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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Day 1203: The 1977 Club! The Honourable Schoolboy

Cover for The Honourable SchoolboyI actually read this novel before the 1977 Club was announced, but I was pleased to find that it was published in that year. I have a couple of other books I’m reviewing this week that I read especially for the club.

Here are my previous reviews of some other books published in 1977:

* * *

I wasn’t aware that there was a sequel to John Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy until I picked up The Honourable Schoolboy and started reading it. It is truly a worthy successor.

In summarizing the plot, I have to give away a key point of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but a point revealed toward the beginning of the novel. In that novel, of course, George Smiley uncovered a mole for the Russians high up in British intelligence. Because of the mole’s position, as The Honourable Schoolboy begins, all of the service’s spy networks are compromised and must be dismantled.

With a small staff of personnel who were dismissed during his predecessor’s reign, Smiley must figure out a way to make the service viable again. He has the idea that they can look for intelligence in the lacunae of his predecessor’s work, that is, look for promising leads that were suppressed.

1977 club logoThey find one, payments by the Russians to an account in Hong Kong, first small ones but later very large. Since the “spook house” in Hong Kong has been closed, Smiley recalls a journalist, an “occasional” agent, Jerry Westerby, from retirement in Tuscany to investigate this lead. A tangled path leads him from a Chinese businessman in Hong Kong to the man’s former prostitute English mistress, a Mexican drug courier in Vientiane, and some ugly dealings.

It is always amazing to me that Le Carré can evoke as much excitement from a paper chase as from an action sequence. Once again, he is in top form with a taut thriller. This novel is set against a backdrop of Southeast Asia exploding into chaos with the end of the Vietnam War. Westerby’s investigations take him to Hong Kong, Shanghai, Phnom Penh, Vientiane, and Saigon.

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Day 1007: Perfume River

Cover for Perfume RiverYears ago I greatly enjoyed Robert Olen Butler’s A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. This set of short stories about Vietnam and its aftermath was beautifully written.

It’s 24 years later, and Butler is still thinking about Vietnam. His newest novel is about how a family and a homeless man are all affected in their own ways by the war.

Robert Quinlan is a Vietnam veteran who at 70 is now a university history professor. All his life, he’s tried to please his father, and his military service was part of that effort. Despite his administrative position, he had to kill a man during the Tet offensive. He is still affected by the incident and has never spoken about it at home.

Shortly before he shipped out, Robert’s younger brother Jimmy fled to Canada as a draft dodger. Their father disowned him. Now their father has broken his hip, and their mother asks Robert to try to talk Jimmy into coming home.

The homeless man Bob is also affected by Vietnam because his father was a veteran. Growing up with his father’s PTSD has affected his mental health.

link to NetgalleyI read more than half of this novel, but I grew increasingly impatient with it. The novel is closely observed but maybe too closely. All of the characters seemed to be obsessively evaluating each other’s every little action. It moves excruciatingly slowly. I felt like this novel was bogged down in detail. So, I didn’t finish it, even though the writing was beautiful.

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Day 930: Early Warning

Cover for Early WarningEarly Warning is the second in Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy. It continues the story of the Langdon family, picking up in the 1950’s and ending in 1985.

The family, which began with a couple and their children and the occasional appearance of other relatives, expands during this period to grandchildren and eventually their children. As you can imagine, by 1985 we are dealing with many characters.

This is one of my criticisms of the novel. With so many characters, we don’t spend very much time with any, which creates distance from the novel. I already felt this with the first book, and this feeling increases for the second.

But is the purpose of this novel to follow the characters or the main events during these times? It seems to be the second, as we look at the ennui of suburban housewives in the 50’s, the Cold War, the Vietnam War and its associated protests, the counterculture and Jonestown, to name a few. Smiley manages to have at least one family member involved in each of these events or movements, which is quite an accomplishment for one family from Iowa.

Of the Langdon children whose families are the focus of this novel, Frank concentrates most of his attention on business and sexual escapades, while his wife Andie struggles with a feeling of pointlessness and self-absorption. Neither of them pays much attention to their children, except that Frank puposefully fosters competition between his two twin boys, Richie and Michael. All of his children suffer from this upbringing, and the boys are at times truly scary.

Joe is the only Langdon to stay on the farm, and although he was one of my favorite characters in the first book, we don’t see much of him in this one. He and Lois have had some lucky breaks, and the farm is in better financial shape than their neighbors’, but decisions of the Reagan administration make small farms a tough business.

Lillian and Arthur raise a rowdy and happy family in Washington, D.C. But Arthur’s job with the CIA brings him under terrific pressure, and a tragic loss creates ramifications for years. This family has more than its fair share of sorrows.

Claire eventually marries a doctor and settles down in Iowa. But she has selected her husband almost in competition with a friend and eventually regrets her choice.

The novel is saved somewhat at the very end by a touching event linked to the presence of a character who isn’t explained until the end, one who appears in the middle of the book and at intervals throughout. At first I found the introduction of this character confusing, but I figured he had to be a family member, so then it wasn’t too hard to guess who he is.

I will read the final book, but I fear that the distance I feel from the story will only increase.

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Day 764: Sweet Caress

Cover for Sweet CaressAlthough I have by no means read everything by William Boyd, Sweet Caress reminds me most of his Any Human Heart, perhaps because it’s the story of one person’s life. This novel is about Amory Clay, a photographer born in 1908. Boyd creates the impression that Amory is a real person (so much so that I googled her twice) by interjecting photos of her life into the novel.

Amory leads an unusual life almost from the start of the novel. Although her father suffers from depression and other problems as a result of World War I, she is so content with her home life that she is upset when her parents send her away to school. Her parents are not well off, but Amory learns later that a legacy from an aunt is dedicated to her education.

Her mother wants her to attend university, but she decides early that she doesn’t want to go. Her favorite uncle, Greville, gave her a camera on her 10th birthday, and she wants to be a professional photographer.

Then a violent incident brings her home. Her father arrives at school unexpectedly to take her to tea. But his intention is to commit suicide, and he doesn’t want to go alone. Amory survives the drive into the lake and even saves her father, who is committed to an institution for a long time.

Soon after, Amory becomes Uncle Greville’s assistant. He is a society photographer, and although Amory does not enjoy this type of work, she must start somewhere. But she takes a risk with an unusual betrothal photo, and its reception ruins her chances. Soon Amory is off to capture the decadent night life of Berlin.

Amory leads an extraordinary life that contains many sorrows and triumphs. She is a war correspondent for both World War II and the Vietnam War, she is attacked by fascists rioting in London, she travels with lesbians to Mexico, she encounters a Charles Manson-like figure in 1960’s California. She almost unwittingly marries a lord and has a family. These are just some of the events of her life, its story punctuated with paragraphs from the “present time” of 1978, when Amory is an old woman.

link to NetgalleyI found this novel involving, although not as much as I did Any Human Heart. For one thing, I wasn’t always convinced I was hearing a woman’s voice, and in no way was this because of Amory’s adventurous life. Also, Amory’s voice is a reserved one, with certain exceptions. Still, it is a fascinating story that manages to cover a great deal of modern history.

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Day 438: In the Lake of the Woods

Cover for In the Lake of the WoodsBest Book of the Week!

In the Lake of the Woods is a mystery, but not in the traditional sense. It is also a harrowing look at one man’s tormented psyche after the trauma of war.

It is September 1986. John Wade and his wife Kathy have retreated to a remote cabin on Lake of the Woods in far northern Minnesota after John sustained a brutal defeat in a state senatorial campaign. Wade had been beating his opponent handily until information about Wade’s past surfaced, or perhaps it was only rumor.

One day Kathy disappears. Thinking she is just out for a hike, Wade does nothing for awhile, waiting for her to return. Late that night he goes into the village for help.

This all seems fairly straightforward, but O’Brien periodically presents us with a story about what actually happened, only the story is different each time. As O’Brien reveals more, we learn that Wade was behaving oddly the night before Kathy disappeared–or did she disappear that night? Is she lost, did she leave on her own, did something happen to her? We learn that Wade has taught himself to forget anything he doesn’t want to think about–as if it never happened.

O’Brien shows us the psychological makeup of a man who has undergone a great deal of trauma–whose father committed suicide when he was ten, who spent his boyhood in the basement teaching himself magic tricks, who served in Vietnam. But he is also a man who periodically spies on his wife, who calls himself the Sorceror, who makes of himself a master manipulator, who has horrible nightmares.

O’Brien alternates chapters about the search with those that explore Wade’s past. He also includes chapters of excerpts from interviews of those involved and from other sources as diverse as books on psychology, biographies of politicians, and records of military massacres, such as the Battle of Little Bighorn and My Lai.

This novel is absolutely riveting, written in spare and beautiful prose, disturbing and powerful. It is not so much a mystery as a novel about mystery–why we find it fascinating and what we can never know, a single human soul.

Day 298: Another Man’s Moccasins

Cover for Another Man's MoccasinsThis Walt Longmire mystery interleaves the present-time story with flashbacks to Longmire’s experiences during the Vietnam War. I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy this development, but the novel turned out to be very good, as the two stories are linked.

Walt is helping his daughter Cady recover from her experiences in Philadelphia (detailed in the previous book) when he is called out to the body of a young woman found along a county highway. Walt immediately recognizes the woman as Vietnamese. Next to the body is a huge Crow Indian, who runs away from Walt. In chasing him down, Walt discovers that he has been living in a culvert. When Walt takes him into custody, he won’t speak.

The discovery of the Vietnamese girl triggers memories of Walt’s first homicide investigation as a marine in Vietnam. The girl’s identification shows she is named Ho Thi Paquet, but in among her possessions, Walt find the picture of another woman who resembles someone he knew in Vietnam. With the help of his friend Henry Standing Bear, Walt finds out that the girl is connected with a large human trafficking ring in Los Angeles.

Walt decides that the Crow, identified as a mentally ill Vietnam vet named Virgil White Buffalo, probably didn’t kill Ho. He also doesn’t think it is a coincidence that a Vietnamese “tourist” has appeared, staying in a motel in Absaroka County.

As I have said before, I really enjoy this series. I enjoy the sense that the landscape of Wyoming is as much of a character as the people in the novels, and I like the recurring characters, who keep developing new dimensions.