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Summer Reading Edition
Good morning from London, where Sanity Goddess and I are visiting Sanity Princess. So, until the jet-fog clears, I’ll try to entertain you with some notes on the books I’ve read this summer. I tend to go with paperbacks, for the size and feel of them. Therefore, much of this stuff isn’t recent. I do make exceptions for hardcovers that are of immediate interest or written by friends. (I always buy books written by friends.) Writing a book is hard; the concept doesn’t always cohere; the best words are elusive. Having suffered the pain of bad reviews, I don’t like to dish them out. So no snark today, just recommendations.
The Last Politician by Franklin Foer. This is a good account of Biden’s first two years in office—and a tribute to the art of politics, at which the President excels, an art that rarely gets the respect it deserves. There are few aha! or gotcha! moments here, just the steady accretion of wise decisions (with the exception of the Afghanistan exit) and smart tactics, especially when it comes to shepherding big bipartisan pieces of legislation through the Congress. I’ve always liked Biden as a human and a pol. I’ve always liked pols. I hope Foer is wrong that Biden is the “last” of his breed; we need people like him if our democracy is to continue.
Two Roads Home: Hitler, Stalin and the miraculous survival of my family by Daniel Finkelstein. Lord Danny, a columnist at The Times of London, is a friend, so you can take this as you will—but this is an amazing book. His father’s family was packed off by Stalin to the Gulag; his mother’s family was sent by Hitler to a concentration camp (they were friends and neighbors of Anne Frank’s family in Amsterdam). They survived, just barely, through guile and courage and some good luck. As a proud but non-observant Jew, I found their travails horrifying and infuriating…and their attempts to stay sane—the quotidian joys of a sabbath dinner—to be incredibly moving. Some books change your life in small but significant ways; it is unlikely that I’ll silently accept even trivial acts of anti-Semitism after this one.
How Not to Be A Politician by Rory Stewart. Cheating a bit here. I’m about halfway through, but Stewart—who can be brilliant and funny and frustrated and extremely wise—deserves the attention. He’s a famed humanitarian, with years in Iraq and Afghanistan, who created the Turquoise Mountain NGO with his wife, Shoshanna in Kabul. And then he did the most bizarre thing: he decided to become a politician, securing a seat in Parliament. (And like Finkelstein, he’s a Tory.) So this is what politics looks like from the inside when viewed by an enlightened civilian. At times, it reminded me of Catch-22. There are withering portraits of British pols like Boris Johnson and Liz Truss but, at its heart, this is a rare thing: a tell-all policy book, about the limits of altruism—but the need to keep trying, nonetheless. And great fun, at that.
G-Man by Beverly Gage. This is a magisterial biography of J. Edgar Hoover. It was a tough slog, not because of Gage, who is a graceful writer—but because Hoover was such a constricted, bigoted husk of a human being, most likely a closeted gay man whose constant companion was his number two at FBI, Clyde Tolson. If Robert Caro’s Master of the Senate is the ultimate book about legislative process, this may be the best about bureaucratic maneuvering. Hoover was often terrible, but he could rise to the occasion if his survival demanded it—and he was, almost always, acting at the behest of Presidents at his worst moments, including FDR and JFK. (It was Bobby Kennedy who insisted that the FBI bug Martin Luther King.)
Less Serious, More Lovely Non-Fiction
A Little Devil in America by Hanif Abdurraqib. I’ve been saddened by the fool my old Rolling Stone boss Jann Wenner has made of himself in recent days. He has said some very stupid things about the musical intellect of women and blacks. (I think this is largely innocent; Jann’s not a bigot. The rockers he loved, and chose to interview, just happened to be white boys.) But Abdurraqib provides a bracing corrective here, a book of essays about black performance. The genius of Josephine Baker, Sun Ra, Beyonce, Merry Clayton (Rape! Murder!) and others. This is a book about how blacks turn rage into transcendence, and I was constantly impressed by how Abdurraqib took his own rage, stood back from it, examined it and refused to allow it to poison him.
Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit. A lovely rumination on truth and gardening. Orwell is a Patron Saint of Sanity, a man who could write clear-eyed and dispassionately about getting shot in the neck during the Spanish Civil War. Solnit infers the connection between Orwell’s truth-telling and his gardening, the literal need to be grounded in the soil if you want to see the sky…along with a quick, depressing diversion to the rose-cultivation industry in Colombia. (Reading Solnit led me to realize how I am entranced the elm tree in our front yard, which I wrote about in August.)
A Long, Long Way by Sebastian Barry. I worship at this shrine. The man simply cannot write a lazy sentence. His prose sings and pulls me, siren-like, to Ireland, the kingdom of wordplay. I will not give away the story, but this may be the most compelling book about World War I that I’ve ever read.
An Honest Living by Dwyer Murphy. A sophisticated and fun semi-mystery, about a semi-lapsed lawyer in the rare book world of New York. Murphy writes smart, sleek, unexpected prose. Unlike all the other books on the list, this one was perfect for summer reading.
The Great Passion by James Runcie. A pre-pubescent male soprano in Johann Sebastian Bach’s choir. This is for music lovers. Some of the best and most lucid descriptions of choral singing that I’ve read.
The Hoge Brothers
Jim Hoge passed away this week at 87, remarkably, only a few weeks after his brother Warren. In his obituary today, Clyde Haberman described Jim as “the blue-blooded editor of blue-collar tabloids,” the Chicago Sun-Times and the New York Daily News, breathing life into the latter at perhaps the last golden moment for street-reporting in Gotham City. Jim was certainly all that, and more--elegant and yet down-to-earth, incredibly decent and savvy…as was Warren, with whom I covered some overseas stories. Both Hoges were exemplars of all that I’ve loved about journalism. They will be missed. One hopes their craft—under-appreciated, like politics (see Biden above)—will continue to be nurtured by their memory.