Here are condensed versions of this week's book reviews:
"The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan" by Rick Perlstein; Simon & Schuster (856 pages, $37.50)
Richard Nixon's comeback in '68 and big win in '72 ("Nixonland," 2008).
With "Bridge," Perlstein looks at the punishing decline that quickly followed for Nixon. Vietnam, Watergate, the Arab oil embargo, the Ford pardon and other traumas raised questions about America's greatness.
Meanwhile, there's much to enjoy here. Perlstein begins with what he calls "this opera's overture," Operation Homecoming, a sad melange of public relations and patriotism that had returning POWs serve one last time as distractions from the Vietnam debacle. Then it's on to a thorough review of Watergate and an extraordinary dissection of the presidential campaigns leading up to and through the Republican convention in Kansas City, Missouri.
Also extraordinary is the writer's herculean research and the many relevant or just colorful items he uses to fill in the edges and corners and form the frame of this sprawling portrait: the orgasm and Gay Talese; the surge in meat prices and "Soylent Green"; the Yom Kippur War and the Saturday Night Massacre; "M(ASTERISK)A(ASTERISK)S(ASTERISK)H" and WIN (Whip Inflation Now); or this from a Jesse Helms letter to former Goldwater supporters: "Your taxes are being used to pay for grade school courses that teach children that cannibalism, wife swapping, and the murder of infants and the elderly are acceptable behavior."
Percolating through the narrative is a biography of Reagan, from Depression boyhood to football aspirations at Eureka College; B movies and unionizing in Hollywood; honing his oratory as a flack for General Electric; and then his tenure as governor of California, battling campus militants and cheerleading for small government. Soon the Ronald is a national phenom.
Historians and academics may dispute Perlstein's analysis. Conservatives may shriek over his undisguisedly liberal bent. Honest readers of all stripes will concede that he tells a great tale, in every sense.
Jeffrey Burke, Newsday
"In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette" by Hampton Sides; Doubleday (480 pages, $28.95)
"In the Kingdom of Ice" tells the story of an almost entirely forgotten episode that unfolded at the very end of the Age of Exploration. Three centuries after Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci lent his name to a mysterious land mass in the Western Hemisphere, the United States of America sent off its own expedition to one of the last corners of the globe as yet unknown to man: the North Pole.
The men of the Jeannette hope for glory and fame. Instead, they discover an ice-bound Heart of Darkness. They find that some of the most isolated parts of the globe have been degraded by man; and that untamed nature can bring out the worst and best in people.
It's 1879 and there are no satellites to warn the men of unseen hazards, or freaky turns in the weather. The men might go to sleep sailing on an open ocean and find it completely frozen over the next morning.
Before the true adventure begins, however, Sides spends 15 chapters setting the stage for the expedition.
It's when the USS Jeannette finally sets sail from San Francisco that Sides' book comes most fully to life as a pulse-racing epic of endurance set against an exceedingly bizarre Arctic backdrop.
In the Arctic Sea itself, the men search for a legendary place called Wrangle Land. It's been seen by local whalers but only as a shadow on the horizon. Wrangle might be an island, or the tip of a northern continent that reaches toward the pole itself. DeLong sails toward it and promptly gets stuck in the ice. He had expected to be ice-bound, but not a mere two months into his journey.
Sides' descriptions of the physical challenges the men face and the eerie landscape that surrounds them are masterful. As DeLong and his crew attempt to save themselves, the story grows in suspense and psychological complexity.
More strange and fantastic turns follow, involving uncharted and uninhabited lands, and it pains me that I cannot describe them without spoiling the pleasure of those who have not yet read "In the Kingdom of Ice." Sides' book is a masterful work of history and storytelling, and it rewards patient readers with scenes of human strength and frailty they will long remember.
Hector Tobar, Los Angeles Times