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Monday, April 16, 2012

Recorded Books: Palace Council;The Coldest Winter; Jack Kennedy, Elusive Hero; That Old Ace in the Hole; and Naked Lunch

William S. B Burroughs.  Naked Lunch.  March 2012   I picked this off the library shelf because the title was vaguely familiar.  I started and was turned off.  I simply didn’t want to hear it.  A review in the NYRB of  a memoire by the late Richard Seaver, a longtime editor of Grove Press, put the problem into words for.  Naked Lunch is a surrealistic account of the life of a heroin dealer and user.  I have better things to do with my time and so I laid it aside.
Stephen L. Carter.  Palace Council.  March 2012     The Palace Council is a group of 20 rich and powerful men, many of them the elite of 1950s Harlem, who met on Martha’s Vineyard in 1952 to launch a conspiracy to “shake the throne.”  Those words are from Paradise Lost and the group uses much of the language of the poem as a sort of code for its operations.  The intentions were idealistic, including promoting racial equality, but the methods of some individuals on the Council were self-interested and criminal.  Eddie Wesley is a young black writer from Boston who comes to Harlem in the 1950s seeking a writing career. He becomes a successful novelist and essayist and a confidante of Presidents Kennedy and Nixon as we follow his career from the 1950s through the Nixon years.  Early on his sister, June, disappears immediately after graduating from Harvard Law School and reemerges as the elusive leader of a violent civil rights organization.  Through the whole novel Eddie is trying to find here and, as he searches, he gradually becomes aware of the Council and her connection with it.   This was an enjoyable read but instead of hoping it would never end, I felt just the opposite.  It would have benefited from some serious cutting.
David Halberstam.  The Coldest Winter.  Halberstam doesn’t need any compliments from me, but I still have to say this is a masterpiece.  The Coldest Winter is his 20th and last book.  Just a few days after he finished, he was killed in an automobile accident on his way to an interview with Y.A. Tittle to start a new book on football.  Halberstam used hundreds of interviews as material to recreate the war in Korea, from the arrogance of MacArthur and Almond, MacArthur’s  personal pick for command in the field, to the heroism and military skills of subordinate commanders who were put in impossible positions by those two generals, and all of this in the context of miscalculations by Mao, Kim, Stalin and the American leadership in Washington.  I came away with a better understanding of the strategies and tactics in this forgotten war and, I hope, an on-the-ground understanding of what Americans soldiers went through as they fought against the overwhelming numerical superiority of the Chinese forces.  April 2012
Chris Matthews.  Jack Kennedy, Elusive Hero.  March 2012    Matthews reads the introduction himself and sums up in one sentence why he has done something extraordinary with this book:  To understand who Jack Kennedy was, you have to look behind the glamour.”  (The quote is approximate because I got it, of course, by ear).  The things that struck me were JFK’s constant ill health and pain, the mastery he gradually attained over the political process that enabled him to defeat Lodge for the Senate and then Nixon for the Presidency, and his pretty much single handed resolution of the Cuban missile crisis over the objections of his hawkish generals and cabinet members.
Annie Proulx.  That Old Ace in the Hole.  After community college and a few odd jobs in Denver, Bob Dollar is hired for his first real job.  He is to be a site scout for a hog production company headquartered in Tokyo, and his assigned territory is the Texas panhandle.  Bob’s supervisor advises him to develop a cover story so that as he goes around trying to find out who might want to sell his farm or ranch, he won’t have to tell the prospective sellers that the property will be used for modern hog production, i.e., operations known for inhumane treatment of animals and a stink that will travel to the next county.   For most of the book Bob’s story seems like a vehicle for telling the stories of panhandle characters, but when Proulx wraps it up in the end Bob lands on his feet as the manager of a program financed by a rich rancher to restore a huge swath of the panhandle to its original state as grazing land for buffalo.  And the stories of the ranchers and farmers, some of whom became oilmen, are funny and fascinating. March 2012

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