Old rather than bold news, written with conviction.



Eleven presidents examined closely for their most salient errors—but all viewed within the contexts of their personal histories and their times.

Cullen, who has previously held forth on U.S. history (The American Dream, 2003) and popular culture (Born in the U.S.A., 1997), begins and ends with bite-sized essays on, respectively, the president we want and the president we need. In between are some of both. All 11 of them have human weaknesses—sometimes endearing, sometimes debilitating—that contributed to their successes and failures. If the author can overstate his case (was George Washington’s fumbling with his eyeglasses in 1783 as consequential as Cullen argues?), he can also present complex events with lucidity. John Quincy Adams may have been an ineffectual president, but his firm anti-slavery positions in the House were pivotal. Chester A. Arthur betrayed political allies to become vice president. FDR tried to alter the structure of the Supreme Court. LBJ played fast-and-loose with election laws in his first campaign for U.S. Senate. President Ford pardoned a crook. President Reagan traded arms for hostages and funded an illegal war (but we still liked him). Early in his first term, President Clinton (a man too randy for his or our good) unwisely pursued health-care reform, perhaps to appease his wife, who was furious about his serial infidelities. And the current President Bush has, so far, committed two egregious errors: invading Iraq, and failing to respond effectively to Hurricane Katrina. The author is an amiable and informed companion, though he sometimes loses track of what he’s said. He describes JFK as “an empty suit,” then, near the end, declares, “It is not possible to elect an empty suit President of the United States . . .” He admires Theodore Roosevelt and Lincoln but calls George W. Bush “among the worst” of all presidents.

Old rather than bold news, written with conviction.

Pub Date: March 1, 2007

ISBN: 1-4039-7513-2

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2006

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...


Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

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The powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future.

Atlantic senior writer Coates (The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, 2008) offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son’s life. “I am wounded,” he writes. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” Coates grew up in the tough neighborhood of West Baltimore, beaten into obedience by his father. “I was a capable boy, intelligent and well-liked,” he remembers, “but powerfully afraid.” His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated. Howard, he writes, “had always been one of the most critical gathering posts for black people.” He calls it The Mecca, and its faculty and his fellow students expanded his horizons, helping him to understand “that the black world was its own thing, more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white.” Coates refers repeatedly to whites’ insistence on their exclusive racial identity; he realizes now “that nothing so essentialist as race” divides people, but rather “the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” After he married, the author’s world widened again in New York, and later in Paris, where he finally felt extricated from white America’s exploitative, consumerist dreams. He came to understand that “race” does not fully explain “the breach between the world and me,” yet race exerts a crucial force, and young blacks like his son are vulnerable and endangered by “majoritarian bandits.” Coates desperately wants his son to be able to live “apart from fear—even apart from me.”

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

Pub Date: July 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9354-7

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

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