PositiveThe Observer (UK)The happy-go-unlucky Sedaris is forever being frustrated, humiliated or downright annihilated, and the mishaps he chronicles probably explain why readers feel so fondly protective towards him ... His wickedly hilarious riffs are pyrotechnics in words, although when the aerial explosions fade he can’t help noticing that nothing has changed on the mucky ground below ... If satire can’t goad us into reforming, Sedaris can at least clean up the mess we so squalidly strew behind us.
Danielle J. Lindemann
MixedThe Observer (UK)Characters on the shows Lindemann studies are shamelessly hedonistic, but she treats her own addiction to the genre as a guilty pleasure and frets to extract some educational value from it ... This liberal agenda leaves me unconvinced: the starkest and most brutal of the reality shows dramatise more elemental struggles, in which all of us are muckily embroiled.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)Witty and wide-ranging ... Index, A History of the is subtitled A Bookish Adventure. It is certainly bookish ... But he is adventurous as well, often writing as if academic research were as revved-up as a Formula One race ... As this scholarly rapture discloses, Duncan inherits his sense of vocation from the studious priests who compiled the earliest indexes: for the true devotee of literature, every book is potentially holy.
PositiveThe Observer (UK)Gottlieb is a renowned New York editor who at the age of 90 has earned the right to be self-indulgent and he chats wittily about his idol while leaving others to do the hard work of analysing Garbo’s appeal ... Best of all, Gottlieb dispenses with words in a gallery of photographs in which Garbo cups her head like the calyx of a flower, lowers her eyelids to semaphore desire or perhaps drowsiness and smokes a cigarette as if lighting a candle to place on her own altar. The mutable human face is saved from decay and flesh and blood are somehow sculpted into the likeness of Pallas Athene.
PositiveThe Observer (UK)Aghast and incredulous, Karl exhausts his supply of synonyms; this final act of the expiring Trump regime is nuts, weird, crazy, kooky and bonkers ... Karl’s anecdotes offer some sharp insights into Trump’s compulsions.
PositiveThe Observer (UK)This posthumous volume is briefer than its predecessors and was evidently produced with difficulty: Richardson suffered from macular degeneration, which allowed him to see paintings but caused him trouble with print, and he needed help from collaborators whose actual contribution to the book is unclear. All the same, it’s sad that there won’t be a fifth instalment, or a sixth, to follow the subject into his fecund, defiant old age. After Picasso, Dora Maar at least had God; Richardson’s Picasso won’t be so easy to replace.
RaveThe Observer (UK)Damrosch proceeds at a...leisurely pace, though he occasionally makes weightless associative leaps ... Damrosch avoids diffuseness by seizing on spatial coincidences ... Damrosch’s curriculum is encyclopaedic but at the same time fondly personal ... Damrosch sees travel as a mental and moral challenge, not Phileas Fogg’s brisk experiment in abbreviating space and accelerating time. Around the World in 80 Books takes us on a tour of the author’s global head, and while expanding our knowledge it enlarges our capacity for fellow-feeling.
PanThe Guardian (UK)Wolff shrugs that Trump is \'nutso\' and regards his calamitous administration as a \'shitshow\'. Despite this nihilistic frivolity, Wolff’s attitude matches that of his subject ... Wolff’s jocular irresponsibility causes him one or two remorseful twinges ... Wolff can’t afford to sneer at the cynical double-dealing of Bannon or Murdoch. He needs access, while Trump – who previously threatened to sue Wolff but now flatters him as \'the most powerful reporter\' – needs an outlet; each satisfies the other. Sadist and masochist are so intertwined that they merge in a sickly coital embrace ... Given Trump’s desire to monopolise our attention, I was pleased to find that he’s almost upstaged here by one of his brown-nosing flunkies. In a farcical subplot, Rudy Giuliani signs on as a catastrophically inept fixer and a supplier of useless legal advice ... The closest Wolff comes to reckoning with the damage done by these unhinged buffoons is in a couple of mock-epic slurs ... Trump may be bluffing about another presidential campaign in 2024; Wolff, however, must be itching for a chance to turn his bestselling trilogy into a tetralogy.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)... incisive, deftly argued ... Packer – who as well as contributing to the New Yorker and the Atlantic has edited collections of George Orwell’s essays – goes on to attempt something close to the ideological fables in Animal Farm or Nineteen Eighty-Four ... Despite imperial puffery, we may never have been the best, but we used to be better than this. Now we seem doomed to be last, and there’s no hope anywhere.
MixedThe Observer (UK)White regards Hitchcock as \'the emblematic artist of the 20th century\'...occasionally he over-reaches in trying to prove his ambitious case ... I’m uneasy too when White describes the shower head that spurts cleansing water on to Janet Leigh as an allusion to the ceiling vents for Zyklon B at Auschwitz. He is better on the avant-gardism of The Birds, a precursor of cinema’s current surrender to technology: a sodium vapour process merged separate shots to amass those squadrons of attacking crows, and an early electronic synthesiser called the Mixtur-Trautonium supplied their squawks of triumph ... Tracking Hitchcock’s contemporary influence, White is an enterprising tour guide.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)Like the best autobiographers, Barack Obama writes about himself in the hope of discovering who or even what he is. It’s a paradoxical project for a man who is universally known and idolised, but this uncertainty or insecurity is his motivating force and his most endearing quality ... Now, in this searchingly introspective account of his first presidential term, he divests himself of the “power and pomp” of office, disassembles the \'ill-fitting parts\' that make him up and ponders his similarity to \'a platypus or some imaginary beast\', unsure of its dwindling habitat ... The book, he says, was written by hand, because he mistrusts the smooth gloss of a digital text: he wants to expose \'half-baked thoughts\', to scrutinise the first drafts of a person. He mistrusts his own eloquence as an orator, even though it \'taps into some collective spirit\' and leaves him with a \'sugar high\'. Hunched at his desk, he has to renounce those winged words and submit to a more reflective self-interrogation ... At the book’s taut, thrillingly narrated climax, Obama vanquishes two enemies over a single weekend ... The view ahead, to be covered in the second volume of this memoir, is inauspicious and it confirms Obama’s demoralising suggestion that no individual, however gifted with charisma or grace, can prevail for long against what he calls \'dark spirits\'.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)Osnos presents Joe Biden as someone whose career has been a basic story of a different kind – grounded in shared suffering and commiseration with others, not inflated by preordained conceit ... Although Osnos has his doubts about Biden’s dazzling regular teeth and his replanted hairline, the cosmetic rejuvenation of this good, comfortingly ordinary man is just one more proof of America’s enviable capacity for making a fresh start.
RaveThe Guardian (US)An intellectual history devoted to a dimwit who once struggled to read aloud an extract from the American constitution ... A chronicle of a so-called era that has lasted less than four noisy, nerve-racking years and with luck is about to end? A book that solemnly analyses 150 often trashy books about someone who is not known to have read a single book and hired stooges to write the 20 self-puffing volumes published in his name? Yes, Carlos Lozada’s survey of what he archly calls \'Trump Studies\' is all of those paradoxical things and it is an utter marvel: sober though frequently very funny, fairer minded than the subject deserves, in the end profoundly troubling even as it looks ahead to America’s recovery from the Trump malaise ... Lozada, a book reviewer for the Washington Post, approaches his binge-reading chore as an exercise in cultural criticism ... Should The Trump Show be renewed next season or do we need to \'fundamentally change the script\'? What we need to fundamentally change, as Lozada demonstrates, is the way we think.
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 GuardianThe 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.