MixedThe Wall Street JournalIf Henry James could characterize some 19th-century novels as \'loose, baggy monsters,\' Inside Story is a grab-baggy one, an intermittently bracing but mostly exasperating (and familiar) miscellany from the most gifted English writer of his time. The book is full of sudden U-turns, long asides and copious footnotes ... Without ever coalescing, the book adds up (sort of) to a meditation on decay and dying and death, phenomena that Mr. Amis has witnessed, up close, in several of his life’s most important people ... The freshest, most harrowing material of Inside Story involves the illness and death of Christopher Hitchens, Mr. Amis’s friend since their shared tyro days on the New Statesman in the 1970s. On the pages that he occupies (too few of the total), \'the Hitch\' will seem fully alive to anyone who ever knew or read or just YouTubed him ... The author tells us that \'plots demand constant attention,\' but if Inside Story has one, it would seem derived from constant distraction ... Mr. Amis remains a peerless composer of phrases and paragraphs ... But these perfect little pictures seem to be off their hooks and scattered on the floor of what remains a construction site. Mr. Amis plays with the conceit of inviting readers into his book as if welcoming them to his actual house in Brooklyn...but it’s doubtful that many of them will feel at home here.
MixedThe New York Times Book ReviewThe Mirror and the Light, the third and final book...is another crowded Tudor panoply viewed entirely through the eyes of Cromwell, whose nature is as labyrinthine as the palace corridors he superintends ... For all its political and literary plotting, The Mirror and the Light is most memorable for its portraiture, with Cromwell acting as our Holbein, challenging us to weigh his interpretive assessments against our enormous accumulated knowledge of his concerns, biases and kinks ... It is impossible not to admit that this final volume, nearly twice the length of the more kinetic Bring Up the Bodies, becomes woefully labored. Thomas Cromwell is a marvelous prism and a phenomenally round character, but by the time we’ve had 1,700 pages of him, he is drastically overdetermined. Some of the repetition may stem from a desire to give each volume in the trilogy a degree of autonomy, but in this latest book one senses Mantel’s simply excessive zeal in sculpting the protagonist ... The Wolf Hall trilogy is probably the greatest historical fiction accomplishment of the past decade; the first two volumes both won Man Booker Prizes. But after Bring Up the Bodies the enterprise, like Henry, has put on weight and self-importance. The final book feels heavier with food and custom and ceremony; catalogs of saints’ relics, clothing and wedding presents ... After the vast and painstaking narrative that has preceded them, the book’s final 75 pages may actually feel rushed, but the speed is artistically appropriate to the abruptness of the matter.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... delightfully instructive ... immensely enhanced by [Ferhman\'s] awareness of American publishing history, which allows him to present all these political volumes in a cultural and business context ... supplies not only the intermittent history of American publishing already referred to but also some thumbnail historiography ... If Mr. Fehrman can sometimes teeter on the syrupy brink of seeing the presidency as an awesome burden (LBJ’s phrase), his judgments remain almost always clear-eyed and sound. Some of the most entertaining can be found in footnotes ... Mr. Fehrman’s own style is relentlessly peppy and digressive; he is forever setting up a story and then racing off in pursuit of another before returning to the first. The interruptus effect makes a number of his chapters feel like the presidency of Grover Cleveland. Brief appearances by unsung American readers strive to add a democratic amplitude to the author’s history of publishing and literary tastes, but they result mostly in narrative confusion ... Even so, overexuberance beats sourness, and Author in Chief ends up being one of the best books on the American presidency to appear in recent years ... Mr. Fehrman does justice to his several dozen subjects, who through their books keep spinning, even when in their graves
Elizabeth Hardwick and Robert Lowell, Ed. by Saskia Hamilton
PositiveThe New Yorker... the essential volume for any understanding of what actually went on ... With \'Lizzie\' as its principal author, The Dolphin Letters turns out to be a better and a more important book than The Dolphin ... Hardwick’s alternations of mood, between forbearance and anger, are not the manic kind that Lowell suffered. They reflect a fluctuating, improvised rebuilding, more suited to prose than to self-mythologizing poetry ... Lowell’s conduct in every part of the story, not just his eventual abuse of Hardwick’s letters, seems worse in this Rashomon-like volume than it has in previous tellings ... Hamilton approaches the particulars here with deep knowledge and occasionally overexcited exegesis.
MixedAir MailThe lyric acuity that the late Edmund Morris brought to biography is on flickering, posthumous display ... The engineering and political maneuvers it would soon take to light up Lower Manhattan—a sort of demonstration project for the rest of the world—are rendered by Morris with casual rapture ... The loveliness of such narrative moments counterbalances what results from Morris’s attempts, elsewhere, to extract a kind of poetic thrill from the specialized vocabularies of experimentation ... This apparent effort to spellbind through diction only ends with the reader’s eyes glazed over. Even so, Morris continues with such technical rhapsodies, sometimes letting the men in Edison’s story get lost in the machines, as if the biographer were perpetrating a kind of industrial accident ... Maddening failures of exposition and resonance occur because of this structural experiment that Morris refuses to abandon ... the ass-backwards strategy of Edison seems merely perverse, a pointless gesture of literary self-assertion that leaves form flummoxing function at every turn ... Morris’s constant reversals ultimately take down the whole grid and leave the reader in the dark.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... [White] captures something essential about McCarthy ... Mr. White unfolds the sordid tale of Soviet literary history through all its later decades of crackdowns, thaws and renewed panics ... Tonally judicious, Mr. White remains alert to democratic excess in combatting horrors on the totalitarian side. But touches of what Jeane Kirkpatrick used to call \'moral equivalence\' inevitably result. Having done such a good job showing the sufferings of writers under Nikolai Yezhov ’s NKVD, the author might reconsider writing, 500 pages later, that \'the paranoia of the Cold War was bipolar\' ... With so much background to be filled in, the book sometimes strays from its specific, subtitular mission and turns into a history of the Cold War itself. One wishes Mr. White hadn’t bothered to deal with Kim Philby at such length ... consistently absorbing, its prose clear and its syntax sure-footed. But a certain entropy threatens the book. As it flies in different directions, chronology hits some air pockets ... Here and there an error catches the eye ... One of the virtues of his book is the way it makes a reader acknowledge how close the weary West came to losing its nerve.
MixedThe New YorkerNever seen from the inside out, Lenny remains the sum of his loud and repetitious behaviors, and, as with Hoffman himself, a little of him goes a long way. Revolutionaries is best when Lenny is out of sight—locked up or on the run ... Phil Ochs, appearing without an alias, is the book’s most poignant figure—and, in fact, a far richer subject for a novel than Abbie Hoffman. The reader initially cringes as this gentle folksinger, spiralling through delusions of persecution, becomes a fat and drunk maunderer. But Furst’s portrait of him ends up being rounded and tender ... Revolutionaries also has to fight its way out of the long shadow cast by The Book of Daniel (1971), E. L. Doctorow’s novel about the surviving son of Paul and Rochelle Isaacson, a couple closely modelled on the Rosenbergs ... Revolutionaries is a much more modest production. It is, to be sure, over-exampled and overdetermined, but it knows how to get out of its own way—how, intermittently, to turn down the political and historical volume to let a reader see instead of just hear.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... generally sturdy ... Mr. Asher has had much fuller access than previous biographers to FBI files that detail the bureau’s long surveillance of Algren. There is no denying its effects, but Mr. Asher exaggerates them into “the cause of his career’s decline” and swaddles an overworked political thesis with facile boilerplate about the 1950s. Algren’s own character flaws had plenty to do with his inability to sustain his gifts and career ... When not emphasizing politics, Mr. Asher is levelheaded and illuminating. His book is also peppered with unusually charming and informative footnotes. There are moments of callow discovery and the occasional gaffe, But Never a Lovely So Real has heft and heart, and it displays the sort of respect and loyalty to its subject that the novelist paid to the struggling, real-life people he put into his books.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMost of the historical context feels authentic; some of it is rote; a few bits are wholly implausible. Teddy Kennedy (who called his wife \'Joansie,\' not \'Joanie\') converses no more believably than Lennon ... With his considerable talents, the author can’t help but do a number of things very well... but there’s an airless slow motion to the production as a whole ... . The book might have benefited from the multiple points of view employed in the author’s first novel. Some episodes are overelaborated, and some incidents that we only hear about seem to be lost opportunitie ... by underlining so many of the book’s themes and meanings, the author makes the reader lazy, asks so much less of him than [Barbash\'s] compacted short stories did ... Like the proverbial thin man trying to get out of a fat one, a half-dozen stories could break free from this book. In Mr. Barbash’s capable hands, their individual effects would be greater than the sum of this novel’s parts.
PositiveThe Washington PostTóibín takes a personal approach to biographical discovery, dovetailing reminiscences of his own Dublin days with anecdotes about his subjects ... For all this interconnectedness, Tóibín manages to give each literary father a section of his own ... The last stretch of Tóibín’s book is the most straightforward, the closest in method to conventional literary criticism ... even in its plain-spoken final section, this gentle, immersive book holds literary scholarship to be a heartfelt, heavenly pursuit.
MixedThe New York Times Book ReviewBrown, a longtime contributor to Private Eye magazine, is capable of witty concision ... His Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret, some of them Rashomonian, are mostly fast and entertaining ... Too much of the book, like so much of its subject’s life, is extraneous ... It isn’t a thirst for fairness that makes one bring a book like this to the beach, but here and there a reader may wish the author had given Margaret a smidgen more credit.
RaveThe New YorkerNow Christopher Bonanos’s Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous has displaced a host of fragmentary recollections and the loudmouthed, unreliable memoir, Weegee by Weegee, published in 1961. Bonanos resurrects the inky roar of this world with a fine, nervy lip ... Weegee and his world don\'t encourage minimalism, and, fifty years after his death, he has at last acquired a biographer who can keep up with him.
PositiveThe New Yorker\"The reporting pieces have a fair share of old chestnuts (the book-tour essay) and barrelled fish (a Republican Convention), but none is without its stinging pleasures ... a very dated piece on the pre-Pornhub porn industry grinds on, further distracting a reader from the book’s heart, which is its literary criticism, labor that allows Amis to realize his most comfortable and integrated self: a novelist engaged in the scrupulous appreciation of others’ style ... The Rub of Time, like Martin Amis’s other critical collections, is itself something of a style manual, with corrective passages that fall somewhere between patient mini-lectures and readings of the riot act ... He can exhibit a near-nasty streak in dealing with his correspondents—the new collection includes two samplings called You Ask the Questions—but more typically Amis cherishes the most cosmopolitan virtue of all, humor.\
PanThe New York Times Sunday Book ReviewLike most of Carey’s inventive, maximalist entertainments, Parrot and Olivier is replete with expressed feeling, if too wittily contrived for actual passion. The story is told in the alternating voices of its two main characters, and it’s hard to say where the emotional focus finally lies. Master and servant bump along through fits of contempt and pity and occasional affection, without ever really fusing or fully breaking apart … Sentence for sentence, Carey’s writing remains matchlessly robust. Sailors cling ‘to the rigging like soft fruit in a storm,’ while inside a dark parlor old ladies sit ‘wetting their hairy chins with stout.’ But as the book’s bravura paragraphs grow into chapters, the author seems unable to decide whether it’s Democracy in America or Martin Chuzzlewit or, once more, Great Expectations he’d like to inflate and transform.
PositiveThe New York Times Book Review...a judiciously sympathetic treatment that tries to calm a still-uncalmable subject ... Stahr admits that his subject was 'duplicitous and even deceitful,' but argues that he was 'a great man' if not a good one. He was almost certainly indispensable in the preservation of a system that has since allowed us to be freely led by a long succession of good and great and awful and, finally, absurd men.
PositiveThe Atlantic[The Great Fire] streaks through a reader's ken in the manner of a comet, quickly seizing the attention and emotions before disappearing, trailed by hopes for the characters' happiness—which, like a comet's return, the reader only half believes in … ‘All speech is an exposure,’ Hazzard writes in this new book, some of whose dialogue...may strike one as bordering on the precious or implausible. But in fact it never forces a suspension of disbelief, because Hazzard's narration is more articulate than almost anything we're now accustomed to reading: what's within quotation marks seems credible simply by the standard of what's without.
PanThe New York Times Sunday Book ReviewIn March, the ferocious nemeses conjured by Brooks are war and slavery, which...end up prompting the author and her characters toward a prolonged moral exhibitionism … Like Louisa May Alcott's Mr. March, Brooks's version has gone south with Union troops as a chaplain. But he has another, real-life source in Alcott's father, Bronson, whose slew of Transcendentalist pieties go into the new character's pack. Brooks's novel winds up being both counterfactual and counterfictional … March makes a distressing contribution to recent trends in historical fiction, which, after a decade or so of increased literary and intellectual weight, seems to be returning to its old sentimental contrivances and costumes.
PanThe New York TimesAtwood's new novel, for all its multilayered story-within-a-story-within-a-story construction, must be judged flat as a pancake. In The Blind Assassin, overlong and badly written, our first impressions of the dramatis personae prove not so much lasting as total … The Chase girls' childhood – tutors, kitchen conversation, factory picnics – is played out at great length, and while social information should be more highly prized than it is in the modern literary novel, Atwood sometimes operates with the indiscriminate retrieval of an Internet search engine set to ‘display all’ … The less said about Planet Zycron the better; Atwood, alas, says plenty. She lengthily taxonomizes the city of Sakiel-Norn and its class-stratified inhabitants...but she proves unable to relieve the reader's tedium with the place's kinkier features, like children who weave carpets until they are blind and then go on to become throat-cutting hired killers.
David A. Nichols
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThe author’s praise for the president’s strategy can border on the fulsome, but it is supported by facts and some new source material. Mr. Nichols’s Eisenhower plays a long game that draws on 'traditions of military deception' ... Cleanly written and consistently judicious, Mr. Nichols’s book would have gained additional power by deviating from its moment-by-moment timeline to explore the motivating biographies of its important figures ... Ike and McCarthy shows how hard it was, and how long it took, for a president to rein in a single senator. It remains for the reader to discern in this book a rough, inverted image of our own time, with the polarity reversed between the White House and the Congress.
RaveThe New YorkerSaunders does a fine job—and has a fine time—quickening his little necropolis to literary life ... Although readers may feel that Lincoln in the Bardo has little in common with the author’s dystopian short stories, there’s actually quite a lot of similarity in preoccupation and technique. Saunders often pays imaginative attention to corporations, bureaucracies, and nomenclature, and he has a predilection for creepy theme parks...In Saunders’s hands, Oak Hill, too, is a kind of theme park, with various rules and precincts and spectacles, as well as opportunities for the author’s parodic gifts ... Even with this granular structure and its comic interludes, the book gathers a satisfying momentum, enough to reveal what Saunders has called, in one of his essays, a novel’s Apparent Narrative Rationale—what the writer and the reader have tacitly agreed the book is ‘about' ... he also elects to venture into Lincoln’s awareness and perceptions, and, when he does, it’s an all-in enterprise, a physical incursion undertaken not only to extract characterizing thoughts but also to influence them...Saunders is giving us an imaginative truth in keeping with a number of startling and benevolent short stories he has written, ones that end with characters reaching a low point and then pulling themselves back up.
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewKing often seems more exasperated than awed by his subject, and he emends with relish ... He lacks anything like his subject’s 'impressive concision,' but he does succeed in offering a vivid and detailed — and often harrowing — story.
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewRobert Gottlieb’s buoyant memoir of his indefatigable editorial career proves Noël Coward’s observation that work is more fun than fun ... Gottlieb confesses to the writers he was sorry to lose and the occasional good riddance, but he throws so many bouquets that the perfume can sometimes give the reader a bit of a headache ... Some of this memoir’s keenest pleasures come from a series of portraits that demonstrate how the author’s most profound associations and friendships have been with women.
Jean Edward Smith
PositiveThe New YorkerBush doesn’t feel like a hatchet job. Like Bush himself, it is susceptible to sudden changes of heart and tone, and it never quite gets over a sense of loss for aspects of the pre-9/11 figure that Smith seems to enjoy imagining, however sketchily, in the book’s early stages ... As persuasively as anyone before him, Smith presents a strong story of how a successful military mission quickly unaccomplished itself; turned into quite something else ... Smith may have the Carlylean sense that history is shaped more by the decisions of individuals than by the large movements of social forces, but he is fundamentally more a historian than he is a biographer, and much more comfortable when his current subject is holding a meeting in the Roosevelt Room than when he is riding his off-road Trek bicycle.
RaveThe New Yorker[A]t his best—and he is at it often—Lee displays a nimble metaphysical wit and a verbal ingenuity on a par with Martin Amis’s ... It is Jonathan Lee’s great achievement to have written, on this of all subjects, one of the gentlest novels in memory.