PositiveThe Washington PostDawidoff, who grew up in New Haven and returned to live there in middle age, has written a great American book. But I was 226 pages in, just over halfway, when I realized how great it was shaping up to be. The book takes a long time to go from 0 to 65. It’s bigger than it has to be, and it’s not a model of elegant design; it reminds me of my clunky 2004 minivan, roomy and comfy, with poor steering and iffy brakes, always a little out of control. But then again, I love my minivan ... When Johnson goes to prison, the book gets even better. Dawidoff’s portrait of prison life, its pointless mix of boredom, sadness and stress, is an important corrective to the more sensational television fare that has helped form my impressions, and maybe yours ... I wish Dawidoff had been content to write Johnson’s story. His confession, his brave recanting of that confession when asked to testify against his supposed accomplice (a friend every bit as innocent as Johnson), his incarceration, his troubled journey after getting out — it has the oomph of a classic American novel, one that sucker-punches you every time you remember that it’s all true ... But the first four chapters — lengthy ones — are given over to the story of Fields, the victim, and the history of the Great Migration.
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewVeritas, Sabar’s exhausting, madcap, unforgettable book...is for enthusiasts of ancient Christianity, as well as anyone who likes watching snooty academics brought low and readers of idea-driven capers, whether by Daniel Silva or Janet Malcolm. It’s a barely believable tale, crazier than a tweed-sniffer in the faculty lounge. The book’s flaws are those of a journalist who Goes Big. It is 34 percent too long. Sabar often overreaches, as when he dips a toe, then plunges, into the psychoanalysis of his subjects ... There’s lot of this breathy melodrama, useful for the screenplay I hope is coming.
RaveThe New RepublicBiss...specializes in radical empathy ... In her new book, On Immunity: An Inoculation, she pins vaccine skepticism to her corkboard, then inspects it from all angles. Although I am sure that Biss did not mean to write a polemic, she ends up with an agenda, and the agenda is more powerful for never being stated ... Biss comes not to rail against the vaccine skeptics, but to understand them. She is pro-vaccine, but she’s not an op-ed writer: she’s a high-style essayist, elliptical like Joan Didion, aphoristic like Susan Sontag, familiar like Anne Fadiman. Biss comes down on the side of science and reason, but in such an MFA-ish fashion that maybe some of the educated white women who are, alas, the main constituency for anti-vaccine nonsense, will be persuaded that they can trust Biss. Because she either has no animus toward those parents who withhold vaccines from their children, or because she hides that animus so very well—she’s a grandmaster of judgment-withholding—this may be the perfect book to hand to that mother or father of a newborn who is on the fence ... I read this book with pleasure ... few writers write prose as neat, efficient, and cliché-free as Eula Biss. One is never in doubt about her meaning, and one never despairs that she’s taking extra words to get it across. And so, amidst all the handwringing and careful listening to the other side, when it comes time to state the case for immunization, nobody does it better.
MixedThe New RepublicWhile The Testament of Mary is a first-person novella, the life of Jesus as told by his mother, it is also an argument about the contingent nature of the Christian tradition. Tóibín never makes that argument explicitly, and his book works just fine without it: it can be read as a psychological close-up; a noir-ish slither through the forbidding desert world of first-century Judea, stopping to wallow in some famous episodes from Jesus’s life; and an argument for how a charismatic mortal could have been transformed, with his own assent and cooperation, into a god … There is an incongruence between the embittered but fully realized personality Tóibín gives Mary and the famous plot he marches her through; it is as if the spinster post-war Irish landlord from Tóibín’s last novel, Brooklyn, has time-traveled to the scene of the crucifixion. I don’t want a Mary this contemporary and human—just as I do not want a Jesus who hikes up his shorts.
Heather Ann Thompson
RaveThe New York Times...there’s nothing partisan or argumentative about Blood in the Water. The power of this superb work of history comes from its methodical mastery of interviews, transcripts, police reports and other documents ... it’s Ms. Thompson’s achievement, in this remarkable book, to make us understand why this one group of prisoners did, and how many others shared the cost.