A review of The White House Mess, by Christopher Buckley
@@@ (3 out of 5)
Christopher Buckley is a very funny man. I know this not just because I’ve read a few of his books, which generally “kept me in stitches” (whatever that means), but also because I actually spent much of an evening with him a few weeks ago. He’d come to Berkeley to do a “reading” from his newest book, They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?, and somehow I’d been invited to introduce him to the audience of about 150 people who were there to hear him. I managed to coax out two or maybe three laughs during my introduction and the questions I later posed. He elicited — oh, maybe 600. Because this was no “reading.” Like the consummate pro he is, he didn’t actually read from the book. He simply talked extemporaneously and, later, answered questions from the audience. The man is an accomplished stand-up comedian.
The White House Mess was written and published during the Reagan Administration, after (or perhaps during) Buckley’s turn as chief speechwriter for Vice President George H. W. Bush. The book masquerades as a White House memoir — a send-up of life inside the White House that focuses on the travails of the First Famly and on the high stakes feuds among their staff. The plot revolves around an old-fashioned Marxist-Leninist coup in Bermuda, the First Son’s missing hamster, a young First Lady who aches to become a Hollywood star again, a parody of a weak-kneed and wholly unsuited Democratic President, and a collection of snobs, misfits, and alcoholics who, somehow, manage to hold down jobs in the White House. Oh, and by the way: the title refers to the dining facilities, which are called the “mess” because they’re run by the Navy.
If the foregoing paragraph hints that The White House Mess is a parody of Democratic politics, consider that hint confirmed here. Buckley, son of William F. Buckley, Jr., of National Review fame, is indeed a Republican (even though he endorsed Barack Obama in 2008).They Eat Puppies, Buckley’s latest novel, was hysterically funny. (You can read my review of it here.) The White House Mess was his first. The fact that I did NOT find it hysterically funny but only occasionally so is no doubt the result of Buckley’s writing having matured as a writer from 1986, when Mess was published, to 2012, when Puppies saw the light of day. It’s also true, of course, that the latest book dealt with fresh material that reflected today’s reality, while the earliest one deals with a time that many readers could view only as ancient history. And, of course, I’m a Democrat.
The best books I’ve read so far this year
You have to wait until December to see a list of “best books” in The New York Times Book Review, but right here in this space you can see my list for the first six months of 2012! Of course, it’s a short list, and quite specialized, since there are lots of categories of writing that hold no interest for me. And I don’t limit myself to books that were published after January 1, 2012 (though most were). After all, I’m not The New York Times. But, for what it is, here goes, in no particular order . . . with links to my reviews in this blog.
The Passage of Power, by Robert A. Caro. Volume 4 in The Years of Lyndon Johnson. Robert Caro’s masterful portrait of Lyndon Johnson’s early days as President.
Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power, by David E. Sanger. Barack Obama’s foreign and military policy viewed from the inside.
The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets That Change the World, by John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan. The power of unreasonable people, and how they’re changing the world.
The Self-Made Myth, and the Truth About How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed, by Brian Miller and Mike Lapham. A brilliant contribution to the public debate about politics and the economy.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander. One of the most important books published in English so far this century.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo. A searing look at poverty in India that reads like a novel.
The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World, by Daniel Yergin. Daniel Yergin’s superb new book: a brilliant survey of energy issues.
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann. Astonishing new evidence about the Americas before Columbus.
They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?, by Christopher Buckley. Washington and Beijing get what they deserve in this satirical novel of politics and diplomacy today.
The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi. One of the best science fiction novels I’ve ever read.
The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson. An unsparing tale of life in the living hell of North Korea.
Incendiary, by Chris Cleave. A wrenching portrait of the human cost of terrorism.
The Fear Index, by Robert Harris. A taut thriller about the world of multibillion-dollar hedge funds.
A Theory of Small Earthquakes, by Meredith Maran. A first novel from a brilliant nonfiction writer.
Mysteries and Thrillers
Mission to Paris, by Alan Furst. A truly superior novel of espionage at the dawn of World War II.
The Midnight House, by Alex Berenson. The Pentagon and the CIA take a lot of punishment in this novel of rendition and torture.
Harbor Nocturne, by Joseph Wambaugh. Joseph Wambaugh’s latest paints Los Angeles in many clashing colors.
The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection, by Alexander McCall Smith. An exceptional tale of Botswana’s #1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.
Buried Secrets, by Joseph Finder. A thriller that explores the intersection of high finance and high crime.
The Ghosts of Belfast, by Stuart Neville. A grim story of war and betrayal in Northern Ireland.
The Bridge of Sighs, by Olen Steinhauer. A fully satisfying murder mystery set in post-war Europe.
Breakdown, by Sara Paretsky. Sara Paretsky’s latest detective story hits home.
Believing the Lie, by Elizabeth George. Elizabeth George’s latest Inspector Lynley novel, unpredictable as always.
The Silent Oligarch, by Chris Morgan Jones. A refreshingly original new thriller that explores international intrigue with minimal violence.
Agent 6, by Tom Rob Smith. A superb suspense novel set in the USSR, Afghanistan, and the U.S.
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