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Books

What the critics liked

Richard Nixon was the most ill-at-ease of American presidents, says Craig Brown in the Mail on Sunday. “Full of resentments, and prone to anxiety and depression”, he was known at university as “Gloomy Gus”. He chose his friends for their willingness to listen to his “endless beefs against his enemies, both real and imagined”. In King Richard: Nixon and Watergate, an American Tragedy (Scribe £18.99), Michael Dobbs describes the 37th president as an “unfathomable mixture of idealism and cynicism, greatness and pettiness”.

Nixon’s installation of secret microphones around the White House in 1971 – all linked to tape recorders in the “wonderfully sinister” Room 175½ – was in part due to his jealousy of his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger. Nixon intended to use the transcripts for his memoirs to establish that it was he, “not boastful upstarts like Kissinger”, who had been responsible for “all the most successful initiatives” of his presidency.

What had been intended to “prove his greatness” – and there were 3,700 hours of tapes by the time he left office – instead served as “incontrovertible evidence” that he had been in charge of “the most infamous criminal cover-up in history”.

Dobbs tells the tale of the break-in at Washington’s Watergate building in June 1972 and its “monumental consequences” with “sparkling clarity”. Caught red-handed by the police, the five infiltrators were quickly linked to the White House – and to G Gordon Liddy, who had been employed to stop White House leaks to the media (a sign on his office door initially read “The Plumbers”).

Nixon needed to keep the burglars quiet. “You could get a million dollars,” he told his lawyer, John Dean, in the Oval Office. “I know where it could be gotten.” And all the while, in Room 175½, “the tapes were busily whirring away”.

Aficionados of Watergate will not find anything new in Dobbs’s account, says Daniel Finkelstein in The Times. It is, however, still “an absorbing book”, and the story is “riveting”. Burglars were paid with banknotes from Nixon’s re-election campaign, which were left in “airport lockers, telephone booths and hotel lobbies”. Nixon himself lunched every day on a pineapple ring with a scoop of cottage cheese in the centre, accompanied by a glass of milk, as he “tried to deal with the issues that would bring an end to his presidency”. He also had to “carry on being president”. As he was considering dismissing his closest advisers, he first needed “to entertain the Italian prime minister” and later hold a dinner for “110 guests and Frank Sinatra”.

Towards the self-pitying figures in this book, Dobbs is empathetic, says Jennifer Szalai in The New York Times, “but he isn’t sentimental”. As for the automatic taping system, “which didn’t have an on-and-off switch”, it seemed to “take on a life of its own”. It went from being “a harmless fly on the wall” to becoming a witness to the president’s “dreams and nightmares”, turning into the “monster that Nixon could neither slay nor tame”.

Frantic school runs, tedious Christmas concerts and dreaded birthday parties: there is plenty of humour to be found in the lives of middle-class parents, says Lucy Knight in The Sunday Times, “as the popular sitcom Motherland has shown”. Cathy Rentzenbrink’s first novel, Everyone Is Still Alive (Phoenix £14.99), “treads similar ground”, sharing the same west London setting as the TV show and containing its “own clique of alpha mums” who frequent the local coffee shop. And irreverent lines such as “Just make him eat the f***ing hummus” could be “taken directly from Motherland’s script”.

Juliet, a high-powered PR, moves to west London with her family after her mother dies and leaves them her house. Juliet’s husband, Liam, a struggling author, thinks it’s not the sort of place “a hip young writer should live”. But when he meets the mums on the school run and joins them for gossipy mornings in the coffee shop, he decides they will provide the perfect fodder for his next book.

Everyone Is Still Alive is warm-hearted and perceptive, says Siobhan Murphy in The Times. And when disaster “inevitably strikes”, Rentzenbrink’s characters reveal “more complexity than you first assumed, and you can’t help rooting for them all”.

Available as an audiobook on Kobo