Today in books: Not everyone adores Robert Caro's sprawling biography of Lyndon Johnson, Andrew Cuomo is writing a book that sounds very presidential, and a rave for Toni Morrison's new novel from Michiko Kakutani.
The acclaim for the latest 736-page volume in his Lyndon Johnson biography The Passage to Power has been so universal that a the very rare dissent from Salon's Erik Nelson seems worth noting. Nelson says from the onset he's one of the "wonks" prepared to treat Caro's book "like the Summer of Love release of Sgt. Pepper’s." He even went back and read the last installment, the 1,040-page Master of the Senate to get back into the groove. The result, writes Nelson:
I feel I’ve just read the same book twice. The Passage to Power breaks down to four books, one worth reading. Twenty-five percent is fresh, brilliant reporting...Twenty-five percent is explicit and oft-cited retellings of stories from the previous three books. Twenty-five percent is editorial observations about LBJ repurposed from those previous three books. And 25 percent reads like a book proposal for what (hopefully) is to come in the next book.
Rather than being Caro's Sgt. Pepper's, "it’s a greatest hits collection," prone to moseying off on tangents that are "not the fascinating tributaries of the history of the Senate that illuminated Master of the Senate or the luminous description of the Texas hill country in The Path to Power ... there are chapters, long chapters, devoted to John Kennedy’s biography, even down to yet another recounting of the PT 109 saga." That's not to say the book is a failure. "Although he treads water ... what water!" Nelson marvels. But the good stuff -- notably Caro's description of a Texas state dinner for German Chancellor Erhard that is enough to "summon a longing for a bib, a handiwipe and some of that thar barbecue" in the reader -- is buried beneath the things he's already covered, sometimes even the same long, extensive quotes used in earlier volumes. "The book," Nelson finally admits, "cries out for the Ghost of William Shawn and a red pencil. How can a book take 10 years of obsessive work and still seem sloppy?" [Salon]
Michiko Kakutani is wild about Toni Morrison's new book Home, proclaiming it "a kind of tiny Rosetta Stone to Toni Morrison’s entire oeuvre," the accomplished and muddled alike. It's a slender book (145 pages), but an admirably direct one: Morrison, Kakutani writes, has crafted an "economical tale [that] is largely free of the didactic writing that turned Paradise and Love into brittle, cartoonish exercises." Instead, she flashes "a new, angular voice and straight-ahead storytelling style that showcase her knowledge of her characters, and the ways in which violence and passion and regret are braided through their lives, the ways in which love and duty can redeem a blighted past." In short, it sounds like a masterpiece. [The New York Times]