Our Critic's Tip Sheet on Current Reading: Barack the Scrivener; Opaque Pelosi; Hilary Mantel in History's Kitchen

Andrew Delbanco, the distinguished critic and biographer of Melville, gives Barack Obama two thumbs up in The New Republic (www.tnr.com), explicitly allowing his favorable literary judgment on Mr. Obama’s two books to shade into a political endorsement (“this man—to my ear, at least—is the real deal”). It’s a strange, leapfrogging idea, to think that a politician’s prose opens a window into his heart. “It is hard for any writer,” says Mr. Delbanco, “no matter how selective his memory or guarded his words, to conceal himself in his writing. I suspect (I’ve never met him) that the weaknesses and strengths of Obama’s writing reflect those of his character—a virtuosity that tempts him to be pleased with himself and impatient with others, but also an awareness of human complexity.”

Much as I admire Mr. Delbanco (and Mr. Obama), I wonder whether the critic hasn’t simply found confirmation of an impression formed over the long primary season. Don’t we always suspect that a good writer is pleased with himself, proud of his facility? And doesn’t every truly good memoir reflect an awareness of human complexity? There’s complexity aplenty in Ryan Lizza’s most recent New Yorker dispatch (July 21, $4.50), where he notes that Mr. Obama “launched his [first] book and his first political campaign simultaneously, in the summer of 1995, when he saw his first chance of winning.”

I can’t help thinking about the mass of memoirists who strain to express themselves, to expose on the page a unique identity—and fail.

And then there’s the other extreme. Nancy Pelosi’s Know Your Power: A Message to America’s Daughters (Doubleday, $23.95) is a book seemingly designed to tell the author’s story without revealing any character quirks. It’s impossible to imagine Ms. Pelosi letting us see a crack or flaw in the polished persona of homemaker-turned-dealmaker. The prose is utterly flavorless and predictable, as though every massaged cliché had been vetted by spin doctors and approved by focus groups. The result is opaque, impenetrable. Unless you’re ready to attribute a kind of Stepford Wives blandness to the living, breathing, gavel-wielding speaker of the House, you have to concede that she has, in fact, managed to conceal herself in her writing. (O.K., this may be a function of corporate authorship: Make room for Amy Hill Hearth, whose name appears in tiny print below Mrs. Pelosi’s, and who’s thanked in the acknowledgements for her “craftsmanship.”)

Let’s be grateful, anyway, that Barack Obama favors critic-friendly, readerly prose—I’m looking forward to the presidential memoirs.

 

I’M ALSO LOOKING FORWARD to Hilary Mantel’s new novel, Wolf Hall, which will be published next year by Henry Holt. There’s an excerpt in The New York Review of Books’ “special fiction issue” (www.nybooks.com), and it’s a bit daunting at first, when we’re thrown into a high-pressure confrontation at Lambeth Palace in the spring of 1534 with a cast that includes Thomas Cromwell, Thomas More, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lord Chancellor (it’s A Man for All Seasons without Technicolor and minus those fab costumes). I was impressed by Ms. Mantel’s blunt self-assurance in handling such weighty historical figures, but the thrills come later, in Cromwell’s kitchen, when the newly appointed King’s Secretary confers with his cook. Their conversation is punctuated with a “wet poultry slap”; the cook wipes “pluck from his fingers”—this is historical fiction that doesn’t mind getting its hands dirty.

Our Critic's Tip Sheet on Current Reading: Barack the Scrivener; Opaque Pelosi; Hilary Mantel in History's Kitchen