Saturday, April 1, 2017

Wilson


Wilson - by A.Scott Berg



It is definitely a skill to write a very good 800+ page biography about a man that I didn’t find to be particularly interesting. I really enjoyed this book, but I really have no desire to learn anything more about former president Woodrow Wilson. His life just didn’t really seem that exciting to me.
Most remember him as commander in chief during World War I (it’s now been 100 years since the U.S. entered the war as I write this review). This book paints him in a very favorable light during the Peace Treaty that eventually ended the conflict a year later, and Wilson’s attempt to bring the U.S. into the League of Nations. Ultimately, he failed. Politics never changes.

The majority of the book covers this period, not surprisingly. As I mentioned, there really isn’t much more about the man that was that interesting. He was born in the South immediately after the Civil War ended to a Presbyterian minister, and seemed to have a good life growing up. He was very smart, and wrote an awful lot during his youth about politics, and the state of the world. This seemed to be the man’s greatest gift - the ability to reflect, record, and ultimately learn from history. He enters Princeton as a young man, yet Princeton seems to have a less than favorable reputation. Although it’s an Ivy league school, it has more of a standing as a holiday camp for rich young men.

Wilson soon joins the academia after graduating, and works his way up to President of the University. He continues to woo the country with his ideas and reflections, which tends to thrust him into politics virtually overnight. The next thing we know, he’s governor of New York. What did he do as governor?  I have no idea. It seems as though as soon as he’s governor, there’s talk about making him the 28th President of the United States. With incumbent Taft and his predecessor Theodore Roosevelt in the midst of political mudslinging, it allows Wilson the ability to win the 1912 election.

Other than the aforementioned involvement in The Great War, I can’t remember much about his years in office prior to that. The big thing that I remember is that the poor man was ill an awful lot.  I mean – an awful lot. And we’re talking serious illnesses here, folks. I lost track of how many strokes the man had. It’s a bit sad when your physician – Dr. Cary Grayson is actually one of the main characters in this biography. It seems like every other page detailing an event in Wilson’s life requires his doctor’s attention.

Things are so bad late in his first term, that he’s bedridden for many months and is essentially an invalid.  This is the President we’re talking about here. Yet in the days before CNN and taking videos with phones, he somehow manages to keep things hidden, and with the aid of his wife, he’s somehow able to keep the country functioning.

His true achievement, again, serves during the peace treaty after the first World War. He’s the calmest head in the room. Other nations, such as France, want to basically emasculate Germany for the war they’ve “caused”. Wilson knows better, though, and tries to allow the main loser of the conflict the ability to carry on with dignity. I would argue that, as good as his intentions were, he couldn’t quite get the other world leaders of the victor’s side to agree. (History shows us that it was Germany’s suffering during the next decade that eventually gave rise to Adolph Hitler)

It’s a bit of a shame that so many of the man’s years were spent in bad health. Reading this book made me feel as though I was experiencing the same symptoms. You read over and over again about how much pain a person was in, you start to feel a bit queasy yourself.

Would I recommend this book? I suppose. I think I would rather read a large volume that focused on the war and the years immediately following, however. That seemed to be where most of the meat of this book was.  Still, though, with the person and the material that he had, A. Scott Berg manages to give us a very good, thorough account.

The Burning Wire





The Burning Wire – by Jeffery Deaver

The Lincoln Rhyme books by Jeffery Deaver remind me of watching your favorite “crime solving” show on t.v. What I mean by that is, these books are all very similar. Almost too similar. They’re very good books, I just can’t help but feel like Deaver is basically telling us the same story over and over again. Same people, same issues, same personalities, same details, just a different killer with a different motive. Like a television show.
The criminal this go round is using electricity. That’s our topic for this book, boys and girls. We’re all familiar enough with electricity to know that we desperately need it to survive, yet most of us are a bit fearful of it as well. We know that touching one “wrong wire” can instantly kill us, and we’re smart enough to keep the hair dryer far away from a bathtub filled with water.

So, yes, our killer is using his expertise to cause panic and mass destruction around New York City, so Rhyme and his team must work quick to stop it.  This is where things seem a tad redundant if you’ve read many other Lincoln Rhyme books. Part of the problem, I’m now realizing, is that the fact that Rhyme is a quadriplegic which basically means that every one of these stories seems to be confined to Rhyme’s apartment/lab, and every crime seems to take place in New York City. There simply isn’t much room for variety.
Plus, we have the same tired characters over and over again. There’s his partner Amelia – the beautiful redhead who’s arthritic, scratches her scalp until it bleeds, and somehow races cars through the biggest parking lot in the world. We have Pulaski, the young “rookie” who is treated like a pledge in a college fraternity by the ever grumpy Rhyme.  There’s Stilleto, who’s never far away from a pastry, and Dellray, who goes under cover a lot wearing yellow leisure suits. And on and on and on.  So, again, think of a television show with the same main characters every episode, and you get the drift.

These stories are also somewhat sequential. It’s best to read them in order. Our character’s progress somewhat, which is not necessarily a bad thing. I didn’t enjoy it, however, when Deaver includes unfinished business from the plot of older novels into this new novel. He’s done this before. It’s almost as if he’s trying to simply fill the space in the books.

Sadly, the plot twists that Deaver is famous for seem to be wearing thin for me as well. When one gets surprised over and over again, one stops becoming flabbergasted.
Had this been my second or third Lincoln Rhyme book, I probably would have enjoyed it much better than I did.  I think, in the series, this was probably about the eighth or ninth, and I just couldn’t help but feel I was reading the same story over and over again.  Deaver is good. He’s very good. Sometimes I wish he would give Rhyme and company a prolonged rest and tackle other subjects more often, though.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

President Kennedy - Profiles in Power




President Kennedy – Profile in Power by Richard Reeves

I watched a series on the 60s on Netflix recently. One episode focused on John F. Kennedy. One of the several historians that was interviewed was a fellow named Richard Reeves. He seemed rather articulate, and the caption said he was the author of a book.  So I thought, “why not?”  A bit of a crapshoot maybe, but the dice rolled up seven. This was an excellent book.

This book is a fairly detailed look at JFK’s presidency. It’s not a biography.  I was a bit leery of that fact.  I had already read a book detailing Kennedy’s presidency – Ted Sorensen’s “Kennedy”.  I didn’t like it.  It REALLY made me nervous when this author actually praised that book early on in THIS book.  I was petrified of a repeat.  Safe to say, this book was much better.

I won’t detail Sorensen’s retrospective, I’ll focus on this book. It seems like this book’s biggest advantage is that the author knows how to keep his readers engaged.  “Profile in Power” is actually the perfect subtitle.  We see how this young, wealthy aristocrat handles the most powerful position in the world. Nothing is sugar coated. We get the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Quite often, the ugly is quite ugly.

He portrays Kennedy as human. The man had flaws, yet I came away with the impression that JFK was a good president.  We read a lot about Khrushchev, Cuba, Vietnam, and Civil Rights. The latter topic was a bit harsh. Contrary to what some historians want to believe, Kennedy was not that much of an advocate for Civil Rights. It wasn’t that he didn’t believe in the cause, he just felt issues weren’t a priority. Yes, he made some strides, but many would argue far too little.  We read a lot about the many, now famous, incidents that took place in the early sixties, and one comes away with the feeling that our President really should have done much more in this area.

I enjoyed reading about the tensions with Cuba (i.e. Russia) and Vietnam the best. We see the young president learn from his mistakes, and make some very tough decisions.  The Vietnam parts were also eye-opening. Again, many in the history department have sugar coated Kennedy’s record and involvement. Contrary to what Oliver Stone tells us, Kennedy did not want to “end Vietnam”. We must remember that during Kennedy’s administration, the vast majority of Americans couldn’t even find Vietnam on a map, so it’s only in hindsight that we can be as judgmental as we tend to be.

And, yes, there are a lot of women.  Supposedly, Kennedy was taking some hardcore medication for his back pain which included the side effects of a) having a tan complexion and b) rather amorous. So I guess this would allow many to give the former president a free pass when it came to his consistent infidelities.  You wonder why such medication wouldn’t be available on the black market. But never mind.

Like all great leaders, Kennedy can be tough when he needs to be. We prefer to see our leaders through rose colored glasses, but we see plenty of instances when the leader, at least behind the scenes, attempts to get things done in rather unconventional methods.  One of my favorite episodes concerns little brother Ted. Ted becomes a new senator in Massachusetts solely because of the Kennedy name. When Ted complains to his brother that one of the new policies JFK is enacting is hurting his constituents back home, the president replies, “Tough sh!t”.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. My only complaint is, like Kennedy’s presidency itself, the book ends too abruptly.  As soon as Kennedy leaves for Dallas, the book basically stops.  I mean, we all know that Dallas was the end of Kennedy’s presidency, but I would have liked to have read a bit more.  Maybe the author could have offered his opinions of the LBJ administration and discussed how he felt things could have been different? Of course, it would have all been speculation, but it would have been a rather nice addendum.

My favorite historical accounts of famous people are ones that show an evenly balanced person – good and bad.  Unlike the Ted Sorensen book (the guy was so loyal, I’m convinced he would drink Kennedy’s bathwater if asked), this one is just that.  This book is now over 20 years old, but reads as though it was written yesterday. I doubt you could probably find this book at a bookstore due to its age, but it’s worth ordering online (as I did).    I’m very glad I accidentally stumbled upon this one.