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Jean Edward Smith's "Grant" and John Sandford's "Chosen Prey"

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With Malice toward None — Except the Really Bad Guys

Why should a Richmonder read a biography of Ualysses Grant? Because history is a prison, and the only way out of the prison is to learn from it.

In "Grant" by Jean Edward Smith (Simon & Schuster, $35), the author's central argument is that history has been too quick to accept the "great general, lousy president" evaluation of Grant.

Grant was a great general. He beat the best. Grant's tactics against Robert E. Lee were simple and straight-minded: engage, engage, engage. Grant absorbed tremendous casualties. But he inflicted worse on the Army of Northern Virginia.

In victory Grant proved his greatness. Grant was an honorable man, and he recognized honor in others. When President Johnson insisted that Lee be tried for treason, Grant threatened to resign, protecting his fallen enemy.

Yet when Grant became president, he showed he also recognized an enemy who was still in the field. Grant broke the power of the Ku Klux Klan in the South and protected the rights of black citizens.

Economic scandals brought down the reputation of Grant's presidency. Grant himself was always beyond suspicion. Smith relies heavily on the old argument that Grant was simply too honest, too trusting, perhaps a little too good for this world. Perhaps, but it sometimes seems that the man really wasn't all that clever.

Still, a discussion of how clever Grant was and whether or not he was a good president misses the point of the life. Grant was a great man. In life, he hated vindictiveness. In death, he brought the country together: Half of his pallbearers were Northern generals and half were Southern. Maybe that is why we should read this book. — Reyn Kinzey

Preyed Out

Mega-selling crime novelist John Sandford reached an artistic plateau with the eighth book of his Prey series, "Sudden Prey," published in 1996. In it, his too-tough-for-his-own-good protagonist, Lucas Davenport, was practically left at the altar by his fiancée, surgeon Weather Karkinnen. In the three installments since, Davenport — and consequently the series — has been drifting. The 12th book in the series, "Chosen Prey" ($26.95, G. P. Putnam's Sons) continues this drift.

It's not that the book isn't engaging; Sandford's formula of setting Minneapolis Deputy Chief of Police Davenport on the trail of a twisted serial killer promises that pages will turn, and quickly. But while formulas are de rigueur in this genre, Sandford has reduced his approach to a checklist:

Maniacal serial killer? Check: Art professor James Qatar who enhances his domination fantasies by digitally combining pictures of his victims with porn.

Temporary tag-along for Davenport? Check: Terry Marshall, a small-town sheriff from Wisconsin who is tough but troubled, thanks to the death of his niece at the hands of Qatar.

Major personal issue for Davenport to tackle? Check: His back-again girlfriend Karkinnen wants to have a baby.

Political complication? Check: The mayor says he will not run in the next election meaning that Davenport, who is a political appointee, will probably be out of a job soon.

After establishing this outline, Sandford dutifully fills in the details but without any flair or originality. Even the author seems to realize the rut he's gotten himself into. With "Chosen Prey," he lays the groundwork for big changes, both professionally and personally, in the near future for his main character.

Given the level of foreshadowing in this installment, and the only so-so quality of its story, most readers would be better off skipping this book and waiting for the next one in the series. Then we can see if Sandford can shake things up enough to make this stale series fresh again.

— D.L. Hintz


Anne Tyler's new book "Back When We Were Grownups," (Knopf, $25) begins, "Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person." And, if you are a Tyler fan, you are off, once again marveling at how intuitive this author is, and how well she can take a character that at first glance would seem ordinary and show you the subtleties beneath appearance. True, she sometimes descends into cuteness, but, on balance, she is fun to read and she has something to say. — Rozanne Epps

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