Our Critic’s Tip Sheet on Current Reading: Obama’s Inaugural Stealth; Guantánamo by Foot; the Sad Truth About Benjamin Button

Jonathan Raban, a British novelist and travel writer surveying the political landscape of the United States from his adopted home of Seattle, wrote some of the sharpest commentary on the presidential election. He continues his run of excellent essays with a canny reading of President Obama’s Inaugural Address in the Jan. 24 Guardian. He argues, convincingly, that “Obama was able to get away with murder.”

To get to the analysis of the speech, skip Mr. Raban’s rather long warm-up (an overview, aimed at British readers, of inaugurations past, followed by a brief introduction to Jon Favreau, Mr. Obama’s 27-year-old chief speechwriter); proceed directly to the paragraph in which he declares that many of Mr. Obama’s phrases “had the dull patina of silver that has jingled in dead presidents’ pockets.” In the next paragraph Mr. Raban refers to “somewhat moth-eaten metaphors”—and for a moment it looks like a harsh review.

And then comes the twist:

“What needed to be said had to be phrased in language as well-worn and conventional as possible, to give the illusion of smooth continuity”—even as Mr. Obama, in a notable deviation from precedent, categorically rejected “the political philosophy and legislative record of the previous occupant of the White House.”

Mr. Raban believes that Mr. Obama’s address—couched in “familiar and emollient language”—“is as near as George W. Bush has come to being impeached.”

In other words, the moth-eaten metaphors were just a ploy—and Mr. Raban’s review is a rave.


WE’RE ALL LOOKING FORWARD to the day when we can contemplate Cuba without wincing at the thought of Camp Delta. When that day comes—less than a year from now, with any luck—the title of Richard Fleming’s delightful travel book, Walking to Guantánamo (Commons, $27), will lose its inapt political overtones.

Mr. Fleming, a New Yorker in his late 30s who feared he was on the brink of a nasty midlife crisis, set out to walk from one end of Cuba to the other, west to east, a plan he nursed for five years before actually taking the first step. An integral part of the plan, of course was to write a book about his adventures.

Charmingly candid and laid back, resolutely friendly with the Cubans he encounters and always ready to complain to the reader about blisters and bad knees and other aches and pains, Mr. Fleming is refreshingly post-ideological—he has no agenda other than the urge to scratch the itch of his curiosity.

Walking to Guantánamo offers a view of the island entirely free from the “political venom” that poisons perspectives on both sides of the Straits of Florida. You won’t be perhaps surprised to hear that Mr. Fleming experiences a “gradual, almost osmotic, personal disillusionment with Castro’s politics”—but that’s in effect irrelevant to his eyewitness report on the daily life of a neighboring nation that’s fabulously foreign.


NOW THAT THE ACADEMY of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has ratified Rex Reed’s judgment and guaranteed that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button will be remembered as a good or even great movie, we can disclose the sad secret behind its success: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story, from Tales of the Jazz Age (Juniper Grove, $11.99), is slapdash and unfunny, at once clunky and utterly insubstantial. It’s all premise—there’s no plot and no characterization, and even the prose is lackluster. In other words, the director, David Fincher, and the writers, Eric Roth and Robin Swicord, took from Fitzgerald only an idea (which Fitzgerald had filched, in turn, from Mark Twain) and a pleasantly alliterative title; unburdened, they let imagination roam free.

Consider the compound ironies: Fitzgerald hated Hollywood (“Isn’t Hollywood a dump—in the human sense of the word?” he asked). His West Coast stint, from 1936 up to his death in 1940, was mostly miserable, and a good deal of the misery was inflicted by a studio (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer). I can’t help thinking that his failure as a screenwriter played a part in his rapid decline over those four years. And the flip side: The movie industry has never made a decent film out of any of his books—until now. Success at last … with one of his weaker stories.

Our Critic’s Tip Sheet on Current Reading: Obama’s Inaugural Stealth; Guantánamo by Foot; the Sad Truth About Benjamin Button