Saturday, March 30, 2013

I REMEMBER NOTHING by Nora Ephron (essays)

This is the last book published by the late contemporary writer, Nora Ephron.  Most of the essays in the collection had been previously published in columns she wrote for various journals.  This is a super airport book.  It will afford you excellent company in that interminable terminal; it is light reading and easy to return to after a distraction.  It is especially appealing to middle-aged women and beyond.  Ephron is able to take the mundane in our daily existence and find the absurd.  I found the last two entries, "What I Will Miss" and "What I Won't Miss" particularly moving in the light of Ephron's imminent death.  The book is a poignant memorial to a gifted writer and artist.

THE PASSAGE OF POWER by Robert Caro (non-fic)

"The Passage of Power" is the fourth volume in Robert Caro's masterful life of Lyndon Johnson.  I believe it to be the best of the series, and Robert Caro must rank among the best, if not the best biographer of all time.  The sheer magnitude of his research is mind boggling.
This volume covers the five years in Johnson's life leading up to and following the assassination of President John Kennedy.  We see Johnson as the absolute master of the Senate, wheeling and dealing, a shrewd judge of his colleagues, a giant of a man in appetites and achievements.  Then we see him almost emasculated as a powerless and depressed Vice-President to Kennedy, and finally we see him take the reigns of power, rise to expectations and beyond,  and become one of the most fascinating and complex personalities to occupy the Presidency of the United States. 
Just as Kennedy was a product of his eastern prep-school monied background, an achieving son of an ambitious father; Johnson, in contrast, was a product of his upbringing, the son of a Texan dirt-farmer; poor, proud, and single-minded ambitious, anxious not to repeat the mistakes of his father.
Early on, Johnson focused on the Presidency.  He spent little time in the US House of Representatives.  He knew the Senate would be his stepping stone and worked quickly and diligently to forge the relationships he needed to achieve his ambition.  Johnson's facility for reading people, finding their weaknesses, and feeding their egos, came early and naturally.  He was relentless in going after what he wanted and very few were able to refuse him a favor. No one before or since has been able to do this as well.
Johnson was crude, brilliant and insecure.  In this passage Caro captures him exactly: "Ruthlessness, secretiveness, deceit--significant elements in every previous stage of Lyndon Johnson's life story.  Not always, however, the only elements, not always the only character traits, contradictory though other traits might be.  And sometimes these other elements--the anger at injustice, the sympathy, empathy, identification with the underdog that added up to compassion--had been expressed by this master of the political gesture, in gestures so deeply meaningful, so perfect in their symbolism, that they reached a level for which "mastery" is an inadequate term.
Roy Wilkins, the leader of the NAACP wrote, "Withe Johnson, you never quite knew if he was out to lift your heart or your wallet."
The story of the enmity and rivalry between Johnson and Bobby Kennedy would be fair game for a Shakespeare if we only had one.  Caro's presentation is as close as we will get to understanding it.
We often speak of our current Congress with its polarization and deadlock as hopeless and frustrating.  However, if one looks back on other Congresses, it can be seen that similar situations were not uncommon.  Kennedy was having trouble getting any of his programs enacted in a congress much like ours today.  Looking back, we can see his relationship with his Congress was much like Obama's today.  After Kennedy's death, Johnson's former colleagues were under no illusions at to what was about to descend on them.  In an all-out blitz, Johnson, through threats, wheedling, and alternately bullying and charming, was able to push through the 1964 Civil Rights Act, The Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, and social programs like Head Start (which gave me a summer job when a college student). 
It is impossible in a review to adequately reflect the richness of this book.  Though long, it is a mesmerizing study of a powerful, yet flawed leader.  I give it my highest recommendation as a window on a bygone era and a group of skillful politicians (Harry Byrd, Sam Rayburn, Tip O'Neill) the likes of whom we may never see again.  To all interested in history or the gateway to a rich discussion in a book group, do not miss this read.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

THE RIGHT-HAND SHORE by Christopher Tilghman (fic)

Christopher Tilghman has written a novel about a stately manor of vast acreage built in 1657 by the ancestors of the Bayly family on the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay.  It is actually the second novel Tilghman has written about this estate, but this story takes place before his previous novel, "Mason's Retreat." 
The story opens post-civil war and continues until the turn of the century.  It is a story of the consequences of building an empire upon slavery and the breakdown of an aristiocratic family, its members fleeing the dead end the Mason House plantation had become. 
When we enter the story, we learn the last of the slaves were sold off as the civil war was coming to an end.  Ophelia, the heiress married a Union man from Baltimore, as if the remove the stain of the family's support of the Confederacy.  Ophelia plays a small role in the story; she soon abandons the property to her husband and escapes with her daughter Mary to France and then Baltimore.
For a while the plantation was successful growing peaches, until blight ruins the orchard and changes the direction of the story.  While all this is playing out, the reader becomes engrossed in the stories of both the black and white workers on the farm.  Their relationships, especially the romance between Thomas the heir, Randell Terrell his best friend and Randell's sister, Beal, move the plot along to its poignant end.  It seems all the main characters in the novel are searching for their own ways of escaping the vaguely sinister atmosphere of the manor.
Mary Bayly returns to the manor as a grown woman and is the only family member interested in bringing back the glory days of the property.  She does this by turning it into a modern dairy with the latest equipment.  It becomes a model for organic farming in the early years of the 20th century.  As soon as Mary returns, her story becomes entwined with that of Thomas and Beal.  We view much of the story through the eyes of the faithful estate manager as we and he watch the decline, rise and denouement of the stately Bayly homestead.
Tilghman writes beautifully and keeps his readers interested in the history of the Chesapeake peninsula and the drama of the Bayly family.  I recommend this book as a good read which may prompt you to find his previous book to discover what happens to Mason's Retreat in the 20th century.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

A PERSON OF INTEREST by Susan Choi (fic)

A man we know only as Lee is a professor of computer science at a small mid-west college, perhaps in Iowa.  The novel opens as a bomb explodes in the office next to Lee's, killing a colleague, Handley.  As the story moves on, we get to know Lee very well; we are privy to his innermost thoughts.  He is not a very likable man.  (If we knew anyone's inner life, perhaps no one would be likable.)  We discover Lee is lonely and an alcoholic.  He is depressed, cranky, jealous of others success, and estranged from his only daughter. 
Susan Choi who was a finalist for a Pulitzer for a previous novel, writes a beautifully structured novel.  Here she has written a psychological study that follows the breakdown of a man who has good reason to be paranoid.  He finds himself suspected by the FBI of being the bomber. Lee eventually sets out to discover who the real murderer is.  The killer is reminiscent of the Unibomber of some  years back.  He writes tracts to newspapers and makes threats and demands a pulpit for his twisted ideas.  Lee's suspicions focus on a former friend, Gaither whose wife Lee seduced and eventually married.  The story goes back and forth between the past relationship of Lee, Gaither and Aileen and the present of Lee now divorced.
The story is interesting and excellently crafted, but moves slowly with its rich vocabulary.  I found nothing to like about any of the characters (especially Lee, whom I wanted to shake some sense into) until the final third of the book with the introduction of a new character, who seemed to be the lone honest person in the book.  Despite all this, I enjoyed Choi's writing and found I did get into the story.