- Sunday Book Review cover: Walter Isaacson on Crisis and Command by John Yoo and Bomb Power by Garry Wills: "Whatever you think of this accumulation of power in the hands of the
presidency, Congress has pretty much acquiesced in the trend. For
better or worse, it seems to believe that the complex national security
issues of our day require less fettered executive power. That is why
Wills's book, though more elegantly argued than Yoo's, seems to be
railing against the tides of Âhistory."
- Hilary Mantel on The Lady in the Tower by Alison Weir: "This is murky territory, and it's not likely we'll ever have definitive
answers. Historians deal in documented facts, and the power of rumor
and gossip are hard for them to evaluate. But it may have been innuendo
that ruined Anne, creating around her a black climate, a cloud that
followed her when she stood before her judges. When Anne's narrow body
was put into an arrow chest and taken away for burial, the substance of
the truth went with her.... Why are we so obsessed with understanding every detail of Anne Boleyn's
rise and fall? It is because her character has archetypal force.... She is the young
fertile beauty who displaces the menopausal wife. She is the mistress
whose calculating methods beguile the married man; but in time he sees
through her tricks and turns against her."
- Jay McInerney on The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris: "Sadly, Tim's remission, and the novel's flirtation with the textures
and tones of daily communal life, is short-lived. It's as if Ferris
turns his back on his own abundant gifts as a novelist of manners, his
gift for dialogue and for close observation of the linguistic and
visual codes of American tribes, and starts walking so fast that he can
hardly take in the landscape, let alone the people. 'The Unnamed' is a
road novel with severe tunnel vision.... As a fan of 'Then We Came to the End' I can admire Ferris's earnest
attempt to reinvent himself, but I can't wait for him to return to the
kind of thing at which he excels."
- Maslin on 36 Arguments for the Existence of God by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: "The plotting of '36 Arguments for the Existence of God' is so
irrational, in fact, that one of its key events occurs almost by
accident.... On the other hand, give Ms. Goldstein a philosophical
case to make about potato kugel, Jewish cuisine and Kabbalistic
numerology, and she really does soar.... So the pleasures to be found in '36 Arguments for the Existence
of God' are scattershot. But there are a great many of them, and this
novel's bracing intellectual energy never flags. Though it is finally
more a work of showmanship than scholarship, it affirms Ms. Goldstein's
position as a satirist and a seeker of real moral questions at a time
when silly ones prevail."
- Elizabeth Hand on Just Kids by Patti Smith: "More than a 1970s bohemian rhapsody, 'Just Kids' is one of the best
books ever written on becoming an artist -- not the race for online
celebrity and corporate sponsorship that often passes for artistic
success these days, but the far more powerful, often difficult journey
toward the ecstatic experience of capturing radiance of imagination on
a page or stage or photographic paper.... (It's a testament to her appeal that as I read this
book over Christmas, my teenage daughter, middle-aged brother and
septuagenarian mother all clamored to have it next.)"
- William Drozdiak on Daring Young Men by Richard Reeves: "The real value of Reeves's book lies in the remarkable human sagas he
collected through hundreds of interviews with uncelebrated pilots,
mechanics, weathermen and ground controllers who sustained the airlift
for almost a year. Many of them had fought the Germans and returned
home to start families or begin new jobs. Now, barely three years
later, they were going back to Europe to help feed their former enemies."
Los Angeles Times:
- Our own Jeff VanderMeer on The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers by Thomas Mullen: "Set in the Depression-era Midwest, Thomas Mullen's second novel, 'The
Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers,' tells a rip-roaring yarn that
manages to be both phantasmagorical and historically accurate. In its
labyrinthine, luminous narrative, reminiscent of Michael Chabon's best
fiction, readers will find powerful parallels to the present-day.... In 'The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers,' he has created a stunning
work of fiction that is intense, deeply satisfying and always uniquely
- Susan Salter Reynolds on Where the God of Love Hangs Out by Amy Bloom: "Time passes in jerky leaps: a year and a half later, five years later,
two wars later. Here, Bloom joins the ranks of the unforgettable: F.
Scott Fitzgerald's eyeless time; Virginia Woolf's impassivity in the
progress of her characters' lives. This little dust ball -- love
between two people and the atomic risks that must be taken to see that
it lives -- gathers characters around it. Children have children;
friendships last, households grow to sloppy fiefdoms and boom! bang!
before you know it, community is created on a series of dumb, flat
pages, started with a strong love, often held together by a
preternaturally strong woman, the human sacrifice who dies with a big
smile on her face."
Globe and Mail:
- Kate Taylor on The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova: "It's a revealing image, a man merely a tenant in his own body, but
reading it, I wondered if it were not also an apt description of
Kostova's relationship with her art. She is great at decorating this
novel, but seems blithely unconcerned with some fundamental
deficiencies in its structure, as though literary fiction were not yet
her lifelong home."
- Juliet Johnson on Trotsky by Robert Service: "Service makes it his overt mission to destroy this rosy image of
Trotsky, and his successful but heavy-handed efforts in this regard
pepper the entire biography.... But Service's dogged determination to set the record straight means
that the book often reads as a response to earlier works rather than a
self-contained volume. Perhaps more seriously, it leads him to
overstate Trotsky's sins in two key realms: his family life and his
similarities to Stalin.... In the end, though, the great contribution of Service's trilogy of
biographies is to further demonstrate that individual leaders can
indeed change the course of history."
- Gaby Wood on Race of a Lifetime by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin (known to American readers as Game Change): "Race of a Lifetime is, indeed, a fantastically detailed and
gossipy affair "“ which is not to diminish its effect. The authors say
they hope to occupy the ground that lies 'between history and
journalism'; their book, researched while events unfolded, written with
hindsight and published as its eventual hero wipes the floor with his
mandate, shows its very familiar lead characters in often surprising
- Christopher Tayler on Even the Dogs by Jon McGregor: "The kinds of people that McGregor is making speak are only very
intermittently visible to inhabitants of the regular world either way.
The book makes no such thumping points, however, and if anyone can be
called ghostly in it, it's the regular population, whose presence in
the city is barely registered by the characters.... His reportorial absorption in the characters' world, with its
restricted range of tone and incident, makes this powerful novel seem
all the more resourcefully put together."
- Joanna Briscoe on Kostova's Swan Thieves: "While the socking supernatural quest behind The Historian gave
it the momentum of fear and mystery, this more traditional and
groaningly long-winded search is paradoxically less convincing, and
appears to put literary aspiration above storytelling. Bring back the
vampires, the demon plotting, the chilling revelations. Readers
expecting the delights of The Historian, beware."
The New Yorker:
- Meghan O'Rourke on books on grief: "Perhaps the stage theory of grief caught on so quickly because it made
loss sound controllable. The trouble is that it turns out largely to be
a fiction, based more on anecdotal observation than empirical evidence.
Though KÃ¼bler-Ross captured the range of emotions that mourners
experience, new research suggests that grief and mourning don't follow
a checklist; they're complicated and untidy processes, less like a
progression of stages and more like an ongoing process"”sometimes one
that never fully ends."
The New York Review of Books:
- Garry Kasparov on Chess Metaphors: Artificial Intelligence and the Human Mind by Diego Rasskin-Gutman: "With the supremacy of the chess machines now apparent
and the contest of 'Man vs. Machine' a thing of the past, perhaps it is
time to return to the goals that made computer chess so attractive to
many of the finest minds of the twentieth century. Playing better chess
was a problem they wanted to solve, yes, and it has been solved. But
there were other goals as well: to develop a program that played chess
by thinking like a human, perhaps even by learning the game as a human
does. Surely this would be a far more fruitful avenue of investigation
than creating, as we are doing, ever-faster algorithms to run on
This is our last chess metaphor, then"”a metaphor for how we have
discarded innovation and creativity in exchange for a steady supply of
- Anne Appelbaum on Koestler by Michael Scammell: "Although this is a long book, it feels compact. None of the
carefully selected details or quotations seems extraneous. The main
characters are shown from every angle, with all of their faults and
virtues. Koestler himself seems at times so alive he might leap off the
page. And yet the passage of time is a problem, if not for Scammell then
for his readers. An elderly Central European acquaintance recently told
me that in his youth, nothing was considered so tacky and outdated as
art nouveau furniture. Something similar has happened to Koestler. At
the moment, he still seems like yesterday's man, unfashionable and
obsolete. His better qualities might eventually be visible to a younger
generation, just as an elegantly restored art nouveau table now appeals
to collectors and connoisseurs. But a good deal of historical and
literary work will have to be done, and more time may have to pass,
before that is possible."