PositiveThe Wall Street JournalTinderbox is both the origin story of virtually everything HBO has ever shown and an exhaustive chronicle of executive brainstorms, tantrums, courage, backstabbing and worse ... For all their aura of authenticity, oral histories like this have their limitations. For one thing, they can be misleading ... The reader can easily drown in the anecdotes of corporate blood lust and the agonies of productions and lose the thread of HBO’s evolution. Still, there are ample rewards for those who stay the course ... rarely is heard a discouraging word from the author about how the network did it ... The C-suite shenanigans provide some of the liveliest sparks ... the text sometimes reads like the raw research the author assembled before sitting down to distill it all into a crisp, colorful narrative. Toward the end of the book, the HBO juggernaut loses momentum ... Still, the saga of HBO is an exhilarating example of what driven, innovative, creative people can accomplish with confident, ample funding in the cutthroat world of mass entertainment.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalIt’s subtitled The Long Run and Beautiful Game of Roger Federer, and Mr. Clarey does full justice to both. Deeply reported and crisply written, the book could be a snooze for readers immune to tennis’s appeal, but it’s a treat for those who love the sport and the men and women who play it at its demanding best ... accurately describes the future paragon as an annoying kid. Once young Roger starts the long climb up the world tennis ladder, he gets a bye. Indeed, in 406 pages I counted just one quote suggesting that his serene exterior masks less-appealing responses to life’s aggravations. But the champ is still prone to crying after big wins and losses, as the author duly notes ... Among the pleasures of Mr. Clarey’s book are his perceptive sketches of rivals, contrasting their backstories, temperaments and skills to his subject’s.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... there has never been an account quite like The Director ... a vivid, foibles-and-all portrait of the fabled scourge of gangsters, Klansmen and communists ... This is no hagiography ... Mr. Letersky’s riveting book will be fresh meat for people who think they know all about Hoover and an education for the rest ... Mr. Letersky doesn’t let...tasty but essentially trivial tidbits crowd out his treatment of the big questions about Hoover and the FBI ... The author also deals straightforwardly with the incessant rumors about Hoover’s relationship to tall, ruggedly handsome Clyde Tolson, his top deputy, fellow bachelor and inseparable companion.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMs. Fox brings a deadpan touch to her story ... essentially a shaggy-dog thriller, so a tick-tock of their intricate scam with its twists and turns and near-disasters would cheat the reader ... The problem with The Confidence Men is that the core narrative, complicated as it is, could comfortably be told in half of Ms. Fox’s 238 pages ... Toward the end of her book, Ms. Fox devotes a chapter to recapitulating the elements of successful cons and hoaxes. Reading it, I was momentarily struck by the notion that The Confidence Men itself was an audacious meta-hoax—a scam book about a fictitious scam. So I googled Jones and Hill, found their entries—and satisfied myself that it was a just a good yarn. No fooling.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalReading Daniel Barbarisi’s Chasing the Thrill might feel a bit like watching a Discovery Channel documentary, but the book is quite a yarn. In fact, it’s an exhaustive account of one of the oddest episodes in the crowded annals of bizarro Americana ... Readers will soon realize that Chasing the Thrill is yet another shaggy-dog story, this one almost 350 pages. While stalling until the treasure is finally uncovered, Mr. Barbarisi pads out the book with extenuated examinations of every possible facet of the tale and too-long introspective passages as he interviews solvers, goes on the hunt with them, ponders Fenn’s motives and so on. There’s also lots of detail about Blaine’s orb, Williams’s hare and all the other treasure hunts, tie-in books and gimmicks. But shockingly, in all those pages you won’t find a single picture of Fenn, or the treasure chest and its contents, or the man who found it. You’ll have to resort to Google Images for that ... the long-awaited resolution of the story is one of the least satisfying parts of the book ... Readers may rightly feel that, like the rest of Fenn’s hunters, they’ve been denied the big payoff they so richly deserve.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalNow Marvin Kalb, himself 90 but acute as ever, has written a memoir of his early career, especially his years as Moscow correspondent for CBS News in the direst period of the Cold War. His earnest and discursive Assignment Russia will be a nostalgic treat for older readers. For younger ones it’s a wake-up call about what they’re missing in their daily feeds of cable news, Facebook, Twitter and the clamorous rest.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... entertaining ... It’s reasonable to ask why anybody should bother to disinter these century-old characters and chronicle their heedless exploits. But Mr. Stout, who specializes in sports histories, has embedded their story in a deft social history of the 1920s—the days of flappers and bootleggers, hot jazz and hot stocks, bloodthirsty thugs and corrupt cops and pols all careening toward the Great Crash. The reader gets taken along for the ride ... even allowing for embellishments, Tiger Girl and the Candy Kid is a hell of a yarn—worthy of an HBO hoodlum epic like Boardwalk Empire ... Mr. Stout’s meticulous re-creations of those robberies are among the pleasures of the book ... Their spirits can thank Mr. Stout for stylishly rescuing them from obscurity.
James Carl Nelson
MixedThe Wall Street Journal... an exhaustively researched but mercifully compact study ... A conscientious work, it’s at once an overwritten and underwritten addition to the York bookshelf ... The author’s description of the action is so detailed and convoluted that I had to reread [one] portion of his account several times while consulting the book’s single battle map. Finally, I resorted to the old movie on Amazon Prime to better envision what York actually did that epic day. If his battle scenes are hard to follow, Mr. Nelson’s purplish after-action prose can be pretty hard going, too.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... a conscientiously researched account that may be a long haul for general readers. After all, it’s no revelation that John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, John Foster Dulles and his brother Allen (head of the CIA) practiced diplomatic lunacy with great flair ... To tell her story, Ms. Muir-Harmony, a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, has mined the information agency’s archives so thoroughly that she buries the reader in repetitious detail. Her book is stuffed with crowd estimates at exhibits, poll results from obscure outposts like Madagascar, and chirpy dispatches from far-flung U.S.I.A. staffers ... So the irony—unremarked by Ms. Muir-Harmony—is that the exploration of space, one of mankind’s premier achievements, owes its impetus less to Promethean scientific ambition than to the competition between capitalism and communism in the middle of the 20th century. And the provisional victory of capitalism in that struggle owes less to winning the space race than to fundamental contradictions—as Marx would say—of the socialist regime he inspired.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalTo call Mr. Gabler’s Catching the Wind: Edward Kennedy and the Liberal Hour monumental would be to insult the pyramids. Still, the book logs in at 736 pages plus back matter, and it’s only the first volume of a projected two-part work ... The rich narrative is studded with tasty factoids and lively quotes, anecdotes and vignettes. The Kennedy of Catching the Wind may not be all that new, but there’s certainly a lot of him ... This can be a maddening book, especially if you have reservations about Ted Kennedy’s glory. In prodigious—often stupefying—detail, it follows Ted from his birth during the Depression to 1975, the year after Richard Nixon resigned and Kennedy, for the third time, backed away from running for president as anti-school busing mobs rampaged through Boston ... Mr. Gabler can be hagiographic about Teddy Kennedy as the avatar of doomed late-stage liberalism in America, a tragic hero who mastered his destructive impulses to carry the flame.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... skillful and fascinating ... Reading The Quiet Americans often feels like listening to an old military or journalistic pal sharing war stories over drinks. But the book’s tone tilts toward moral fervor in its later chapters when Mr. Anderson excoriates some of the Cold War strategies and tactics of the Washington officials who gave his spooks their marching orders ... Mr. Anderson plays out [the CIA\'s] secret drama along with a deft narrative of the early Cold War—the Berlin blockade, Stalin’s death and Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of his crimes, the Korean War, the Hungarian Revolution and the introduction of American \'advisers\' to Vietnam. The author’s protagonists are straight from Central Casting for a World War II movie ... grim history ... for all Mr. Anderson’s righteous indignation, his \'Quiet Americans\' and their successors won the Cold War after all.
Lesley M. M. Blume
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMs. Blume turns the writing of Hiroshima into the cliff-hanging saga of an intrepid young newsman outplaying his own government to get the facts ... For all the virtues of her narrative, Ms. Blume is guilty of the historian’s sin of \'presentism\'—judging the actions of the past by the standards of today. Some may consider any use of nuclear weapons immoral, but ending the war without invading Japan was a compelling option for Truman and his military, whose first responsibility was the preservation of American lives.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... an adroitly written, compelling book. If Mr. Somaiya doesn’t deliver a final solution to the mystery—who could?—he leads the reader through the tangled brush to the most likely explanation. And he does it in an efficient 260 pages ... He deftly sets scenes (like the description of Hammarskjöld’s body above), sketches his long cast of characters and tells his intricate story with verve and economy ... Mr. Somaiya skillfully identifies all the conflicting clues about the crash and the equally intriguing missing records and contradictory witnesses ... It’s unlikely that a definitive answer to the mystery will ever materialize. Mr. Somaiya’s fascinating book is the best proxy we can expect.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Pessah’s book is as good a proxy for baseball pleasure as you’re going to find ... It’s a relaxed, sprawling affair—like those Yankee Stadium Sunday double-headers in the 1950s against the lowly Washington Senators and Philadelphia Athletics that lasted until dinner time, with the score in the second game 14-3 Yankees. This is a heart-warming narrative with a heroic protagonist who overcomes every imaginable obstacle to achieve greatness.
Nancy F. Cott
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalFull of evocative detail, with a sophisticated grasp of the politics of the time, [Fighting Words] reanimates a harum-scarum journalistic age all the more appealing for its raffish ambition and often misguided idealism ... One of the virtues of Fighting Words is that it plunges the reader into the great issues of the era ... Retrospect has made the right reading of these events seem obvious, but to those in the midst of history being made, the questions could be devilishly hard to parse ... Ms. Cott deals as frankly with the emotional lives of her subjects as with their careers ... Stars in their time, they witnessed and shaped history in careers that would be impossible to match in today’s media whirlwind.
Eric K. Washington
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... an at once inspiring and cautionary new social history of Harlem and beyond in the first half of the 20th century. Mr. Washington, an independent historian, reanimates a lost world of strivers who created a protean civic, artistic and commercial society to subvert the Jim Crow bias still resilient in the most liberal city in America ... it’s an illuminating chronicle of success against the odds ... It’s poignant to read all the stories of dogged advancement through deft maneuvering within a rigged system.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThe author is Ryan Swanson, a history professor at the University of New Mexico, one of those enterprising academics who have perfected slicing American history into ever finer layers and then subjecting the results to ever more detailed scrutiny of less and less ... Much of Mr. Swanson’s recounting of these developments is tedious padding, but Roosevelt is such a compelling figure that the book snaps awake when he’s in action.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Fishman is a veteran space reporter with a vibrant touch—nearly every sentence has a fact, an insight, a colorful quote or part of a piquant anecdote. What’s more, he has pondered the meaning of the moon landing and arrived at a surprising and persuasive answer ... Mr. Fishman is a connoisseur of fascinating detail, as well.
PanThe Wall Street JournalAn amiable and inconsequential book, it belongs on the shelf with tales of other American oddities ... Mr. Guinn has chosen to tell his story chronologically, which only underscores the repetitiousness of it all. Occasionally the tedium is broken ... A basic problem with the triviality of The Vagabonds is that it underplays the complexity of Ford’s character ... in his pages their travels read more like ego trips than do-gooder missions.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalWar and Peace is narrative history dense with illuminating detail that puts the reader in the room with Roosevelt ... But Mr. Hamilton has a larger purpose than merely rehearsing the epic of World War II: He is drafting a revisionist brief to counter the version offered by Churchill in his six-volume The Second World War and to give FDR due credit for his sly, masterful leadership ... Students of the era may be familiar with the evidence Mr. Hamilton marshals over 500 pages, but much of it will come as revelation to general readers. ...the author offers a persuasive chronicle of the turning point of the war in Europe ... If history belongs to the best and latest writer, Nigel Hamilton has won the war for Roosevelt’s legacy from Churchill—as if FDR needed any help.
Robert A. Caro
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"Working is full of exemplary tales showing Mr. Caro putting the Blackmur-Hathway credo into practice ... [Caro\'s] masterstroke is the last of a series of interviews with LBJ’s younger brother, Sam Houston Johnson, an alcoholic fabulist who had spun family legends to the author.\
MixedThe Wall Street Journal\"[A] brick of a biography ... [it] has more stupefying chronological detail than the kind of adroit writing that would animate its subject ... Mel Brooks is such a gifted monster—explosive, whip-smart, vulgar, histrionic, egomaniacal, yet miraculously able to make people laugh their guts out—that the book is worth reading.\
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalA slim but intriguing string of anecdotes in which members of the unit risk their lives under cover in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq as Jewish settlers and refugees fought to preserve their foothold in Palestine ... Mr. Friedman draws a larger point from the pioneering role of the Mizrahim in intelligence: It foreshadowed the transformation of the population of the Jewish state from essentially one of native-born Sabras and transplanted left-wing Europeans with little or no religious belief to a blended people in which Levantine Jews and their descendants have ever-greater influence.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalWithout being prurient, Mr. Donovan slips behind the shiny curtain of astronaut perfection to portray the men as they really were ... Mr. Donovan saves the best for last—a meticulous, almost minute-by-minute re-creation of Apollo 11’s round trip to the moon, especially the landing and the 21/4 hours that Armstrong and Mr. Aldrin spent on the surface.
PanThe Wall Street Journal[Ward] purées his narrative mostly from the accounts of others and does a professional job of it. But he quotes so profligately from the authors of the 82 books and eight magazine articles in his source list that it’s hard to find any of his own prose worth citing ... Inescapably, the book takes the reader back to one of the more dispiriting periods of modern American politics—Mr. Carter’s post-Watergate presidency of combined high inflation, high interest rates and high unemployment, gas-shortage riots, and the Iranian hostage crisis, among other miseries.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe pluck-and-luck tale of the creation and stabilization of the league is a small but exemplary chapter in American capitalism and popular culture. Still, readers had better love pro-football lore and have a connoisseur’s taste for sports trivia to fully enjoy The League ... There’s a compelling tale here, although it’s more about seat-of-the-pants entrepreneurship than football ... Today, pro football still rides high, but the growing awareness of the brain trauma caused by the brutality Mr. Eisenberg highlights shadows its future. Still, in the owners’ box up in football heaven, the NFL’s founding fathers can only marvel at what they wrought.
Arnold A. Offner
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalA dervish of energy and ambition, Humphrey led a remarkable American life. Remarkably, given all he achieved, there have been few full-scale biographies of Humphrey, who died of cancer at 66 in 1978. The new Hubert Humphrey: The Conscience of the Country by Arnold A. Offner, an emeritus professor of history at Lafayette College, is a painstaking and, as the subtitle suggests, a generally admiring portrait of a more complex and compelling political figure than the caricature his detractors draw of a gabby bleeding heart ... Mr. Offner perhaps overrates his subject as \'the most successful legislator\' in American history. His just-the-facts approach can be tedious, and few passages are worth quoting. But there are some surprising nuggets
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThis is history told the old-fashioned way. The book is only as long as it needs to be, the adroit narrative full of heroes (Smith, Roosevelt, big-city Democratic bosses) and villains (William Randolph Hearst, William Jennings Bryan, the Ku Klux Klan). The scenes are vivid and the anecdotes plentiful. In an author’s note, Mr. Golway confides that he has used his informed imagination at times to add texture to his tale, but all the crucial elements are endnoted, and his improvisations seem benign enough.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalArthur Ashe: A Life is plainly a labor of love by Raymond Arsenault, a history professor at the University of South Florida. He has set himself a worthy task: to tell Ashe’s story in the context of the push for civil rights in America and the arduous ascent of black tennis players to the pinnacle commanded today by Serena Williams. One problem is that the diffident Ashe—who died at 49 in 1993 of complications of AIDS contracted from a blood transfusion—was for many years more focused on fighting apartheid 8,000 miles away in South Africa than on the black struggle at home. The other is that the social and political history tends to diffuse the focus from Ashe’s own epochal career. The result is an encyclopedic recitation.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalIt turns out that A Brotherhood of Spies ... cast[s] intriguing light on this familiar history. The rock-steady, nuanced leadership of Ike and JFK in these crises, supported by deeply experienced advisers desperately seeking to avert nuclear war, is a sobering contrast to today’s White House melodramas ... A Brotherhood of Spies is an old-fashioned tale of the American ingenuity, resourcefulness and grit that remade intelligence gathering—a triumph over implacable technical obstacles, bureaucratic inertia and military-turf defense ... Mr. Reel, a veteran journalist and author, tells the story in granular detail ... at once reassuring and disquieting. [the book] remind[s] us of how resilient, inspired and successful American military, industrial and political leadership could be in the direst days of the Cold War—and show[s] how today’s jangly crises pale compared with those the country survived in the 1950s and ’60s.
PositiveThe New York Review of BooksScrupulously researched—no small feat with a serial fabulist like Weegee—and fluently written, Bonanos’s book is an unsentimental yet sympathetic account of a bizarre life and career, an American Dream contorted as if by one of the trick lenses Weegee loved to fool around with ... He did what many others did, but self-promoted to stardom ... Or, as Bonanos concludes, he was \'eaten alive by his own image.\'
Bill Minutaglio and Steve L. Davis
RaveThe Wall Street Journal\"The saga of [Leary’s] fugitive odyssey and the government’s desperate manhunt is told in The Most Dangerous Man in America, by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis. It’s a rollicking tale that brings to life the antic atmosphere of America in the ‘Me Decade’ … The Most Dangerous Man in America is written in the present tense like a thriller. Scenes inside solitary-confinement cells, squalid dope and love nests, and the Black Panther ‘embassy’ are described in pointillist detail … It’s a toss-up whether Leary or Nixon was the more dangerous man in America in their time, but they plainly deserved each other.\
RaveThe Wall Street Journal...an exemplary biography—exhaustively researched, fair-minded and easy to read. It can nestle on the same shelf as David McCullough’s Truman, a high compliment indeed ... Mr. Whyte is neutral almost to a fault in his judgment of Hoover, particularly the choices he made as president and beyond. However brilliant the man, he managed time and again to put himself on the wrong side of history, his inescapable legacy.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalIt’s fair to say that editing a glossy monthly, even salvaging one as moribund as Vanity Fair shouldn’t be one of life’s most fraught enterprises. Yet Ms. Brown invests her narrative with so much drama that a layout meeting with Alex Liberman, Newhouse’s Russian-émigré consigliere, tingles with heart-stopping angst ... At Vanity Fair, Ms. Brown perfected the art of the mix, that magic blend of high and low—Hollywood and high culture, dictator chic, clever fashion, Eurotrash, true crime and literary reminiscence—that can make an upmarket magazine irresistible. She brings the same touch to this memoir ... that’s a central problem with the book. It covers the period 1983 to 1992, which, after all, is 25 to 34 years ago. Ms. Brown does an exquisitely pointillist job of capturing this circus of an era. Exciting as these years may have seemed at the time, they have receded into the murk of memory, taking with them most of the transient characters on which Ms. Brown lavishes her formidable skills.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Evans’s skills are on display on nearly every page of Do I Make Myself Clear? Writing a book about writing well can be hazardous for the author—reviewing one is risky, too—but in this case at least the author and his readers have nothing to fear ... The best part of Do I Make Myself Clear? is the author’s virtuoso line editing of opaque texts ... Ever on the news, Mr. Evans inevitably turns his laser gaze on Donald Trump and that hallmark of the new era, 'fake news.'
RaveThe Wall Street JournalStrenuously researched and studded with footnotes, Paul Dickson’s Leo Durocher: Baseball’s Prodigal Son is an unflinching portrait of a brilliant bastard. Mr. Dickson gives the devil his due and leaves no doubt why so many people could respect Durocher’s baseball genius and still hate his guts ... All of this contributed to the legend that Mr. Dickson has so adroitly researched, annotated and debunked. The authenticated Durocher turns out to be even more fascinating—and impressive, in a way—than the mythical one.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal...a fascinating and cautionary tale ... Ms. Zapruder treats all this material judiciously, although she is plainly sympathetic to the conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone killed Kennedy. She is more emotionally involved but fair-minded when dealing with the fraught question of how well her grandfather and later her father, Henry, handled the ethical and financial quandries created by the family’s ownership of the film.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal...documents the remarkable progress the country has made in just a few generations from long years of serfdom for African-Americans enforced by law, tradition and the lynch mob.