Kirkus Reviews: Albright reflects on world after secretary of state term

Kirkus Reviews

Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright reflects on the world that has emerged since she left office in 2001 in “Hell and Other Destinations.”

Following her previous memoir, “Madam Secretary,” and particularly the self-explanatory “Fascism: A Warning” (2018), Albright begins by confessing that the end of her tenure as secretary of state found her “a little overcooked.” She was worn out, frazzled and out of shape from too little home cooking and not enough exercise. Yet, she allows, she didn’t want to retire, so, after ceding her post to Colin Powell, she examined her options: write a memoir, hit the lecture circuit, teach, establish “a small consulting firm, run primarily by women.” Never one to be pinned down to one thing, she did pretty much all of them. She founded that firm, which had a hard take on its mission: Do good, and “whatever the cost to our bottom line, we didn’t want our children to think of us as creeps.” Therefore, no lobbying for big tobacco or the gun lobby, and by her account, Albright and colleagues steered big pharma into a few beneficial measures. The lecture circuit was a touch less satisfying, as was “the endurance test known as a book tour.” But postgame diplomatic analysis turns out to be her thing, always from the perspective of one who understands that diplomacy is the art of persuading “each side to settle for part of what it wants rather than prolong a squabble by demanding all.” Naturally, she despairs at the Trumpian approach, to say nothing of the man himself (“It was one thing to crave change; quite another to choose Donald Trump to define it”). And is he a fascist? Maybe not by dictionary definition, though not for want of trying — and in any event, Albright concludes, “he has the most antidemocratic instincts of any president in modern American history.”

Dishy, as policy-wonkish memoirs go, and a pleasure for readers interested in the art of negotiation.

’The End of October’

In Lawrence Wright’s latest, as a lethal virus of unknown origin ravages huge swaths of the planet, legendary American disease fighter Henry Parsons heads up increasingly hopeless attempts to control.

The easily transmitted disease, which literally turns its victims blue, is first detected in a refugee camp in Indonesia, "hothouse of diseases." Sent there by the World Health Organization, Parsons quickly recognizes the dangers at hand but not quickly enough to prevent his infected local driver from leaving the camp to join some 3 million worshipers on the annual hajj. When attempts at quarantines in Mecca fail and the infected pilgrims return home, they carry the disease all over the globe. In light of the relatively few disease-related deaths in Russia, suspicions arise that the virus was bioengineered by Putin. The Russian leader, of course, blames America, where cities and institutions begin crumbling. After blood drips from the eyes of the president midspeech and the vice president is infected, the ill-prepared government is driven into an underground facility in Virginia. (CNN's Anderson Cooper apparently perishes but not Wolf Blitzer, who still commands the Situation Room.) Featuring accounts of past plagues and pandemics, descriptions of pathogens and how they work, and dark notes about global warming, the book produces deep shudders. Wright, author of acclaimed nonfiction such as “The Looming Tower” (2006), about the Sept. 11 attacks, knows his way around geopolitical terror, but he's less successful as a thriller writer, upstaged here by the recent, real-life coronavirus. There is little true suspense in the novel, which sketches in its nightmarish scenarios rather than dramatizing them. Even a suicide bombing has marginal impact. Ultimately, the book gets caught up in family drama, sentimentality and end-of-the-world moralizing. An atheist since his missionary parents were killed in an air crash, Parsons rediscovers religion.

A disturbing, eerily timed novel but no page-turner.

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