Review of reviews: Books
Book of the week
American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant by Ronald C. White
(Random House, $35)
Ulysses S. Grant is “a tough nut to crack,” said Jordan Michael Smith in The Boston Globe. The general who won the Civil War served two terms as president and was widely celebrated upon his death in 1885 as an American hero on par with Washington and Lincoln. Teddy Roosevelt ranked him a tier above Thomas Jefferson. But Grant was downgraded by subsequent scholars, and his current biographer, like any historian who’s since taken up Grant’s story, must explain “how so bold a general could have been so passive a political leader.” Ronald White’s “striking and comprehensive” study of the man delivers “less psychological insight than might be hoped” as a reader tries to decipher how Grant might have cost himself a more lasting stay atop the national pantheon. But the book, at 826 pages, does offer clues.
To begin with, Grant was “a nobody from nowhere,” said T.J. Stiles in The New York Times. An Ohio-born son of a tanner, he was a middle-of-the-pack West Point graduate ill at ease in society, and it didn’t help his legacy that after his early success as a commander in the Mexican-American War, his career stalled. He apparently developed a drinking problem while manning a remote fort in the Pacific Northwest and quit the Army to avoid a court-martial, then floundered as a farmer and businessman before the Civil War’s outbreak opened the door to his redemption. In war, Grant was consistently masterful, and White’s account gains steam as Grant prosecutes his brilliant Vicksburg campaign and then wins Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Jim Crow–era historians would later paint him as a butcher, a political incompetent, and a drunk, and the labels stuck. White, by contrast, “delineates Grant’s virtues better than any author before.”
More than anything, Grant “never turned back,” said Harold Holzer in The Wall Street Journal. A man of faith, honor, and intellectual curiosity, he emerges here for the first time as a spirited, albeit only marginally effective, advocate of the rights of blacks and Native Americans. While in the White House, he proved too trusting of cronies who mired his second term in corruption scandals. Later, he lost his personal fortune to a Wall Street swindler just before being diagnosed with terminal cancer. Even then, however, he “somehow summoned the courage and energy” to write a captivating autobiography whose sales saved his wife from destitution. American Ulysses reintroduces us to that admirable man. “Like Grant himself, this book will have staying power.”
Novel of the week
News of the World by Paulette Jiles
(William Morrow, $23)
“If you’ve never read a Paulette Jiles novel, you have a treat in store,” said Jane Sumner in The Dallas Morning News. In her “poignant, affecting, and humorous” new novel, a retired Army captain in 1870 Texas reluctantly agrees to transport a girl 400 miles south so she can be reunited with family members who last saw her when she was kidnapped years earlier by Kiowa warriors. Joining this honorable septuagenarian and his willful passenger on such a perilous journey makes “great escape reading,” and the pair naturally develop a bond. Capt. Kidd and Johanna have hearts so large, they demand a big ending, and “it takes some stacking of the fictional deck” to ensure they get it, said Wendy Smith in The Washington Post. Still, Jiles grounds her tale in a “starkly realistic” portrait of a lawless landscape where a home is hard to find. The novel, a National Book Award finalist, affirms that a time of change can be a time of blessings—“if we strive together to make it so.”
A Life in Parts by Bryan Cranston
Bryan Cranston “has a knack for describing the ordinary in a way that makes it fascinating,” said Kenneth Young in The Buffalo News. In his new memoir, the Emmy and Tony Award–winning actor recounts the lifetime of ups and downs that led to his unlikely breakthrough at age 52, and he manages to make all of his experiences sound as if they inform what he does when the cameras start rolling or the curtain rises. Abandoned at 11 by his actor father, forced to hustle for decades for steady work, the Hollywood native proves “blunt and fearless” in describing his resulting self-doubts and hilarious when detailing some of his most humbling early gigs. A guy doesn’t get to carry a show as heavy as Breaking Bad, Cranston seems to be saying, until he’s done a Preparation H commercial or two.
Before he turned to acting, Cranston “carved out quite an eccentric resume,” said Jenna Marotta in Esquire.com. At various times a housepainter, chicken farmer, waiter, lifeguard, and wedding minister, he was on a path to joining the LAPD when he embarked instead on a cross-country motorcycle trip and decided to take up acting. He landed a regular soap opera role at 26 and gained minor notoriety a decade later while playing an unscrupulous dentist on Seinfeld. After an acclaimed seven-year run as the bumbling dad on the sitcom Malcolm in the Middle, Cranston was casting about for the next thing to do when he was passed a script for a drama series about a high school chemistry teacher who starts cooking meth after he’s diagnosed with cancer. The rest, as they say, is television history.
Cranston’s account of his Breaking Bad years is “largely devoid of gossip,” said Kevin Canfield in The Washington Post. He’s more interested in unpacking the character of Walter White than in dishing on co-stars. Cranston also has no stories to share about nights of wild debauchery or stints in rehab, said Susan Wloszczyna in RogerEbert.com. He has many more reasons to be proud than to be humble, and “if you would rather read about a very human and caring star who is serious about his craft than the usual crash-and-burn tale, this is your book.”