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October 10, 2004

Some Folks Are Born Made to Wave the Flag

by Ron Hogan

Here's another thing the new NYTBR gets fairly right: Ted Widmer's take on Kitty Kelley's The Family. The causal reflection that "beyond catty, [Kelley] is leonine, pawing her helpless subjects as if they were so many Siegfrieds and Roys," might cross the boundaries of good taste, but all in all this two-pager does a good job of putting things in perspective...except that Widmer is so busy comparing her multigenerational exposé to The Thorn Birds and The Sopranos, describing W. as "searching for his destiny like a Larry McMurtry character," that he forgets to compare the book to other Bush biographies and family histories. That's right, no mention of, among other possibilities, Kevin Phillip's American Dynasty or the late J. H. Hatfield's Fortunate Son (almost always referred to as "discredited" but still available for those who'd like to judge for themselves). As I've said before, I don't hold an automatic beef against the idea of book reviews as "news about the culture," but if you're going to report the news, you gotta dig for the story and deliver the context. The idea of treating Nora Roberts with the same level of critical respect as political books wasn't, I assume, supposed to result in a downgrade in coverage on the latter category. The problems aren't dire--as I say, Widmer does do a good job of taking Kelley's content seriously on its own. It's just that the book wasn't written in a political vacuum, and its position in that context needs further addressing.

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