Review 1720: Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream

As a young adult in the late 60’s and 70’s, I did not have a high opinion of Lyndon Johnson. Although I was not political, like many people, I was against the Vietnam War. It wasn’t until I lived in Texas that I saw another side to Johnson, who was revered for, among other things, bringing electricity to rural Texas to ease the work of women.

Doris Kearns Goodwin worked in the White House in the late 60’s, and when Johnson asked her to help him write his memoirs, she declined because she also was against the war. However, Johnson was a master of persuasion, and she finally agreed. The memoir never got written, but Goodwin had unprecedented access to Johnson because of it and eventually used her notes to write this biography.

Goodwin is obviously interested in the pursuit and use of power, and Johnson is a perfect subject for that interest. She depicts a man who did not pursue power for itself but for the good he could do with it. I failed to mark them in the text, but many of his comments about the presidency and the use of power contrast starkly with the thinking of our last regime, which was fizzling out as I read this book.

Goodwin paints a picture of a complex man, brilliant but at times crude, organized, manipulative, a consummate negotiator, but a man with good intentions. It’s a pity that the war overshadowed and overwhelmed the other accomplishments of his presidency. Because of it, we forget that he put into process programs to help the needy and people of color. Medicare and the Voting Rights Act are down to him as well as other programs that were not handled as well because of his preoccupation with the war or that were gutted by Richard Nixon.

I did get a little bogged down in the chapter about the war, and it being a different time, today’s readers may have problems with how Johnson and others refer to minority groups. Still, I found this book really insightful and interesting, as it explores the reasons for some of his controversial decisions.

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Review 1667: JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956

JFK is a biography that makes you feel you really understand John F. Kennedy despite it being the type of biography not necessarily aimed at mass consumption. Although it is eloquently and clearly written, it contains about 150 pages of notes and sources. It examines the first 39 years of Kennedy’s life in a balanced fashion, showing both strengths and faults, and is absorbingly interesting. It also tries to dispel some of the myths about Kennedy’s political career, showing, for example, that his interest in politics began long before his older brother’s death, in answer to the belief that he entered politics at his father’s urging as a replacement for his dead brother.

Although a lot of people are fascinated by the Kennedys, I knew only the basic facts and found the home life of his family growing up to be a very strange one. First was their emphasis on competition and winning, one that was extreme and probably explains the tendency toward alcoholism in a few of its members (not JFK, who was not a drinker). A few details stood out—one that family members didn’t seem to have permanent bedrooms in Hyannis Port but treated the house more like a hotel. Very odd.

I was less interested in his development as a politician than I was in the earlier material, but still, even though I knew, for example, that Kennedy was not the vice presidential nomineee in 1956, Logevall was able to make the Democratic convention truly exciting.

Logevall is a Harvard historican whose last book won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for history. This is a serious, well-researched biography that nevertheless offers much interest to the more casual reader.

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Review 1658: Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

My curiosity about this subject was piqued by seeing the movie starring Kiera Knightly. Predictably, the movie exaggerated the story of Georgiana’s home life and left out her role as a serious political negotiator. (Those scenes of her on the podium don’t really count.) For the Duchess of Devonshire was a complicated person, intelligent but too trusting, generous but also profligate, adored by most but not by her own husband, a savvy politician, a serious amateur scientist, an author who never published under her own name, and an important figure in 18th century social and political life whose legacy was either purposefully erased by rivals or too-proper Victorian descendants or overlooked by historians.

Georgiana’s home life was exciting enough to provoke the prim, for, married at 16 to a husband who was cold and unloving, she was full of insecurities that eventually led her to live most of her married life in a ménage with her husband and Lady Elizabeth Foster, her husband’s mistress. Although Bess Foster seldom missed an opportunity to undercut her even after her death because she envied her position, Georgiana always considered Bess her best friend despite her mother’s and children’s detestation of the woman (with good reason).

Aside from Georgiana’s loyal support of the Whig Party and Mr. Fox, who may have been her lover, an overarching concern of her life was debt. Georgiana and her family all shared the trait of an inability to live within their means, despite having fortunes at their disposal. Georgiana missed several opportunities for the Duke to settle her debts by being too ashamed to admit them all, so all her life she was constantly juggling money, borrowing from one person to pay another or gambling away money meant to pay her debts.

Georgiana was a flawed but fascinating woman, and this biography reveals not only her life but her times to the reader.

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Review 1652: The Silk Roads: A New History of the World

In the opening of The Silk Roads, Peter Frankopan talks about his uneasiness with the narrow focus of his historical studies in school, to Europe and the countries affecting Europe. This struck a chord with me, because I remember discussing this with my father when I was in high school. “Why don’t we learn about China or Japan?” I remember asking, and I didn’t even think of Central Asia or the Middle East. So, The Silk Roads seemed as if it would be very interesting to me.

Frankopan shows that while Europe was a backwater, the countries of Central Asia and the Middle East were vibrant with trade, of goods, culture, and ideas. His thesis is that this area of the world has long been its heart and is becoming so again.

The subject matter of this book is interesting, in a way that changes one’s preconceptions. Frankopan’s writing style, though, is clear but very matter of fact, with no attempt to be stylistically interesting or eloquent.

Although I’m sure this is a simplistic statement, it seems as if there are two ways of approaching historical content. One is to relate it more as a series of stories. The other is to throw in every fact that supports your thesis. Unfortunately, at least the later chapters use the second approach, making the last few chapters sort of a slog for me. For example, most of the last chapter is just lists to show the ways Central Asia has become wealthy. I believe that Frankopan’s ideas are important, but I sometimes found this book putting me to sleep.

The irony is that Frankopan’s book is, after all, westerncentric, especially the last half, which focuses on the mistakes England and then the U. S. made in the Middle East.

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Review 1637: A Perfect Union of Contrary Things

I have a few disclaimers before I begin my review of this book. First, punk, progressive, and grunge rock are not genres I’ve listened to, so I am profoundly ignorant of Maynard James Keenan’s work, which is perhaps a handicap for my review. Second, the author, Sarah Jensen, is a friend and ex-housemate, with whom I’ve been out of touch until recently. My belated discovery that she had written this biography piqued my interest in reading it.

Jensen follows Keenan from the time when he was a boy, leading a difficult life, to his present life as a musician, actor, comic performer, artist, winemaker, and writer. Yes, he truly seems to be a Renaissance man, continually working at something and giving his many projects detailed attention and effort.

Keenan’s young life was disrupted many times—by his parents’ divorce, his mother’s being incapacitated by stroke, his many households and schools. Although he is a seeker, his attitudes about formal religion are formed by his skepticism, even very early, about his fundamentalist upbringing and his anger at how members of her church told his mother she must have done something very wrong for God to have stricken her so.

Starting at high school, it seems, Keenan developed the philosophy that if you’re going to do something, you should do it well, and if you have talent, you should use it. He was a high school track star and gifted artist, whose dream was to go to art school. He accomplished that by enlisting in the army, where he so excelled that he was offered a place at West Point’s preparatory school. He attended that but with no intention of becoming an officer.

His path to such bands as Tool and A Perfect Circle was anything but direct, so much so that old friends weren’t even aware he was a musician. The tale of his progress through life is truly interesting.

The book is beautifully written, lyrical at times, and explores Keenan’s music, lyrics, and philosophy in detail. I felt a bit at sea in following the discussions of his music and his comic performances as part of Puscifer, as I explained before, despite having watched a few clips on YouTube.

If there was one thing that threw me off a bit it was the tone of the book, especially in discussions of Keenan’s performances, which felt more like, say, a Rolling Stone appreciation than a biography. That being said, I am more accustomed to literary and political biographies, which have more distance from their subjects than ones about living celebrities.

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Review 1491: Grant

Ron Chernow has become one of my three favorite biographers, along with Doris Kearns Goodwin for political figures and Claire Tomalin for literary ones. Although both Grant and Alexander Hamilton are of a length that could seem forbidding to some readers, they are unfailingly readable and interesting.

Chernow’s main thrust is that Grant has long been misrepresented and his legacy misunderstood. I can testify to this by my personal experience in school, where he was characterized in exactly the terms spelled out in this book. We were told that he was a drunk whose presidency was riddled with corruption. His contribution to the Civil War was virtually ignored.

Poor Grant! Chernow sets us all straight. Yes, Grant had a problem with drink. He, in fact, got drunk after a small amount of liquor. This was a problem he fought all his adult life and conquered during his presidency. After he was made to resign from the army early in his career for being drunk on duty (a claim Grant, who was very truthful, said was not true), enemies found it convenient to claim he was drunk on many occasions when he had not touched a drop.

Chernow’s coverage of the Civil War makes very clear how much the nation has to thank Grant for its end, after a series of generals got nowhere against Lee. In fact, in his time, Grant was considered one of the greatest generals of all time, whereas his legacy has been disparaged, with prominent Southern historians claiming his success was only because the North had more resources available than the South.

The implication I always took away from Grant’s presidency was that he must have been corrupt if his administration was. First, administrations had been rife with corruption since Jackson’s. Second, although Grant believed in the patronage system, the idea of awarding positions because of merit was actually a new one, and Grant did award many positions for that reason. Last, like many very honest men, Grant tended to trust too easily, with unfortunate results.

Although many of the positive results of Grant’s administration were nullified by subsequent changes when Reconstruction was eliminated, Chernow documents many benefits for black Americans and in Grant’s attempts to help Native Americans, Jewish Americans, and others. Grant’s administration gave the vote to black men and wiped out the first incarnation of the Ku Kluxers.

Chernow has written a rivetting book that has convinced me that Grant is one of our most underrated and misrepresented presidents. He was a great man.

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Review 1470: Queens of the Conquest: England’s Medieval Queens

In Queens of the Conquest, Alison Weir does what she does best—constructs a well-researched biography of a notable Medieval woman—in this case, four of them. Queens of the Conquest is the first of four volumes called England’s Medieval Queens, which will detail as much as is known of the lives of these queens. This volume begins with Matilda of Flanders, the wife of William the Conqueror, and ends approximately 100 years later with the death of Empress Maud, the mother of Henry II.

Weir’s premise in this volume is that the early Medieval queens of England were not removed from the governance of the kingdom. She has thoroughly proved this premise with documentation of their charters to award lands, their stints at being regent, and their attendance at cabinet meetings. Of the three women, only Adeliza of Louvain, King Henry’s second wife, seems to have taken a more traditional role.

Although the stories of the first two queen’s lives are largely dependent upon reading endless charters and religious devotions, which could get a little tiresome, Weir has faithfully documented what is known of the women’s lives. She does this in an eminently readable style while still backing the facts up with source material and footnotes. These materials include appendixes with the text of extant letters.

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Review 1327: Brief Lives

Cover for Brief LivesAlthough John Aubrey has been criticized as a historian, he was actually a collector, of documents, stories, and little bits of information. For a project in the late 17th century undertaken by Anthony Wood, he began collecting short biographies of Oxford scholars of his time but then expanded his collection to include other notables of the 16th and 17th centuries. From 426 lives, this book has collected the most significant 134, some as short as a few sentences while others are several pages long.

These lives do not necessarily list their subjects’ accomplishments, although most of them begin with a short biography included by the editors. Aubrey’s talent was for telling something about each person that defines him or her, makes the person seem more knowable, whether it be a physical description or a story about the person.

Aubrey was apparently a rather disorganized person, so sometimes we are amused by a story or comment that seems to have nothing to do with the subject. Although well written and entertaining, his lives sometimes use pronouns confusingly, so that you’re not always sure who he’s talking about.

Just as entertaining as the original subject matter is the 100-page introduction about Aubrey’s life and milieu. I have to say that he seldom says anything really negative about anyone, even if you can tell he didn’t like that person. He was plainly a good-natured man who also sometimes likes to tell bawdy stories. Centuries after his lives were written, they make a living document, bringing exceptional people back to life. I was interested to see that one of them was Venetia Digby, the main character of Hermione Eyre’s Viper Wine.

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Review 1321: Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self

Cover for Samuel PepysYears ago, I attempted to read Samuel Pepys’s diary, but I didn’t make much headway. However, I was reading it without any context. Now that I’ve read Claire Tomalin’s excellent biography of Pepys, I am interested in trying it again.

For one thing, I was not aware that Pepys worked his way up, by his great energy and organizational skills, from a poor beginning to an eminent position in the British admiralty. He was responsible for setting up many of the procedures used today. In the diary’s beginning, he is just a lowly clerk who seems to go out drinking a lot.

But Tomalin’s admiration is for Pepys’s unstinting truthfulness, even when it makes him look bad, as well as the literary and historical value of the diary. In short, he was a marvelous writer who documented significant events in a tumultuous period of British history.

Tomalin’s talent as a biographer is in giving her readers a true feeling for the personality of her subject. Pepys was a pleasure seeker, a womanizer, and not always an honest man, but he was curious, cultured, highly intelligent, dedicated, and faithful to his patrons. Although he had a poor opinion of both Charles II and James II, he served them faithfully, even when it was against his best interests. Pepys turns out to be a very interesting person.

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Day 1208: Zelda

Cover for ZeldaZelda is Nancy Milford’s famous biography of Zelda Fitzgerald. It is meticulously researched and beautifully written. The book was Milford’s dissertation for Columbia University, and she later went on to write other noted biographies, such as Savage Beauty about Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Zelda’s relationship with F. Scott Fitzgerald is legendary, and I was happy to finally learn the truth of it, as I’ve heard half-truths for years and read them in fiction. I was especially interested to contrast this biography with Z, Therese Ann Fowler’s novel about Zelda.

One of the fundamental problems of the Fitzgerald’s relationship was Zelda’s feeling of a lack of purpose combined with Scott’s breathtaking assumption that her entire life could be co-opted for his fiction. Early in their marriage, Zelda had an opportunity to publish her diaries, but Scott claimed them, saying he needed them for his fiction. Later, when she began writing, he feuded with her over her right to her own history, telling her that he was the professional, she just an amateur. Of course, he did not cause all their problems. There was his drinking and her crippling mental illness. But I could see why Zelda would feel like she was being erased.

Although the biography contained a little too much quoting from their fiction for my taste—points were made over and over—still, this is a truly revelatory biography and well worth reading if you have an interest in these people or their time.

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