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 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 1618: The Prince

I put The Prince on my Classics Club list mostly out of curiosity. Now that my curiosity has been satisfied, I can well understand some of the controversy surrounding it.

Machiavelli wrote the book for the newly arisen Medici family, and the last chapter is basically a plea for Lorenzo di Medici to rise up and conquer Italy. The Prince is a treatise on power: how to get it, how to keep it, what to do with it. It is utilitarian rather than moral. For example, it advises princes that they need not honor their promises once they are in a position of power if the promises are not in their best interests.

Although Cesare Borgia was considered ruthless and cruel even in his own time, Machiavelli several times holds him up as a model and clearly venerates him. But then, his ideas are not ours, for he tells a story of a principality being won. The principality needed good government, so the prince put in charge a man known for his ruthlessness and rapacity. Once the area was settled, the prince “wiped out” his lieutenant. Good work!

The book is regarded as a realistic analysis of the pursuit of power. This is why it is still widely studied. It is written in a straightforward style, assertion followed by example.

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Review 1609: A Literature of Their Own: British Woman Novelists from Brontë to Lessing

When I began reading A Literature of Their Own, I expected it to be more like Showalter’s A Jury of Her Peers, which is a recounting of the achievements and short biographies of American women writers, many of whom have been ignored by academics, critics, and editors. A Literature of Their Own, however, is Showalter’s dissertation, one of the first feminist literary studies, published originally in 1977 and revised in the 90’s.

As such, it is a bit scholarly and outdated and at times felt mired in its feminist analysis. Showalter divides 19th and 20th century works by women into three categories: female, feminine, and feminist. When she first made this distinction, it seemed artificial and overly finicky, but as she described the fiction, it clearly belonged in three categories, becoming more likely to be feminist in later times.

This book was a bit of a struggle at times. I have two lit degrees, but I don’t necessarily enjoy reading more academic works. Some sections were very interesting while others devolved into a sort of classic early feminist analysis. Still, for those interested in feminism and literature, this is probably a must read. And I’m not implying I am not, just that sometimes the analysis from such a limited viewpoint seems stretched and overdone.

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Review 1573: One Woman’s Year

I was delighted to receive One Woman’s Year from Persephone Press as a review copy. I hadn’t heard of Stella Martin Currey before, but I shall be looking out for her books.

One Woman’s Year is a journal but with a very specific structure. Each chapter is for one month and begins with a quote from a 1677 book called British Merlin, which seems to be a sort of almanac. Then there is an article on some subject, often related to the month. Following this are the following sections: ‘Most Liked Job,” “Most Disliked Job,” “Recipe,” “Excursion,” and “Anthology.” The short pieces often contain amusing anecdotes. “Excursion” is always a suggestion of an interesting outing to make with children, and “Anthology” is quotes from books and poetry. All this is nicely illustrated with woodcuts at the beginning of each chapter and elsewhere.

Although Currey is a lot more domesticated than I am, I found this book light and easy to read. I skipped over most of the recipes but may try others. All in all, I found this book charming, quick to read and entertaining. She sounds like a good mom.

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Review 1534: The Body: A Guide for Occupants

Bill Bryson started out writing travel books that were notable for his humor and the many factiods and interesting stories he told about the places he visited. I imagine him with an insatiable curiosity about just about everything.

More recently, he has tackled other subjects, and his newest book is about the human body. In this book, he approaches the body system by system to explain what it does and how miraculous it is. As usual, he relates stories about the various people who made discoveries about the body and includes lots of factoids.

This book is entertaining enough, but it wasn’t the book for me. I have a personal black hole when it comes to subjects such as health and medicine (also religion). Although I was mildly interested in it and found lots of passages to read to my husband (who is interested in that kind of thing, although not religion), I decided not to finish it. I think it is a good book, though, for those who are more interested in the topic or like lots of interesting facts.

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Review 1507: Catch and Kill

Catch and Kill is Ronan Farrow’s book detailing the NBC News investigation into claims of sexual harassment, abuse, and rape by Harvey Weinstein against numerous female actors and employees. This investigation resulted in Farrow’s New Yorker article that precipitated the Me Too movement. The book also details the obstruction of Farrow’s efforts to pursue the investigation by his own management at NBC, which turned out to have its own culture of sexual abuse and harassment and a system of cover-ups for this behavior.

Less well known is his story of surveillance by the Weinstein organization and of threats against witnesses and potential witnesses. Interestingly enough, he also mentions instances of similar claims against Donald Trump before his election, which, along with those against Weinstein were “caught and killed” by the National Enquirer and its affiliates.

Farrow is very open about his own not very helpful responses to his sister Dylan’s claims against their father, Woody Allen, and about his feelings of being spied upon as well as a certain amount of naiveté when NBC first began obstructing his investigations. This is an interesting account of a landmark moment in recent history.

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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 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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Review 1464: Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style

Dreyer’s English was recommended to me by a friend, and it proved to be so popular at the library that I had to wait two months for my hold to come through. As I worked as a writer for more than 30 years, not too much of what Dreyer has to say is a surprise to me, but his facetious style is refreshing.

This book is a familiarly organized writing reference, but it’s easy to simply read it, because it’s fun. Dreyer got on my good side almost immediately by citing Words into Type, a book that was my editing bible for years. I noticed in later years that young writers were rather sneery about it (“That’s out of date, isn’t it?”), or I more frequently met with a blank stare when I recommended it. Now I feel vindicated.

Most interesting to me was the expansion of the “easily confused” list from that included in Words into Type. I was surprised at the increase in the number of simple items being confused.

From its Intro to its Outro, Dreyer’s English contains useful information for even the most casual writer. I think I’m going to buy a copy.

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