Daniel Akst has been reviewing novels and non-fiction regularly for two decades, including for Bloomberg, the Boston Globe, Civilization, Fortune, Fortune Small Business, the LA Weekly, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Jose Mercury, Smithsonian, the Village Voice, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Wilson Quarterly and others. He’s the author of two novels and two nonfiction books. You can find him on Twitter @danakst
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThe story [Mitchell] tells is so infuriating that it could induce apoplexy in a Zen monk. Yet it is also a characteristically American story, in which democratic ideals, political expedience, concerns over national security, naked greed and tender optimism have blighted the lives of millions ... unsparing ... offers some sensible suggestions, including forgiving interest. But [doesn\'t] tackle the larger questions here.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalNames of New York explicates Gotham’s place-names to intoxicating—if occasionally numbing—effect. The result is a vivid toponymic history of an ever-changing metropolis ... Names of New York conveniently unravels some of the city’s most durable minor mysteries ... Mr. Jelly-Schapiro’s book will appeal to dyed-in-the-wool New Yorkers wherever they live, but even the city that never sleeps may find itself nodding off during the author’s catalog of the many new designations arising from a 1992 law that made it possible to recognize martyrs, heroes and communities by means of supplemental honorary place names. Yes, Queens has 10 streets honoring men named Frank.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Boyd’s narrative gifts and film experience blend harmoniously ... Mr. Boyd tells his witty yet increasingly tragic story in chapters that alternate among the trio’s viewpoints, and the cinematic style of his narrative gifts is, appropriately enough, on full display. These include crisp pacing, cliffhanger chapter endings, colorful characters defined by action, and a narrative dominated by lively scenes rather than introspection. The result is a meticulously crafted tale driven in every sense by moviemaking—one of several characteristic obsessions of the author’s in evidence here, including especially the shifting nature of identity ... The book’s main failing is that annus horribilis. Although \'MacArthur Park\' seems to be playing on every radio, only the faintest flavor of the times is conveyed. The novel’s events may occur in 1968, but the era’s \'happenings\' are somehow missing, along with any strong sense of the look, feel or character of that distinctive time. That’s a shame, but a small one. Mr. Boyd’s fast-paced blend of comedy and tragedy, written with his usual brio, is richly imagined, thick with physical and emotional detail, and deeply satisfying. By the end, the lives of his trio are changed forever, mostly unexpectedly. Some of those changes are sobering indeed. But the author’s skills are such that, when we finally fade to black, the audience regrets only that the show wasn’t longer.
E. J. White
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... lively and wide-ranging ... Hard-boiled New Yorkers will rejoice that Ms. White—a professor at Stony Brook University who is not herself a native—comes to her subject unburdened by nostalgia, so that the topic is never obscured by a scrim of schmaltz. You Talkin’ to Me? also goes far beyond linguistics, using New York speech to illuminate American culture, history and social class.
MixedThe Wall Street Journal... the latest work on this strangely alluring topic has an exciting title, but nothing about the book is wild or crazy ... James Danckert and John D. Eastwood know an awful lot about the subject, and they examine it methodically ... It gives me no pleasure—I swear it!—to report that this new book on boredom is a bit dull. Reasonable, informative, concise—yes. But there is something pedestrian about the whole exercise. Those who can’t quite muster the authors’ enthusiasm for the topic will wish the professors had a grander sense of the absurd and a wickeder wit. On the other hand, surely it’s childish to expect to be entertained at all times. The authors aren’t vaudevillians, and they rightly imply that each of us must own our boredom. If I am left a bit bored by their earnestness, I am probably just as much at fault as they are.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal...a concise and imaginative exploration of the ways that people use and abuse the idea of the natural: sometimes sensibly, to be sure, but more often sloppily or even cynically in order to feel better about themselves, justify their actions and beliefs, or make a quick buck ... One wishes that Mr. Levinovitz had applied his ample learning a bit more systematically to the thorny question of when we’re most justified—health care, perhaps?—in resorting to what is natural as a guide to living. As it is, he provides a reasonable generic answer, which is that there are no hard and fast rules—that living in proper relation to what is natural involves endless compromise, ambiguity and paradox. And what, after all, could be more natural than that?
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... [a] deft exploration of the biology of a \'fundamental bond\' ... Ms. Denworth does an admirable job of outlining the sources of our yearning for it. She has a solid command of the complex material before her and a seemingly effortless ability to make it not just digestible but engaging ... not just a biological account of friendship but a quick and painless tutorial in the history of evolutionary science, which is revealed to us through the prism of a subject all of us can relate to...Given how much there is to be said about friendship, maintaining this sharp focus must have required discipline ... [Denworth] sensibly resists trying to wrap her arms around research on (to cite a few examples) the effect of our sprawling built environment, our increased tendency to sort ourselves by our politics and preferences, or our growing ethnic diversity—all of which have ramifications for friendship and could fill additional books. For there is more than enough in the life sciences and adjacent fields to keep us busy in a single volume; indeed, the author’s parade of scientists and findings, though carefully presented, inevitably blurs in places as it goes by, trying our patience as even our best friends can sometimes do ... the author is judicious in weighing scientific evidence, most clearly with respect to the effects of videogames and social media on people’s social lives ... In these polarized times, when some readers may object to the very premise that there is something called human nature that can’t be wished away, Ms. Denworth sticks to the science, calmly telling us the truth no matter what we think we need to hear. What else are friends for?
MixedNewsday... will appear in stores as temptingly as a beer and sunscreen discount pack and will hold special appeal for guys otherwise rarely willing to dip a toe into the murky waters of fiction ... Let’s not kid ourselves: This is not Russo’s finest effort. The prose is as plain and functional as the kitchen of a vacation rental and the characters seem a bit stock. At times, moreover, the maestro conducts this particular summer concert with a heavy hand ... Worst of all, the vanished apple of our trio’s eyes is named Jacy Rockafellow, evidently combining the sacrificial virtues of Jesus Christ with the sex appeal of Marilyn Monroe. None of the book’s women are as richly drawn as the men, but Russo is concerned with the horrible things men do to women and to which Lincoln, Teddy and Mickey’s generation is at last awakening ... Despite its shortcomings, Chances Are. . . is an engrossing and well-crafted summer entertainment that plays to the author’s strengths. As usual, Russo is attuned to the complicated resentments of class and the possibility, never terribly far below the surface, of violence erupting among men as it does periodically in this book. He’s also good at exploring the way time changes us.
PositiveStrategy + BusinessRange, an engaging new work...[is] a diverting grab bag filled with gee-whiz tales of human ingenuity and counterintuitive social sciences findings. And although author David Epstein doesn’t make a terribly coherent case for his big idea, that’s no reason to disregard the important insight he has latched onto ... Although it’s not clear to me which way the arrow of causality points—isn’t it possible the most creative scientists simply have so much talent that it spills over into other creative fields?—it’s hard to believe that cultivating an avocation would hurt most business leaders. And it might well contribute to clearer thinking, better imagining, and greater understanding. In its haphazard way, Epstein’s book does likewise.
MixedNewsday\"A veteran showbiz biographer, McGilligan has produced a book rich with knowledge of the industry and overflowing with the fruits of his research. Unfortunately, some of them might better have been left on the trees. He’s also an awkward writer, a limited student of human psychology and not particularly insightful about Brooks’ work. Nor does he seem to have much of a feel for the sheer Jewishness of the proceedings. At one point he resorts to the dictionary to explain what a bialy is ... Yet Funny Man still manages to be a pretty interesting book, especially for those of us who remember when American comedy seemed entirely Jewish. It will have to do for now.\
MixedThe Wall Street Journal\"Much of the first half of Victory City is an undistinguished rehash of well-worn material about the war, the 1939 World’s Fair, the Roosevelt administration and a parade of figures who happened to be from New York. Instead of immersing us in Gotham at war, the author trots out Eleanor Roosevelt, Whittaker Chambers, Father Coughlin and other celebrities who distract from the ample action in the city itself. Things pick up in the second half, when Mr. Strausbaugh focuses more on the five boroughs, but even then we are more likely to hear about the likes of Katharine Hepburn serving hot dogs at the Stage Door Canteen (amusing enough, to be sure) than to get any real taste or feel for the metropolis and its people during the struggle ... Victory City does offer a strong sense of the city’s pivotal role as an embarkation point and manufacturing powerhouse... And it provides more detail than did its predecessors on Nazi subversion efforts in New York, in particular those preceding American entry into the war, as well as Operation Pastorius, which landed a few half-hearted German saboteurs on Long Island in 1942. The book is perhaps strongest at helping us see what an extraordinary role New York’s Jews played in the war effort, as well as in the life of the city ... With material of this kind, it’s disappointing (not to say inexplicable) that the book lacks endnotes, though it does have some errors.\
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal[A] 200-page treatise is more cultural history than comprehensive chronicle ... Mr. Groom appears to have marinated himself in the vast literature of his subject, and The Vampire is an impressively learned work ... At times, readers of may feel themselves paddling hopelessly in a sea of trivia ... All parties owe Mr. Groom thanks for helping to explain the meaning of vampires—which is only fair, since vampires have worked so hard, for so long, to explain the meaning of us.
MixedNewsdayIt’s a measure of Jonathan Lethem’s talents that his new novel is a didactic and overwrought mess, but you’ll probably enjoy it anyway. He’s that good. Which is to say, just barely good enough to make a book like this palatable ... Phoebe is drawn with such energy and vividness that she will remind Lethem fans just a bit of Lionel Essrog, the manically irresistible protagonist of his 1999 detective novel, Motherless Brooklyn. Phoebe is brave, sexy and brilliant, but she’s stranded in an embarrassing parable about America in the Trump years—one with a disappointingly inconclusive ending. Lethem’s narrative skills and high-octane prose will probably carry you through, but if you’re really busy you can just wait for the movie. This is a novel that would work a lot better as a screenplay.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalA deftly plotted novel...The Hazards of Good Fortune is nothing if not ambitious ... The plot echoes Tom Wolfe’s similarly concerned Bonfire of the Vanities, while avoiding most of its cartoonish excesses ... It’s easy to overlook this Grecian formula because so much of what’s in the novel feels torn from the day’s headlines, but at base this is a tragedy in the classical tradition ... What Mr. Greenland has noticed is that we’ve finally begun to democratize who gets to be a bigshot, and he casts his tragedy accordingly. Terror and pity abound, but now the titanic protagonists are Jews, blacks, women and others once cast hopelessly among the hoi polloi. And all of them are just as much in karmic thrall as the grandees who came before them, undone by ambition, rashness and cosmic retribution ... No brief account can do justice to the many moving parts of the story, or to how funny it can be. Much of Hazards is wickedly satirical, including what must be the most savagely hilarious Passover Seder since the Jewish exodus from Egypt. Despite the inexorable nature of [protagonist] Gladstone’s downfall, this is a book full of marvelous surprises that seem inevitable as soon as they happen.
PositiveNewsday...the new novel extracts laughter by means of brute force, relying on a pompous villain, star-crossed lovers, a charmingly sarcastic retainer who is smarter than her betters, an ingénue who loses her innocence and, yes, a dog ... Despite the stock characters — or perhaps even because of them — the book is funny indeed. All the worst features of modern campus life, begging for caricature, here get their wish ... In keeping with the author’s gloves-off approach, the epistolary pen is laid aside in this new work ... it’s all laugh-out-loud funny, even if, unlike last time around, we can sense the author laboring for laughs. Not to worry — she’s earned them.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalHis long-distance childhood adventures in his family’s giant land cruisers are at the center of Don’t Make Me Pull Over!, a breezy and warm-hearted \'informal history\' of the great American family road trip ... Mr. Ratay is not the type to subject us to edgy interrogations of Lolita or the National Lampoon’s Vacation movies, and, unlike so many other accounts of family life, this one is blissfully free of addiction, abuse or cruelty. For better or worse, the patriarchy sails the interstates unindicted in these pages, down highways seemingly paved with the iconic candies, videogames and paneled station wagons of the 1970s. And therein lies the answer. Mr. Ratay simply fills out his account of the many hours his family spent on the road with thumbnail histories of practically everything they saw, ate, rode in or rolled along ... Not to worry; it all goes down like a cold lemonade on a hot summer’s day. Mr. Ratay is a charming raconteur who always seems to know just when it’s time to get us all back into the car with his big, quintessentially middle-class family, which seems to be riding off into the sunset even as you read about it.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Wasson is not the first to chronicle the innovative comedians of the period (see Gerald Nachman’s Seriously Funny from 2003), but he makes fine use of improv as a prism for understanding the development of American comedy, and it’s a pleasure to encounter his acute characterizations of such talents as Alan Arkin, Bill Murray and Del Close, the self-destructive guru of the genre little known in the wider world. Mr. Wasson also captures the big picture, showing the evolution of improv from its utopian beginnings to a more commercial and aggressively funny style—from Elaine May, in other words, to John Belushi. Yet the original spirit lives on, dispersed into an array of spaces nationwide.
PositiveNewsday...while the characters are vividly drawn, they are for the most part vile. Not to worry: Spencer is a novelist of extravagant gifts, and River Under the Road showcases them amply. Nobody is better at obsessive passion and few novelists bring such mordant wit to bear on slow-motion tragedies such as marriage and career failure ... Yet Spencer’s gifts sometimes take us a little far afield, or cause us to linger there too long as we gaze back longingly at our busy protagonists. Able to animate any character with a few keystrokes, the author can’t resist pulling them out of the air, one after another, and disposing of them just as lightly after portentous encounters that come to nothing.
Jonathan Safran Foer
PositiveNewsday...[a] hilarious and heart-rending new novel ... The Blochs are supremely irritating, and at times so is this novel; it’s painful and exhausting to immerse yourself in the existence of people so blessed and so brilliant, yet too dense — and perhaps too far removed from their own tradition — to feel gratitude for the peace and richness of their lives. But the Blochs are also wonderful ... One of Foer’s many achievements with Here I Am is invigorating such a well-worn genre.
MixedNewsdayNancy Isenberg argues that America has never been the egalitarian 'city on a hill' we’ve been led to believe (no debate there), and that our hateful attitudes toward the people variously known as crackers, hillbillies and rednecks are as deeply rooted in our history as is our class anxiety. The strength of White Trash is the author’s prodigious research ... Yet this wealth of material ultimately proves a snare, entangling author and reader alike. One wishes Isenberg would look up now and then from her furious research (and it is furious, in every sense of the word) to take account of the massive changes going in the society she is writing about ... A century and a half of technological and social change are entirely missing in this chronicle of a static nation built on unchanging hatreds and delusions ... the lives and voices of actual individuals in poverty are almost entirely absent from her account, which tells us almost nothing about the traditions, religious practice, origins or culture of those who are its ostensible subject ... informative but strangely narrow for such a sprawling work.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMr. Fraser is an energetic polemicist, but eventually the mordant fervor of his own resentments grows tiresome. Too often The Limousine Liberal reads like one of those sourpuss histories in which all motives are ulterior and evil capitalism propels events irresistibly forward. Even so, the author has produced a timely tour de force to remind us that limousine liberals are still very much with us—as are the politicians and pundits who portray them as such bogeymen.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalThe intimacy and precision of Ms. Roiphe’s accounts, which move fluidly back and forth in time, are so remarkable that one wonders how she could possibly know so much about these private events, even with the benefit of, say, Mark Edmundson’s book on Freud’s death or Mr. Rieff’s on that of his mother. As if on demand, the author provides an afterword on sourcing that makes clear the years of interviews and reading she poured into this work.
MixedThe Washington Post[Oldstone-Moore] writes well, and his erudition is impressive, enabling readers to learn all kinds of interesting things from this zigzag chronicle, which is basically a history of Western civilization as written on the faces of its leading men...But the author’s obsessive exegesis leads him out onto some fragile limbs.