Sunday, March 30, 2014

THE BULLY PULPIT by Doris Kearns Goodwin (non-fic)

This hefty book is as large as its title, The Bully Pulpit Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism, and it took most of the month to read, but it was well worth it.  If you have read any of Doris Kearns Goodwin's books then you know she is a superb writer of non-fiction who will keep the reader involved and interested until the last page is turned.

Bully pulpit was coined by Theodore Roosevelt on the campaign trial to describe how he planned to influence and mesmerize the voters, and that he did.  While the book is scaffolded around Taft and Roosevelt, more interesting to me was the the story of Sam McClure and his brilliant writers who worked on McClure's Universal Journal.  And what a magazine it was!  The writers: Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker, William Allen White, and later Upton Sinclair exposed the ugly underbelly of big city and national politics and its involvement with big business.  They were as responsible as any politician for influencing anti-trust laws and championing the rights of the poor and disenfranchised in America.  It becomes obvious as you read this book that the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Before you get too deeply into your reading, you begin to realize that we are still fighting the same battles that the muckrakers fought, only these journalist were stronger and more powerful than our journalists today.

The story of Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft is also fascinating.  Kearns compares and contrasts these two very different friends and tracks their rise to power and their partnership that was forged through mutual goals.  Both men were Republicans (equally interesting is the difference between today's Republican Party and that which these two Progressives represented). Both men were dedicated to righting economic inequality. Roosevelt was raised by an indulgent father, while Taft was brought up by what we would today call a "helicopter parent" heavily involved in his son's education and life path.  Roosevelt went to Harvard, Taft to Yale.  Roosevelt's first marriage was short-lived; his wife died giving birth to their only child, Alice, of "Alice-blue" fame.  His second wife, Edith, was an intelligent bookish woman who was content to stay out of the lime-light.  Taft married a woman who was very much in the spot-light.  Nellie Taft was a blue-stocking who love the challenge of politics and pushed Taft throughout his career.  Roosevelt was gregarious and a natural politician, Taft was shyer and would have preferred to be a judge his whole life.  His large ambition was to become a Chief Justice which he did achieve after his one-term presidency.  Roosevelt befriended and knew how to use journalists for publicity and legislation.  The retiring but personable Taft stood aloof from the press.

The lives and story of these two large men became intertwined as soon as they both found themselves in Washington.  Their friendship lasted many years, and then as Taft began to prepare the campaign for his second term there was a fatal break.  Roosevelt, whose ambitions and ego challenged Taft for the presidency, desired a third term. He felt Taft was not assertive enough in persuing the progressive agenda Roosevelt had formulated. When Roosevelt could not muster the votes to be nominated during the contentious Republican national convention, he formed his own progressive party, The Bull Moose Party, which ultimately split and brought defeat to the Republicans.  Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats easily defeated Taft.  What had been a warm and enduring friendship between Taft and Roosevelt was finished.  It was only at the end of Roosevelt's life that the two men were able to again find common ground.

This book is so thorough and introduces the reader to so many interesting characters, that it is hard to put down.  Kearns Goodwin is a master historian and story teller.  Her research is meticulous.  I highly recommend this book to all readers.  It will fuel many interesting discussions for book groups.  Many of the domestic problems faced by pre-World War I America are still being talked about and still unresolved today.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

THE GLASSBLOWER OF MURANO by Marina Fiorato (fic)

Looking for a quick read while I was biding time in an airport, I picked up this book.  An airport being full of distractions, I was able to read and remain aware of what was going on around me.  For this book, which seemed interesting from its title, is a formula romance with bits of window dressing.  You know the drill, impossibly gorgeous girl meets impossibly handsome Italian lad in romantic Venice, girl has rival for boy's affection, yadda, yadda.   Along the way, you will learn a bit about glass blowing and its history in Murano that colorful island off Venice where all the glass blowers live.  Mixed in with our heroine's story is that of her 17th century ancestor, Corridino who was accused of giving away to France the secret of making perfect mirrors. This was the more interesting story in the novel.  The story, a pretty fairy-tale is entertaining enough for an airport read, though I would not recommend it as a serious novel.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

SWIMMING HOME by Deborah Levy (fic)

Swimming Home was shortlisted for the Mann Booker Prize in 2012, and it has some merit, being well-written, in parts funny, disturbing, satirical, but at times confusing.  Having said that, I detested the characters, except for Nina a 14 year old through whose eyes we view the absurdities of the adults around her. 

The story takes place on the French Riviera. As the story opens Joe Jacobs, a poet of some renown and his wife Isabel, a journalist, along with their daughter, Nina and another couple have rented a villa near Nice. They awake one morning to find a naked young woman floating in their pool.  She is not dead, but she wreaks havoc on this dysfunctional little group.  Her name is Kitty Finch, and she is anorexic, unstable, and full of anxiety,  She claims to be a naturalist and spends most of her time au natural.  She sets out to seduce the poet, or is it the other way around?

The title of the book is the title of a poem that Kitty has written which she wishes Joe Jacobs to critique. This poem seems to be the center around which the characters revolve.  It is a bit of a mystery why Isabel agrees to allow Kitty to stay with them as it is obvious Kitty has designs on her husband.  There are also several minor characters spinning in and out who are as unstable as the main characters. 

The novel is a short one with a lot of emotional action packed into its pages.  I was glad to reach the end and be rid of the characters and their self-absorption.