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June 18, 2021

George Ernsberger
Posted 6/18/21

Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal by George S. Packer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). If you took my urgent advice just a few weeks ago and read Louis Menand’s great short history of …

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June 18, 2021

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Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal by George S. Packer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). If you took my urgent advice just a few weeks ago and read Louis Menand’s great short history of the cold war, The Free World, you’re probably ready for this equally clear, intelligent and intelligible history of the present (let’s call it). Packer is similarly sound, skeptical well clear of cynicism, and hopeful short of sentimentality, about America and Americans in the world. There are ways of stepping aside from sentimentality in favor of acceptance of imperfection (another word for reality)—ways that aren’t either cynical or defeatist; and let’s keep in mind that honest understanding has to come before we can make anything better. Just blink, and take a breath; it’s actually freeing, even exhilarating.

The Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter by Kai Bird (Crown). Yes, it’s centrist week for the column. I remember Carter’s presidency with more admiration than most, and this smart, cool, deep-running account complicated my memory of it; it will yours, too, maybe even more if yours is the prevailing one, of White House flop. He was and remains a person of substance and integrity (that’s not much under dispute, of course), but also of considerable wit and originality and certainly of toughness. And then, of course, after the most recent single-term presidency, simple integrity and consistency have come to seem something like a Heavenly gift, rather than just the basic qualities required to attract votes. This is the first of Kai Bird’s multi-award-winning biographies that I’ve read, and I won’t overlook another.

Hairpin Bridge by Taylor Adams (Morrow). There are certainly thriller elements, here, and in fact stretches of this book all but grip your wrists, but its deepest pleasures come from the mystery, the masterfully controlled revelations of what really happened at and off that bridge as the sister of the woman who died in that plunge uncovers them. That sister is a fully realized character, and getting to know her puts us in intimate touch with the victim, too—and, as really good fiction can (let’s recall)—with ourselves, too.

The Godmothers by Camille Aubray (Harper). As recently as a few years ago, there were detectable remnants of a very old Italian neighborhood at the downtown edge of Greenwich Village. This rich, warm historical novel is set there, during World War II, when the heads of local families—um, you know, actual domestic family groups? we’re not working with stereotypes, here—were called away to war, and women came to take charge, of businesses and families, too. Many of us, now, will find this a bit exotic at first, but this is very American stuff, and as a reading experience, immersive and enveloping.

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