Saturday, May 21, 2005

Two Great Writers, John Balzar At L.A. Times And Michiko Kakutani At N.Y. Times

Some newspaper writers are always good, and we see that in the work of John Balzar at the Los Angeles Times and Pulitzer Prize-winning senior book reviewer Michiko Kakutani at the New York Times.

Balzar's long article on the latest about Jerry Brown, former governor of California and now mayor of Oakland, just about to get married for the first time, reminds us what a fine political writer and columnist Balzar used to be in other L.A. Times incarnations. He certainly never loses his touch.

I cannot forget that on the eve of the Iraqi war, more than two years ago, Balzar, then a columnist on the editorial pages, said that if it were up to him, he would give going into Iraq second thoughts, that even as a former U.S. Marine, he felt hesitant about plunging into the war. My own support for the war looks now as if it may have been over enthusiastic, to say the least. His caution seems fully justified by the events that have followed, although that does not mean, probably, that we can afford to bail out now.

In 1999, Balzar's book, "Yukon Alone, The World's Toughest Adventure Race," got fine reviews. His outdoor work, in Alaska, the Yukon and the Great Northwest, is as distinguished as his foreign and political writing.

Balzar who was a thoughtful columnist and just as thoughtful a correspondent for the Times in East Africa, is now writing in the Calendar section, and has unfortunately been replaced on the Times editorial pages by Michael Kinsley and others who do not write either as well or as intelligently.

But when he writes, Balzar, regardless where he is in the newspaper, is worth reading. His article May 18 on Jerry Brown was up to his usual high standard.

It is a tribute to Brown in a way that 37 years after he began his political career, he remains interesting. Now, he is planning to run next year for state attorney general. At the age of 67, he maintains his grip, and his marriage to fellow lawyer Anne Gust June 18 at the Oakland City Hall, with U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein presiding, will be, I'm sure, a heart warming event.

Balzar has captured it all, and he seems to have been around almost as long as Brown, enlightening us all. In fact, Balzar may have a more consistently enlightening record than Brown, who did not win the nickname of Gov. Moonbeam for nothing.

By happenstance, two of Kakutani's recent reviews have been on books written by L.A. Times writers, Terry McDermott and Azadeh Moaveni. McDermott's book, "Perfect Soldiers: The Hijackers, Who They Were, Why They did It," is on those who pulled off 9-11 and Moaveni 's book, "Lipstick Jihad, A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America and American In Iran," reflects back on her work for the LAT in Iran.

Another recent review by Kakutani, who has been reviewing for the NYT since 1983 and won her Pulitzer in 1998, was on the latest potboiler about the life of Frank Sinatra, "Sinatra: The Life," by Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan.

Nobody can be more appropriately dismissive and even scathing, when she wants to be, than Kakutani. Her front page NYT review of Bill Clinton's memoirs put that vastly overrated President in the place he deserved for writing a disappointingly shallow book, and her review of the Sinatra book points out how the authors manage to ignore Sinatra's great singing and wonderful voice while exploiting and sensationalizing all the embarrassing things that happened in his life. There is a no-nonsense quality to Kakutani's reviewing which we don't often see in such a fundamentally intellectual pursuit. Very heartening.

But Kakutani also can be highly encouraging and wonderful to aspiring authors like McDermott and Moaveni, who really have something worthwhile to say. Her review on their books will, I'm sure, increase their sales.

As far as Moaveni is concerned, "Lipstick Jihad" seems to have given her more of a chance than her coverage of Iran in the L.A. Times to capture that country in all its contradictions and cultural diversity. I hope her career at the Times is not over. Kakutani calls her book "compelling."

Kakutani, 50, daughter of an eminent late Yale professor, will, I'm sure be enlightening us for many years to come. She's the best reviewer in the business these days.


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