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review 2018-03-29 05:24
LBJ's tortuous path to the presidency
The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson - Robert A. Caro

Over thirty years have passed since the publication of The Passage of Power, the first of what Robert Caro envisioned would be a three-volume biography of America’s 36th president. This, his fourth volume, ends in the first months of his presidency, and his assertion that this is the penultimate volume is a little hard to swallow given the thoroughness he has covered Johnson’s life even before reaching his time in the White House (with a third of this book’s 700+ pages chronicling just the first four months as president). Yet Caro has sacrificed brevity for a detailed portrait of irony in his depiction of a master of political power who finds himself deprived of it.


Caro begins with Johnson at the height of his success in the Senate. Still only in his second term, he had taken the weak position of Senate Majority Leader and turned it into the second most powerful position in national politics, thanks largely to his enormous personal and legislative abilities. But Johnson had his eye on an even larger prize – the presidency itself, an office he had aspired to for decades and which in 1960 seemed to many to be his for the taking. Yet Johnson hesitated to commit himself to the race, fearing the humiliation of a defeat. This created an opening that John F. Kennedy eagerly exploited. With his brother Robert collecting commitments in the west – a region critical to Johnson’s chances – Kennedy outmaneuvered the Texas senator, demonstrating just how completely Johnson had misjudged his opponent.


Yet for Johnson a new opportunity presented itself when Kennedy offered him the vice presidential nomination during the convention. For Kennedy, the choice was an obvious one, as Johnson’s presence on the ticket offered Democrats a chance to reclaim the Southern states lost to Dwight Eisenhower in the two previous elections. Johnson’s reasons for accepting are less clear, though Caro describes Johnson’s realistic assessment of his odds as vice president of assuming the presidency in his own right, as well as his belief that “Power is where power goes,” a statement that demonstrates his conviction that he would retain his control over the Senate even as vice president.


Johnson was soon disabused of this notion. Blocked from maintaining his position in the Senate’s Democratic caucus and denied any real responsibilities by the Kennedys, Johnson seemed to wither from the absence of power. For all his failings it is hard not to sympathize with the man in these chapters, who works to ingratiate himself with the Kennedys through expensive gifts and obsequious letters.  Yet flattery and jewelry did little to improve his standing in the administration, while the growing scandal surrounding his protégé Bobby Baker was exposing the vice president to increased scrutiny of his business dealings. Though Caro doesn’t press his case any further than the evidence allows, his description of the mounting investigations in the autumn of 1963 suggests that Johnson’s position on the ticket the next year was in jeopardy as he left with the president for a campaign trip to Texas.


All of this changed in Dallas in a matter of minutes. Caro’s chapters on Kennedy’s assassination and Johnson’s assumption of the presidency are among the best in the book, as they convey the sense of bewilderment, tragedy, and sadness which stained that day. Here we see Johnson’s abilities employed to their fullest to reassure a shocked nation of the smooth transition of power. Within days of Kennedy’s funeral the new president took charge of his predecessor’s stalled legislative agenda, working to pass a tax cut bill and civil rights legislation that few expected would become law.  Here Caro exploits the numerous telephone conversations the president secretly recorded to depict Johnson’s use of political power, as he threatened, cajoled, and wooed senators and representatives in an effort to attain his goals. The book ends in March 1964, with Johnson fully settled into his office and with the challenge before him of election in his own right, a challenge that – if successful – would complete his journey from the Texas Hill Country to the highest office in the land.


As with his previous volumes Caro has provided a meticulous, painstaking study of the life and career of one of the most fascinating men ever to occupy the presidency, a book that measures up to the high standard set by his earlier works. His errors are few and are easily forgiven in a narrative that engages the reader fully and manages to make the minutiae of legislative maneuvering into entertaining reading. Given Caro’s track record, it may be too much to hope that the next volume – final or not – will be published more quickly than this one, but regardless of how long it takes, if it is anywhere near as good as this one it will be well worth the wait.

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review 2018-03-15 00:55
I wanted to love this
Buffy: The High School Years--Freaks & Geeks - Joss Whedon,Faith Erin Hicks,Yishan Li

I'd heard great things about the author, and I went into this knowing I'd hate the art, because I'd seen this in paper.   But it was on sale for one dollar, and I figured why not?  


Unfortunately the art killed a lot of this for me.  It's not the manga style, even with characters I know.   Manga art can be amazing.   This particular art just didn't do it for me, and was quite frankly not the best, even with understanding how manga art differs from Western art. 


This would play better if it didn't feel a little like some episodes; the question of whether or not teen outsiders, and those who had been done wrong, have been dealt with in the series, in a more nuanced way in my opinion.   The friends flipping on each other felt like that episode where Buffy's once-upon-a-time bestie male friend came from out of town, too.   


So, yeah, not as impressed as I thought I'd be.  I was hoping for more, but glad to finally read this series and get a sense of what it was.



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review 2018-02-19 06:53
Light Years: A Girlhood in Hawai'i (memoir) by Susanna Moore
Light Years: A Girlhood in Hawai'i - Susanna Moore

Susanna Moore is best known for her critically acclaimed novels—complex and compelling works like In the Cut and My Old Sweetheart. Now, Moore’s Light Years is a shimmering look at the early life of this cherished novelist. Taking the form of a Commonplace Book, it mixes reminiscences with passages from famous works of literature that were formative in her younger years. Born in Hawai’i at a time when the islands were separated from the U.S. mainland by five days’ ship travel, Moore was raised in a secluded paradise of water, light, and color. As a child she spent endless days holed up with a bundle of books while the sound of the ocean and the calls of her brothers and sister drifted toward her through the palm grove. All around her, Moore saw flashes of the ocean described in those pages: a force of kaleidoscopic beauty and romantic possibility, but with an undercurrent of unfathomable darkness. In Light Years: A Girlhood in Hawai’i, she weaves reminiscences of her childhood with some of her favorite pieces of literature—excerpts from Robinson Crusoe, Moby-Dick, Treasure Island, Kon-Tiki, To the Lighthouse, and many others.





Susanna Moore grew up in the 1950s and 60s on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. Many locals considered her and her family "haole", a white & privileged family living in a fine home staffed with servants. Moore writes of attending cotillion classes at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Her mother struggled with mental illness and sadly passed away when Moore was only 12 years old.


That's about the gist of what I learned from this super short (less than 200 pages) "memoir" of hers. I've heard of Susanna Moore as a writer but have not picked up any of her novels yet. I stumbled upon this at a discount sale one day and was intrigued mainly because my grandmother lived in Hawaii for a time (also where she met my grandfather) and her stories of island life always captured my attention as a child (have yet to see it for myself though). I was hoping for something similar from this book.


So that's where we run into the confusion with the excerpts. Moore writes, "I began to keep a journal about the sea by copying passages from the books I was reading..." but that's about the only explanation the reader gets for what follows: the large majority of this book just being long excerpts of OTHER people's work. I didn't have an issue with that by itself so much, but more with the fact that the excerpts have little to no preface. Other than many of them having the "sea" theme, there's not much explained as to WHAT about these fragments of books was so compelling to her. What about these passages specifically spoke to her? I would have been interested in those stories but no such luck. I ended up flipping past these pages as much of it was stuff I've already read over the course of my life.


That these excerpts make up the bulk of the book is what annoyed me so, rather than Moore sharing more of her OWN stories. If I pick up this book, I don't want an anthology of others, I want to hear about HER experiences, as the title promises. There is a little bit of that here, just not enough. Though there is a portion that I found interesting where she discusses the issue of racism running throughout the islands that has spanned for generations.


"It was a hierarchical, snobbish, and quietly racist society... there was a fairly unconscious racism all around us..." but then it turns weird because in some ways her words starts to sound as if she's trying to make it seem okay because you know, it's just how it was...


Yeah, in short... not all that impressed with this. Felt a bit like a lazy, thrown-together excuse for a book.

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review 2018-02-10 21:32
Real History in Fictional Form (The Gilded Years)
The Gilded Years: A Novel - Karin Tanabe


The true story in fictional form of Anita Hemmings, a black woman who graduated from Vassar in 1897, a full half century before Vassar officially allowed black women to attend. While this is mostly just an interesting story about the Gilded Age, women's education and race, it does best when race is confronted and lays bare the huge change some people suddenly see in people, just because they now know more about someone's racial background.


The book is preoccupied with describing Vassar, New York society of that era, mannerisms, and even some unrealistic frivolous romantic interludes for the majority of pages. It's a good way to show the change in behavior once the climax occurs, but it made the book less effective overall.


The high point starts with Anita's best friend and roommate (Lotty Taylor, a fictional name) finding out that Anita is black. The vitriolic hate spewed at a woman who had not changed one bit is terrifying and upsetting. Lotty feels that Anita's race is something Anita "did to her." That she's ruined the roommate's life by being black. When Anita finally tries to speak to the roommate's "modernity," Lotty spits, "Separate but Equal. Not equal and in my parlour." Where she had previously loved and doted on Anita, now:


"I see the negro in you. It's all I can see...I look at you and a dirty,

ugly, lying colored face looks back at me."


When Anita's whole college education is at risk, she says, "I was never asked whether I was a negro, so I never addressed it. If I had been asked, I would not have lied." This is something the white world doesn't grasp often. The default is white, so if one looks more white than black, you may get asked "what are you?" in 2018, but not in the polite society of 1897. Nobody ever questioned her race. Why would they? She was in the top of her class at Vassar year after year. But when the head of the college calls her in, "She watched him looking at her, plainly searching for negroid features."


Vassar pulled the ultimate CYA by graduating Anita (as white,) demanding she not speak of it, pulling all of her post-grad opportunities, and then in the real world not admitting an openly black woman until 1944. Meanwhile, Anita's own daughter had graduated from Vassar in the 1920s, so clearly they were fine with black women who could pass as white, just not black women who looked black. Even the first three women who graduated in the 1940s are all extremely light-skinned.


Even if you never plan to read this book, Anita Hemmings is an interesting person. Her great-granddaughter, Jillian Sim, wrote an article about tracing her family called for the American Spectator: "Fading to White". Monticello family tree research indicate that this Hemmings family is related to the Elizabeth Hemings family, which is also Sally Hemings' branch. An interview with Jillian Sim includes a photo of her holding photos Anita and her brother Frederick John Hemmings (who graduated MIT -- admitted as a black student -- the same year she graduated from Vassar.)

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text 2018-01-15 16:47
Celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr.
Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution - Diane McWhorter
At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years 1965-68 - Taylor Branch
Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-65 - Taylor Branch
Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 - Taylor Branch

Some suggested reading from publisher Simon & Schuster's newsletter.

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