The Campaign Season: Fall Nonfiction
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
The November election will dominate this fall’s nonfiction season, with entries by pollsters and Web loggers, as well as more seasoned authors, analyzing every possible American future. The books we look forward to take a longer view, examining the past as much as the future. “Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency” might once have been received as an intervention in current affairs, but Pulitzer Prize winner Barton Gellman appears to have written a book of history, more concerned with Vice President Cheney’s overall legacy than with the enmities of the next election.
At a time of economic uncertainty, Charles Ellis’s banking history, “The Partnership: The Making of Goldman Sachs,” may offer a kind of cathartic glance backward. Goldman Sachs has not always been the success that it is today, and since 1869 the firm has gone through many tribulations — not just the Great Depression, but a host of bankruptcies, frauds, and scandals. Mr. Ellis focuses on the last 50 years, during which a succession of variously talented leaders cooperated to create the most profitable investment bank in the world.
With the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth approaching, the most interesting book in the coming deluge is James McPherson’s study of Lincoln’s formative role as a wartime president. “Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief” argues that Lincoln set a precedent for wartime, blending policy and strategy to create a military campaign that was both popular and successful. He assumed powers that were not necessarily his, and ventured to micromanage his generals even though he had virtually no military experience himself.
Lincoln’s choices will be put into a greater context by the much-anticipated “From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776.” The latest entry in the celebrated “Oxford History of the United States,” it is also the first to take a thematic rather than chronological view of American history. Author George Herring has centered his previous work on Vietnam, but in this volume he appears to have proved that foreign policy may be the best way to frame American history entire, in a single volume.
The poetically titled “Baghdad at Sunrise: A Brigade Commander’s War in Iraq” takes discussion of foreign policy down to the nitty-gritty of operational reality. Doubly an expert, Colonel Peter Mansoor has previously authored a book on the American infantry in World War II, but in this book the military historian turns on himself. Blurbed by General David Petraeus as well as Thomas Ricks, author of “Fiasco,” Colonel Mansoor’s book promises to be a self-critique of rare honesty and insight, examining the shortcomings of his brigade.
The author of “A Baghdad Journal,” Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad, turned almost prophetically to the Caucasus for her latest book. “The Angel of Grozny” follows a brother and sister orphaned by the Chechen civil war through the streets of Grozny, where they live the violent lives of street urchins. As she did in “The Bookseller of Kabul,” Ms. Seierstad paints a broad canvas around her nominal subjects, focusing finally on Moscow-backed President Ramzan Kadyrov and his peculiar cult of personality.
If events in Georgia open the way to a foreign-policy discussion that looks past the Iraq war, certain polemical books will be of special interest. In his gingerly titled “The Freedom Agenda: Why America Must Spread Democracy (Just Not the Way George Bush Did),” James Traub argues that our global promotion of democracy is a basic American principle at least as old as the invasion of the Philippines. The uncertain compliments of America’s admirer Bernard Henri-Lévy, meanwhile, may gain new clarity in his partly autobiographical “Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism,” which attacks the postcommunist left in Europe, proposing not an end to history but an end to ideologies.
The smooth-flowing waters of the art world may be mildly chilled by “Seven Days in the Art World,” by Sarah Thornton. Her book promises a brisk but thorough tour, visiting a Christie’s auction, a crit session at an art school, and a fair in Basel. Such a book could be very snide, but initial reports call “Seven Days” measured and substantive, a meditation on an alternate religion in which art functions as a kind of unexamined good, a god. In similar roundup fashion, Calvin Tomkins offers an update of Vasari’s classic with “Lives of the Artists,” a collection of profiles written for the New Yorker magazine. Mr. Tomkins’s profiles are always personal and penetrating; he gets closer to Richard Serra or Cindy Sherman than most journalists would dream of.
Specialists, meanwhile, flourish. Nicholas Fox Weber, author of the much-acclaimed biography “Balthus,” now publishes “Le Corbusier: A Life,” telling the story of the widely disliked but supremely influential architect who wanted to tear down Paris and put up housing projects. And Jed Perl, often the scourge of the art world, presents a softer flank in “Antoine’s Alphabet: Watteau and His World.”
Michael Fried could be called the ultimate insider — the theorist who wrote the legendary critique of Minimalism “Art and Objecthood” while still in his 20s. He now champions photography. In “Why Photography Matters as Never Before,” Mr. Fried argues that photography is no longer a ghetto in the art world, but the main event. And is photography nonfiction? That is the question, or one of them.