reminders of how American history would have taken a different course if this or that detail had been otherwise. But The Lincoln Conspiracy also includes much on Lincoln’s life and character, and every episode is scrupulously referenced. An occasionally melodramatic page-turner with proper endnotes—not a bad thing.
PanThe Wall Street Journal... one of the most cloyingly adulatory paeans to a living politician I’ve ever read ... Pelosi—no subtitle—is one long catalog of the subject’s self-sacrifice, courage, success against the odds, intelligence, uprightness and sagacity. It is the story of Nancy Pelosi as Nancy Pelosi would have told it—and, with apparently only light mediation, did tell it ... I was...not prepared for this book’s sassy you-go-girl boosterism ... The prose is bad but the sentiment is worse. If I ever write anything so mindlessly celebratory about any elected official, living or dead, liberal or conservative, I hope the editor of these pages will have the decency to fire me and suggest a career in advertising or political consultancy ... this account is so gratuitously panegyrical as to turn Mrs. Pelosi into a plastic version of herself ... Nancy Pelosi turned 80 in March. She is likely to retire soon. When she does, and the time comes to write her memoirs, perhaps some faithful aide will say to her: Madam Speaker, the job is already done.
Andrew J Bacevich
PanThe Wall Street Journal... speedy machines and lifted taboos and disenchantment long predate 1900. In fact, there is no obvious reason to trace this \'tradition\' back to the turn of the 20th century rather than to either John Adams, the nation’s first great conservative, or to the founding of National Review magazine in 1955 or, perhaps, to the publication of Whittaker Chambers’s great memoir, Witness, in 1952 ... This is not, alas, a trivial point. Mr. Bacevich, evidently in need of some \'conservatives\' from the earlier part of the century, makes some bizarre choices. Including works by Henry Adams and George Santayana makes a certain kind of sense, but Walter Lippmann, midcentury America’s most famous liberal? ... It strikes me as unpardonable to include Charles Beard and not Charles Krauthammer in a collection of writings by American conservatives, but there it is ... I conclude that Mr. Bacevich either has little idea what neoconservatism means or that he bungled by including an essay from a viewpoint he explicitly vowed to exclude ... There are some trenchant pieces in this book, to be sure...There are a few fine pieces that nonetheless don’t belong here ... Mr. Bacevich deserves credit for including Kendall’s essay, but I note with irritation that the book’s biographical note is needlessly dismissive ... It’s not a bad way to describe modern American conservatism itself—always adapting to its liberal and progressive opponents; always considered by them vaguely suspect. And always being defined by allegedly sympathetic scholars who show little understanding of the \'tradition\' they mean to \'reclaim.\'
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMr. Karl, the chief White House correspondent for ABC News, necessarily tells the story from the media’s side, but he is a fair-minded reporter rather than a media cheerleader. Unlike other books about Mr. Trump by members of the news media, Mr. Karl’s book presents the 45th president as a complex, multilayered person: self-regarding, sometimes mean, disdainful of factual accuracy; but also approachable to ordinary people, at times reflective, and smarter than his critics give him credit for ... Mr. Karl also manages to convey something missing from other books by his media colleagues about the Trump era: the sheer hilarity of it all ... Mr. Karl treats the two-year controversy over whether the Trump campaign \'colluded\' with Russia as an ordinary political debate rather than what it was, a bloody-minded conspiracy theory rooted in the machinations of bumbling FBI officials and tirelessly hyped by gullible journalists ... Mr. Karl’s insistence on truth from government spokesmen is well taken. One only wishes he could say more about the kind of perverse groupthink that so often impels mainstream journalists to espouse tendentious interpretations of events even as they claim to care only about the truth.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalLike other works of prognostication, this one depends heavily on a forced reading of history, often expressed in oracular truisms. Are we really to believe that the second \'socioeconomic cycle\' ran right through the Civil War and its immediate aftermath despite the fact that roughly a third of the economy, namely the South, was utterly destroyed more than a decade before it ended? Then there are the banalities ... If you take away Mr. Friedman’s dodgy idea of recurrent 50- and 80-year cycles, and ignore the ever more speculative prophecies near the end, the book contains real insights.
PanThe Wall Street JournalI assume Mr. Shapiro describes these two positions as \'extremes\' in order to place himself in the reasonable center, but in fact he, too, has recruited Shakespeare for his own purposes in the culture wars. I don’t fault him for it. Many writers—I think of Coleridge and Orwell, but there are hundreds of others—have drawn profitably on Shakespeare’s plays, especially the histories and tragedies, to elucidate contemporary political questions. The trouble with Mr. Shapiro’s book is that, although he gestures continually at political questions, he offers little that can be called an argument ... Much of the book, particularly its first half, is not forensic but historical, and Mr. Shapiro writes well as a historian ... Alas, when Mr. Shapiro relates his often excellent historical analysis to post-2016 American politics, his writing becomes flaccid and vague ... Why, I’ve asked more than once in these pages, do gifted scholars feel they must turn otherwise readable and significant books into ham-fisted commentaries on the 45th president? O, reason not the need!
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalWhy this lassitude? The right blames a collapse of religion and family and traditional morality; the left blames widening economic inequality. Mr. Levin’s answer is at once simpler, more generous and more cogent ... Mr. Levin’s diagnosis of other institutions is...trenchant ... Mr. Levin puts the choice starkly. We can go on \'fighting abstract theoretical battles in the wide-open spaces of our political culture\'—shouting at cable-news shows, tweeting into the ether—or we can address “concrete practical problems within institutions.\'
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Magnet has written his book, he tells us, as a way of envisioning what it would look like to rediscover the system of government created by the American Founders. Clarence Thomas’s writings, in his view, show the way ... The belief that Slaughter-House and its progeny can\'t be overturned, Mr. Magnet writes, has allowed state and local governments to trample constitutional rights and has \'permitted a monumental historical lie to fester instead of allowing the clear sunlight of truth to disinfect and heal it.\' I find this reasoning highly plausible, although I fear that a modern Supreme Court armed with the \'privileges or immunities\' clause could render the states virtually powerless against federal encroachment. What’s so refreshing about this argument and the rest of Mr. Magnet’s book, however, is that it treats Justice Thomas not merely as a \'black conservative\' but as the brilliant and principled jurist that he is.
PanThe Wall Street JournalThe author, if I may put it only slightly facetiously, is a charitable atheist telling obnoxious atheists to restrain their hostility because it won’t do any good and may do harm in the long term. That is a reasonable argument, but not an entirely cogent one. Take away Dr. Konner’s irenic language and it’s about the same as: Don’t harass the nitwits—they can’t help it ... Dr. Konner is careful to disavow the conclusion from...studies that religious faith consists only of cognitive responses to stimuli. Which is a relief, since many of the studies he relays sound like social-scientific balderdash, conducted with the aim of finding that religious faith has its origins in cerebral or bodily abnormalities. For Dr. Konner, they support the more modest claim that religious affections are a natural, innate human impulse, not a consequence of undesirable and eradicable social pathologies. In any case I’m fairly certain that most of his atheist contemporaries will instead draw the conclusion that religion is a sign of lunacy and ought to be discouraged when possible. The chief flaw of Believers, to this professed religious believer anyhow, is the promiscuous use to which it puts the word \'religion\' and its cognates ... One begins to suspect that \'religion,\' for Dr. Konner and his fellow anthropologists, can describe any system of beliefs or philosophical commitments outside of ordinary nonbelief ... Dr. Konner treats the New Atheists’ predictions of religion’s demise with too much respect. Mr. Dawkins and company are as wrong about religion’s future as the French revolutionaries were more than two centuries ago. Their arrogant prophecies deserve a simpler response. I suggest: Huh?
PanThe Wall Street Journal... you have to endure chapter after chapter of platitudes and long, detailed accounts of [rice\'s] bureaucratic maneuvering and policy views before you get to the point ... What’s most offensive to this reviewer, however, is her decision to place these narrow self-vindications within a 500-page book full of family anecdotes and hokey adages and tedious renditions of policy views. Ms. Rice’s apologia might have worked well, shorn of banalities, as [a] 5,000- or 6,000-word essay for the New Yorker or the Atlantic. But an essay doesn’t slake the thirst for vainglory.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMs. Milov writes with the moral earnestness of a liberal dragon-slayer. There is no doubt who the dragons are in her story ... Cigarette companies, out of a desire to deny or at least complicate the claim of a direct link between smoking and disease, produced \'scientific subterfuge\'; the tobacco industry’s lobbying arm, the Tobacco Institute, disseminated \'propaganda.\' These and many similar unflattering descriptors seem out of place in a historical monograph. Ms. Milov’s zeal for the antismoking cause sometimes appears a tad propagandistic itself ... is otherwise an impressive work of scholarship evincing years of spadework in primary and secondary sources. It’s also, apart from a whiff here and there of academic jargon, a well-told story. Ms. Milov has an eye for detail.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalPermanent Record, though not without moments of sincerity and warmth, is suffused with the author’s pubescent arrogance ... Early in the book it becomes clear that Mr. Snowden’s aim isn’t so much to justify his decision to expose a menacing intelligence enterprise as to build sympathy for himself and ill feeling for his accusers ... One can’t help thinking that Mr. Snowden was looking for a reason to show the world his high principles and courage. If it hadn’t been mass surveillance, it would have been something else.
PanThe Wall Street JournalThe book is too long. Unless you’re a gifted writer, which Ms. Power is not, the job of U.N. ambassador does not justify an account of this size ... There are some memorable moments, mainly at the book’s beginning ... I doubt many readers will care much about how the federal government’s human-resources department initially assigned Ms. Power the wrong salary tier (the mistake was soon corrected, you’ll be relieved to know) or about what she and her husband, Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein, did on their first night in the U.N. ambassador’s residence at the Waldorf Astoria ... is more than an exercise in vanity. It’s also, fundamentally, a defense of the author’s reputation ... Ms. Power tries hard to make Mr. Obama’s indecision on Syria look like something other than the disaster it plainly was, failing even to mention the substantive reason for the president’s sudden change of heart—Iran ... In the end, Ms. Power lamely portrays the administration’s worst foreign-policy blunder as a qualified success.
Michael S. Roth
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMr. Roth’s book nicely captures the dilemma that university administrators find themselves in: hemmed in by campus radicals on one side and a bemused public on the other. On the question of affirmative action...[his comments strike me as a] well-intentioned but after-the-fact justification for a corrosive policy. A naturally curious person will encounter many people from backgrounds and circumstances different from his own in the ordinary course of life; he doesn’t need to haul off to Wesleyan to hear about some kid’s \'moral hero\' ... Our most ostentatiously forward-looking institutions have somehow moved backwards.
MixedThe Wall Street Journal...[Barton] ably elucidates the process by which biblical books attained their canonical status and the ways in which Jewish and Christian authorities have interpreted them. I kept wondering, though, if Mr. Barton thinks there is any point in actually reading the Bible. I reached the last page and wondered still. I don’t mean to be snide. A History of the Bible is a lucidly written distillation of a vast array of scholarship. The problem is that the historical-critical scholarship to which forward-thinking academics and clergymen like Mr. Barton devote so much attention doesn’t tell us much of anything about the biblical texts ... The trouble with the historical-critical method, if the reader will indulge this religious believer for a moment, is its rock-solid, unthinking presupposition against the possibility of the supernatural ... John Barton’s reluctant, lukewarm \'admiration\' for the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures will impress some readers as perfectly respectable. But surely the Bible—a book that has outraged, captivated and upended greater minds than his—demands a more decided response.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThere is much to enjoy in Transaction Man, not least Mr. Lemann’s sketches of the spectacularly self-confident Adolf Berle and the wildly eccentric Mr. Jensen. But the book’s central argument—that free-market theorists undermined the New Deal settlement and so unleashed chaos on the American economy—is not a good one. Most important, it doesn’t account for the extraordinary advantages afforded to the American economy in the 1950s and ’60s ... Mr. Lemann’s account similarly ignores the damage wrought by the federal government’s policy, running back to the New Deal, of treating financial institutions as too big to fail and thus encouraging them to behave foolishly. The book barely mentions Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, for example. It’s a fine thing to see liberals and progressives revising their ideological precursors’ disdain for midcentury America. Maybe in a decade or two they’ll reconsider their hatred of the ’80s, too.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... an incisive series of biographical and historical essays on the Mayflower’s passengers ... Myths aside, the striking quality about the Mayflower’s trans-Atlantic journey—and this emerges beautifully in Mr. Whittock’s narrative—is just how archetypally American the whole affair was ... Mr. Whittock is refreshingly reluctant to judge his subjects harshly. Gone are the usual snide remarks about the Puritans’ narrowness and grimness ... It’s perhaps not so surprising that such an assemblage of resolute men and women should contain a number of memorable lives, though it is surprising just how much historians have discovered about people who, with only two or three exceptions, remained unknown in their own day. Mr. Whittock has woven their stories together wonderfully ... Mr. Whittock displays a fine eye for detail, too.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalJames Grant...writes with a sympathy and grasp of detail that suggests a [deep] familiarity. Bagehot was a financial journalist with a love of English literature and a facility for clear and cogent prose. So is Mr. Grant ... But this is no hagiography. Mr. Grant is sometimes impatient with his subject. He has had his fill, he writes with remarkable frankness at the book’s outset ... But the author’s occasional impatience with his subject makes the book more readable, not less ... What Mr. Grant has produced isn’t so much a conventional \'life\'...as a study of the political and economic ideas Bagehot spent the bulk of his energies thinking and writing about ... Bagehot is a terrific and efficient survey of the political and economic disputations of mid-Victorian England and a fine narrative of the life of the era’s most brilliant essayist. It is also, I think, a book meant for journalists: those wretched scribblers who string words together for a living in the vain hope that somebody may read them a year from now.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThe book’s brief history of the semicolon is more fun than it sounds ... Almost everybody who cares about this subject, even the vanishingly small number of grammar snobs left in the world, understand that writers who know what they’re doing can bend and break the rules to good effect. Do we need to be told one more time that all those \'prescriptivist\' grammarians of the 18th and 19th centuries failed to grasp the always-evolving nature of language? Do we need one more book alerting us, as Ms. Watson does, to the fact that an insistence on rule-following can exclude people of less privileged backgrounds? ... Like most grammarians in our latitudinarian age, Ms. Watson enjoys her status as an elite user of language but can’t bring herself to pronounce judgment of any kind, except to dismiss those who do ... Ms. Watson has shown us she’s been to college, but for what reason?
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThe number of part-time faculty...has increased sevenfold ... Why did this happen? Mr. Childress has trouble answering that overarching question because he loves the field of higher education and tries hard not to sound like a right-winger fulminating against it. He does not challenge the modern universities’ creation of faux-academic disciplines—hospitality management, marketing, women’s studies—or the 20th-century delusion that everybody should go to college. Mr. Childress writes as a wounded lover, not as an adversary ... Mr. Childress’s reluctance to raise larger questions about the higher-education industry occasionally leads him to credulity, as when he accepts without qualm the notion that state universities underpay faculty and rely on contract work in part because their public funding has diminished ... Even so, and despite its author’s wavering sympathy for academia, The Adjunct Underclass is a heartbreaking indictment of American higher education.
George F. Will
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... tightly reasoned ... Many, perhaps most, conservatives who read Mr. Will’s book will differ with him on two major points. Certainly I do ... When you read a work as wise, incisive and superbly written as this one, you rightly assume it was produced by a first-rate mind.
PanThe Wall Street JournalThere are a hundred different ways you could write a book on humour, or humor as Americans spell it. Mr. Eagleton’s approach is perfectly valid and what you would expect from a literary theorist: He contemplates the validity of various explanations of humor...and then lets his reflections run more or less free ... There are a few fine jokes in these pages ... But mostly Humour conceals what little humor it contains in a thicket of the author’s abstruse, hyper-learned musings. Mr. Eagleton no longer writes to inform and instruct. He writes—if I may beat the populist drum for a moment—to impress people who hold postgraduate degrees in the humanities. He drops the names of authors like bombs and leaves you dazed and wondering how they apply ... One is left to wonder if Mr. Eagleton’s Marxism has impaired his sense of humor.
PanThe Wall Street JournalA liberalism that fixates on inclusion, moreover, will loathe itself for past exclusions. Just so, the bulk of Ms. Lepore’s book consists of one ugly depredation after another: fascist sympathizers rallying in Madison Square Garden in 1939, Japanese internment camps and so on. Not only is that a one-sided portrayal—surely American nationalism should get some credit for defeating Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany—it makes any sort of patriotism appear horrible and dangerous ... In the end, Ms. Lepore can’t quite say what she wants.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Arnade’s photographs of his transient subjects are starkly beautiful, but he does not romanticize them or claim any moral victory for himself ... Like Orwell, Mr. Arnade spent a long time with the people he would write about, and he renders them sharply, with an eye for revelatory detail ... And, like Orwell’s, Mr. Arnade’s pronouncements are sometimes muddled ... More often, Mr. Arnade writes with insight and honesty.
PanThe Wall Street JournalLiberalism embraces whatever has as its end the elimination of \'cruelty and sadism and needless suffering from the world.\' If Mr. Gopnik had stopped there he’d be close to the truth, but he isn’t fond of stopping and goes on to argue that modern liberalism is a creed of modesty ... Mr. Gopnik feels he can portray liberals as modest in their ambitions (well, they are—compared to communists), but I fail to see much daylight between liberal and left, at least in the American system. Mr. Gopnik writes peevishly of conservatives who collapse liberals and leftists into the term \'left-liberal,\' but how else do we account for all the traffic between center-left and hard-left, liberal and radical?
MixedThe Wall Street JournalLike all socialists, the author vastly underestimates both man’s inclination to increase his own wealth and his concomitant penchant for freeloading. But unlike the ordinary socialist, Mr. Sunkara writes with a self-effacing cheerfulness ... What distinguishes the manifesto of this 29-year-old Brooklyn-based editor of Jacobin magazine is its open admission that the future could go either way ... We should probably be encouraged to see socialists drop the conceit that the future is theirs and admit the reality that unhappiness awaits us no matter the size of our welfare state, but surely the allure of socialism was always its glorious inevitability. Without that, it’s left with aesthetics and attitude.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalWhen Mr. Muravchik’s book first appeared in 2002, it felt like an obituary. Now it has a new urgency ... Among the important themes featured in Heaven on Earth are the inherent contradictions between patriotism and the internationalist doctrines of socialism; the risible way in which socialist ideologues speak about future states of harmony that, conveniently, can’t be verified or assessed; and the enduring link between socialism and atheism. This latter point emerges with surprising force in Heaven on Earth.
Arthur C. Brooks
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThe book’s efficient discussion of Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundationism, expressed most fully in Mr. Haidt’s The Righteous Mind (2012), is valuable—though not, to my mind, totally persuasive ...These categories may help rightward- and leftward-leaning people show a little more patience with each other, but the categories are only about predispositions, not about morality itself, and are inevitably bound by time and place. Moreover, Mr. Haidt’s moral foundationism may work as a kind of thought experiment, but I suspect it holds little cogency for people worried about the destruction of their country’s best traditions ... the suggestion that we all treat each other nicely may seem rather thin. But Mr. Brooks embodies the charity and reasonableness he preaches—and leading by example is far from nothing.
Bret Easton Ellis
MixedThe Wall Street Journal\"This back-in-my-day generational grousing comes up again when Mr. Ellis complains about \'snowflakes\' and \'millennials\' who demand apologies for mean jokes. But it doesn’t work: Most of the entitled liberals in the news and entertainment industries he ridicules aren’t millennials but Generation Xers, as he is ... Mr. Ellis sometimes sounds like a bit of a snowflake himself. He writes at length on the hypersensitive reactions to his tweets, but it seems rather touchy to be complaining so much about one’s treatment on Twitter ... Mr. Ellis complains, rightly, that the cultural left elevates politics over art, but what conservative critic hasn’t said this in one form or another? ... Mr. Ellis will lose friends over this book, and perhaps he deserves credit for courage. But offending people is what he’s always done—and it’s worked for him rather well so far.\
MixedThe Wall Street Journal\"The life of a judge is rarely the stuff of gripping biography. In the life of a Supreme Court justice, there is that magical moment when the president phones, but after that it’s mainly a lot of cases and opinions. Evan Thomas’s First: Sandra Day O’Connor ... inevitably suffers from that limitation, and the author’s gushing veneration of his subject doesn’t help ... There are delightful moments ... The question of when \'practical\' becomes \'results oriented\'—when a judge becomes less like a judge and more like a policy maker—is the great jurisprudential question of the past half-century. Mr. Thomas prefers to sidestep it.\
MixedThe Wall Street Journal\"Ms. Biskupic, a legal analyst at CNN, is a skillful writer and a diligent scholar, and the John Roberts she presents here is a sympathetic and complex character ... But this biography advances a single argument throughout: that Chief Justice Roberts is torn between his conservative ideology and his concern for the high court’s legitimacy ... My guess is that liberals will find the book vaguely hopeful (might the chief justice begin \'swinging\' to the left more often?) and conservatives will find themselves, as I did, scrawling question marks in the margins ... The remarkable thing about Ms. Biskupic’s analysis is that she all but overtly praises him for issuing a convoluted decision because the outcome is one she favors.\
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThe book’s concise thesis notwithstanding, it’s unclear what Mr. Davies means to argue. Nervous State is written in the omniscient style of so many \'sweeping\' treatments these days, ranging haphazardly over four centuries of European history in the manner of Jürgen Habermas. The author jumps from one abstruse analysis to another, each chapter ending like a piece of atonal music, with no resolution or sense of closure ... Where Mr. Davies gives us a coherent argument, it’s often maddeningly tendentious.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMr. Schultz’s recollections of youth would have made a fine memoir on their own ... It’s when he writes about his later career and tries to connect his experiences to the poor state of our politics—in other words, when he tries to tell us why he’d be a great president—that Mr. Schultz bores and exasperates. He strikes me as a brilliant entrepreneur but almost certainly a bad politician: a man bursting with ideas but bereft of coherent political principles.
PanThe Wall Street Journal\"The book’s purpose isn’t to tell a great story but to signal the author’s political viability ... Mr. Buttigieg... writes at length about the Bush administration’s response to 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, and you wonder why he takes pains to explain views that were Democratic boilerplate from 2003 to 2008 ... The whole thing reaches the level of farce when the author explains why a photograph exists of him and Vice President Mike Pence, then Indiana’s governor...\
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"As in Mr. Mallon’s many other novels, the writing is crisp and witty, the central characters complex and sympathetic in surprising ways, the narrative structure tight. The constant use of italics, as if Mr. Mallon doesn’t trust his readers to know where to place the emphasis, is one mild annoyance in an otherwise superbly written novel ... This is a work of the imagination, and I have no firsthand knowledge of the 43rd president, but Mr. Mallon’s rendering is far more faithful to the evidence than the caricatures we read for a decade in the media.\
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"The best and most useful parts of Zucked, I find, are those that draw on Mr. McNamee’s lengthy experience as a Silicon Valley investor to explain exactly how and why today’s tech giants compile troves of detailed information on their users and what the political consequences of their frequently amoral efforts may be ... Facebook makes us more like what we already are and therefore less inclined to tolerate those ever-stranger beings on the other side. This isn’t an original insight, but Mr. McNamee expresses it fluently—he understands the business model from the inside.\
PanThe Wall Street Journal\"As in all campaign books, [Harris\'s] chief aim is to describe her career in a way that makes her appear presidential ... I was not impressed—as attorney general she tried to crack down on, of all things, school truancy—but readers of a leftward bent may feel differently. The really irritating thing about Ms. Harris’s book is her habit of introducing stories from her life only to shoehorn in some ostensibly related political issue.\
Kevin M Kruse
PanThe Wall Street JournalDoesn’t accomplish their goal. They recount lots of the headline-making events, but their narrative tells us only that Americans became increasingly divided and embittered, not why they did. History, and especially narrowly political history of the kind presented here, is not equipped to answer the question they put to it. Political controversies are mainly the manifestations of warring preconceptions and worldviews long in the making. Examining the controversies by themselves won’t tell you much about their origins or meaning ... One expects academic historians to lean leftward in their judgments...But Messrs. Kruse and Zelizer present themselves as uncommitted, objective historians even as they portray one dispute after another as if it were largely or wholly the result of the stupidity, bigotry or arrogance of Republican officeholders and their allies ... Messrs. Kruse and Zelizer miss perhaps the most relevant fault line of our time: the line between disdainful elites who equate reality with their own interpretations and everybody else.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalIn An Uncivil War: Taking Back Our Democracy in an Age of Trumpian Disinformation and Thunderdome Politics, Mr. Sargent offers a familiar list of left-liberal grievances: Mr. Trump’s lies and bigotry, Republican gerrymandering and voter suppression, Fox News ... Despite the book’s hackneyed title, there is very little here about civility. What ails American politics, Mr. Sargent seems to believe, is that his side hasn’t had its way. Perhaps he should read Mr. Sasse’s book (Them: Why We Hate Each Other—and How to Heal). And, come to think of it, perhaps the senator should read Mr. Sargent’s.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"Mr. Sasse’s remedies are wise and well-expressed ... Mr. Sasse draws heavily on research by Richard Florida, Miller McPherson, Robert Putnam and others to make his case, but he does so in a literate and nuanced way: His treatment of these sociologists’ works suggests he actually read them, and his prose has a distinctively cheerful warmth throughout ... The book’s failure, if it has one, is that it sidesteps the deep-seated differences between progressives and conservatives.\
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMs. Solnit is a capable essayist, and there’s a powerful quality to her unconventional and abrasive style, but one often gets the feeling she’s writing for a small set of her San Francisco friends. She dishes out highly spurious claims with no indication that anybody would think twice about them ... anticipating counterarguments isn’t Ms. Solnit’s thing. Far easier to denounce the enemy and enjoy the knowing nods of your friends.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMr. Fukuyama’s attempt to explain the theoretical basis of dignity is a bit of a mess ... Readers may wonder if the connections between Luther and Rousseau go any deeper than the simple notion of introspection, how Rousseau’s ideas jumped all the way to Burma and Iran, and how it was that the American civil-rights movement was inspired by the ideals of the French rather than the American Revolution. Mr. Fukuyama’s breezy account doesn’t stop long enough to ask these sorts of questions ... He does make a persuasive case that modern identity politics arose out of post-Freudian therapeutic worldviews of midcentury America ... Mr. Fukuyama displays an unaccountable need to sound as if he’s above ideology and faulting both sides for their excesses. That’s a tough sell on the topic of identity politics, which is overwhelmingly a creation of the left ... More interesting is his proposal of a mandatory-service program to require the young to work for common national goals. That may still fail to bring us together, but historically the only thing certain to accomplish the aim of national unity is large-scale war against an aggressor—and nobody wants that.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThere are two good reasons for an American politician to write his memoirs. The first is that he was the president of the United States...The second reason is that the politician has something to say, some notable experience or insight that he can relay from his time in office. John Kerry fits snugly into the second category—he was a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, a secretary of state and in 2004 the Democratic presidential nominee—but he seems to think that he belongs in the first. With almost 600 pages of dense text and 24 pages of color photographs, Every Day Is Extra isn’t so much a memoir as a full autobiography.
Kwame Anthony Appiah
MixedThe Wall Street JournalWhat sounds at first like a direct challenge to our political culture’s obsession with identity turns out to be a series of highly literate but dilettantish \'explorations\'—discursive arguments that racial identities are sometimes based on obsolete science, national identities depend on fictions, religious identities have more to do with practice than with doctrinal belief, and so on. The difference between Mr. Appiah’s stated aim and the content of his claims is reflected on the book’s title page: Identities are outright \'lies\' in the title, but in the subtitle they don’t require debunking but a mere \'rethinking.\' He doesn’t so much argue that racial, class-based and national identities are false or fabricated as point out the ambiguities at their margins. But surely very few people need to be told that human identities lack the certainty of mathematical theorems.
PanThe Wall Street Journal\"[In]Beautiful Country Burn Again, Mr. Fountain’s series of rambling, denunciatory essays on the 2016 presidential campaign... Every assertion, every observation, is aflame with indignation ... [Fountain\'s] thesis that America requires dramatic ethical recalibration presupposes that we live in a madhouse of rank racism. If that’s true, it ought to be easy to prove with a few judicious quotes. For Mr. Fountain, though, it’s rarely about what people say but about what they’re really saying ... Yet in Mr. Fountain’s worldview a deleterious trend or culpable remark can only ever be the result of the foulest bigotry, and the public figures of whom he disapproves are by definition monsters. There is no room here for argument or nuance—only loathing and the hope of imminent fire.\
RaveThe Wall Street Journal\'I want to be quiet a little bit and not hear myself talk so darn much,\' Barack Obama said of his postpresidency plans during his final White House press conference, and for the most part he has lived up to that aspiration. But he hasn’t needed to say much. Every couple of months, it seems, one of his former staffers comes out with a book recalling the Obama years and defending the Obama legacy ... There was such energy and excitement in the White House from 2009 to 2017 that even Mr. Obama’s stenographer felt compelled to write a memoir ... but From the Corner of the Oval doesn’t engage in the prickly defensiveness of other Obama-era memoirs. Ms. Dorey-Stein is too good a writer to ruin her book with tendentious griping. She writes with wit and self-deprecating humor but is fully aware, too, of the pomposity and petty spite of official Washington. She’s at her best and funniest when recalling the physically unhealthy and vaguely ridiculous work of following the president wherever he goes. After an overnight flight on Air Force One, she writes, \'all the lights are on in the staff cabin, and everyone is quietly eating their huevos rancheros in their business casual\'.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"I am not entirely sure how to interpret Andrew Shaffer’s deeply weird and very funny satirical novel Hope Never Dies, but it works well as a send-up of the Obama infatuation ... The story is told in the first person by Joe, and it has to be said that he sounds a lot like the former veep: \'I placed a hand on her shoulder. \"This has to be a shock.\" \' The book’s running gag is how reverentially inferior Joe feels in comparison with Barack. \'You’re allowed to have other friends,\' Joe tells his old boss at the end of the story. \'As long as I’m your best friend.\' \
Martha C. Nussbaum
PanThe Wall Street JournalThe book’s subtitle—\'A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis\'—leads one to think that Ms. Nussbaum’s analysis of today’s volatile and uncertain politics will offer a needed element of precision. It doesn’t. The book is rife with sloppy arguments and arresting but unsubstantiated claims. Ms. Nussbaum doesn’t argue but merely states, for example, that monarchies are based on fear (hence the title), whereas democracies are based on trust ... The more interesting failure of The Monarchy of Fear is that it exhibits just the very uninformed fear it laments ... Unsupported generalizations abound ... Maybe she’s right—though, as she noted on the book’s first page, the fear she senses is probably her own.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe first chapter nicely captures the futility of assuming there to be a single genuinely \'Christian\' viewpoint on a phenomenon as complex and multifaceted as a national election ... Mr. Bowman’s book illuminates one contemporary mystery—at least for liberals in the Northeast and on the West Coast: the support of evangelical leaders for Donald Trump. How could people who care about personal faith and upright moral behavior plump for Trump? To them, Mr. Bowman writes, \'Trump’s belief or lack thereof in Christian orthodoxy mattered less than his commitment to Christian civilization as they imagined it.\'
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMr. LeDuff is a capable writer. His first-person, gonzo-style narration, full of profanity and asinine comments, is a bit of a shtick, but it’s often funny. The trouble with the book is that it’s just like a TV series—it never stays in one place long enough for us to learn anything ... The chapters are just long enough to include a madcap anecdote or two ... But he’s far too impatient to witness anything so complex as a nation’s unspooling.
PanThe Wall Street JournalIf I were a Democrat, I wouldn’t listen. For one thing, electoral politics is protean: What worked in 2008 and 2012 is almost guaranteed not to work in 2020. For another, Mr. Obama and his team surely bear some of the blame for the Democrats’ 2016 defeat. If he was truly the great leader his panegyrists claim, why couldn’t Mr. Obama’s chosen successor get herself elected against a seemingly unelectable agitator who spurned and ridiculed Mr. Obama at every opportunity? Mr. Pfeiffer has no interest in self-criticism. Instead he blames Fox News, the reporters who failed to treat the Obama administration with sufficient reverence, the media’s unfair treatment of Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump’s evil use of Twitter, and just about anything that doesn’t implicate the 44th president ... The next Democratic nominee could do everything Mr. Pfeiffer advises and still not win for the simple reason that he or she is not Barack Obama.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalHow Democracy Endsis not a doomsday warning but a clearly written thought experiment. But Mr. Runciman undersells the value of democracy. He rightly rejects what’s fashionably known as epistocracy—an updated version of mandarinism, or government by technocratic elite—as well as anarchism, which is more popular among young libertarians than you’d think. But his presentation of 21st-century authoritarianism is too rosy ... The problem arises, I think, from Mr. Runciman’s assumption that democracy’s chief strength is its ability to offer citizens \'dignity\' rather than its capacity to assure them of that dignity’s legitimacy—and thus provide both freedom and stability. Life for citizens in a democracy doesn’t always feel dignified, but it’s hard to conclude that your government is illegitimate when your friends and neighbors put it there.
Bill Clinton & James Patterson
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"Mr. Patterson (whom I take to be the primary fashioner of this book) uses short chapters to push the narrative relentlessly forward, withholds details until the moment of maximum dramatic effect and creates a few characters so tantalizingly strange that you can almost see them ... Mr. Patterson’s strength is pacing and suspense rather than style or subtlety—artless tough-guy vernacular is thick on the page ... But the plot resolves nicely and not in the way you’re likely to foresee. This is beach reading of a high order ... platitudinous interjections weigh the book down, even if they don’t ruin it. Mr. Clinton adds nothing to the book’s value as a thriller but much to its capacity for publicity.\
PanThe Wall Street JournalI still don’t know, however, what Mr. Carter means by the word \'faith.\' He seems to mean not a definably religious faith but any sort of belief or trust in other people. That allows him to speak of faith as a sort of American credo—something like Bellah’s civil religion—but you can’t help thinking he’s making it up as he goes ... if you were a liberal or a progressive in politics and you needed some faith-y rhetoric to bolster your outlook, it would do the job just fine. And indeed, in both the liberal and conservative varieties of Christian republicanism, you get the strong feeling that the \'Christian\' part of the formulation is an afterthought. What these religious combatants know best—and what they care about most—is their politics.
Cass R. Sunstein
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalAt least Can It Happen Here? Authoritarianism in America (Dey St., 481 pages, $17.99) frames the subject as a question rather than a conclusion. The book, edited by former Obama adviser Cass R. Sunstein, collects essays by scholars and journalists asking whether America may soon give up on democracy and plump for authoritarianism. Most entries are measured and civil in tone, although those that respond affirmatively concentrate almost exclusively on Mr. Trump’s statements rather than his actions.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Mounk proposes what he calls “inclusive patriotism,” which after many pages of description sounds like ordinary left-liberalism but with an admission that securing a nation’s borders isn’t a terrible idea.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalBefore getting to her points about contemporary American politics…[Chua] surveys a series of what she regards as American foreign-policy disasters—Vietnam, Afghanistan after 9/11, Iraq after the 2003 invasion, Venezuela—and contends that a fuller awareness of tribal loyalties would have saved the U.S. from costly mistakes. Many of her criticisms are valid … I’m not convinced, though, that mistakes in war and foreign policy can tell us a lot about domestic social and political cohesion. We are not trying to root out insurgents but simply to live together peaceably. Ms. Chua’s analysis isn’t helped, either, by her tendency to bolster her arguments with sloppy assertions … Ms. Chua has written a brisk and readable polemic in defense of common sense.
R. Marie Griffith
PanThe Wall Street JournalMoral Combat painstakingly documents what most of us know but would find hard to explain: that the culture wars of the 20th and early 21st centuries have been mainly about sex ...among other things, a vivid illustration of a principle that liberals understand well and that religious conservatives usually do not: Culture precedes politics ... Ms. Griffith, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, writes with cold objectivity about her material, but the subject of sexual morality does not lend itself to cold objectivity. She has written a detailed history of the breakdown of American society’s broad Christian consensus on sexual behavior but says little about the consequences of this breakdown ... The overall effect strikes this admittedly conservative reviewer as incomplete or skewed, like a book on the changing technology of warfare that never mentions death tolls or actual wars.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalIn one sense, Fire and Fury is a typical piece of 'access journalism,' as it’s known, like many titles by Bob Woodward or, on the more gossipy side, like the Game Change books by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. Mr. Wolff takes the genre to another level, and perhaps a lower level. If he has employed objective criteria for deciding what to include or exclude, it’s not clear what those criteria are ... maybe Mr. Wolff’s approach isn’t so unconventional. Much of his writing is sheer pronouncement—not the reporting of facts or the weighing of evidence but merely the stringing together of unverifiable assertions. These assertions are sometimes idiosyncratic, more often conventional; but almost always they are conjectural, no more provable or valuable than the crotchets of a barroom political junkie ... If Mr. Wolff had considered it his job to tell us what happened, and not merely to offer up his own clever interpretation of what happened, he might not have felt emboldened to repeat every unseemly tidbit he could extract from murmuring White House staffers. But then he wouldn’t have gotten rich.
Ed. by Bandy X. Lee and Robert Jay Lifton
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMembers of the mental-health profession would like to remind us that this is their job, not ours. Consider The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President...advocates dismiss or sidestep the Goldwater rule on the grounds that mental-health professionals can and should 'warn' Americans about Mr. Trump’s mental unfitness for the presidency ... We learn from the essays collected here that these behaviors may be manifestations of various neuroses...the authors differ in their diagnoses does not give one great confidence in the field of psychiatry or, indeed, in the book’s value ... It’s striking, in any case, how many of these authors sound a little — how to say it nicely? — paranoid.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalIt’s tough to make your readers laugh when you feel all the characters in your story were basically decent, competent and basically admirable people. Instead of ridiculing his boss or his colleagues, he mostly ridicules himself—and that’s where he scores some laughs ... Mr. Litt is at his best chronicling the ludicrous mayhem of campaign life ... The author seems to realize that his admiration for Mr. Obama deprives his book of some of the satirical fun and narrative tension it might otherwise have, and he tries to solve the problem by recounting his disgust with the candidate after the first presidential debate of 2012, when Mr. Obama, clearly unprepared, was trounced by Mitt Romney. 'My days in Obamaworld weren’t finished,' he writes. 'But my days as an Obamabot were done.' That’s about all the displeasure with his boss he can muster, and to my mind it’s not enough. I wondered, too, why Mr. Litt felt it necessary in a memoir as funny as this one to put off half the audience by taking gratuitous shots at conservatives.
Hillary Rodham Clinton
PanThe Wall Street JournalMs. Clinton has always been a tough critic of her foes. Surely we were in for a scorcher. And yet it’s a snoozer—excruciatingly tedious ... What Happened is full of long, detailed explanations of why Ms. Clinton and her campaign were always well-meaning and principled but constantly disadvantaged and repeatedly sabotaged at crucial moments ... The author seems vaguely aware that the book’s chief hypothesis is improbable—was everybody really at fault except her and her senior campaign staff?—and so at various points she offers half-hearted declarations that she bears the ultimate blame. But how can she bear the blame if she never did anything wrong? This paradox haunts all three of her memoirs and deprives them of any genuine insight or interesting thought ... A memoirist no less than a politician must have some genuine awareness of his or her deficiencies and some ability to express that awareness. The trouble with What Happened is not that Ms. Clinton insists that she was right and that her adversaries were wrong and unfair in their criticisms. The trouble with her writing, and indeed with her whole political persona, is that she is obsessed with her own rectitude, and nobody else is.
PanThe Wall Street JournalMr. Lilla’s analysis seems to me quite untrue. Even granting its premise, though, his book fails to address certain basic questions. Are we really supposed to believe today’s culture of narcissism has its roots in the Reagan revolution rather than in the counterculture of the 1960s? If Reaganism really made no room for national solidarity, why are those parts of the country most sympathetic to Reaganism, namely the Deep South and South Atlantic states, also the most patriotic—as evidenced by, say, the number of military enlistments? ... The larger problem with Mr. Lilla’s analysis is that he thinks politics drives culture. The truth is the reverse ... To renounce identity politics would require liberals to loosen their hold on our cultural institutions, especially the universities. Somehow I think they’ll keep dancing with the one that brung ’em.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal...a reader of Devil’s Bargain who knew nothing about American politics and didn’t catch Mr. Green’s subtle but thoroughly unsympathetic judgments of his subject might come away thinking Mr. Bannon was the book’s hero: Everyone roots for an irreverent upstart who outrages a self-satisfied establishment and turns the system upside down ... I suspect Mr. Trump was also impressed by Mr. Bannon’s career and accomplishments, engagingly recorded in Devil’s Bargain ... Mr. Green is a talented reporter and a gifted storyteller. The anecdotes he records from the chaotic 2016 Trump campaign are both well chosen (they’re there for thematic reasons, not as gratuitous gossip) and brilliantly told.
Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes
PanThe Wall Street JournalThe juicy quotes would mean more if they were on the record, but mostly it works: You can’t pinpoint the identity of any one 'top aide' or 'close Hillary ally,' but the authors’ language leads you to believe they include the most senior Clinton advisers—Mr. Podesta, longtime Clinton confidante Huma Abedin, campaign manager Robby Mook, speechwriter Dan Schwerin, policy adviser Jake Sullivan —and probably the candidate herself ... Such insights aside, Shattered is not a pleasure to read. The authors seem incapable of conveying a thought without the use of some tired metaphor or idiom, often two or three within the same sentence. Mrs. Clinton’s 'clear, dead aim was to box Biden out.' Bernie Sanders 'had flown in from off the political radar screen.' The book is also too long: 400 pages of Clintonian self-aggrandizement, campaign malpractice and passive-aggressive blame-shifting are more than any ordinary reader can bear.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalHere is what makes Fractured Republic so compelling. Though he is a conservative, Mr. Levin’s overarching proposal does not presuppose the reader’s conservatism. What he calls for, in essence, is a return to the proximate. Americans must find ways, he says, to strengthen our mediating institutions that stand between the individual and government, and especially the national government—families, churches, civic organizations and so on ... Yuval Levin has written an incisive and irenic critique of contemporary American society, together with a series of reflections that offer a way forward without trafficking in the false hope of 'solutions.' That he has done so in fewer than 250 pages of clear, well-organized prose ought to make the book famous for a generation.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalThe book is a masterpiece, its rather too clever title notwithstanding. In crisp, sometimes brilliant prose, Mr. Scruton considers scores of works in three languages, giving the reader an understanding of each thinker’s overarching aim and his place within the multifaceted movement known as the New Left. He neither ridicules nor abuses the writers he considers; he patiently deconstructs them, first explaining their work in terms they themselves would recognize and then laying bare their warped assumptions and empty pretensions.
PanThe Wall Street JournalYet for all the intermittent flashes of brilliance throughout the book, The Givenness of Things exhibits little evidence of her tireless work ethic. It is, alas, an essentially lazy production. The essays are frequently ambulatory to the point of aimlessness. Ms. Robinson’s chosen topics are highly abstruse and deserve clear reasoning, but she approaches them indirectly, often not making a memorable point at all.