Review: ‘Poisoning the Press’ by Mark Feldstein

Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington's Scandal CulturePoisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington’s Scandal Culture by Mark Feldstein

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am fascinated by Richard Nixon.

The man is straight out of Shakespeare — sometimes Iago, sometimes Lear, sometimes (in his better, though rare, moments) Prince Hal himself. (Never Falstaff, though.) Nobody doubts his brilliance or cunning, but oh, what venality. He could never get over the contempt he had for the kinds of people LBJ called “the Harvards” — those golden boys who effortlessly controlled the levers of power and sneered at awkward ladder-climbers like Richard Nixon.

Mark Feldstein’s “Poisoning the Press” pairs Nixon with one of his fiercest critics, muckraking columnist Jack Anderson. In Anderson, Nixon had more than a foe in the media — he had someone who was surprisingly like the 37th president himself. Like Nixon, Anderson had a ne’er-do-well brother and a fractious relationship with his father; like Nixon, Anderson was a working-class striver; like Nixon, Anderson grew fond of a wealthy lifestyle at the expense of his ethics. (One of Anderson’s early gets had to do with payoffs Nixon received from rich benefactors. Anderson would later sacrifice much of his regard for money.)

Naturally, the two became mortal enemies.

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Review: ‘The Sellout’ by Paul Beatty

The SelloutThe Sellout by Paul Beatty

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been trying to figure out how to review “The Sellout.” I wanted more and I don’t think the book gave it to me. But is that the book? Or me?

There’s no doubt Paul Beatty is a brilliant writer: nimble, knowledgeable, quick-witted. I read the first dozen pages and was overwhelmed, almost gleeful. Could he keep up such an amazing burst of imagination for an entire novel?

Well, yes. And no.

Because satire – and “The Sellout” is, if nothing else, a satire – is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can mercilessly (and often angrily) mock conventional wisdom and powerful, if wrongheaded, ideas. Beatty does this often and well. Everything in his path gets skewered: Los Angeles and its many neighborhoods and suburbs (this book may have the best feel for L.A. as a full, unkempt city of any book I’ve ever read) “Little Rascals” shorts (and, by extension, the movies, their stereotypes and their portrayals of children); gangstas; black neighborhood gathering places; well-meaning liberals; black intellectuals; sister cities; and pretty much the whole idea of a post-racial America.

The upshot is that race – and all that comes with it – is always present in these fractured United States, no matter how much we all try to ignore it (or, well, not).

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Review: ‘Anatomy of a Song’ by Marc Myers

Anatomy of a Song: The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hits That Changed Rock, R&B and PopAnatomy of a Song: The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hits That Changed Rock, R&B and Pop by Marc Myers

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

You can see the underpinnings of a more thorough book in “Anatomy of a Song.”

In this work, Wall Street Journal columnist Marc Myers collects 45 of his articles from his column of the same name, providing a tour of rock history through some key singles. He starts with Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” and concludes with R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion,” taking time to breeze through “Please Mr. Postman,” “Chapel of Love,” “My Girl,” “Different Drum,” “Maggie May,” “Rock the Boat” and several others — 45 songs in honor of the 45 rpm record, the longtime form of the single.

“Breeze” is the operative word. Though there are a few revelations — I had no idea Fats Domino played piano on “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” or there was an early, crummy mix of “Rock the Boat” (and Jim Gordon and Larry Carlton played on THAT) — too much has been written elsewhere, and sometimes you get the feeling chapters are cut off before the artists (or producers, or writers) really have a chance to dig deep.

That’s a given with an 800-word column, but it shouldn’t necessarily be a given in a book from those columns.

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Review: ‘Ready Player One’ by Ernest Cline

Ready Player OneReady Player One by Ernest Cline

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’m not the audience for “Ready Player One,” Ernest Cline’s novel that’s been classified by some as YA literature.

By that I don’t mean I’m not a Young Adult. No, I mean I’m a reader who wants something more from his reading than an endless stream of poor writing and dropped names.

(This is not to criticize YA. There are plenty of fine, inventive and well-written YA books that can be read by fully grown adults.)

To put the plot of the book in terms that the book would understand, it’s like “Willy Wonka” meets “Tron” in a “Soylent Green” world on the set of “Family Ties.” (I’m trying to think of the most ’80s TV series possible, but “Family Ties” is a lousy example because it quickly grew beyond its ’60s-meets-’80s conceit. But I digress.) Wade Watts is a gamer in the barren world of 2044, when the U.S. has fallen apart. Everybody pretty much lives in the OASIS, a virtual world where they don’t have to deal with rusting cities and crappy roads of realit — uh, RL. The OASIS was created by James Halliday, a genius coder who made billions off his creation before dying and leaving his fortune to whomever can solve the layered game he left behind.

Oh, there’s also an evil corporation, IOI, that wants to get its hands on the OASIS so they can keep the world in servitude FOREVER!

(I’ve always thought it would be interesting to write a book from the point of view of an evil-corporation worker drone. Where do Doctor No’s lab assistants go at night? Do the Storm Troopers take smoke breaks and complain about the Empire’s sin taxes?)

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Review: ‘The Nix’ by Nathan Hill

The NixThe Nix by Nathan Hill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“The Nix” begins in the rip-roaring fashion of a Tom Wolfe novel: an arch, sometimes glib examination of The Way We Live Now.

The book’s protagonist has an awkward name — Samuel Andresen-Anderson — and works at a professor at a university near Chicago. The year is 2011, around the time we were all staring at the rubble of the financial crisis and Occupy was getting started. Anderson is put-upon, naturally: unwillingly single, bored, prone to spending hours playing a multiplayer online game called World of Elfscape.

Then his life is upended. His mother, a onetime ’60s activist who disappeared when he was a child, has thrown a rock at a right-wing presidential candidate. He has a slick editor and publisher (more like an agent) who pushes him to write a book about her. And thus he starts unraveling why his mother left and how he got to where he is — which is, of course, a larger story about the ’60s and today.

But the thing about Tom Wolfe novels is that not even Tom Wolfe is very good at them; in pursuing Dickens and “the billion-footed beast,” he ends up shortchanging his characters’ inner selves as he moves them through his plots like chess pieces. (The best Wolfe works, “The Right Stuff” and “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” are nonfiction.) This is Hill’s problem as well, but Hill has a hell of a lot more empathy for his characters than Wolfe.

So Hill ends up a wobbly figure on a tightrope. Sometimes his contrivances seem forced; other times his empathy, gift for observation and sheer writing ability will out. It makes for a thrilling, if occasionally disappointing, ride.

Hill’s observations are so spot-on that I bookmarked several. Most cutting are the descriptions of life as a professor in an era of microaggressions and frightened administrations. Anderson has a student who pictures herself as a future VP of marketing and communications, but damned if she’s going to do any work; she’s been cheating and weaseling out for years.

Hill’s portrayal of her is a tour de force — one chapter, in which she manages to convince herself not to do a paper on “Hamlet” while responding to texts and using an app called “iFeel” (one of those pointless exercises in earning cheers from your friends) — is simply brilliant.

Then there was biology, which pretty much made Laura gag just thinking about it. Because she was pretty sure the first week of her powerful marketing and communications job that she would someday have would not require her to identify the chemical chain reaction that converted a photon of light to photosynthesized sugar, such as she was currently memorizing in her Intro to Biology class that she was stupidly forced to take in order to satisfy a science requirement even though hello? she wasn’t going to be a scientist? Plus the professor was so dry and boring and the lectures so unbearable —

Another character, the publisher, is so slick and amoral he should have his own book. One of his clients is a teenage singer (actually 25) who has to put out a memoir. No problem, says the publisher; it will be ghostwritten and include a “big confession”: “I am strongly in favor of an innocently small episode of lesbianism,” he tells Samuel. “An experimental time in junior high. A special friend, a few kisses. You know. Not enough to turn off the parents but hopefully enough to get us some rainbow-flag awards.”

Or: “Being a sellout is the authentic thing. When Molly Miller says ‘I’m just being real,’ what she means is that everyone wants money and fame and any artist who claims otherwise is lying. … Molly Miller can never be accused of selling out because selling out was her goal all along.”

Hill also captures something sad and true about the ’60s and today, even though the book came out before the rise of Donald Trump. A chunk of the book takes place in 1968 Chicago, before and during the Democratic convention, and Hill’s retelling is both powerful and shrewd.

But it turns out that for every poor kid shown getting his head drubbed by a nightstick, CBS gets ten phone calls in support of the cop who held the stick. … As soon as he heard this, old Cronkite knew he’d failed. They’d been covering the radicals and the hippies so much that now his viewers couldn’t see past them. The gray areas had ceased to exist. And old Cronkite had two thoughts about this. First, anyone who thinks television can bring the nation together to have a real dialogue and begin to understand one another with empathy and compassion is suffering a great delusion. And second, Nixon is definitely going to win this thing.

But Hill doesn’t have it in him to maintain this level of cutting observation and satire the whole book. He cares. And sometimes that caring throws off his balance. Is it satire? Or something deeper and more serious? (Not that satire isn’t serious.)

Samuel’s mother turns out to have a secret, of course. So does his grandfather, and his best friend from adolescence (who died in the Iraq War). And Hill obviously has a lot of emotion for these characters and takes their plights seriously, as he should. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it leads to some trite set-pieces, as when Samuel’s mother goes back to her father’s birthplace. It feels like bad Wally Lamb, not good Nathan Hill.

There’s also a sorta chronology problem. Samuel’s mother reports to school at the University of Illinois-Chicago in July-August 1968, and yet what would logically be a summer session, with the relaxed feel of a summer session, is described as if it were deep into the fall semester. I just didn’t buy it, though it may very well be true.

Which is not to say I didn’t keep turning pages to find out how he was going to tie it all together: Samuel’s search, a traumatic childhood event, Chicago 1968, the cheating student, the players of Elfscape (one of which, Pwnage, is another marvel of detail), the role of the publisher. Nathan Hill can flat-out write.

So if I seem a little more lukewarm about “The Nix” (the title refers to a Norwegian spirit, though perhaps another spirit — of a certain Tricky president — also wafts over the proceedings), it’s more for what could have been than what is. But they say you shouldn’t review the book you wanted, but the book you have. And “The Nix,” despite its faults, is a very good book. I look forward to what Nathan Hill writes next.

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Review: ‘The Daily Show (The Book): An Oral History’ by Chris Smith

The Daily Show: An Oral History as Told by Jon Stewart, the Correspondents, Staff and GuestsThe Daily Show: An Oral History as Told by Jon Stewart, the Correspondents, Staff and Guests by Chris Smith

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The inevitable success often seems inevitable only in retrospect.

The Beatles were this provincial guitar band until they weren’t. “All in the Family” had been rejected by ABC before it became, in almost the same form, the dominant show of the 1970s for CBS.

And Jon Stewart was a standup comic taking over a marginal fake-news cable show until he became JON STEWART and the show became, of course, “The Daily Show” we know today.

“The Daily Show (The Book)” is an oral history, ably compiled by Chris Smith, chronicling the groundbreaking satirical broadcast.

When the show debuted it was just this sometimes-clever, sometimes-smarmy comedy program with Craig Kilborn – one that had its moments, but wasn’t going to make many people forget “Not Necessarily the News” or the best “Weekend Update” segments of “Saturday Night Live.” What Stewart did, upon his arrival in 1999, was gradually turn “The Daily Show” into a satirical machine – pitting George W. Bush against himself, taking on the absurdities of cable news, and every so often removing his host persona to flat-out editorialize, particularly on tragic occasions.

There had never been anything quite like it. Jack Paar, Johnny Carson and David Letterman had had their moments, and such shows as “That Was the Week That Was” took clever potshots, but nobody had ever put it together the way that Stewart (and producers such as creators Madeleine Smithberg and former Onion leader Ben Karlin) did. This was often satire of a high order, the kind that TV was often afraid to do.

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Review: ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ by J.D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in CrisisHillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I may have learned as much about myself from “Hillbilly Elegy” as I did about J.D. Vance’s family and upbringing.

The book is fairly straightforward. Vance grew up in Middletown, Ohio, about midway between Cincinnati and Dayton but – thanks to the hillbilly migrants who came to work at the local steel plant — more like the hollers of Jackson, Kentucky, where his family is from. And what a family, gripped by violence, alcoholism and loss.

And yet Vance loves them. He loves his mom, an alcoholic and sometime drug addict who went through boyfriends like Kleenex. He loves his Mamaw and Papaw, who started their long marriage as teenagers at each other’s throats and only in their last years came to represent some kind of stability. He loves returning to Jackson, despite its emptiness and sadness, and he defends his fellow hillbillies – it’s not a pejorative in Vance’s telling, simply a word – with the loyalty they’re known for.

But he’s not blind to their faults.

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Review: ‘My Brilliant Friend’ by Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend (The Neapolitan Novels #1)My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

(Perhaps some spoilers ahead, though nothing major.)

Nothing much happens in “My Brilliant Friend,” the first of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. Two girls meet as children; they grow up; they grow apart; they grow together; and then one of them gets married. There are contentious episodes featuring shoes, a frightening incident in a beach house, a few violent acts. (In one case, a girl gets thrown through an open window.) The novel concludes with the wedding and promise of more to come.

Then why did I love it so much?

Part of it is the ending. Wow. I love books that lead up to perfect last lines – “Fifth Business” and “A Prayer for Owen Meany” come to mind – and this is another. I won’t reveal it except to say I felt unexpectedly punched in the gut.

But most of it is Ferrante’s voice. She is matter-of-fact, unsentimental. The book is told from her point of view – the character is even named Lena, though if recent news is to be believed the novel isn’t even a roman a clef – and though there are occasional outpourings of emotion, she keeps a clipped distance from the proceedings. Her style is filled with what most editors would consider run-on sentences, filled with commas that could be periods, and yet it works – a stream of consciousness that holds together as if knotted in steel.

It’s Lena, it turns out, who is the “Brilliant Friend” of the title. Her friend, whom she rarely fails to admire as equally brilliant, is Lila, the daughter of a working-class shoemaker. They’re both bright girls, but only Lena stays in school; Lila, for various reasons, drifts away from her studies. It’s the 1950s and early ‘60s, a time when Italian girls apparently weren’t expected to stay in school. Still, that’s one of the few ways Lila adheres to convention; she’s a woman ahead of her time. She is tall and beautiful and fearless; she’s in no rush to marry and wonders if she should; her attitude intimidates the boys of their apparently run-down neighborhood, though they’re all equally in love with her. Lena, on the other hand, wonders when she’ll find love. She has a boyfriend who’s more of a friend, and an older boy she moons over from a distance.

I struggled to keep the characters straight, but no matter. Some of the boys remain boys – Ferrante manages to capture a certain barbarian impulsiveness that is almost a caricature of Italian men, though their willingness to pull out fists and knives (and even an occasional gun) seems all too believable. There are the wealthy Solara brothers, who drive around in their very own car and consider themselves neighborhood princes. There’s a mentally disturbed widow and angry siblings and caring, if firm, schoolteachers. I have no vision of the physical neighborhood itself – does it look like something out of the 17th century or more like a hastily created streetcar ghetto of the 1930s? — but I can see these people bickering and shopping and tentatively reaching out to one another, only to perhaps be rejected, setting off fury anew.

There are a couple events that remain in my mind. One involves a “perfect” pair of shoes designed by Lila and built by her hotheaded brother, Rino, and her father. They’re the ostensible reason for her eventual marriage; they symbolize the tensions in the family; they even represent her. The shoes are surrounded by the most ferocious arguments. One can only wonder where they’ll go next.

The other is Lena’s summer trip to the Italian coast, where she pines over Nino, the son of a train conductor who fancies himself a writer. (The conductor, that is, though Nino can write, too.) Nino keeps his distance; his father is another matter. Ferrante’s evocation of the summer somehow seems like a time set apart. She’s aware of growing up, yet also aware that she’s still a teenager.

Indeed, I often had to remind myself that most of these characters are teenagers. Lila, described as achingly beautiful but also disturbingly distant (even to Lena), is 16 when she marries. The boys are mostly younger than 18. Even the parents, who seem worn down by life, are in their 40s at most.

Ah, I wish I could make more sense in this review.

Perhaps “My Brilliant Friend” has rubbed off a bit in the wrong way. The book sometimes seems careless, as if Ferrante were pulling the memories out of her head unwillingly and plopping them down on the page to edit later, but never did. (In particular, the opening of the book makes a virtue of this artlessness.)

But don’t be fooled. I may not be getting at my points very well, but she knows exactly what she’s doing. And, like Lena does with Lila, I can only sit back and admire.

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Review: ‘Ring: A Biography of Ring Lardner’ by Jonathan Yardley

Ring: A Biography Of Ring LardnerRing: A Biography Of Ring Lardner by Jonathan Yardley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’d had Jonathan Yardley’s Ring Lardner biography sitting on my shelf for some time — long enough that I hadn’t the slightest idea where I bought it. Powell’s old Lincoln Avenue store in Chicago? Oxford Too in Atlanta? The Strand?

I bring up the provenance because, had I known what a slog “Ring” would be, I would have just left it where I saw it.

It’s a shame, really. Few remember Lardner these days; his son, the two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter (and Hollywood Ten member) Ring Lardner Jr., is better known. I first ran across Ring Sr. in baseball books, where authors would talk about his baseball-themed short stories — such as “You Know Me Al” — with a sense of awe. He was one of the leading — and best-paid — authors of the 1920s, good friends with F. Scott Fitzgerald, pen pal to Maxwell Perkins, friend to the Algonquin Round Table and resident of tony Great Neck, N.Y.

He was also a character in the Black Sox saga, sitting in the press box and making note of questionable plays. In the film “Eight Men Out,” he’s played by John Sayles, who’s a dead ringer for the writer. (Pardon the pun.)

So I was expecting to find something boisterous, charming and a little sour, perhaps a character somewhere between Mark Twain and Will Rogers, in Yardley’s biography. Instead, what I got was a rather dull fellow whose writing, particularly the dialect-flavored pieces with deliberate misspellings, is at best a time capsule of early-20th century America. It hasn’t aged well.

It doesn’t help that Yardley, formerly the longtime lead book critic of the Washington Post, doesn’t really get inside Lardner’s head. The man was apparently a formidable drinker, something Yardley mentions frequently but doesn’t really try to explain. He was also a beloved father and husband, but again, there’s little warmth that comes off the pages. Even Lardner’s early days, before he married and became one of the leading voices of the ’20s, come across as kind of rote. (And there are all of two paragraphs on the 1919 World Series, an event that really shook Lardner; Eliot Asinof was far kinder to him in the book “Eight Men Out.”)

Equally sadly, Yardley’s frequent breaks for Lardner clips simply slow down the narrative. The whimsical verse and nonsense plays just don’t resonate today; you can see why Lardner, for all of his fame decades ago, has been relegated to the realm of minor author. (I can’t speak to his short stories, including “Haircut” and “The Golden Honeymoon.” They’re available online, but I haven’t felt the need to seek them out.)

Still, I think Lardner would be a more engaging subject in the hands of a different biographer. It’s ironic, since Yardley once won the Pulitzer for his criticism and was known for both making some careers and driving a stake through others, that he suffers from such restraint. Lardner may not have had Twain’s colorful life, but surely someone like Ron Powers (who wrote an amazing Twain biography a decade ago) could have placed him in context of his exciting times.

I’m giving the book three stars because it’s not really a one- or two-star book, which in my thinking is either poorly written or frustratingly offensive. “Ring” is neither, but the third star is granted grudgingly. “Ring” really belongs on a used bookstore’s shelves, where it can look thoughtful and a touch erudite. And perhaps it’s best if it stays there.

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Review: ‘Three Men in a Boat’ by Jerome K. Jerome

Three Men in a Boat (Three Men, #1)Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Some things never change.

In Jerome K. Jerome’s “Three Men in a Boat,” the author rails against travelers who pack for a brief voyage with a month’s worth of clothes and belongings. He talks about how he’d love to get up early for a refreshing dip, only to wake up in the dark and decide it’s better to stay asleep. He fights with a tent. He receives a series of ever-more-unlikely fish stories from a series of locals, only to find out they’re ALL lying.

This book was published in 1889, but there are passages you could have sworn were written yesterday. And, despite the passage of more than a century, it’s still laugh-out-loud funny.

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