Monday, March 13, 2017

What I'm reading this week (3/13/17)

Last week I finished:

I finished The Presidents Club last week, and I'm glad I finally got around to it. I forbade myself from taking notes, but I do wish I would have written short chapter summaries, because everything is already getting a little muddled in my mind. The book covers the interpersonal relationships of presidents from Herbert Hoover through Barack Obama. I think this was a fairly unbiased account, although Richard Nixon did get roasted over the coals, and if there was any bias, it might have been there. I certainly didn't detect a party bias, and that was admirable. I learned SO much reading this 530-page tome. I'll share some overall impressions. First, the presidents really have felt throughout the club's history (it was started by Hoover and Truman), that the office of the presidency must trump party divisions, and to speak badly of the sitting president is in very poor taste. Since at any time in history there have been only a small handful of men who know what the sitting president is facing, they have a strong loyalty to each other. Second, and relatedly, presidents seem remarkably capable of laying down their party allegiances to come to the aide of the sitting president.

Lastly, some general impressions of the various relationships: Truman and Eisenhower clashed politically because Truman assumed Ike would run as a democrat; Harry was a dyed-in-the-wool, cradle-to-grave democrat. Ike didn't even want to run, but supporters "drafted" him. Ike was hurt when Truman campaigned against him, not really understanding "that's how Washington works." They came together at Kennedy's funeral and became friends. Kennedy relied heavily on Eisenhower when he faced threats in Cuba. Kennedy was not strong in foreign policy knowledge and experience. Lyndon Johnson inherited the Vietnam War, and it drained him emotionally. I gained a more sympathetic view of LBJ that really humanized him. Nixon was repeatedly called on and shunned by most members of the club. He was brilliant at foreign policy, but he was difficult when it came to personal relationships. And he was, ahem, unscrupulous. Ford's pardoning of Nixon was the nail in his political coffin. Though it is generally regarded as the right move at that point in history--America needed to move beyond Nixon and Watergate--it sealed his fate as a one-term president. Carter was not ready to retire from politics after just one term, and he repeatedly inserted himself into foreign policy, sometimes at the behest of the current president and sometimes not. He was good at what he did, generally, brokering deals and handling foreign hotheads, but he almost always went rogue and broke protocol by offering things the president hadn't authorized or talking to the press before briefing the president. There was a chapter on the Bush father and son relationship that I enjoyed. One of my favorite chapters was the unlikely bond between George H. W. Bush and Clinton. Clinton was the man who unseated Bush after one term which devastated Bush. But when George W. Bush called on the pair to provide a disaster relief plan--not once but twice--they rose to the occasion and became like father and son in the process. Another favorite chapter was a short one dealing with a trip to a foreign leader's funeral (in Egypt, maybe?) that finds Nixon, Ford, and Carter sharing a plane and overcoming some animosity in the process. There were, of course, some very boring chapters, especially those dealing with wars and foreign policy that I just wasn't interest in. And it seemed to me that earlier in the book, the authors spent a lot of time on several small historical topics, but as the book went on, huge presidential messes (Clinton's oval office hijinks) and catastrophic tragedies (9/11) were summed up in a sentence or two. I know they couldn't have gone into depth with every major historical event, but I was really looking forward to some in-depth reportage of the more recent scandals and disasters. But overall, if you're looking for a book about recent presidents, this is as good a book as I've found. My rating: 4 stars.

I also finished my audio read of Julian Fellowes' Belgravia last week. You'll probably know Fellowes as the creator of Downton Abbey. Belgravia has the same flavor as Downton, though it's set in the mid 1800s instead of the early decades of the 1900s. It's full of drama and intrigue and things that make you click your tongue and suck in your breath. Lots of moneyed people behaving badly, lots of social climbing and consideration of one's (and others folks') class. There are illegitimate babies, affairs, and secrets galore. And of course, there's the dichotomy of upstairs and downstairs, the titled and the servants. I don't really want to give you a plot summary, because I don't know that the plot is as important as the way the book unfolds. I will tell you that everything ends happily. It's not great literature, but I'm not sure it's meant to be. It's well-written, it's characters are well-drawn, and it's just plain fun to listen to. When I finished the audio, I went online and ordered the book so I could relive it again someday. My rating: 4 stars.

Coming off the heels of a ginormous book of presidential history, Three Days in January, about President Eisenhower, sort of pales in depth, but it was quite readable. One grumble is that it was unabashedly gushy over Eisenhower, and often this was done by putting other presidents in a bad light. Truman became a foil for Eisenhower here, making Truman seem truly petty, angry, and ill-tempered. He was all of these things, but not all the time, and I think the characterization was unfair. The book covers Eisenhower's life of service (and a brief bio of his growing-up years) as Allied Commander and five-star general to president to elder statesman. There isn't much here that I haven't read elsewhere, which made it boring at times, and much of the domestic policy information just didn't interest me at all. I'm unsure that I ever got a good grasp on those "three days" in the title, the importance of them, and especially the importance of them over any other president's three days. This is a good, if overly glowing and perhaps simplified, rendering of Ike's presidency. My rating: 3 stars.
Last week I abandoned:

After getting only a handful of pages in, I decided I might prefer Deep Down Dark on audio. Or maybe I'm just not in the mood for a dark story. Or maybe the inkling that there are going to be way, way, way too many characters makes me not want to commit. At any rate, I don't think I've given up for good, just for now.

This week I continue with:

Still loving all three of my night reads. Let It Go is finally getting to the "how to" of downsizing. Poems That Make Grown Men Cry is finally getting to the modern poems I know and love. And Short is finally getting going as Julia has been cast as a munchkin in the local theatre's production of The Wizard of Oz.

My audiobooks:

When I finished Belgravia, I took up another historical English novel, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. It took me a bit to get into listening, since it's an epistolary novel. I wasn't sure if audio would work after all, because I was having a hard time keeping track of who was writing what to whom, but it started to make sense after awhile, and I'm on track now. So far, it's a good story about post-WWII England.

And I'm listening to The Shadows, book one in The Books of Elsewhere series, while I work on my jigsaw puzzle. I'm having a hard time getting into the story, but I love the narration on this one.

Next up:

I'm kind of ridiculously excited about this one.

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