Here are condensed versions of this week's book reviews:
"The Invisible Bridge" by Rick Perlstein; Simon & Schuster (860 pages, $37.50)
White House cover-ups. CIA spying on everyday Americans. A yearning for a brighter, better future.
Perlstein's exhaustive retelling of this period's history is also exhausting. In short, you have to really, really want to know about Watergate and the 1976 presidential race to cross the finish line at page 804. His last chapter is titled "The End?" In my head, I changed that "?" to a "!"
Some of the most fascinating passages come early in the book when Perlstein puts young "Dutch" Reagan on the couch and analyzes how, through an act of will, he convinced himself that his unsettled childhood was wonderful. From the age of 11 or so onward, all his stories had happy endings.
Perlstein contends that politician Reagan came along when the nation yearned for a hero, a figure who sat high in the saddle and made us feel good about ourselves. He was the cleansing breath a rattled nation needed to emerge from the chaos of Nixon, the bumbling of Gerald Ford and the ineffectuality of Jimmy Carter.
It's an intriguing argument, and Perlstein makes it credibly. But that story line seems almost an excuse for the recap of a tumultuous decade.
I welcomed the reminders of the many jaw-dropping details of the lies Nixon told as he tried to squirm away as well as the dirty tricks engineered from the Oval Office. Then came those Senate hearings chaired by then-little-known, folksy U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin (D-N.C.) with "bushy eyebrows as tangled as a line of Arabic script."
And good grief, what a day that was when White House nobody Alexander Butterfield revealed that in 1971 Nixon had a recording system installed to preserve for history his every word uttered in the Oval Office and in his executive hidey-hole. All the stuff he claimed he didn't know and didn't do? Well, gotcha!
Throughout it all, I'd forgotten until I read the book, Reagan was a deluded, stalwart Nixon defender. Nothing could shake his view that Washington still was that "shining city on a hill" and the events of Watergate were huh? "not criminal, just illegal." Cue the Marine band and "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Ellen Warren, Chicago Tribune
"Hope for Film: From the Frontlines of the Independent Cinema Revolutions" by Ted Hope with Anthony Kaufman; Soft Skull (296 pages, $25)
Ted Hope's new book "Hope for Film" is part memoir, part manual, part manifesto as it traces his long career in independent filmmaking, mostly and most notably as a producer but more recently with a brief excursion into the nonprofit world and then onto the evolving interface of technology, creation and distribution.
Along the way, the book, written with Anthony Kaufman, covers Hope's work with a wide range of filmmakers, many at the beginnings of their careers, including Hal Hartley, Ang Lee, Ed Burns, Todd Solondz and Todd Field. Hope recalls adventures with filmmakers Nicole Holofcener and Tamara Jenkins, while repeatedly noting the ongoing need for more women in the directing ranks and the difficulties faced by even the most acclaimed female filmmakers.
The book is full of behind-the-scenes anecdotes that mix grit, gumption and charm. In one of the book's best chapters, Hope captures the ways the personal and professional intertwined in his career while recalling the production of Jenkins' 2007 film, "The Savages," which received two Academy Award nominations. Jenkins and Hope had dated for a time before working together, and throughout the process of making the film he second guesses her motives and his own. In a rather uproarious digression, Hope describes attending Jenkins' wedding to writer and producer Jim Taylor, where he ends up accidentally spilling wine on another of Jenkins' exes. The book could, in all honesty, have used more moments like that.
More than that, this seems like a lost opportunity to discuss the shifting landscape of the film industry, how those projects functioned in relation to the current environment and the changing role of a producer like himself.
Hope's story is ultimately one of renewal, because he argues that there will always be a need for cinematic storytelling, even as the definitions of those terms change.
Mark Olsen, Los Angeles Times
"What We See When We Read" by Peter Mendelsund; Vintage Original (448 pages, $16.95)