Sunday, March 29, 2015

WILSON by A Scott Berg (non-fic)

This comprehensive and marvelous biography of Woodrow Wilson at over 800 pages consumed most of my reading time this month.  A. Scott Berg who won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Lindbergh has written a masterful book about another interesting and multi-facited man.  Woodrow Wilson, America's 28th President is a fascinating study of one of the most brilliant minds to occupy the White House.  His progressive policies and idealistic philosophy of government changed the direction of American policy and her place in the world.

The book can roughly be divided into two parts.  The first begins with Wilson's early life and the effect the Civil War had on his development as a son of the south.  It tells of his education and upbringing and his road to the Presidency of Princeton University.  From Princeton, he had a meteoric rise in politics.  The New Jersey political machine mistakenly thought it could control Wilson when it chose him to run for Governor.  He initiated massive reforms, among other things, ending the strangle hold cronyism and corruption had on the state. He only served two years as governor and his fame as a reformer catapulted him into the national spotlight and eventually into the Presidency.  It ends with his very loving and happy marriage to Ellen Axon with whom he had three daughters and his energetic control in enacting his progressive programs on a national scale.

The second section of the book begins with Ellen's death, Wilson's deep bereavement, and the path of America's involvement in WWI and the end of isolationism. Edith Bolling Gault, his second wife, plays a huge role during this time and up until Wilson's death.

It is said of Woodrow Wilson, ....."probably in the history of the whole world there has been no great man of whom so much has been written but of whom personally so little has been correctly known." ....."Stern and impassive, yet emotional;  calm and patient, yet quick-tempered and impulsive;  forgetful of those who had served him, yet devoted to many who had rendered but minor service....precise and business-like, and yet, upon occasion, illogical without more reason than intuition itself."

Wilson was the first democratic President since Andrew Jackson to serve two consecutive terms.  A strong electrifying speaker, he ran on his legislative success and the powerful message that "He kept us out of war."  Despite all this it wasn't long before it became impossible for America to remain neutral as WWI escalated out of control and spilled over affecting shipping and independence on the seas. With the torpedoing of the passenger ship Lusitania,Wilson found himself unable to deny help to his European allies.  It wasn't long before his forceful personality caused him to assume leadership on the world stage.

Wilson's life is enormously interesting and I enjoyed each part of this book equally. Wilson's influence on the peace process and the Treaty of Versailles ending WWI, and his frustration on returning to the United States and being unable to convince the fractured and partisan Congress to pass on the treaty which included a section of forming a League of Nations, was especially enlightening.  His failure to influence Congress and his political enemies, led by Republican Henry Cabot Lodge, eventually led to his death. There are numerous parallels here the reader may draw with the partisanship in today's Congress and its relationship with the Presidency.

In his lifetime Wilson accomplished so much it is impossible to catalog his triumphs here.  To name just a few, he slashed tariffs, instituted a federal income tax, championed the Federal Reserve system, enacted anti-trust laws, instituted the eight hour work day and passed laws against child labor; he also passed woman's suffrage laws endearing him to women reformers; he was the first President to hold regular news conferences.  He adored woman, movies and golf.  He had a huge personality and huge faults.  He was fascinating.

There is enough material in this book to occupy a book group for two months.  I highly recommend it to all readers.  Do not be put off by its length.  I read it slowly going back and forth between other books.  It was thoughly enjoyable and readable.

Monday, March 23, 2015

THE FLAMETHROWERS by Rachel Kushner (fic)

"The Flamethrowers" is as exhilarating as the wild motorcycle ride with which the book opens.  Rachel Kushner uses more similes and metaphors in her writing than any other author I have read.  She uses them with skill and all the power of reality that words can give. The title comes from the flamethrowers that motorcycles hurled during WWI.  They were deathtraps for their riders as well as the enemy. The novel opens at the time of World War I and tells the story of the founder of the Valeria motorcycle company and his romance with motorcycles--motorcycles, speed and sex, the thread carries on throughout the book.

Valeria is only a piece of the story of Reno, a young girl whose real name we never know.  She begins her odyssey on a Valeria motorcycle in Nevada and heads to New York City where she enters the gritty downtown art world of the 1970s.  Kushner is too young to have experienced the lower Manhattan of those days, yet she is spot on in her setting and the eccentric characters who roam in and out of Reno's story.  Reno's coming of age story begins and ends in New York City.  Sandwiched in between is a very realistic portrait of Bellagio and later Rome and the violence that erupted out of the youth movement and union unrest in Italy, a latent response to Fascism and big business.

After arriving in New York, Reno meets Sandro Valeria, an artist, the son of the Valeria patriarch. Shortly after meeting him, Reno returns to the West and realizes a dream of racing at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.  We already know Reno is a risk taker and a recognized talented skier.  On her way to becoming the fastest female rider in the world, setting a record at 140mph, she crashes her bike but escapes serious injury.

Sandro had escaped the confines of his family by settling in Manhattan.  He wants nothing to do with bikes and his sharp tongued mother and entrepreneurial brother.  Somehow Reno convinces him to return to Italy with her where the Valeria company has offered her a chance to compete and become an advertising icon for the company.  First she must meet the family, and this where the story becomes dark and threatening to Reno who will soon lose her naivety and sense of direction.  Sandro's mother is nasty and bitter, and she still has a hold on her sons.  Reno flees to Rome after an eye opening scene at the Valeria factory.  In Rome, she becomes involved with a group  of young terrorists and has a close call with the law. The characters she meets in Italy are as memorable and colorful as those she was involved with in New York.

The ending of the book is somewhat loose, and it is not completely clear where Reno is headed. Nevertheless it is a satisfying ending.  I enjoyed the book very much and Kushner is an accomplished and gifted writer.  She is deserving of the accolades received as well as the honor of being chosen as one of the 10 best books of the year by the NY Times.  I recommend "The Flamethrowers" to all readers.

Friday, March 13, 2015

NORA WEBSTER by Colm Toibin (fic)

Very few male authors are able to inhabit so thoroughly the minds of their female characters as Colm Toibin.  Having done this so admirably in "Brooklyn" Toibin again does it in "Nora Webster."

Nora Webster, newly widowed lives with her two sons (two older daughters are away at school) in Enniscorthy, County Wexford in southeastern Ireland.  The story is set in the late 1960s and is uncomplicated by today's modern conveniences.  Things move slowly in this little town where everyone is part of everyone's business.  It is a quiet story of an everyday life. There is one large factory, a flour mill, which Nora left 25 years before, when she married Maurice, a respected schoolteacher.  Class consciousness is centered around the lives of the managers and workers in the mill.  A workers strike reflects the politics of the times.  The clergy and nuns also play a role in the life of the town.

As we read, we fall into the rhythms, the ups and downs of real life.  Nora and Maurice had a small circle of friends, but after his death, Nora finds herself isolated from many of her neighbors.  This is the story of Nora finding herself in the midst of grief.  She is strict, severe, and stoic, a woman who doesn't show her feelings despite her rich inner life which Toibin documents so well for the reader.  Nora is not an easy character to like.  She often appears cold and unfeeling. While she loves her children fiercely, alone in her suffering, she has no idea of what is going on in her children's lives.  Her older son, Donal, has developed a worrying stutter, and daughter, Aine, is involved in the struggles in Northern Ireland.  This is just after the Bloody Sunday riots and Toibin's characters are concerned and political in their allegiance with the Catholics in the north.  Nora, though seemingly casual in caring for her children, becomes a fierce Celtic woman when she senses they are in trouble.  There is a terrific scene when she challenges the head Brother of Donal's school when she realizes he is being treated unjustly.
With the help of her sisters and concerned friends, Nora slowly becomes part of her community again.  She returns to the mill where she proves necessary and efficient, she finds pleasure and comfort in singing and music and gives in to her dormant musical talent.  This section of the book is wonderfully developed.  Nora's personality doesn't change, she remains prickly, but her willingness to accept that she must let go of her grief and move forward is presented in a realistic way.

I enjoyed this quiet read and highly recommend it to all readers.  It would be an interesting discussion for a reading group as an exploration of a fully developed character.