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 1527: They Were Counted

They Were Counted is the first volume in Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy, about the decline of Hungary leading up to World War I. This book follows the events in the lives of two cousins, Balint Abady and Laszlo Gyeroffy. Both are noblemen who feel like outsiders in Hungarian society, Balint because he is Transylvanian and Laszlo because his prospects are not so good.

Balint has been working in the diplomatic service, but he decides to run for Parliament, never suspecting after he wins that votes have been bought on his behalf. He is dismayed to find that the Hungarian Parliament’s two parties are more concerned with scoring off each other than with getting anything done. Early on, too, there are hints that Parliament’s independence is threatened by the Austrian King Franz Joseph.

Likewise, when Balint decides to take more interest in running his estate, he has no idea that the lawyer Azbej, who has been helping his mother run the estate, has been making so much money off it. When he goes to Translyvania for forest management and with ideas about improvements for the peasant villages, he is unable to make much progress as he is seen as a Hungarian interloper.

Finally, Balint has discovered that he is in love with his old friend, Adrienne. Unfortunately, she has married since he was working abroad. Moreover, she has been sexually mistreated by her husband.

Lazslo is a musician who has withdrawn from law school and devoted himself to catching up on his musical studies. He is also in love with his cousin Klara but has no idea that her stepmother will not accept him as Klara’s suitor. Laszlo’s plans to become a composer are derailed when he gets involved with gambling.

This novel paints a picture of Transylvanian and Hungarian society of the time, with descriptions so vivid that I felt as if Bánffy was describing people, rooms, and landscapes that he knew, as he probably was. There are lots of characters, and it is sometimes difficult to remember who all of them are. I also found it a little difficult to understand the politics. Still, I found the novel very interesting.

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Day 1287: In the Light of What We Know

Cover for In the Light of What We KnowIn the Light of What We Know is a novel teeming with ideas and stories. It is filled with conversations about mathematics, politics, religion, philosophy, which makes it sound intimidating. Instead, it is thought-provoking and absorbing.

The nameless narrator is an American of Pakistani descent and privileged upbringing. When the novel opens in 2008, he has been fired from his position as an investment banker and is separated from his wife. At his door appears an old friend from his school days, a man he hasn’t heard from in years. Zafar was born in Bangladesh and raised in poverty in London. But he made his way to a degree in mathematics at Oxford, becoming first an investment banker and then a human rights lawyer. Zafar has been adrift, though, and the narrator barely recognizes him when he arrives.

Although the narrator has occasional remarks to make, most of the novel is Zafar telling about his life in anecdotes and ideas that wander and are loosely connected. Gradually, then, we understand the events that trouble and particularly anger him. All along there are hints of a massive disclosure.

Occasionally, when involved in the many circumlocutions and digressions in this novel, I felt myself on the verge of irritation, but I never actually entered into it. Instead, I found it fascinating. This novel is about exile, the feeling of not belonging, and so much more. It pins itself on the story of an unhappy love affair and on deception in the wake of 9/11. It also has something to say about the financial collapse, the war between Pakistan and Bangladesh (which I didn’t know about), Afghanistan, and many other subjects.

The title is ironic, because Zafar has a fascination with Gödel’s Theorum, which says that there are things in mathematics that are true but cannot be proven to be true. The novel is about truth, knowledge, and belief. What are they, and how do they interact?

This is a novel I read for my James Tait Black Fiction Prize project.

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Day 508: Conversations with Myself

Cover for Conversations with MyselfI was deeply disappointed with Conversations with Myself, which reads as if it was thrown together by people who don’t know much about publishing or the interests of readers. It was assembled from notes, diary extracts, letters, and interviews, probably without much interaction with the man himself. (Although it is solely credited to Mandela, it is fairly obvious from some of the notes that it was put together by committee.)

Context is one of the biggest problems with the book, that and organization. Perhaps some attempt was made to order the excerpts by subject or time. It is hard to tell. But except for short notes about where the information came from, no effort is made to explain the context of the excerpts. It is as if the editors of the book are assuming that its readers are intimately familiar with the events in Mandela’s life. He makes a journey, for example, and writes about it in his diary, but there is no introduction about the journey’s purpose.

One of the first things I encountered on beginning to read (besides three typos on the first two pages) was a note that an entry was from a letter to a particular person. The back of the book includes an alphabetical list with descriptions of some of the people mentioned. Naturally, I wanted to understand who Mandela was writing to. But the name was not listed.

Even if it had been listed, the information there is written like an abbreviated biographical dictionary or business résumé—in partial sentences, listing the person’s work positions, accomplishments, imprisonments, with lots of acronyms. When I am reading a book like this, I want to know the person’s relationship to Mandela. I want to read a blurb that gives me some sense of the person. I want to know if someone was Mandela’s friend for many years or a trusted colleague. As an extreme example, sandwiched between Winnie Mandela’s employment history and memberships in various organizations is the bald statement “Married to Nelson Mandela, 1958-96 (separated 1992).” That’s it for Winnie.

Let’s not forget the acronyms and organizations. Between my early attempts to look up names and acronyms in the back and the little information gleaned from doing so, I soon gave up referring to that list. As an example of the type of information offered, the African National Congress is explained in terms of its founding date, the dates it was banned, and its current status. But why was it formed? What are its goals? What has it achieved? Of course, I have heard of it for years, but I really don’t know much about it. Again, context.

This book could have been effective and interesting with more attempts to organize the material, write more informative introductions, and rework the appendix. Instead, it is simply confusing, with a few gems of thoughtful prose. I wish I had read The Long Walk to Freedom instead.