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Reviewing the Book Review

Editor in Chief

25 April 2010

¶ Bill Keller on The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century, by Alan Brinkley. This sympathetic, model review suavely puts both Mr Brinkley's book and its subject in context.

Brinkley leans a bit more heavily than other biographers on the frustration of Luce’s power — not only his inability to move presidents where they didn’t want to go, but the difficulty he had getting his own editors and writers to follow his line. His hatred of F.D.R. did not seriously dent Roosevelt’s political popularity or distort his policies. His belief that the United States should liberate China got no ­traction.

By the time Luce wrote “The American Century,” the fact that America had emerged from the shadow of Europe to become the most powerful nation on earth was both conventional wisdom and plain truth.

“His magazines were mostly reflections of the middle-class world, not often shapers of it,” Brinkley concludes. “Where Luce was most influential was in promoting ideas that were already emerging among a broad segment of the American population — most notably in the early 1940s.”

¶ Ronald Steel on The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the Rush to Empire, 1898, by Evan Thomas; and The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War, by James Bradley. Mr Steel admirably resists the temptation to look over the books under review and storytell their histories himself.

Although neither of these fine books is meant to be exclusively about Roosevelt, he hovers over and inside them — just as he must have sucked all the air out of any room he entered. This is not only because of his martial manner and bellicose deeds, but also because he was such a paradox: a political reformer, a conservationist, a buffalo hunter, a prolific author, a militaristic liberal and, yes, a “war lover” if he thought it would achieve peace and order. His admirers were legion and sometimes surprising. The renowned Progressive newspaper editor William Allen White summed it all up when he wrote, “Theodore Roosevelt bit me and I went mad.” Even the normally sober Walter Lippmann, who admired and later fell out with Roosevelt, confessed that he never quite ceased to be “an unqualified hero worshipper.”

Neither Evan Thomas, an editor at large at Newsweek, nor James Bradley, the author of “Flags of Our Fathers,” suffers from this affliction. Indeed they both take Roosevelt to task for being, at times, a racist, a jingoist and a warmonger. They view him, fairly enough, from the perspective of a time very different from the one he lived in, which was a moment when the United States was just beginning to flex its muscles as a rising great power. We, by contrast, are at a stage when we nervously worry about our receding hairline and whether we still have the right stuff.

¶ Charles McGrath on Muriel Spark: The Biography, by Martin Stannard. Mr McGrath, who worked with the late English novelist toward the end of her career (and who was interviewed by Mr Stannard for this book) is perhaps not the ideal objective reviewer.

Her autobiography, “Curriculum Vitae,” is a little masterwork of evasiveness and score-settling that reveals next to nothing about the woman who wrote it. Her version is nevertheless more fun to read than Stannard’s, which is long, a little humorless and employs more stylistic infelicities than seems fitting for a book about a writer of Spark’s natural grace and sureness. There are dangling constructions, clichéd metaphors she would never use (unwritten books are “washed away in a tsunami of change”; Spark is “rejuvenated as a blazing new talent in the literary firmament”) and sentences like this one — about Jay Presson Allen, who adapted “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” for the stage — that combine weary metaphor with baffling indirection: “She perpetually set Muriel’s teeth on edge but this was not the reason for Muriel spending large sums on dental surgery.” Yet Stannard’s book is thorough, judicious and insightful about Spark’s fiction. Its only major fault, if this can be called one, is a tendency to overapologize for its subject.

¶ Mark Halperin on Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight, by Karl Rove; and No Apology: The Case for American Greatness, by Mitt Romney. What can we say, but that Mr Halperin's review is fair and balanced?

Those still smarting over the repercussions of the Bush administration will be particularly annoyed by Rove’s conclusion that Bush’s “achievements over eight years were impressive, durable and significant.”

Still, “Courage and Consequence” is an entertaining and enlightening memoir, written by a man who is well aware he will continue to be a polarizing figure no matter where he goes from here.

In a party that has often picked its presidential nominees by primogeniture, Mitt Romney is now the front-runner for 2012 and presumably will hold on to that status for the foreseeable future. “No Apology,” however, is not a classic candidate-in-­waiting book, since it lacks the standard treacly dose of intimate anecdotes meant to reveal the politician’s softer side. Instead, even the few personal stories featured in its pages are intended to illustrate Romney’s ideology and policy ­preferences.

¶ Louis Uchtelle on 13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown, by Simon Johnson and James Kwak. Mr Uchitelle's esteem for this book is only slightly damped by his wish that the authors had reached their understanding a few years sooner.

Drawing on previously published accounts (this book’s great virtue is its skillful synthesis of what is already on the record), Johnson and Kwak describe a phone call from Summers to Born that gives the book its title. “I have 13 bankers in my office,” he declared, “and they say if you go forward with this you will cause the worst financial crisis since World War II.”

No wonder derivatives remained unregulated. And in the end, they played a huge role in producing what was in fact “the worst financial crisis since World War II.” Summers was dead wrong.

But if the case against him and others is so obvious, why did Johnson and Kwak, who run an economics blog called The Baseline Scenario, fail to speak up before the crisis erupted? Johnson, in particular, has emerged as a critic only in the past two years. If only he had separated himself sooner from the legions of mainstream economists who insisted that bankers and markets would self-correct.

Nonetheless, “13 Bankers” is persuasive penance — a well-documented appeal to embrace once again Thomas Jefferson’s skepticism of concentrated banking power.

¶ Jacob Silverman on Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives, by Brad Watson. This generally favorable review skews toward storytelling instead of the cogent literary assessment that Mr Watson's stories seem to deserve.

The varied styles here suggest that Watson is still wondering where his strengths lie. If so, he need look no further than “Water Dog God” — a chilling story about a teenage girl, raped by her brothers and father, escaping after a tornado. She arrives pregnant at the lakeside house of her cousin, himself a refugee from the world, and there she lives like a feral creature among the gathered stray dogs. She is also a stray, with all the attendant violence and mystery. The lives she touches will be forever altered. It’s a story that echoes what the publisher Kurt Wolff once said to Günter Grass, and what Watson reinforces in the strongest parts of this generally strong collection: All great literature is rooted in the provincial.

¶ Karl Kirchwey on White Egrets: Poems, by Derek Walcott. This review is astute as well as sympathetic.

For all this new book’s awareness of one geographical location, its true achievement lies in what we might call a pelagic poetic consciousness. Walcott is, in some way, “homelessly at home,” as Richard Wilbur once said. The mind of these poems exists simultaneously in St. Lucia and in Sicily (after all, St. Lucy — the patron saint of light or vision — came from the Italian city of Syracuse); in a harbor that is at once Rodney Bay, Venice and Stockholm; under a mountain that is both the Petit Piton and the Matterhorn. This is the simultaneous vision that allowed Walcott’s epic “Omeros” to range so effortlessly across the Atlantic Ocean and to exist in the Old World and the New, though in this late work the tide pulls strongly eastward: “if the soul ever rests, / its next beach will be Dakar.” Pronouns in this book — “you” or “she,” for instance — are haunted and polyvalent, referring to a particular past erotic partner and to the muse of poetry herself; but the predictability of this equivalence is dignified by time and loss.

¶ Chelsea Cain on The Swimming Pool, by Holly LeCraw. Ms Cain is not a sympathetic reader of this novel; as a result, the book sounds unworthy of the editors' attention. Not helpful.

The trouble is that everyone is so floridly earnest. I understand that this is a bodice-ripper couched as a literary novel, something you can, without blushing, leave on the white rattan coffee table at your vacation rental. But does it have to take itself so seriously? Maybe I’m a prude. Or a deviant. Whatever. But I could have used a little laughing and grinding along with the plunging and moaning. Is it summering at the Cape that turns people into egocentric depressives? Are there humor-inhibiting bacteria in the water? A tennis pro with an ennui-causing S.T.D.? I mean, come on, people, things are looking pretty good for you . . . considering.

What troubles me most, though, is that I think I’m supposed to like at least some of these characters.

¶ Caitlin Macy on The Heights, by Peter Hedges. Aside from an unfavorable comparison to the fiction of Tom Perotta, Ms Macy's piece reflects nothing so much as the her confusion about the novel's sense of humor. Until the startling final paragraph, that is.

There is one motif running through the novel that Hedges knows just how to employ: the sex. Despite the split first-person narrative, “The Heights” offers a man’s vision, sexually. Anal sex is a preoccupation, and when some women get together for a girls’ night, they not only drink the customary margaritas but also (brace yourselves, now) watch a porn movie to learn how to satisfy their men with strap-on dildos. There’s something frat and very funny in the frankness of these passages, which reveal the lustful male heart beating beneath the variegated facade of “The Heights.”

Very not helpful.

¶ Peter Kramer on Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, by Randy Frost and Gail Steketee. Dr Kramer gives this book a surprisingly open-ended review, just what one would hope for from a fellow professional, but only rarely find.

If Frost and Steketee have difficulty constructing a coherent new vision of compulsive hoarding, it is because they are too observant and too dedicated to the relief of suffering to make a complex phenomenon simple. They are collectors in their own right, stocking a cabinet of curiosities with intimate stories and evocative theories. To those who need to understand hoarders, perhaps in their own family, “Stuff” offers perspective. For general readers, it is likely to provide useful stimulus for examining how we form and justify our own attachments to objects.

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