GREAT BOOKS TO READ INTO SPRING
As March approaches, we begin the long trek to Spring. Keeping warm by the glow of a great book can make winter melt and bring on the blooms of Spring, at least in our hearts. So here are ten books about what Spring is all about - a new beginning, a renewal, a chance to rise up from the ground and sprout new shoots.
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD I know, you saw the movie - or now, the play. Or maybe you read it when you had to in school. Whatever - just get it and read it again. Believe me, it will grab you and take you to a new place - a place where you, now, can see what life is all about. Mark your calendar, every decade or so, read it again. You will have changed and so will the book.
THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT’S WOMAN Maybe you saw the movie with Meryl Streep, but no worries, the movie and book and very different. This is the story of love in Victorian England. The author, John Fowles, puts a modern spin on it - I’ll let you discover that.
THE HUMAN STAIN Philip Roth wrote many fine books, but none better than this look at race, loss, love and renewal. This is a book that just might change you.
PILGRIM AT TINKER CREEK Annie Dillard’s book about her time observing the world around her is one of those great books that make us look at our own world more deeply. Take the plunge and when you come up for air, your world will have changed.
THE EYE OF THE NEEDLE Ken Follet’s thriller about WWII and the people it changed revolves around one of the best characters he has created - a spy who is about the steal the war’s greatest secret. Only one person can stop him - a woman who has spent her life caring for a disabled husband and her child on a lonely island.
ROSE Martin Cruz Smith went on to write Gorky Park, taking us into the gray world of the Soviet Union and then Russia. In this early book, he takes us into Victorian England and tells us a story we will not soon forget.
1876 Gore Vidal takes us back to the Centennial year when a man was chosen President by a political deal that would have ramifications even down to our present day. Of course, that doesn’t get in the way of the wittily told story about love and power in old New York.
MIDDLEMARCH George Eliot’s (pen name of Mary Ann Evans) great novel is about life and love set in the fictional town of the title. Many think this is the greatest novel written in English - but don’t let that stop you from enjoying a great read. Start today and when you look up, it’ss be Spring!
THE GRAPES OF WRATH John Steinbeck’s great story about a family devastated by the Great Depression, heading West for a new life in California.
THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING Joan Didion’s book about life, love and loss - and moving on.
BOOKS BANNED FROM THE CURRICULUM
Recently, I have been thinking of all the great books they never told me about in my 20 years of school. It is surprising that the curriculum has not changed much in recent years.
Here is a list of the 15 most assigned books in colleges today:
1. Frankenstein, by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
2. Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer
3. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
4. Oedipus, by Sophocles
5. Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad
6. Paradise Lost, by John Milton
7. The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James
8. Beloved, by Toni Morrison
9. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Ann Jacobs
10. To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf
11. Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
12. The Odyssey, by Homer
13. Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf
14. Hamlet, by William Shakespeare
15. Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
Frankenstein was too popular to be assigned in my day.
Beloved hadn't yet been written.
Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston was not on the radar back then.
We did read Virginia Woolf, but only To The Lighthouse.
All of the rest were on the curriculum then and many years later, still there.
Many incredible novelists are missing from this list. Just to name a few - Roth, Mailer, Vidal, Hemingway, Dickens, Tolstoy, Joyce, Dostoevsky - the list is too long and I am sure you can name many, too.
So here is my list of ten books to read that you didn't read in school:
Black Spring by Henry Miller. Miller was damned as a pornographer when he was alive, but now, his shocking look at the world is much more intune with current sensibilities. This book is about growing up in Brooklyn and escaping to Paris. Beware - this isn't a writer looking for your admiration or even understanding. This is a writer who wants to tell it like it is.
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. In the mid-1930s, the Spanish Civil War was fought on the front page of newspapers all over the world. Fascism was rising up against the elected democratic government of Spain. Hemingway was first a reporter and he went to Spain to cover the war, then returned with one of the great novels of our time.
The Stories of John Cheever. The modern world was gris for Cheever's mill. You will recognize it and, in the process, recognize yourself.
Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy. As a guy who never lived further than a traffic-filled commute from a big city, how I came to love this book and its author is beyond me. I just do. I think you will too.
The King Must Die by Mary Renault. Three thousand years ago, a small group of people living along the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea created Western Civilization. Renault tells one of the great tales about how that happened. Her hero, Theseus, leaves home to find his father and fortune. His story is older than Troy.
Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. Probably, you know the story - or think you do. The various movies and musicals do not do justice to this masterpiece of storytelling. There are hundreds of characters, most of whom you will never forget. I know - it's long. But you have the time and you couldn't find a more entertaining book.
The Human Stain by Philip Roth. Sometimes, a great writer can write a novel that is beyond comprehension. Something happens in this story of a college professor who is fired for making a racial remark. Roth takes us to the core of what is destroying our country - and not one mention of Trump.
Accordion Crimes by Annie Proulx. In the late 1800s, a Sicilian makes an accordian that ends up in the hands of many different immigrants to America. This is the story of those immigrants and their times.
The Comedians by Graham Greene. Hati in the 1960s. A great story full of diplomats, killers, survivors, vegetarian former Presidential candidates and a couple of lovers. Greene specialized in writing about the world's hot spots and making them come alive through his memorable characters. This is what life is like in many countries, even today.
The Passion by Jeanette Winterson. OK, so here is a real short one for you - but every page packs a punch you won't forget. Passion is what life is all about, so dive in and enjoy.
So, read on and yes! it will be on the exam!
TEN BOOKS TO READ ON VACATION
Lots of us are heading to a beach or a beautiful place to spend some time to unwind, sit back and smell the rosé. Having companion to share the experience always makes it better. If you are like me, even with a significant other, there are times when you want to kick back and just throw yourself into another world.
Here are a list of ten books that will make any vacation, better. Some of them you may have read before or have always claimed that you read, but didn't. Well, here is your big chance. Trust me, you will enjoy the experience.
1. THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES by Arthur Conan Doyle
You know these are great stories. They are perfect bite-sized stories for a vacation.
2. ROUGHING IT by Mark Twain
Here is Twain’s own description of this book:
This book is merely a personal narrative, and not a pretentious history or a philosophical dissertation. It is a record of several years of variegated vagabondizing, and its object is rather to help the resting reader while away an idle hour than afflict him with metaphysics, or goad him with science. Yes, take it all around, there is quite a good deal of information in the book. I regret this very much; but really it could not be helped: information appears to stew out of me naturally, like the precious ottar of roses out of the otter.
3. THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I know, I know - but believe me, reading this book, as an adult, will be an experience you will not forget. Trust me. Oh, and if you think the movie ( any of the 3 they made) gave you any idea about this book, forget it. And I saved the best for last - it’s a very easy read.
4. NINE STORIES by J.D. Salinger
Probably at sometime in your life you read The Catcher in the Rye. These stories are written by the same author. Funny, disturbing, moving - I dare you to read these stories and NOT tell your friends about them. And again - SHORT stories so the book can be picked up and put down anytime.
5. THE EYE OF THE NEEDLE by Ken Follett
Do you like thrillers? Well, this is about as good as they come. A Nazi spy finds out the date of the D-Day invasion and must be prevented from passing it on to the Nazis by a young married woman with a child. This books has across the board appeal - well written, exciting and, yes, thrilling.
6. MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA by Arthur Golden
You will enter a world unlike any you have ever known.
7. GET SHORTY by Elmore Leonard
You may have seen the movie or the new TV series, but the original novel is one of the best modern crime novels by one of the masters of modern crime fiction.
8. TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY by John Steinbeck
John Steinbeck wrote many great novels, including The Grapes of Wrath. In 1960, he took off in a modified trailer with his dog Charley on a trip across America. Along the way, he discovers people and places that change his life. They will change you too. A travel book is perfect vacation reading.
9. A YEAR IN PROVENCE by Peter Mayle
Sit back and luxuriate in the world of great food, great vistas, great people.
10. MIDDLEMARCH by George Elliot
OK. this is a BIG book, but it is also one of the best novels you will ever read. It actually conveys some of the complications of real life. You will not finish it over your vacation, but you will enjoy it. Sit back, relax, there is no hurry.
And there are ten choices of what to read while you bask on the beach, chill in the mountains or stroll along the Boulevard.
It’s 1968. President Johnson has taken America through a third revolution, establishing the law’s commitment to full Civil Rights for all Americans and a new set of social programs, especially Medicare, that will see poverty whittled down to new lows.
For reasons that have never been fully explained, Johnson stays committed to a war in Vietnam which even he, in private conversations, doubts can be won and knows that most Americans don’t want their sons to die there.
While no one doubts his ability to get elected to another term as President (he served only 14 months of JFK’s first term), Johnson pulls out of the Presidential race in 1968, leaving the field wide open. Johnson is backing his Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, but Robert Kennedy, entering the race late, seems to have the momentum.
Then, in June, RFK is assassinated after winning the California primary.
The Republican Party is no less fractured. The front runner, George Romney (father of Mitt), stumbles at the gate when he claims that he was ‘brainwashed’ into believing that the War in Vietnam was being won. Nelson Rockefeller becomes the standard bearer for the Party’s middle-left wing, but he never really gets traction. Instead, an older and seemingly wiser Richard Nixon emerges as the favorite.
The two party conventions that summer will mirror the fissures in American society that are growing ever deeper and unbridgeable. Just as today, civil political conversation seems impossible. Those who were ‘for’ the War would not speak to those who were against it and those who sided with the numerous oddly named groups of young people (e.g. Yippies) who were ‘turning on and tuning out’ had no common ground with mainstream America.
Norman Mailer was one of America’s most prominent writers. His books were best sellers and his essays set the tone for discussions about what was happening in America mid-20the Century. 1968 was to be a banner year for Mailer, winning both a Pulitzer and National Book Award for his Armies of the Night, a strange mixture of reporting and inner soul searching about the October 1967 March on Washington to protest the War.
Mailer was going to both political conventions in 1968. First the Republicans in Miami, then the Democrats in Chicago played host to America since back then the three major networks (there were no others) presented gavel to gavel coverage. And there was no shortage of fireworks on the nation’s TV sets as running commentary was provided by William Buckley and Gore Vidal (they hated each other).
Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago puts you right on the scene:
[The] Grand Old Party with a philosophy rather than a program, had chosen what must certainly be the materialistic capital of the world for their convention. Las Vegas might offer competition, but Las Vegas was materialism in the service of electricity—fortunes could be lost in the spark of the dice. Miami was materialism baking in the sun, then stepping back to air-conditioned caverns where ice could nestle in the fur. It was the first of a hundred curiosities—that in a year when the Republic hovered on the edge of revolution, nihilism, and lines of police on file to the horizon, visions of future Vietnams in our own cities upon us, the party of conservatism and principle, of corporate wealth and personal frugality, the party of cleanliness,hygiene, and balanced budget, should have set itself down on a sultan’s strip.
And later in the summer, Mailer arrives in Chicago:
Chicago is the great American city. New York is one of the capitals of the world and Los Angeles is a constellation of plastic, San Francisco is a lady, Boston has become Urban Renewal, Philadelphia and Baltimore and Washington wink like dull diamonds in the smog of Eastern Megalopolis, and New Orleans is unremarkable past the French Quarter. Detroit is a one-trade town, Pittsburgh has lost its golden triangle, St. Louis has become the golden arch of the corporation, and nights in Kansas City close early. The oil depletion allowance makes Houston and Dallas naught but checkerboards for this sort of game. But Chicago is a great American city. Perhaps it is the last of the great American cities.
If you want to know how we got here in 2018 with an orange-haired semi-literate, woman-grabbing, tax-evading rich baby Huey as President, you could find worse places to start than the summer of 1968. That is the beginning of the sad story of America’s decline into la-la land, a place where truth and science and morality are as absent as a vegetarian at a Trump $100,000 a plate fundraiser.
50 years ago this weekend was the beginning of the end of the American domination of world affairs. Take a look at how it all began - and along the way, enjoy some incredible writing.
BOOKS FIND ME
Some people have asked me how I find books to read and I respond, they find me. From when I first started to read, I loved to walk down the aisles of books in a library or bookstore and simply pick up whatever book my eye lights upon. Some books seem to jump out at me - READ ME!!! And most times, I do and most times, I am thrilled to have found a great new read. The authors I have discovered with this highly random method are too many to list and, so, I still use this lottery method.
The other day, I was in my local library to pick up a book I had placed on hold, the new book, Energy, by Richard Rhodes, author of the Triple Crown Winner (The Pulitzer, The National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award) The Making of the Atom Bomb, the best history book by an American in the past 50 years. As I was about to leave, I decided to glance at the shelf of new books and my eye hit on one by Ursula K. LeGuin.
For those who are 'in' to science fiction, LeGuin needs no introduction. She has written over twenty best-selling books, including The Left Hand of God and The Lathe of Heaven, and has a cabinet full of Hugo and Nebula awards. Her success as a sci fi writer is also her nemesis - she is so much more than a sci fi writer - she is simply a great writer. The recent death of Philip Roth reminds me of an interview he gave when he confessed that he hated the appellation, Greatest Jewish Writer of his time. He was a great writer. So many great writers have lost readers because they have been 'categorized' as a Black, Gay or Feminist writer. To paraphrase Duke Ellington, there are only two kinds of books, good and bad.
LeGuin's latest book is a collection of her online writing (is 'blog' still used?). It is called, No Time To Spare because LeGuin says that at 80+ years old, while she is free, her time is not - she has no time to spare.
The pieces are all just a few pages long, perfect for reading at the beach or while traveling. Each is a journey into subjects as diverse as "are you really only as old as you think you are?" to choosing a cat to the overuse of the word 'fuck' to The Great American Novel (The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck because it tells us all that is good and all that is bad about America).
Here she is on 'male group solidarity' which she sees as one of the most powerful forces in human history giving us Government, Army, Priesthood, University and Corporations:
The great ancient male institutions have been increasingly infiltrated by women for the last two centuries, and this is a very great change. But when women manage to join the institutions that excluded them, they mostly end up being co-opted by them, serving male ends, enforcing male values....Can women operate as women in a male institution without becoming imitation men? (emphasis in original)
One day, in 2012, she reads the "On This Day' feature in the NY Times about the first televised White House address by a President in 1947 in which President Truman asked Americans to give up eating meat on Tuesdays and chicken on Thursdays to help stockpile grain for starving people in Europe. She is dismayed that such an appeal to Americans by the President, today, is ridiculous to even imagine (and she was writing during the Obama presidency!). Here is what she concludes:
I have watched my country accept, mostly quite complacently, along with a lower living standard for more people, a lower moral standard. A moral standard based on advertising... American politicians didn't use to lie as if they knew that nobody cared whether they lied or not...Can America go on living on spin and illusion, hot air and hogwash, and still be my country? ...When did it become impossible for our government to ask its citizens to refrain from short-term gratification in order to serve a greater good? ...Maybe that's why I feel that I live in exile. I use to live in a country that had a future.
On January 22, 2018, Ursula K. LeGuin died. I cannot imagine what she thought of America's future under President Trump.
10 BOOKS TO LISTEN TO ON THE BEACH
As someone who has read on every beach he has visited, I enjoy nothing more than getting sunstroke while reading a great book on the beach. I can remember one summer I started reading Anna Karenina on Memorial Day and finished it up on Labor day, a summer with one of the most intriguing ladies I ever met.
In recent years, I have given up the struggle to get comfortable in the sand while trying to read a book. Instead, I listen to books. It started with an ipod, but now I can enjoy a book on my phone or tablet and with wireless earphones, I can lay, sit up or even walk in the surf while listening to a great read.
Here is my list of 10 audiobooks that you will love to listen to on the beach:
1. PILLARS OF EARTH by Ken Follett read by John Lee
This audiobook clocks in at about 41 hours so you can listen to it all summer. It's the story of the construction of a Gothic Cathedral and of the times. It's a sometimes brutal but always entertaining story with dozens of colorful characters and many twists and turns. Believe me, you will get so caught up in the drama that this is going to be the quickest 41 hours you have ever spent with a book.
2. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee read by Sissy Spacek
Of course, you've seen the movie but the book is actually better. What makes the audiobook special is the voice of Scout done by Sissy Spacek. You may think that it is no fun to read a book whose ending you know, but listening to books you have read is a totally different experience than re-reading them. The narrator is an artist who paints the novel in words, so that you are always seeing things in a new light.
3. THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO by Steig Larsson read by Simon Vance
There is a lot more to this book than the incredibly interesting character, Lisbeth Salander. I read the book before I listened to the audiobook and preferred listening to reading the book. It’s a layer cake of suspense, mystery and thriller on every page.
4. THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY by Douglas Adams read by Stephen Fry
The only problem with listening to this book while on the beach are the stares you are going to get as people watch you laughing your head off. SciFi is usually not funny, but this is a very unusual book. I dare you to listen to it without telling all your friends that they have to listen to it too.
5. LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI by Mark Twain read by Grover Gardner
Mark Twain was a river boat pilot on the Mississippi River before he was an author. In fact, his pen name (he was born Samuel Clemens) comes from a river pilot term meaning that the river at a certain point was deep enough to be safely passed. I know you are probably thinking, why would I want to read this? The answer is simple - you will love Twain's wit and stories and lore all about the great Mississippi and Grover Gardner is the dean of audiobook narrators.
6. THE SHINING by Stephen King read by Scott Campbell
What is the only thing that is scarier than reading The Shining? That's right - listening to it! This is a classic and Scott Campbell is as good as it gets as a narrator.
7. A Is for Alibi,B Is for Burglar,C Is for Corpse by Sue Grafton read by Judy Kaye
This is a real deal - 3 for 1. The first three Sue Grafton books that started one of the best modern series about a private eye, Kinsey Millhone. It is also three of the best in the series.
What is a summer without John Grisham. Probably, you read this book, but it's been 20 years or so and your memory isn't that good. Scott Brick is a great narrator who brings to life the story's many characters. Give it a listen and you will satiate your legal thriller need for a while.
I have neither read nor listened to this new book, but Sedaris is a safe bet to make you laugh and cry and feel things just a bit deeper than before you read him.
You have probably heard of this book, but even if you haven't or if you have and read it years ago, do yourself a favor and listen to it. It is a safe bet that you will be listening to it going to, on and headed home from the beach.
I LOVE BOOKS
I have been a reader all of my life. In good times and bad, I have kept on reading - novels, history, biography, essays, science - I believe that I have read a book on almost every topic that I can think of.
Reading has been one of my best friends. It has been there for me, year after year, feeding my curiosity and reaching into every bone in my body. When I was a kid, if I had to pick one thing most people said about me at one time or another it was - he always has a book in his hand. And I did.
I was a frequent visitor to many Philadelphia Free Library branches in South Philadelphia, my favorites being the Passyunk Branch at 20th and Shunk Streets and the branch at Broad and Morris Streets. Of course, the Main Library at 20th and The Parkway was the grandest of all.
When I could afford to buy books, I frequented the book departments in all the major Department Stores (Gimbels had the best) and the many bookstores around town. Buying books for over 50 years, I accumulated quite a library. So, when I downsized and moved into an apartment, I had to divest myself of thousands of books. Nobody wanted them. I gave away dozens of boxes to the Philadelphia library used book store (just north of the main library on 20th Street). I kept only the precious books that I re-read or that I have a special relationship with, e.g. my first copy of The Great Gatsby.
Not able to find room for more books, I have turned to ebooks. I have always listened to books in my long commutes to and from work, but now I also read them on my tablet or phone.
I know that many deplore the demise of physical books and refuse to give up the joys of actually turning pages, but there are joys to e-book reading too. For one thing, you can read Anna Karenina without having to lug around an 800+ page book. For another, you can look up words or places with just a tap. But the main benefit is access. At any time of the day or night, you can search for and find a book that interests you. The e-bookstore and e-libraries are open 24/7.
There is another great reason to read ebooks, savings. Here are a couple of websites that you can subscribe to and get in your email, everyday, a list of great books that are on sale, most under $2.99 and many just $1.99. This is your chance to read a book you always wanted to read, but then forgot about. Often, there are sales on entire series written by an author so you can get 3 or 4 books for $3.99 or less.
Here are the websites I subscribe to - tell us any that you know of:
PHILIP ROTH, NOVELIST
Philip Roth died yesterday.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Roth was never enraptured by Hollywood's siren call to sunshine and moola. He was a novelist. While his first major prize was a National Book Award for his collection of short stories, Goodbye Columbus, he spent his adult life writing novels - thirty of them.
Given such a large body of work, appraisals must occupy more space than this eulogy. Instead, I'd like to put Roth in context for you. As one interviewer told him after Roth had retired from writing, the book he will be known for is Portnoy's Complaint (Roth's third novel)- and that interviewer was right; most obituaries include its title in the headline, as in the BBC's Portnoy's Complaint author dies aged 85.
Portnoy's Complaint was published in 1969. The novel is a long monologue by the title character to his shrink. Portnoy is a mother-dominated young Jewish-American who is obsessed with sex and masturbates frequently.
In 1969, sex was still a taboo subject in the media. TV was restricted to the three major networks plus PBS, public television. The most popular and award-winning show in 1969 was Marcus Welby, MD starring the father from Father Knows Best, Robert Young. It was a medical show on the order of an older Dr. Kildare. Dr. Welby never treated venereal disease and the scourge of AIDS was more than a decade away. In fact, the 'sex' on the show was confined to showing Welby's young partner (played by James Brolin) smiling at an especially attractive female patient. In movies, Midnight Cowboy was all the rage, but for its mere suggestion of male prostitution, it was given an X rating. To this day, it is the only X-rated movie to win a Best Picture Oscar. I Am Curious Yellow, a Swedish film with nudity and sex scenes had come out in 1967 but was confined to 'art houses.' American movies rarely dealt with sex but that started to change in 1969 with Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, a movie whose iconic poster suggest it is about wife (or husband) - swapping but that never happens.
Portnoy hit the book stores with a blast. It was the Fifty Shades of its day with one big difference - Portnoy was written by a National Book Award winner and would later be named one of the 100 best books of the century.
I was a teen when I read Portnoy. Back then, when I became interested in an author, I read all of his or her works. At that time, Roth had only two other novels published, Letting Go and When She Was Good. Neither impressed me but even so when Roth's latest novel, The Great American Novel, came out in 1973, I read it. Again, I was not impressed. Today, these novels are considered his worse. So it goes.
And so it took me almost thirty years before I gave Roth another try - yeah, I have trouble 'letting go.' The book that took me back to Roth was The Human Stain. They made a movie from the book (Roth's books have been turned into films seven times), and while it's a good movie, it does not come close to capturing the complex musings on the nature of the human condition that Roth reveals through his multi-layered characters.
I have yet to complete my Roth journey. Every year I try a new novel of his. Many must be grouped together and there are few that do not reference other Roth novels. So, it is important to read the novels in conjunction with Roth's other novels about the same character. With 30 novels, there is a lot to read.
Great novelists are a dying breed. The new TV of our streaming age with series running for several seasons has taken over much of what novelist use to do - tell us a long story with engaging characters that can delve into the human condition and tell us something about ourselves. Roth did that by giving us a vivid picture of the second half of the 20th century, its concerns, its people, its humanity. Of course, being Jewish, Roth wrote about that, but only in the way that Faulkner uses the American South to act as a microscope through which he enables us to see into the inner world of being human.
And in the end, that was Roth's subject, what it means to be a human being in our times.
PASSAGE TO POWER BY ROBERT CARO
No President in American history is more controversial than Lyndon Baines Johnson. To the neocons, he is the embodiment of all that is wrong with government. To the liberals (yes, come on, you can say that word), he represents all that government can be.
Robert Caro has spent 35+ years exploring the life and times of LBJ, one of the greatest political figures in American history. Paths to Power, Means of Ascent, Master of the Senate and Passage to Power provide over 3,000 pages of LBJ and his times. Throughout there are mini-biographies or mini-histories of various people who came into contact with LBJ or of various organizations or groups to which he belonged. Often, Caro delves into murky waters, trying to bring to light certain ‘improprieties.’ LBJ lost one election when it was stolen from him and won another when he stole it. That seems to be the modus operandi in Texas elections - winner takes all and no sympathy for losers.
All of his life, LBJ sought power and more power. Finally, in November, 1963, he got it - real power. And he intended to use it.
Once, when an aide told President Johnson that Civil Rights legislation would never pass Congress and he shouldn’t try to do the right thing if it couldn’t be done, Johnson replied “Hell, what’s the Presidency for then?”
LBJ wouldn’t waste his time in power on doing the little things – he aimed big, after all, he was a Texan. There have been few Presidents who have a more impressive record of accomplishment or, if you believe that any government involvement in our lives is bad, a more damaging legacy of creating dependency.
The latest installment of Robert Caro’s multi-volume biography, The Years of Lyndon Johnson covers the period from 1960 to 1963. It tells the story of how the most powerful senator in American history gave up that office and agreed to take the most impotent job in government – the vice presidency. Unlike most biographers of Presidents, Caro has no desire to write hagiography; in fact, Caro mines every piece of dirt he finds on LBJ, from questionable election returns to outright accusations of bribery. Along the way, Caro paints a portrait of a man in transition – constantly moving toward the center of power, until, finally, he gets it. That is why Caro calls, this book, The Passage to Power.
It begins with Johnson losing the Democratic presidential nomination to John Kennedy.
Lyndon Johnson did not take defeat lightly. After he was elected Vice-President, he tried to retain the power he had garnered as Majority Leader in the Senate. But even a Promethean figure like LBJ could not breathe life into the corpse that the VP’s job is in American politics. Broken, sullen, politically castrated, Johnson went from Master of the Senate (Caro’s title for the previous installment of this multi-volume biography) to a has-been joke.
By 1963, Johnson’s star had fallen so far that he was on the brink of being thrown off the Kennedy re-election ticket in 1964 when an assassin’s bullet changed history and rocketed him into an office that he had striven for his entire the life, the pinnacle of power – President of the United States of America.
The story of Johnson’s fall from and then rise again to power is about as dramatic as history can be – with a cast of characters that rivals Shakespearean tragedy. At the center of the drama, there are men of mythical stature.
John Kennedy was a rich man’s son whose career in the Senate was about as lackluster as LBJ’s was spectacular. Accomplishing little, JFK had one ace in the hole when he decided to try for the Democratic nomination for President in 1960 – his father, Joseph Kennedy’s, enormous wealth and power.
Joe Kennedy had made millions in the stock market and multiplied those millions when he anticipated the stock market collapse in 1929 by selling short. When FDR created the Securities and Exchange Commission, he picked Kennedy to be its first head and then gave him his reward – an ambassadorship to England. As an Irish-American, Kennedy took great pleasure in being named Ambassador to the Court of St James. In 1960, he saw the opening that he longed for – a chance to put one of his sons in the White House. The problem was that his eldest son, Joe, Jr, whom he had groomed for the job had been killed in WWII. Now, Joe pinned his hopes on his second son.
Jack Kennedy was no Jack Kennedy when he started out – in fact, he was a sickly, but charming lothario. His battles with Addison’s disease, a crippling illness that was a death sentence before the wonders of modern pharmaceuticals, and a degenerative spine disease that required multiple operations, would have deterred lesser men from getting out of bed let alone running for political office.
Caro expertly tells the tale of how JFK battled illnesses that would have put most men into a wheelchair. As the toll of illnesses, complicated and made worse by ill-advised treatments, makes JFK teeter on the brink of permanent incapacity, we begin to see the steel beneath the suntan of JFK’s character. There was nothing in JFK’s professional career that made anyone – LBJ included – think that he could win the greatest political prize, the Presidency. It was his personal battles and the way he handled them that gave a clue to his eventual political success. He never quit and he never let anything get to him.
Jack Kennedy had grace under pressure. He showed that grace to the American people in the debates with a far more experienced politician and debater – Richard Nixon. When he was a very young President – the youngest ever elected - he showed it to the US military and Intelligence leaders when he stood up to them and refused to send in the Marines when they botched the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. And he showed it to the world when nuclear holocaust was just a blink away - there was never a time when he and the people he represented needed that grace more than in the Cuban Missile Crisis.
And Joe Kennedy had another son.
Robert Kennedy was the son most like his father. As Joe Kennedy himself said – “Bobby hates like me.” And there is no one that Robert Kennedy hated more than LBJ. And just like Jack, Bobby Kennedy was no Bobby Kennedy when he began his career. A communist hunter, a union buster, a man who never hesitated to kick a man when he was down, RFK played to win – at any cost. He ran his brother’s presidential campaign in 1960 and went on to become his Attorney General and closest advisor.
JFK offered the Vice-Presidency to LBJ after defeating him for the 1960 Democratic nomination. There are many versions of how and why this happened. Caro tries to tell everyone’s side of this complicated story, but the truth is rarely found in repeating the lies that men have come to believe. The dispute about what actually happened is between those who were Bobby’s friends and continue to write the history of that time so as to burnish the glow of RFK’s place in history (Sorenson, Schlesinger, O’Donnell) and those who were LBJ’s men (Busby, Reedy and Moyers). The RFK faction wants history to reflect that JFK offered the vice-presidency to LBJ as a mere gesture, never expecting that he would accept it. LBJ’s men tell the story of how JFK made the offer and then his brother Bobby tried to renege on it. Caro concludes that JFK wanted and, more importantly, needed LBJ on the ticket to win in November. LBJ accepted the offer because he believed that, as a southerner, he would never get elected President - and to more than one person, LBJ pointed out that, at that time, seven vice-presidents had succeeded to the presidency. While Caro makes clear that there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that LBJ had anything to do with Kennedy’s assassination, he also documents that LBJ was well aware of Kennedy’s many illnesses.
Caro is greatly aided by the tapes of many White House conversations that are now available to the public. Both JFK and LBJ used a tape system that they – and they alone – could activate. Therefore, the tapes are somewhat selective (as opposed to Nixon who had a more advanced and more revealing voice-activated system). Those tapes confirm that during the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK stood alone in holding out against those who advocated an immediate invasion of Cuba. Caro falls victim to the lure of the RFK supporters in writing that Bobby advised his brother to make a deal rather than confront the USSR with a choice between surrender and war. In fact, the tapes make clear that RFK was as hawkish as the rest of JFK’s advisors. The deal that JFK eventually agreed to – that the US would take its missiles out of Turkey within six months if the USSR would remove its missiles from Cuba, immediately – was brokered by RFK in discussions with the Soviet ambassador, but JFK used his bother to make the contact with the Russians because he knew that the Russians would understand that Bobby, as the President’s brother, was offering a deal that came directly from the President. RFK was not the architect of the deal, but merely the messenger.
LBJ’s role in the Cuban Missile Crisis, as in all other phases of JFK’s administration, was as a spectator. He had no power and neither JFK nor anyone else in his administration thought that much of the man they referred to as the “Cornpone” because of his unsophisticated manners and speech. JFK had gathered around him the ‘best and the brightest’ and LBJ was painfully insecure in his ability to interact with these Ivy Leaguers – especially when he had no power, and when these men – and there were no women in any powerful positions except for the First Lady – had no reason to listen to a has-been who, probably, would not be on the ticket in 1964.
Caro never decides whether to believe the RFJ faction that Johnson was going to be dumped in ’64. He does relate the story of how a business associate of Bobby Baker (an LBJ operative in the Senate bureaucracy) was testifying before a Senate investigative committee on November 22, 1963 that Johnson had financially benefitted from a bribe paid to Bobby Baker to get insurance business. Caro tells the tale as fact but there are no records of the Senate Committee’s investigation. When the news came in from Dallas that LBJ was the new President, the investigation was ended. Caro believes that if it went forward, it could have been the ammo that RFK needed to blast LBJ off the 1964 Democratic ticket.
The heart of Caro’s short book (less than half the size of other volumes in this series – Caro originally intended to write a four volume work, but decided to release this book and make it a five volume biography) is the period following JFK’s assassination. Caro relates how Johnson took control of the government and held it together while the nation mourned the loss of its leader and the world looked on in horror as violence ripped the open the stolid dignity of US world leadership.
It was not easy to hold things together at that turbulent time.
Most of the JFK team disliked Johnson, and those who didn’t dislike him believed that he was a lightweight, incapable of being President. Johnson desperately needed them to stay on to prove to Americans and world leaders that there would be continuity in the US government. Most of them wanted to go home – they came to Washington to serve with JFK, not some Cornpone glad-hander who didn’t know a Picasso from a Polaris.
LBJ went to work on them immediately, playing on what he knew was their widely-held belief that he was not up to being President. “I need you a lot more than Jack ever did,” was a mantra that Johnson repeated endlessly in the days after the assassination. When this tactic didn’t work, he played on their patriotism – “If you want to honor his memory, help me pass his programs.” LBJ effectively used both arguments to keep in place JFK’s entire team – including his brother Bobby as Attorney General.
The other vital item on Johnson’s agenda was to place before the American people the facts of what had occurred on that incredible weekend when an assassin killed the President and then was, himself, murdered on live television. Johnson needed to create a Committee to investigate what had occurred, and to head that Committee he had to have the one person who was perceived as being above politics and capable of an impartial judgment, the Chief Justice of the United States, Earl Warren. The problem was that Warren did not want the job. Repeatedly, he told the people who Johnson sent to talk to him that he was not interested in the job. Johnson asked to see him in the Oval Office. When the Chief Justice arrived, he made clear to Johnson that he had no intention of heading such a Committee. As Johnson did so often, he didn’t take no for a final answer. He reminded Warren that when his country needed him in WWI, Warren did not hesitate to enlist and fight for his Country. Now, Johnson told him, his country needed him more than ever because he was the only person who could head this Commission and give America what it deserved and needed – the truth about what had happened. Reluctantly, Warren agreed to serve. Regretfully, the Warren Commission raised more questions than it answered but, at the time, everyone praised the decision and the men appointed to serve on it.
Finally, LBJ saw the opportunity to pass the social legislation that he had always believed was necessary to make America what it could be - a Great Society where the government protects the weak, helps the unfortunate and forever bans the scourge of racial prejudice.
Perhaps he was the only person in government capable of passing this agenda through a Congress that was dominated by Southern Democrats who wanted neither social justice nor racial equality. That Johnson had been ‘one of them’ and shared their backgrounds if not their prejudices was his great asset. Most importantly, he knew how to count votes – he knew what it took to pass legislation, who to push and who to pull.
Caro is effusive in his praise of the Lyndon Johnson who took control of the government in a moment of crisis and stood tall. He praises his courage in walking out in the open on the days following the assassination when no one knew if there were more assassins out there. He acknowledges that it was LBJ’s will and intelligence that were the main reasons why a reluctant Congress passed a Civil Rights Bill that guaranteed to all Americans equal treatment, and passed Medicare and a host of other laws that changed America forever – and for better.
But just below the surface of Caro’s praise is an underlying, fundamental belief that Johnson’s demons outnumbered his angels. Caro makes constant reference to the next volume of this work, the final volume, and we know that in spite of all that Johnson did to make America a better place for all of us, waiting there in the distance is LBJ’s nemesis, more deadly than any high-powered rifle bullet, more divisive than any controversial legislation, more difficult to ‘manage’ than even a War on Poverty – Vietnam.
LA TIMES BOOK FESTIVAL 2018
April 23, 2018
I went to the LA Times Book Festival by train - it was free today in celebration of Earth Day. It took about a half an hour to get the Festival which is held on USC's campus.
The train lets me off right at the entrance to the Festival.
A word about the USC campus - incredible. A more beautiful campus will be hard to find.
Spread over this large campus are about 100 or so events, usually about a dozen going on at the same time, so you have to pick and choose carefully.
My first event was at an open air venue - that is the great advantage of being in LA for a festival of any kind, you are outside for most of the events. It was a conversation with Maria Shriver and here is the brief bio provided of her
Shriver is the mother of four, a Peabody Award-winning and Emmy Award-winning journalist and producer, the author of six New York Times bestselling books and a bestselling coloring book, an NBC News Special Anchor, and founder of The Women's Alzheimer's Movement. Her most recent book is "I've Been Thinking . . .: Reflections, Prayers, and Meditations for a Meaningful Life." When she's not thinking or writing, she can be found hanging out with her kids.
What the bio doesn't say is that this is Maria Shriver (MS), daughter of Eunice Kennedy who was JFK, RFK and Ted Kennedy's sister. Eunice married Sargent Shriver who was one of the architects of the "War on Poverty" and a founder of the Peace Corps. He was a member of the "Kennedy Clan." MS spoke about how difficult it was to grow up in her family because all the children were expected to be involved in changing the world for the better. Her parents were both committed activists and expected their children to be an activist too. So, MS said, "I decided to get away from all of that when I met and married Arnold Schwarzenegger and moved to California. I wanted to just leave all that political stuff behind and stay as far away from politics as I could. It didn't quite work out that way." Her husband became the Governor of California.
MS talked about growing up and having people be disappointed when they found out that she wasn't RFK or Ted Kennedy's daughter and so, as she said, "They would say, oh? and then start looking for Caroline."
MS spoke about her children and how they were raised. She said that Arnold was a strict parent and, for example, all of her children at a young age did their own laundry and made their own beds and had chores. That was Arnold's way of keeping them centered amidst the Hollywood hype.
MS said that one of the centers of her life is her religion - not just Catholicism but all religions are based on love and forgiveness. She said that learning to forgive people was one of the most difficult things for her, but also one of the most uplifting. While she was growing up, her family had all sorts of people who they told MS that they didn't like, most political opponents. When her husband became governor of California, she realized that not all republicans were evil.
Asked about our divisive times and does she see any good coming from them, she related that both she and her husband had tried to get their children involved in political issues but they failed - until Trump. He got them involved.
Her new book is I've Been Thinking...
I dropped in on a panel discussion about Old and New Epics in Fiction. This was an excellent panel of writers, headed by the author of White Oleander, Janet Fitch. She is the author of "The Revolution of Marina M.," an epic novel set during the Russian Revolution. She discussed how she spent years researching The Russian Revolution because she feels an obligation to her characters to get the period right and to bring an audience to a particular time and place through her writing.
Laila Lalami is the author of "The Moor's Account," which won the American Book Award, the Arab American Book Award, and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. It was both a nominee for the Man Booker Prize and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. She is a critic-at-large for the Los Angeles Times. This book is about a slave who was brought to Florida by a Spanish conquistador looking for gold in the 16the Century. She was fascinated by the story of this man who has been erased from history - there are extensive records of this adventure but the slave is mentioned only once. She told how she spent many years researching this period. One of the biggest problems in doing this kind of research is that it often leads you to a fascinating side story or character and she said that you have to beware where these diversions take you - you can waste months before you realize that while fascinating, it does not belong in the book you are writing.
Madeline Miller was born in Boston and attended Brown University where she earned her BA and MA in Classics. She lives in Narberth, PA with her husband and two children. "The Song of Achilles" was awarded the Orange Prize for Fiction and has been translated into twenty-five languages. Her most recent book is "Circe." Miller writes about the ancient world because she finds that these stories are still part of us. She said she got the idea for writing Circe when she was a young girl and had to read Homer's The Odyssey. Circe is a witch who tempts Odysseus (Ulysses) and his men to a fest and then turns them into pigs. Miller said that the tale ends when Odysseus, who did not go to the feast, comes to Circe and tells her to transform his men back and she does and then has sex with Odysseus. She was always troubled by that surrender for apparently no reason and wrote the book, in part, to see why that happened.
While I have not read these books, I am putting them on my list. Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres and my all-time favorite authors of this genre are (with one book as an example):
Mary Renault - THE KING MUST DIE
Gore Vidal - BURR
Robert Graves - I, CLAUDIUS
Michael Crichton - THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY