I had never gotten around to actually reading Dame Agatha, but this winter read a pleasing collection of Poirot mysteries. I then happened upon a papeI had never gotten around to actually reading Dame Agatha, but this winter read a pleasing collection of Poirot mysteries. I then happened upon a paperback version of Passenger to Frankfurt in a corner of the attic, and, with no preconceived ideas about the book, I settled in for a mid-winter's read.
Clearly it was NOT a good read, but a disappointing one. I got past the page where Lobstergirl abandoned ship only because of my stubborn unwillingness not to finish what I start.
In truth, the beginnings of P to F were acceptable if on the lame side. The primary characters, Sir Stafford Nye and his mysterious airport acquaintance, seemed potentially intriguing. But the plot went terribly wrong as Ms. Christie introduced a nebulous conspiracy by which worldwide youth were being led to introduce anarchy to the world. It got worse and worse as more and more characters were introduced, and it ended bizarrely if benevolently.
My experience reading Christie is too limited to generalize confidently. But I think that the charm of her mysteries has been to draw the events of a crime into sharper focus as the book moves towards its denouement. Here, in her "thriller" mode, the book moved from focus to a blur, as if the "bubbles" which supposedly underlay the world plot were soapy and were exploding.
I wonder how something like this came to see print. Then again, the late 60's and early 70's were a very turbulent time that did strange things to ordinary people. I won't accuse Christie of having used mind- or ink-altering drugs, but perhaps she committed the greatest crime of the times and watched "Casino Royale," which even as a spoof spun wildly out of control. All Passenger to Frankfurt lacked was a Woody Allen's "James Bond, Jr."
As bad as it was, some of the images in the book-- the hideously fat Old Woman of the Mountain and the all-knowing Aunt Matilda, are slightly redemptive. But no one need ever feel they have missed anything by missing this one.
The Passage of Power is a superb telling of the years from 1958-early 1964, from the time Lyndon Johnson began consideration of seeking the PresidencyThe Passage of Power is a superb telling of the years from 1958-early 1964, from the time Lyndon Johnson began consideration of seeking the Presidency to the time by which LBJ had not merely succeeded JFK in office but had placed his own imprint on that office. It is scholarly, even-handed, crammed to the brim with fascinating historical facts. For those who lived through the Kennedy-Johnson years but had no idea what was happening behind the scenes, it offers many priceless insights. We learn of Johnson's fear of failure, a fear which caused him to start too late to seek the Democratic nomination, and which may have accounted for his loss of the nomination. The extent to which the Kennedy brothers humiliated Johnson and divested him of all meaningful power during his Vice-Presidency is richly detailed. Caro then explains precisely how, following JFK's assassination, Johnson was able to exploit his knowledge of Senators and Senate procedures to secure the passage of legislation (tax cut, Civil Rights laws) that seemed doomed to long delay or failure in JFK's lifetime, and to regain the power that he had lost during his Vice-Presidency. The mutual hatred between LBJ and Bobby Kennedy is explored in full and fascinating detail. The portraits of all the major actors (LBJ, JFK. RFK) seem truly fair and balanced: no one is deified, no one is villainized. Johnson gets credit where credit is due, but his methods and warts are also exposed.
Measured as a book of history, Caro's work deserves no less than a 5-star rating. But the writing is occasionally something else. Caro is a very fine writer, most of the time. The problem is that there seems to be no date, name or other fact, no matter how inconsequential, that Caro is willing to jettison in the interest of clear exposition. So many separate intricately detailed facts are crammed into long, meandering sentences, composed of multiple clauses, sometimes containing multiple separate thoughts, that many sentences lost their clarity and required very close rereading (this in a book of 605 pages of text). Many dense or confusing sentences could easily have been simplified with no loss of content. It would seem that the editor must have gone to sleep, relying on the reputation of his writer.
As it was, the book was slightly less pleasurable than it should have been. However, when Caro was on the top of his game, it was a terrific read.
This is a book not of 1963 but of the current day: a time in which a well-spun story is more important than a fair or accurate one.
Dallas 1963 is marThis is a book not of 1963 but of the current day: a time in which a well-spun story is more important than a fair or accurate one.
Dallas 1963 is marginally interesting insofar as it provides new details into the backgrounds of some of the colorful personalities that were prominent in Dallas at the time of the Kennedy assassination. But is it good or accurate history?
The book is written in the present tense, presumably to give it a sense of immediacy. That may have worked for John Updike in the fictional Rabbit Run, but is a very cheesy way of telling history. But I forget myself. This is not a book about history, it is about cheap exaggerations and stereotypes.
Two historical "incidents" are central to the premise that Dallas was a boiling cesspool of hatred in 1963. One is a demonstration, arranged by a local Congressman, in which a "mob" of rich conservative women accosted Lyndon Johnson and Lady Bird en route to lunch at the Adolphus Hotel. The authors make this demonstration by hissing, spitting blue-haired women appear an incident of high drama and high danger, if not high treason. Contrast Robert Caro's treatment of the incident in The Passage of Power: Caro makes it clear that LBJ exploited the gathering of women "protestors" for political advantage, turning a relatively trivial incident into a headline event that would help him gain sympathies throughout the rest of Texas.
Another incident central to the authors' thesis occurred when Adlai Stevenson was confronted by anti-UN protestors weeks before JFK's fatal visit. According to the authors, Cora Stevenson managed to "slam" a protest sign into Stevenson's face. Watch the incident on Youtube -- it was recorded -- and the incident is more laughable than criminal. Not defensible, but not a serious attack.
I hold no torch for the City of Dallas or for Southern conservatives, now or in the past. But I do expect history to be accurate and even-handed. The authors turn all of JFK's opponents into cardboard cut out crazies. Anyone with more than a touch of liberalism is turned into a plaster saint. The ultra-wealthy Stanley Marcus of Neiman Marcus seems to be lionized because he dines at French restaurants and exploits "internationalism" to sell expensive consumer goods. Every Civil Rights worker is a paragon of virtue. In contrast, every conservative opponent of the UN, Civil Rights or JFK is totally demonized. The authors to a large degree disregard the times in which the historical actors were operating, the cultural values and international fears of the period in which they formed their values, the laws that actually existed in 1963 (before much Civil Rights legislation had been passed). The southern opponents of "progress" may have been indefensibly misguided, and on the wrong side of history, but it is hard to believe that they were the one-dimensional zealots that the authors would have us believe. And certainly they would have had reason to distrust and dislike the young and inexperienced JFK.
As for the hotbed of hatred created by the "crazies," it turns out that upon JFK's arrival on the morning of November 22, 1963, Dallas gave the Kennedys an extraordinarily warm welcome, showing that the currents of hatred that were swirling in Dallas were not mainstream. And, of course, the authors swallow the proposition that JFK was killed not by any conservative but by a left-wing communist, accepting the simplistic fairy-tale version of the Warren Report. Certainly no evidence is presented that anything in the "climate" of Dallas accounted for JFK's assassination.
So what is this book really about? Not much of anything. If I could give it 1-1/2 stars I would. Unlike a real history book, this volume inspires no trust in the truth of the information or the authors' analysis of it. It will of course be adored by young readers who will hear what they want to hear: good is great and bad is awful. Was it underwritten by MSNBC?...more