Brief reviews of "Men We Reaped," "Wilson" and "The Childhood of Jesus"

From staff reportsSeptember 21, 2013 

Nonfiction

Men We Reaped

Jesmyn Ward. Bloomsbury. 272 pages.

Jesmyn Ward’s heart-wrenching new memoir, “Men We Reaped,” is a brilliant book about beauty and death. The beauty is in the bodies and the voices of the young men she grew up with in the towns of coastal Mississippi, where a kind of de facto segregation persists.

Ward fills almost every page with lyrical descriptions of the people and the land, much as she did with her 2011 novel, “Salvage the Bones,” which won the National Book Award. “Men We Reaped” is at once a coming-of-age story and a kind of mourning song as Ward describes her upbringing in a poor Mississippi family and the violent, early deaths of five young men who were close to her, including younger brother Joshua.

One by one, the young men die. Car accidents, a suicide, a drug overdose, a murder. It’s a painfully tragic story, but also one of community and familial strength. In the end, “Men We Reaped” tells the story of Ward’s own salvation thanks to her mother’s grit and sacrifice, her love for the people around her – and the power of literature to liberate the soul.

Hector Tobar, Los Angeles Times

Wilson

A. Scott Berg. Putnam. 832 pages.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author A. Scott Berg has returned to bookshelves with a work of spectacular artistry and objective workmanship in drafting perhaps the most intimate portrait of Woodrow Wilson, the college history professor who made his own mark on history.

Berg draws on unique sources left behind by the president’s doctor and daughter in “Wilson,” which should be required reading for any course of study that examines American history after 1865.

Few presidents carry a larger legacy than the 28th, who set precedents in dealing with domestic, international and constitutional crises – including presidential succession issues and government-sponsored surveillance programs – during two terms, beginning in 1913.

As Berg illustrates so well, no chief executive, perhaps other than the liberal lions FDR and LBJ, can boast such progressive domestic reforms as those Wilson introduced to American life, including a dramatic lowering of tariffs that mostly harmed consumers.

John Henry, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Fiction

The Childhood of Jesus

J.M. Coetzee. Viking. 278 pages.

For all that “The Childhood of Jesus” is compelling – eerie, tautly written – it ultimately falls prey to the emptiness it describes. Partly, this has to do with its meandering quality; in a land without history, even those who seek not to forget must lose sight of the past. But even more, the issue is the distance in Coetzee’s writing, the feeling that his characters are less living flesh-and-blood than signifiers of some idea.

When his novels are working (as in “The Life and Times of Michael K.” or the magnificent “Waiting for the Barbarians”), Coetzee’s ideas are big enough to seize us, to give us a new set of lenses on the world. With “The Childhood of Jesus,” however, the allegory never extends beyond itself, beyond the image of a small group of wanderers, adrift in an uncharted universe, “(l)ooking for somewhere to stay.”

David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times

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