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 1600: The Splendid and the Vile

Most of the books I’ve read by Erik Larson have juxtaposed two seemingly unrelated events and shown how they affected each other. In The Splendid and the Vile, Larson takes a different tack, deciding to write about Churchill during the Blitz. His book fairly closely follows Churchill from his first days as Prime Minister until the United States entered the war. It also follows some people closely connected with Churchill as well as others who kept diaries during the war, including some of the German high command. This is his juxtaposition, the British versus the Germans.

Because the book is based on diary entries as well as other sources and follows events almost day by day, it feels very personal and interesting. Aside from some regular people asked to keep diaries during the war, readers get to know John Colville, Churchill’s secretary; Mary Churchill, Churchill’s teenage daughter; as well as Göring and Goebbels. There are colorful characters on both sides, not least Churchill himself.

Although I have a general knowledge of this war, this book is more particular while still being absorbing and sometimes even entertaining.

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Review 1590: The Burning of Bridget Cleary

In 1895, a rural Irish woman, a milliner, was burnt to death by her husband and relatives. Their explanation was that the ailing woman had been taken away by the fairies and that they had burnt a changeling trying to get it to say it was not Bridget Cleary.

Historian Angela Bourke examines this crime in detail, not only the events as reported by the witnesses and the trial but the meaning of it. She interprets fairy legends and their place in rural Irish society, and she also explains the meaning of comments and actions the night of the crime and the night preceding it in terms of these legends. She looks at the crime from a feminist point of view as well.

I found this book interesting, although at times I felt Bourke got carried away with her interpretations. Most of the time the writing style and her analysis are interesting, but the book is occasionally a little dry.

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Review 1574: The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God’s Holy Warriors

Maurice Druon’s spectacular historical novel The Iron King ends with a dramatic scene in which Jacques de Molay, the Master of the Knights Templar, is burned to death at the stake, and dying, curses Philip IV, King of France, as well as Pope Clement V. It was my interest in this particular event and my curiosity about the truth of Druon’s story that led me to read The Templars.

This book is a high-level history of the Knights Templar, an order of knights dedicated to poverty and to the protection of pilgrims in the Holy Land. As well as being about the battles it fought for Christendom (an appalling time), it is more interestingly about how the organization grew to become one of the most powerful multinational forces in Europe during the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries.

Although The Templars is meant to be a history for the general public, it does provide footnotes and citations for those who want to explore further, which I think is good. I have lately read a few history books and biographies that didn’t even bother listing sources, so there’s no way of ascertaining how accurate they are, which I find a disturbing trend. The book is written to hold its audience’s attention, which it does a fair job of. But, of course, it’s mostly about the Crusades, so you have to have a lot of fighting.

As for the Templars’ end, Jones depicts them as a mostly honorable and dedicated group of men who toward the end were fighting a losing battle. Europe wasn’t interested in crusades anymore, and the last few were disasters resulting in huge losses of men, largely through the misjudgments of Western leaders who did not understand their enemies rather than because of the Templars themselves. After these disasters, the Templars found themselves without enough knights to keep control of the territory they had once won.

It was on a trip to Europe to try to win support for another crusade that Jacques de Molay and all the knights in France were arrested on the same day. There had been much talk of combining the Knights Templar, the Knight’s Hospitaller, and the Teutonic Knights into one unit, which de Molay hoped to counter. What he did not anticipate was that King Philip of France wanted the Templars’ money and valuables. Starting with the testimony of one aggrieved man who had been ejected from the Templars for some crime, the king’s men had the knights tortured until they admitted crimes like denouncing Christ and committing sodomy. Although prosecution of the Templars was a church matter, not a civil one, Clement V was too much under Philip’s thumb to do much more than make mild efforts on their behalf. The result was that Templars who renounced their “confessions” were burned by the Inquisition. This shocking ending, Jones proposes, is why the Templars are still such a fascination in popular culture, although popular culture tends to treat them as satanists, when they were innocent of the charges against them.

So, yes, Druon got it right.

Jones did one thing that drove me crazy, which he claims is accepted practice in covering this time period, and that was to anglicize everyone’s names. I have never run across this before, but I think it’s ridiculous and ethnocentric. For example, Jacques de Molay is called James of Molay throughout the book. Why would anyone do this, accepted practice or not? Does Jones think the French name is too tough for us? If it’s accepted practice, it’s stupid.

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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 1466: Vanishing Cornwall

Over the years, I have read most of the novels written by Daphne du Maurier, but when I made up my current Classics Club list, I came across this work of nonfiction. It’s the book I read for the most recent Classics Club Spin.

Vanishing Cornwall is a little hard to describe. Du Maurier made her principal residence in Cornwall for many years, and I guess I would call this book an appreciation.

She starts out by traveling around the area with her son to take photographs from each of the Hundreds of Cornwall. So, the book is in small part a travel book. But as it progresses from region to region, aside from lyrical descriptions and photos of the scenery, du Maurier includes stories from history and folk lore. Toward the end of the book, she switches to chapters on specific topics, like fishing or free-trading, associated with Cornwall.

She ends with a conservation message, at the time a concern to preserve the area’s beauty while finding some way to help support the locals. I have never been to Cornwall, but I would imagine that some of what she has to say is out of date now, as it was even between 1967, when the book was first published, and 1980, the date of my edition, which switched out the original black and white photos for colored ones and added an epilogue. She does tend to romanticize some subjects, and her assertions such as the one that King Arthur did actually exist are a little more in doubt now.

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