Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers


[Apologies for the mid-Tuesday OMM: tech difficulties on the home connection last night...]

New York Times

  • Sunday book review cover: William Safire on the deluge of Lincoln books: "A publishing industry chestnut is that the three fields readers are most interested in are (1) Lincolniana (2) medical books and (3) books about the care of pets; therefore, one surefire best seller would be 'Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog.' Joking aside, we have a mountain of bicentennial works, many slicing and dicing influences on all the phases of his life and death: relationships with his wife, his admirals, his great and terrible generals, his law partners and secretaries, and supporters and contemporaries, from Frederick Douglass to Stephen A. Douglas — and an account of his escape from assassination in Baltimore on the way to inauguration."
  • Kakutani on The Gamble by Thomas E. Ricks (look for our Q&A with him later today): "In his equally powerful and illuminating new book, 'The Gamble,' Mr. Ricks, the senior Pentagon correspondent for The Washington Post, takes up the story where he left off in 'Fiasco.' ... Mr. Ricks writes as both an analyst and a reporter with lots of real-time access to the chain of command, and his book’s narrative is animated by closely observed descriptions of how the surge worked on the ground, by a savvy knowledge of internal Pentagon politics, and by a keen understanding of the Iraq war’s long-term fallout on already strained American forces."
  • Maslin on 1864 by Charles Bracelen Flood: "By focusing a book entirely on the tactical maneuvers that got Lincoln through 1864, the historian Charles Bracelen Flood makes a smart tactical choice of his own.... Mr. Flood’s '1864' compresses the multiple demands upon Lincoln into a tight time frame and thus captures a dizzying, visceral sense of why this single year took such a heavy toll.... He writes knowledgeably yet intimately, and with a vigorous sense of what it must have been like to experience such serial crises each day. His close-range glimpses of Lincoln are more insightful than his larger sense of how the war and election unfolded beyond him. Mr. Flood succeeds in making Lincoln’s headaches his own."
  • Adam Kirsch on Nothing Right by Antonya Nelson: "Nelson never chafes against the limitations of her chosen form, the realistic, well-made story. It's the ideal medium for a writer who isn't afraid to remind us of the familiar, who values insight over epiphany. Nor is Nelson particularly interested in the way the world at large shapes our private lives. These stories could take place at just about any time in the last 30 years--after the sexual revolution diminished, without destroying, the scandal of adultery and the tragedy of divorce. Indeed, it comes across as a surprise when, in 'Shauntrelle,' Nelson alludes to 'collateral damage,' and a world that contains Iraq and Afghanistan heaves into view. The wars that concern Nelson's characters are fought much clsoer to home."
  • Lori Gottlieb on The Other Side of Desire: Four Journeys into the Far Realms of Lust and Longing by Daniel Bergner: "After reading Daniel Berg­ner’s unsettling but riveting new book, 'The Other Side of Desire,' I’m no longer sure where normal ends and abnormal begins. Take the people Bergner ... introduces us to: a devoted husband with a foot fetish, a fashion maven who’s a sadist, a man who becomes sexually attracted to his young stepdaughter (Woody Allen, anyone?) and an advertising executive who lusts after amputees. Are all of them deviant? None of them? Or is deviance a matter of time and place, the way that a century ago, fellatio and cunnilingus were regarded as perversions in some psychoanalytic circles? I’ll ruin the ending for you right now: these questions are unanswerable, but that’s precisely what makes the asking so engrossing."

Washington Post:

  • Dirda on Fool by Christopher Moore: "In truth, Fool is exuberantly, tirelessly, brazenly profane, vulgar, crude, sexist, blasphemous and obscene. Compared to Moore's novel, even Mel Brooks's hilariously tasteless film 'Blazing Saddles' appears a model of stately 18th-century decorousness. To quote carelessly from Fool would strain the forbearance of this family newspaper. Suffice it to say that variants of the f-word and its English cousins -- the marginally more acceptable, because less familiar 'shag' and 'bonk' -- appear on every page, not only as intensifiers and expletives but also as apt descriptions for what is happening right before our eyes on the tapestried divan with Princess Goneril or behind the arras with her sister Regan."
  • Mark Kaufman on Is God a Mathematician? by Mario Livio: "Philosophers and mathematicians have been arguing for centuries over whether math is a system that humans invented or a cosmic -- possibly divine -- order that we simply discovered. That's the fundamental question Mario Livio probes in his engrossing book Is God a Mathematician?... Livio comes down in the middle, contending that math may well be both invented and discovered.... The author acknowledges that some readers will find his inconclusive conclusion to be unsatisfying. I didn't. Sometimes the adventure, the intellectual ride, is more important than the final destination."
  • Elaine Showalter on Mrs. Lincoln by Catherine Clinton: "While describing Mary as a 'woman of intense intellect and passion,' Clinton does not provide much evidence that she had the intelligence, ideals or insight that would have made her a memorable individual as well as the iconic 'Mrs. Lincoln.' Sadly, even in our age of Prozac, Dr. Phil and a lucrative market for First Lady memoirs, it seems unlikely that Mary Todd Lincoln would have earned a biography on her own."

Los Angeles Times:

  • Tim Rutten on Ricks's Gamble: "'In 2005 the United States came close to losing the war in Iraq.' So writes Thomas E. Ricks, the Washington Post's senior military correspondent, in his gripping and brilliantly reported new book, 'The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008.' This is contemporary history of a vivid and urgent sort, and Ricks has produced a book that deserves to be read by any American who realizes that something other than today's economic news also is of vital interest to the nation."
  • Sarah Weinman on Spade & Archer by Joe Gores: "Eighty years later, 'Spade & Archer' comes within admirable distance of a utopian prequel that, paraphrasing one of the novel's villains, gets to take Sam Spade apart and see what makes him tick.... 'Spade & Archer' completes the circle with Effie's declaration that 'there's a girl wants to see you. Her name's Wonderly,' bringing in enough of Hammett's original writing to show that Gores knows this is the real thing, though the 100,000 words preceding can never quite match in voice and power. If anything the exercise begs for greater attention to the out-of-print 'Hammett,' a work of art that explores the interplay between detection and literature in ways that 'Spade & Archer' cannot."

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Comments (4)

Thomas E. Ricks has followed up his highly praised argument for defeatism in Iraq entitled "Fiasco" with a book that would be more honestly titled "OK, Bush Got Finally It Right, But I'll Be DAMNED Before I Admit It!" As worshipful reviews by Michiko Kakutani and Tim Rutten make clear, Mr. Ricks has very carefully and at considerable effort consistently denied credit to the ONE man who made success in Iraq possible:

the Commander in Chief who listened to the arguments of his KNOWLEDGABLE war critics and made the call to fire Rumsfeld, fire or boot upstairs the generals who couldn't or wouldn't see the wisdom of the surge either, and implement the strategy that finally won the war,...

while Ricks, Katukani, Rutten, and their ilk were advocating surrender.

This makes about as much sense as it would for Charles Bracelen Flood to have written "1864" about the brilliant military moves of Grant, Sherman, etc., while denying all credit to the President who kept picking generals until he found winners and then approved and more importantly strongly advocated the strategy that would finally work over the objections of that generation's defeatists.

Posted by: FredTownWard | Tuesday February 10, 2009 at 10:27 AM

Oh, come on. It's fairly clear that even those who _tried_ to forget Mary Todd couldn't manage it. Memorable? Of course she was. She demanded it, always.

She needs a great novelist to come to terms with her. I'm not sure why nobody has. With all the Southern novelists so thick on the ground, it would seem easy for them to fit in a "difficult" woman who loved greatly, and who was possibly bipolar, definitely ambitious, had difficult times with her children, kept running into death but not dying, and was continually crossed by fate, her fellow man, and herself.

Posted by: Maureen | Tuesday February 10, 2009 at 11:25 AM

Well said Fred, but I think there is another point. Ricks and his like want the United States to fail. They want the Surge victory to be transitory. Every morning they wake up and search for signs of defeat and when they believe they have found them, they relish in delight.

Posted by: Wayne | Wednesday February 11, 2009 at 6:19 AM

Unfortunately, Wayne, you are absolutely correct, and they seem genuinely puzzled when the military personnel who bear the brunt of their treason resent them for it. If you bother to read Amazon's short interview with Tom Rick's, you will find him surprised by the apparent disdain expressed towards President Obama and himself by the generals he seems to think he was praising.

Soldiers just don't like traitors however noble-sounding their excuses...

because they remember who pays the price for treason.

Posted by: FredTownWard | Wednesday February 11, 2009 at 12:05 PM

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