by Sukey HowardDecember 2010
Sound advice for gift lists
Ron Chernow’s acclaimed new biography, Washington: A Life, is “magisterial” in length as well as content, coming in at just over 42 hours. But Scott Brick, reader extraordinaire, never falters, maintaining a narrative pace and immediacy that heightens Chernow’s evocation of this “most famously elusive figure in American history.” Perhaps it was that very elusiveness that drove Chernow to write this revelatory cradle-to-grave chronicle of our first president. What emerges from Chernow’s forensic mining of resources is a Washington more vivid, more human than the elegant soldier/statesman who looks out from Gilbert Stuart’s paintings. This Washington, though forever a man of unimpeachable character, unerring judgment, steadfast patriotism, dedication and dignity, is flesh and blood, with a normal quota of foibles. He struggled to control his emotions, dealt with a harsh, demanding mother, felt insecure about his lack of education (Chernow does dabble in psychological profiling) and craved money, fame and status. Yet Washington’s inner compass never failed him or his country, allowing him to scale the “highest peak of political greatness.” I cannot tell a lie, this is top-notch biography and audio.
CARTER ON CARTER
Jimmy Carter has worn the mantle of hardworking elder statesman with grace and, at 85, remains one of the most influential former presidents ever. But when he left office in 1981, most of his current admirers had a very different take; his presidency hadn’t been a roaring success, to put it mildly. Now, with his White House Diary, we have amazing access to the nitty-gritty, day-by-day account Carter kept during his four years in office, with the added insight of his annotations and explanatory notes. With the candor we’ve come to expect, Carter hasn’t edited out entries that might conceal his “errors, misjudgments of people or lack of foresight.” He’s chosen what’s included here (probably only a quarter of the original transcript), concentrating on themes that, unfortunately, remain intensely relevant today—Middle East peace negotiations, energy policy, healthcare, nuclear weaponry and U.S.-China relations among them. Carter’s quick assessments can be acerbic and he never sidesteps his frustrations with Congress, nor the devastating problems—rising OPEC oil prices, the Iranian hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—he dealt with toward the end of his tenure. Veteran narrator Boyd Gaines reads the diary entries, while Carter, in his familiar soft Southern cadences, reads his commentary.
WIT WITH WISDOM
In his latest, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary, David Sedaris has gone from the memoirish to the noirish. I’m not sure if the beasts of his bestiary show us the animal side of human nature or vice versa. Either way, these Aesopian fables for the 21st century, though told in trademark Sedaris style, can be a bit dark and disturbing. The dogs and cats, cattle and sheep here are not exactly warm and fuzzy creatures; if they were people, we’d probably think them way over the top, but in animal form they make you stop and think about how beastly Homo sapiens can be. Sedaris, always a superb renderer of his own writing, shares the podium this time with Elaine Stritch, Dylan Baker and Siân Phillips, who are all fabulous performers. Caveat: not for the squeamish or super-sedate.