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Hillary Clinton, Michiko Kakutani, and How Not to Write a Book Review

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The New York Times's Michiko Kakutani has the difficult task of reviewing high-profile new books and doing so at lightning speed. The editors of the Times's daily book review, which appears Monday-Friday and is separate from the Sunday stand-alone section, always turns to her for the hot memoirs and political books that garner large amounts of media coverage. Kakutani's reviews of these works always manage to provide a good deal of information, although they don't generally have much to offer from a critical standpoint. In Sunday's Times, Kakutani has a review of Hillary Clinton's new memoir, Hard Choices. While the piece offers the reader absolutely no information about the book's virtues or its author, it does provide a good lesson in how not to write a review.

Here is Kakutani's second paragraph:

The book itself, however, turns out to be a subtle, finely calibrated work that provides a portrait of the former secretary of state and former first lady as a heavy-duty policy wonk....There is little news in the book. And unlike former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates’s rawly candid memoir “Duty,” this volume is very much the work of someone who is keeping all her political options open.

You might notice that the second half of the paragraph nearly contradicts the first half. How many "subtle, finely calibrated" works about politics and government reflect the mindset of someone who doesn't want to say anything controversial? Regardless, if Kakutani is going to make claims for the book's merits, she must follow through on her generic praise, and offer some sense of what is valuable in the book, or at least some sense of what she enjoyed about it. Instead, Kakutani merely offers more generalizations: 

Though she does not possess the genial explanatory gifts of her husband (showcased in his 2011 book about the economy, “Back to Work”), she provides the lay reader — and potential voter — with succinct and often shrewd appraisals of the complex web of political, economic and historical forces in play around the world, and the difficulties American leaders face in balancing strategic concerns with “core values.” 

This is how Kakutani follows up the claim: 

Controversial subjects like drone warfare and the data collection programs of the National Security Agency get only cursory, talking-points treatment. Beltway readers will not learn much new here about matters like the Obama administration’s handling of the war in Afghanistan or its counterterrorism policies.

Exciting stuff. Occasionally she does provide actual quotes from the book, but they are all clichéd and dull: 

--She “got it wrong,” she writes of that [Iraq] vote. “Plain and simple.” 

--“I will not be a part of a political slugfest on the backs of dead Americans,” 

--She takes a hard line on Mr. Putin, writing that “hard men present hard choices” and “strength and resolve were the only language” that the Russian leader understood.

--“No one likes to lose a debate, including me. But this was the President’s call and I respected his deliberations and decision.”

Kakutani's review ends lamely: "Of her own plans — to run or not to run for president — Mrs. Clinton writes that she has not decided yet. It’s 'another hard choice' coming up." Kakutani doesn't even bother to tell us whether this tired language is Clinton's phrasing or her own attempt at humor, and yet it hardly seems to matter.

Beyond its dullness and lack of critical energy, the book is notable for providing the perfect example of what is wrong with the way that the Times approaches hot books. Since the Times frequently runs news stories about such books, which they often obtain before anyone else in the media does, it seems odd that they then devote energy to reviewing them in the format of a news story. Indeed, Amy Chozick's report on the book from several days back is essentially the same as Kakutani's piece, without the positive spin.

I doubt Kakutani wrote this review because she has deep loyalty to Hillary Clinton. (Her review of Clinton's Living History was brutal.) But this isn't a book "review"; it's a press release. The Times should find a different way to cover blockbuster books.