Books I want to read, New York Times edition

I am not a regular reader of the New York Times. In fact, I don’t read a lot of newspapers in general. But at some point or another I signed up for the New York Times Books Update. Normally, I glance at it and end up deleting it without clicking a link. This weekend, however, there seemed to be a number of book reviews on books that I am interested in but haven’t read yet. Being a blogger and all, I thought I would share the links with you.

The first review that caught my eye was Adrian Woolridge’s review of Richard Reeves latest presidential biography PRESIDENT REAGAN: The Triumph of Imagination:

Now Reeves brings a biographical technique that he has honed in two previous books – on Kennedy and Nixon – to the Reagan enigma. The essence of this technique is to focus on the goals that his subjects set for themselves and then immerse the reader in a river of narrative. “I have tried to show what it was like for each of these men to be president,” he explains. This makes for refreshingly nonjudgmental books (though Reeves is clearly no fan of Reagan’s economic policies); it also makes for highly readable ones, with the president’s goals providing a spine but never getting in the way of the unfolding story.

Reeves is unlikely to displace Lou Cannon as the Virgil of Reaganland. He spends too much time reciting the daily headlines; he sometimes loses sight of his central characters in the rush of events; the whole effect is of a story written from a distance rather than with insider’s knowledge. Still, for all these faults, “President Reagan” is a compelling read, fast-paced and scrupulously fair. The account of the Iran-contra affair is particularly gripping. Anybody who is interested in Reagan’s extraordinary presidency needs to reckon with Reeves.

I have been meaning to read more deeply about Reagan, and in fact have a mini-library of Reagan books at home, but haven’t managed to quite get around to it. I read Reeves work on Nixon and I am sure I would enjoy his take on Reagan, even if I didn’t agree with his perspective all the time. I caught Reeves on C-Span this weekend and it certainly sounds like an interesting read.

Book TV also had a panel discussion of American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville, Bernard-Henri Levy’s new book. I didn’t watch the panel so I don’t know what Francis Fukuyama and William Kristol thought of the book, but I am pretty sure Garrison Keeler didn’t care for it. After a rather scathing discussion of the book’s faults, Keeler ends with this:

Thanks, pal. I don’t imagine France collapsing anytime soon either. Thanks for coming. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out. For your next book, tell us about those riots in France, the cars burning in the suburbs of Paris. What was that all about? Were fat people involved?

Reviewing the book for the February 13 issue of National Review, Roger Scruton takes issue with Levy’s focus as well, albeit with a little less outraged tone:

Tocqueville was the scion of an old noble family, and never lost the sense that he was looking down on the modern world from a ledge just above it. Levy is not an aristocrat, but he is the next best thing: a product of Parisian high culture, an ex-’68er, raised in the anti-bourgeois orthodoxies of Sartre and Foucault, and turning rightwards only belatedly, as a result of perceiving the indifference of French leftists towards the crimes committed in the name of their ideas. His preferences in American culture are for Henry Miller over Henry James, Kerouac over Longfellow, Jackson Pollock over Winslow Homer, Charlie Parker over Aaron Copland. His heart is far to the left of his head, and he has retained the Parisian aloofness from la vie quotidienne. He tours America in the spirit of a Levi-Straussian anthropologist, decoding rites in which he would never dream of taking part.

This leads to many amusing encounters and some brilliant commentary. But it does not alter the fact that the principal subject of this book is not America but Bernard-Henri Levy in America. He rejoices in his detachment, offering long lists of impressions, each stamped with his Rimbaudesque self-intoxication, and making the reader constantly aware of his observing presence in every scene that he describes. This can be tiresome; but it has the merit of emphasizing the cultural distance between Levy and his American targets. Even his astutest observations, therefore, somehow deliver only glancing blows. And by the end of the book you are pretty firmly on the side of his victims, who have been raised by his Parisian snobbery to the status of representatives of the human race. This, you begin to see, is what people are like, when they are allowed to do what they want and have the means to do it. And why shouldn’t they?

Given these reviews I think I will skip this one.

Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism by Donald T. Critchlow is a book I hope to get to in the next month or so, as soon as I can whittle down my TBR pile. Judith Warner takes professor Critchlow to task for lacking “critical distance and scholarly skepticism” and for being too “indulgent of Schlafly and her Christian conservative allies when they engage in quite un-Christian behavior.” In the end, Warner thinks Critchlow is simply to close to his subject:

Because Critchlow essentially speaks the same language as Schlafly and her cohort, unquestioningly using terms like “moral” and “Christian” and “pro-family,” it’s difficult to grant his book the objective authority to which it aspires. Critchlow can’t begin to answer the more profound questions Schlafly’s life and work raise because, for him, her answer – that she’s living in step with traditional Christian values – is sufficient. Such words appear to be as rich in meaning for him as they are for Schlafly and the grass-roots right she represents. But for secular readers – or for those who define words like “religion” and “morality” or even “values” differently – they amount to an intellectual void.

I am not sure I bring a great deal more scholarly detachment to the issue, but I shall endeavor to keep my biases in mind as I read the book.

– How about the fiction side (literary bloggers notoriously, and accurately, fault the NYTRB of being non-fiction heavy)? Well, a book that is moving up my “Need to Read” list is The Dream Life of Sukhanov by Olga Grushin. Liesl Schillinger’s review poses some provocative questions and further piques my curiosity:

In her first novel, “The Dream Life of Sukhanov,” Olga Grushin, who was born in Moscow in 1971 and moved to this country in 1989, chronicles the emblematic tragedy of one man’s Soviet life. Her protagonist, Anatoly Pavlovich Sukhanov, is a Surrealist artist who became a party hack to safeguard his family’s fortunes, vilifying artists he loved in the official journal Art of the World.

[. . .]

Their hour is come at last; Sukhanov’s is past. But how could he have known that the laws he had bent to would change? Should he have shoveled vegetables or hidden in the sticks? Can a man undo so many years of wrong choices? Weak with self-loathing, he tells Belkin that “geniuses don’t quit.” And Belkin kindly responds: “Geniuses are human. Humans quit.”

Sukhanov isn’t completely to blame for abandoning his gift, Grushin seems to say. But her book leaves two lingering questions: Who else is? And who should pay?

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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