My family’s return from a glorious week in London shows how salutary it is for a political junkie to purge herself- albeit temporarily – of politics. So before I get sucked back into the nearly unspeakable frustration of focusing on the ongoing national political dysfunction, I want to reflect on the pleasures that lie between the covers of a good book…or on the screen of my Kindle.
First, the non-fiction. It’s hard to imagine an author spending nearly four decades on one subject, but Robert Caro has done that, to great effect. Caro’s fourth and most recent book on Lyndon Johnson, The Passage of Power, covering 1958-1964, shows Caro’s encyclopedic knowledge of his subject and reads like a novel, without getting bogged down in all that knowledge. Of course, his raw material was larger than life. Caro ably captures Johnson’s passage from wielding (sometimes abusively) the power of Senate Majority Leader to being a subject of derision as a sidelined and impotent vice president. As tragedy makes Johnson President, we see him set aside self-doubts (though not his pettiness), fully exercise the power of the office, cuts deal, threaten and cajole to get historic legislation passed. Though the times are different, one can’t help contrasting Johnson with Barack Obama.
I finally got to Frederick Morton’s Thunder at Twilight:Vienna 1913-1914. Pubished in 2001,it captures the last days of the Austro-Hungarian empire, a time when men who would shape the 20th century were all living within a mile of each other in Vienna: Hitler (then an aspiring painter), Trotsky, Stalin, Freud (in a professional dispute with Jung), Lenin, and more. By focusing on individual personalities, Morton helps us understand not only the inevitability of The Great War but also the ethnic hostilities underlying Balkan hostilities in the 1990’s. For me, Thunder at Twilight, was not quite as pleasurable as Morton’s earlier book, A Nervous Splendor, about Vienna between July, 1888 and May, 1889, in which he brings to life not only the political leaders but writers Arthur Schnitzler and Theodor Herzl, and composers Arnold Schonberg, Gustav Mahler, and Anton Bruckner.
Kudos to Susan Hertog’s Dangerous Ambition:Rebecca West and Dorothy Thompson: New Women in Search of Love and Power. Two friends born in the 1890’s ahead of their time in every possible way: accomplished writers of influence and some notoriety who, despite their achievements, or perhaps because of them, ended up sacrificing their families and love relationships. Thompson married Sinclair Lewis; West’s longtime lover was H.G. Wells. West and Thompson were feminists before anyone ever coined the term. They influenced the thinking world for the better and their children for the worse.
As for fiction, I recently finished Ian Mcewan’s new novel Sweet Tooth, a good read. Set in London in the Cold War era, it is, on the surface, a book about the sexual entanglements of a 20-something mathematician. But her job in intelligence work and the literary front foundation set up by MI5 make this equally about unravelling the mysteries of relationships and the intrigues of the publishing business. Until I read a review by Scott Stossell, I wasn’t smart enough to recognize a fictionalized Ian Mcewan himself in the author funded by MI5 or, for that matter, a fictionalized literary colleague Martin Amis, or Mcewan’s own publisher, Tom Maschler, in one of the other characters. Sweet Tooth was a good read despite my lack of literary sophistication.
Two other novels – Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and The Dinner by Herman Koch share the appeal of appearing to be light summer reading while drawing you into dark family dysfunction and suspenseful psycho-drama. At the end of each, you can’t wait to find someone else who has read it so you can discuss.
Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, the second in a trilogy about the era of Henry VIII, is, as was Wolf Hall, told from the perspective of Henry’s right hand man Thomas Cromwell. Mantel’s recreation of the era, her historical knowledge, her abilty to capture the way people actually lived, the sights, the smells, the intrigues and uncertainties of the Tudor Court, make Mantel very worthwhile. Start with Wolf Hall, however, if Bring up the Bodies is to make any sense. You may find, as I did, that Wolf Hall is better written, fresher, more eye-opening.
Please let me know what you’d recommend. I’m always on the lookout for good books, fiction or non-fiction.
I welcome your comments in the section below.