PositiveThe Observer (UK)As Seymour promises, his book is \'a horror story\' ... Seymour’s book is dedicated to the Luddites, saboteurs who wrecked machinery during the industrial revolution, but he at once admits that we can hardly smash a machine that is a global abstraction, existing only in the wifi-tingling air. Righteously infuriated, he fires off volleys of angry aphorisms, yet he blunts their force by citing so many obscure, jargon-ridden academic experts as backup, and a sense of futility enfeebles his demand for change ... No technology can be uninvented, so Seymour’s pessimism leads him to a conclusion that feels merely wistful ... By way of escape, all Seymour can whimsically suggest is to go for a walk in the park, making sure you leave all your \'devices\' behind. In his last sentence, he even recommends lolling on a lily pad. I have some more earnest advice: if you really want to set yourself free, you should read a book – preferably this one.
PanThe Guardian (UK)The story diverges and digresses and soon gets out of Ross’s control. Like Wagner with his repeated orchestral motifs, he tends to go round in circles: I don’t mind Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence in music, but a historical narrative needs to move ahead. In this encyclopaedic book, the plethora of interpreters makes Wagner mean anything at all, which ultimately makes him mean nothing in particular ... For Shaw, Wagner’s Ring exposed the greedy iniquity of capitalism, while for Hitler it unearthed the racial roots cultivated by fascism. Can it do both or is Ross just amassing opposed opinions? At its most undiscriminating, Wagnerism lapses into a game of Trivial Pursuit: if you need to know how many US cities have streets named after Parsifal, the answer is somewhere in here ... On American turf, Ross writes well about the novelists Willa Cather and Owen Wister, who found an equivalent to the raw, wild landscapes of the Ring in the geysers of Yellowstone, the Wyoming prairies and the New Mexico desert, and he uncovers a suppressed tradition of African American Wagnerites. Yet in his desperation to be all-inclusive he straggles off in quest of such exotic aficionados as \'the Sri Lankan Theosophical leader Curuppumullage Jinarajadasa\' and \'Horacio Quiroga, a Uruguayan epigone\'. Worse, the abstruse rightwing philosopher Martin Heidegger and the structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss lure him up blind alleys of speculative theorising ... The occasional obscenity adds a much-needed fillip ... My long slog through his book was not so cathartic. After Ross’s hungover postlude, I recalled his claim, made 700 arduous, enfevered, over-charged pages earlier, that Wagner’s influence was actually less extensive than those of Monteverdi, Bach or Beethoven. It’s good to be reminded that music does not always leave us with an aching libido and shredded nerves or threatens the universe with extinction.
A. N. Wilson
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)The section on this false consciousness is the most striking in Wilson’s book ... Exploring the dualities of Dickens’s temperament, Wilson makes much of his shamed secrecy about his ordeal as a child labourer in a blacking factory ... Fiction, as Wilson says, enabled Dickens to exorcise his demons, and here the stark facts of Wilson’s own torments allow him to perform a personal exorcism ... There could be no more fitting tribute to the miraculous, murderous potency of Dickens’s art.
Zachary D Carter
PositiveThe Observer (UK)... [a] solid, sombre intellectual biography ... I’m dubious about Carter’s claim that Keynes’s Economic Consequences of the Peace deserves to be ranked with Strachey’s Eminent Victorians and Eliot’s The Waste Land as a modernist masterpiece; he does a better job of presenting the economist as an artist manqué ... In Carter’s persuasive account, the slippery triangulations of Clinton and Blair are the final betrayal of Keynes: neoliberalism set markets free, unleashed speculators, and opened the way to a globalisation that treated people as \'disembodied profit maximisers\' and crammed them into Hillary Clinton’s \'basket of deplorables.\'
Phillipa K. Chong
PanThe Guardian (UK)Although I’ve been reviewing books for half a century, this little treatise caused me to do some anxious head-scratching. Phillipa Chong...here presents an earnest sociological analysis of an activity that for me has been sometimes a chore, always a test of punctuality and proficiency, on occasion a wickedly thrilling chance for retaliation, but mostly a source of pleasure. Reading the product of Chong’s jargon-clogged research, I found that I lacked all symptoms of the professional malaise that afflicts her informants, who suffer, she believes, from \'epistemic uncertainty\' ... none of the eight successive Observer literary editors for whom I have worked ever ordered contributors to \'enact their duties\', which would have sounded unusually bossy. When they patted me on the back, was I being commended for \'satisficing in the face of practical constraints\'? I hope so, because satisficing, I gather, is a \'cognitive heuristic\' that defines an \'acceptability threshold ... Reading this, I wondered whether I shouldn’t \'play nice\' like that midwesterner and temper my verdict on Chong’s enterprise with a little \'harm reduction\'. But the twinge of compassion soon passed. If a book is bad it’s bad and if it’s merely an exercise in academic pseudo-intellection it’s even worse.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)... this is an icy, Iago-like glimpse of the emotional and moral nullity that may be the source of his power. On reflection, Rucker and Leonnig’s book needs a different, less brittly ironic title: they should have called it Evil Genius.
MixedThe Observer (UK)Moser’s socially panoramic, psychologically incisive biography does a superb job of charting Sontag’s self-invention...But he is overgenerous in praising her as a philosophical successor to Kierkegaard and Nietzsche; she surely belongs in a tradition of cerebral showbiz that includes Tom Wolfe and her envious epigone, Camille Paglia, and is well defined, in Moser’s inadvertently deadly phrase, as \'the world’s most authoritative blurber\' – an enthusiast for the ideas of others, a vociferous barker at an avant-garde carnival ... As the book develops, Moser’s initial admiration for Sontag struggles to cope with the unlovable details of her behaviour imparted by his sources, and he comes to see her intellectual obsessions as a reflex of her personal kinks ... In his conclusion, Moser sums up \'what Sontag symbolised\' by reciting truisms about tolerance, diversity, female empowerment and opposition to political cruelty. But the moral contradictions of the life he so unsparingly chronicles undermine this well-meant tribute. The artful games played by the will may be malevolent and the value of style is doubtful if the best it has to show is a photograph of Sontag as \'a beautifully dressed corpse – nothing more\'.
MixedThe Guardian... supremely intelligent but tortuous polemical ... Given the prevailing gloom, Gopnik’s definition of liberalism is cautious and it depends on two words whose awkwardness, odd in such an elegant writer, betrays their doubtful appeal ... Rather than confronting immediate challenges, Gopnik turns aside to ponder a succession of \'lyrical love stories\' involving people whose conduct he admires ... Gopnik’s version of liberalism translates \'constant adaptation\' into a brilliant display of dialectical thinking ... shifty self-consciousness damages his case: in times like these, irony is tantamount to ineffectuality ... the hope Gopnik expresses seems frail. With a maniacal ego installed in the White House and BoJo the clown bouncing towards No 10, we are actually living through the bonfire of the sanities.
Robert S. Mueller
MixedThe Observer (UK)Mueller and Trump—they surely constitute one of the great double acts in criminal history...and the pairing documented in this massive but obsessively detailed report is all the more magnetic because the two of them never actually meet. Perhaps they don’t need to: like that other celebrated couple, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, their connection is symbiotic or even conjoined ... Mueller’s report has painstakingly reassembled facts and arranged them to expose an elaborate but precarious work of fiction. More than a liar, Trump here looks like a fabulist ... Although we may long for crimes to be punished, here the end is anticlimactic: Mueller declines to pronounce Trump guilty but pointedly \'does not exonerate him.\'
PositiveThe GuardianBecoming serenely balances gravity and grace, uplift and anecdote, though its high-mindedness does permit a few low blows at Barack Obama’s villainous successor ... simultaneously admirable and adorable ... Becoming is frequently funny, sometimes indignant or enraged, and when Michelle describes her father’s early death from multiple sclerosis it turns rawly emotional.
PositiveThe GuardianEmetic as it all is to remember, Stormy knows that she has a responsibility to history ... Trump is as good as gelded by her description: no wonder he’s so terrified of sharks, since Stormy rears up like Jaws to menace his mushroom with her jagged incisors ... Before and after this encounter, Stormy’s book reveals what a defiant, unsinkable woman she is, brought up in squalor ... she is on a cosmic mission. After she fingered Trump, fans urged her to save the world ... Stormy has already done her bit by belittling Trump’s tackle and making him look, to use his own most hurtful word, like a loser ... Autocrats may survive protest marches and impeachment proceedings, but they have no defense against ridicule.
PositiveThe GuardianYet in Woodward’s meticulous account of office intrigues, the president’s men don’t seem to be trembling with fright. What they mostly feel is contempt for Trump or pity for his ignorance and the \'teenage logic\' of his obsessively vented grievances. Hence their deft \'administrative coup d’état\': by purloining documents from Trump’s desk or slow-walking his intemperate orders, his aides have effectively benched him ... Woodward’s book actually suggests that for Trump, power is not fear but obscenity. The discussions that Woodward’s sources have helped him to reconstruct are filthily cloacal or grossly sexual. Debates about policy are conducted in expletives ... Despite Woodward’s title, it’s Trump who seems afraid—of a job that he can’t do, of the advisers who outwit him, and of imminent legal consequences.
RaveThe GuardianIn politics...how many hero worshippers have surrendered to a strutting, loud-mouthed demagogue? But Rhodes does not regret his choice...he documents in his taut, compelling book. Obama, as seen by this admirer, is little less than a superman – preternaturally intelligent, disciplined, abstemious, unfailingly polite and, despite his self-control, capable of a cathartic emotional release ... Rhodes is never disillusioned, yet the closer he gets to Obama the more tricky and paradoxical their relationship become ... The title of Rhodes’s book accepts that the world as it is, venal and irredeemable, will always prevail over the world as it ought to be ... Happy endings, as Rhodes has discovered, occur only in fiction.
PositiveThe Guardian\"These dodgy ethics are what make Chasing Hillary so wickedly readable: like Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury it’s a nonfiction novel, in which scenes have been \'recreated from memory\' and identities concealed by pseudonyms, \'sometimes to protect the innocent but usually to protect the story\' and keep it from sagging into tedium. But how can journalists hold Trump to account for his whoppers if they also artfully elasticise the facts? ... Chozick’s infatuation with her subject is personal as well as professional, and Chasing Hillary might have been entitled Stalking Hillary. It’s the sad, comical tale of an unreciprocated love that slithers into disillusion, before belatedly lurching back to implore forgiveness.\
RaveThe Guardian...[an] enthralling, thrilling book ... Along the way, there is an often hilarious account of scholastic efforts to rationalise the myth’s illogic, and an array of entertaining heresies ... What gives Greenblatt’s 'intellectual adventure' its tension and excitement is a sense of his own divided loyalties...He is torn, as Milton and Darwin were, between respect for clear-eyed knowledge and reverence for the grand fabulations with which we redesign the messy, cheerless world ... The journey is not only cerebral. Greenblatt is right to call his project an adventure, because it takes him from an ethnological museum at Harvard, where he inspects the skeletal remains of our remotest simian forebears, to the desert south of Tehran where he visits a replica of Eden.
RaveThe GuardianHis new book is nominally a memoir of his first years in Manhattan, where he arrived from Montreal early in the venal 1980s, but its reminiscences are the pretext for a series of dizzy riffs...there are essays on fashion as evidence for Nietzsche’s philosophy of the eternal return, on the hidden economic logic in the layout of department stores, on the semiotics of Häagen-Dazs ice-cream with its 'meaningless pseudo-Danish name,' and on the symbiotic relation between the Sony Walkman and Nike sneakers... Listening to the voices of others relieves the pressure: his book makes room for monologues delivered by a series of eccentric acquaintances... These garrulous surrogates rescue Gopnik from solitude, and also help him outgrow the contrariness of the art critic ... Performed by him, such verbal flourishes are both witty and wise. Gopnik is a sleek stylist, and a high-minded, big-hearted moralist into the bargain.
RaveThe GuardianGopnik craftily presents his conquest of New York, or of the New Yorker, as a series of happy accidents … Despite his fluency, Gopnik claims to find writing a sad and lonely business. Much of his book is addressed adoringly to his wife, Martha, who, mostly asleep while he tosses in insomniac misery beside her, does not respond to his endearments: are all writers unrequited lovers? … A sentence, he suggests, need not be a penal term: it can set you free instead of imprisoning you. Performed by him, such verbal flourishes are both witty and wise. Gopnik is a sleek stylist, and a high-minded, big-hearted moralist into the bargain.
PositiveThe Guardian...[an] engagingly anecdotal, excitingly speculative survey ... When Thomson reaches the present, his gratitude for the affable, sociable medium has to struggle against an elderly pessimism. He comes back repeatedly to the threat posed by Donald Trump, reacting to him sometimes with contempt and sometimes with dread.
RaveThe GuardianCumming sees representation as a way of making the past once more present, and this faith in a second coming brings to light her pursuit of a third vanished man – her father, the Scottish painter James Cumming ... Her book begins after his death in 1991, when during a grief-stricken trip to Madrid she was confronted by Las Meninas in the Prado. She saw it through her father’s eyes, and perhaps even saw him in it, since she fancies that he looked a little like Velázquez. No resurrection occurred, but the painting managed a small miracle, demonstrating, Cumming says in her conclusion, that 'the dead are with us, and so are the living consoled'. A museum is, after all, more than a graveyard of masterpieces; Cumming’s eloquent affection makes it a temple of the living presence.