High (and sometimes deep) adventure

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

NIGHTHAWK. By Clive Cussler and Graham Brown. Penguin Audio. Read by Scott Brick. 11 ½ hours; 9 CDs. $45. Also available in hardcover from G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

nighthawkThe United States’ most advanced aircraft/spacecraft has gone missing, and the Air Force and the National Security Agency have called on NUMA, the National Underwater and Marine Agency, to help in the search.

When Kurt Austin, NUMA’s intrepid head of special assignments, is hustled off a Hawaiian beach to lead the charge, he and Joe Zavala quickly begin to suspect that the secretive NSA isn’t telling them everything.

Clearly, a lot is at stake, and to complicate things, dangerous Chinese and Russian operatives are also looking for the craft.

The Nighthawk, as it’s called, had been orbiting the Earth for three years on a highly secret initial mission. It vanished mysteriously when it was preparing to land in California. The last signals received indicate it was somewhere over the South Pacific.

As Kurt and company soon learn, the Russians and Chinese aren’t just interested in the Nighthawk’s advanced technology. The mission involved harvesting “mixed-state matter” from the polar magnetic field, and if the matter isn’t handled properly – including being kept extremely cold – the matter and antimatter will combine to create a tremendous explosion. But if one country can secure it before it destroys much of the world, that country will have enormous power.

Time is of the essence because the batteries of the cooling system will soon run out. Kurt and his small band of colleagues, including Emily Townsend of the NSA, must race to figure out where the Nighthawk is while thwarting attacks by the Chinese and Russians.

This novel is in the best tradition of Kurt Austin’s NUMA adventures – fast-paced, full of action and intrigue, brimming with unlikely feats and laced with occasional humor. The action ranges from the Pacific to the Andes, and from submarines and small submersibles to a variety of aircraft. There are plenty of high-tech gadgets and gizmos.

If you’re looking for plausible, well-explained science or complex character development, you’d better go elsewhere. But if you want to be entertained, kept on the edge of your seat and occasionally treated to some interesting bits of history, this book is worth your time.

As an added treat, the ending, one of the best yet, will leave you smiling, if not laughing out loud.

This is a good beach read, or, if you go for the audio version, a good tale to entertain you while you’re driving to that vacation destination.

 

 

 

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War, independence and family ties

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

loyalTHE LOYAL SON: The War in Ben Franklin’s House. By Daniel Mark Epstein. Random House Audio. Read by Scott Brick. 16 ½ hours; 13 CDs. $60. Also available in hardback from Ballantine Books.

Most of us probably think we know the story of Benjamin Franklin, and certainly the story of the American Revolution and the Independence from England whose anniversary we are about to celebrate yet again.

If you read, or listen to as I did, this engrossing new book by Daniel Mark Epstein, you’ll realize that there is a lot to both of those stories that most of us don’t know.

For example: Benjamin Franklin had an illegitimate son, who had an illegitimate son, both of whom were close to the patriarch.

And for many people living in the former colonies at the time, the Revolutionary War was less a clear-cut military action between two countries and more a civil war, with neighbors, former friends and even relatives quarreling bitterly and attacking one another – often brutally. The lines between who was a patriot, loyal to the effort to separate from England and establish a new nation, and who was a loyalist, hoping to preserve ties with the mother country, were in many cases amorphous and evolving.

Thus we get the double meaning of Epstein’s title: William Franklin, the illegitimate son whom Franklin took from his mysterious mother and raised in his home, was lovingly loyal to his father – but in later years, he was loyal to his king and country while his father was one of the leading forces in the revolution.

William was his father’s close companion, his able assistant in scientific experiments such as the famous kite-flying venture. He accompanied Franklin on some of his diplomatic missions to England, attempts to improve relations between Parliament and the colonies. With cultured manners and a winning personality, he was more popular in London socially than was his father. He found his bride in England, and he also made the connections that led to his becoming the governor of New Jersey.

As the situation deteriorated and war against England appeared inevitable, Benjamin Franklin became one of the foremost patriots. William, however, as a royal governor, remained convinced that the loyalists were on the better course and deserved continued support.

The resulting rift between the two men grew into an apparently unbridgeable chasm, causing much distress for the other members of the family as well as for father and son.

The elder Franklin spent the war as a diplomat in Paris, helping to secure vital French support for the American cause. He also, as is well known, enjoyed Parisian high society. William Franklin’s illegitimate son, Temple Franklin, who had come to the colonies as a teenager after early schooling and foster care in England, accompanied his grandfather to Paris as his aide. Meanwhile, William Franklin, Benjamin’s son and Temple’s father, was imprisoned for his role as a loyalist. At first he was only under tolerable house arrest, but later his recalcitrance led to his being in a squalid, harsh prison that nearly broke his health. His wife died while he was imprisoned, unable to get permission to rush to her side.

While others, including George Washington, tried to help William Franklin, his father, the influential and revered Benjamin, left him to his fate.

Even after the war, when William sought to reconcile with his father, Benjamin Franklin never seemed to be able to forgive and move on.

Epstein tells a fascinating story that reminds us that even though we tend to transform our national heroes into some sort of super beings, they were only human, flawed as all humans are. And Benjamin Franklin, a genius and passionate man who lived life more fully than most people do, was much more complex than our image of the genial elder statesman.

Epstein, a noted poet as well as a biographer, brings history to life, with lots of personal details, insights and anecdotes. In the audio version, Scott Brick does justice to a fascinating story.

 

 

 

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A comfortable ride

Bob Moyer, traveling  gourmet, has found time to sample a new book and write a review.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

Robert B. Parker’s LITTLE WHITE LIES. By Ace Atkinson. Putnam. 304 pages. $27.

LiesAfter dozens of Spenser adventures by Robert B. Parker, and now seven by his chosen successor, Ace Atkinson, the formula is pretty clear. There’s never much mystery about whodunit. Someone shows up in Spenser’s office, interests him in a case, and before long he’s onto the bad guy. For the rest of the book, he employs his patented investigative technique – “When at first you don’t succeed, keep bugging the hell out of people and see what shakes out” – and then wreaks justice, legal or otherwise, on the villain. With this patented lack of plot excitement, what keeps Spenser’s fans coming back?

Simple. For the ride.

Time spent with a Spenser novel is a trip around Spenser’s Boston (the endpapers are maps), making familiar stops along the way. In this latest case, he takes on a client who lost a huge sum to a con artist. To track him down, Spenser talks with his lawyer over Schnitzel and a Samuel Smith Oatmeal Stout at Jonathan Ives’, and interviews his cop contact over eggs, hash and raisin toast at Agawam’s. Long-time trainer Henry Cimoli puts him through a rigorous workout at his gym, as a prelude to the requisite fistfight with mercenaries later in the book. And, of course, Spenser fixes a dinner of poulet au citron et lavande with a bottle of Macon, Joe Williams playing on the stereo, and dialogue like this with Susan, his significant other:

“The chicken might take a while.”  

Susan gave a wicked grin. “That’s like saying your car ran out of gas.”

“Did I mention my chicken is free range?”

“That,” she said, “and then some. But I know where it roosts.” 

 And then the punch line

 “I can take care of your chicken after dinner.”

 Through it all, Spenser rattles off bon mots, banter, and quotes from sources as varied as Shakespeare, Joe Friday, and Sir Galahad – sometimes two on a page. During the ultimate gun battle in the Vermont woods, joined by his sidekick Hawk, he even works in two lines from Robert Frost between shotgun blasts. Oh, and he does get the money back.

All in all, it’s a comfortable, familiar ride with one caveat. Readers can usually rip through a Spenser novel in as little as one sitting. This time, however, the read takes a bit longer. Parker and now Atkinson usually adhere to tenet #10 of ELMORE LEONARD’S 10 RULES OF WRITING:

“Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

It seems Parker’s designated successor has left a few of those parts lying around in the narrative of this latest adventure.

Just sayin’.

 

 

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Too many motives

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

WALKING ON MY GRAVE. By Carolyn Hart. Books on Tape. Read by Kate Reading. 8 ½ hours; 7 CDs. Also available in hardcover from Berkley.

walkingonthegrave-266x400Carolyn Hart is one of the grande dames of American writers of traditional, often called cozy, mysteries. She’s written a lot of books and, deservingly, won a lot of awards and honors. This latest in her Death on Demand series is as entertaining and satisfying as her fans have every right to expect it to be.

Readers who have somehow missed the previous books in this series – which debuted nearly 30 years ago – need have no fear. It’s not difficult to figure out enough of who’s who and what’s what to get into the story. The main thing is the latest mystery, and in Hart’s experienced hands, that stands on its own – with an entertaining nod to one of Agatha Christie’s classics, And Then There Were None.

Hart’s main character is Annie Darling, who owns a bookstore named Death on Demand that specializes, of course, in mystery novels. The theme of the store means that Annie knows a lot about mysteries, and her customers care about them, so there’s plenty of opportunity for references to and discussions of other (real) mysteries and Hart’s fellow (real) writers. In other words, these novels are a treat for mystery buffs.

Annie’s home and bookstore are on Broward’s Rock, a fictional island off the South Carolina coast where most year-round residents know one another. This mystery begins when Ves Roundtree, a friend of Annie’s, suspects that someone’s trying to do her in. It seems that when Ves’ very wealthy brother died, he left his fortune to her for her lifetime, with several other beneficiaries, all with connections to the island, waiting for their inheritance.

When Ves invites the beneficiaries to a dinner at her home so that she can bring them up to date on the status of the estate, she feels that something is wrong. Not longer afterward, she barely escapes serious harm in a fall that she’s convinced was not an accident.

Before Annie, her husband, Max, and others in their circle become thoroughly convinced that Ves is really in danger, one of the heirs, who attended the dinner, dies in mysterious circumstances. Then Ves disappears. And there are more suspicious developments.

All the heirs have a motive to do away with Ves, and all have a motive to reduce the number of their fellow heirs, thus increasing the share that will go to each survivor. As things heat up, Annie and company being to wonder how many will die before they can figure out who is the villain.

Hart throws in enough twists and turns to keep you guessing, and then she wraps the mystery up in fine style.

This mystery makes a particularly enjoyable audio book, read ably by Kate Reading. There aren’t so many characters that you need a printed list to keep them straight. In typical cozy style, although there is death, the violence is mostly off-stage. The style is light but not frivolous, and, although we learn various people’s problems and motivations, this is not a probe into the dark depths of the human psyche. In short, this is a great book for a summer car trip.

 

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The mean streets of L.I.

The Briar Patch has a little catching up to do. Our excuse is that the Briar Patch’s physical location has moved. More about that later. But for now, fortunately, faithful correspondent Bob Moyer has taken time from his own travels to write a review.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

WHAT YOU BREAK. By Reed Farrel Coleman. Putnam. 357 pages. $27.

breakEver since Raymond Chandler sent his fictional gumshoe Philip Marlow down the means streets of Los Angeles, hard-boiled writers have been pushing their PI’s down the same path. Reed Farrel Coleman’s Gus Murphy follows in those same footsteps, only in a different locale – Long Island.

Williams is the quintessential hardboiled dick. He lost his son, his job, his family and his will to live: “When you’ve sat with the muzzle of a Glock nestled up under the fleshy part of your chin, your finger on the trigger, you get past giving a shit about what the world thinks of you.” Now, he drives a van back and forth to MacArthur Airport, which, as airports go, is “…almost as popular as a pork store in the heart of Jerusalem.”  He works at the Paragon Motel, where the “…night work was for people with secrets and stories not to tell.”

Slava is one of those people. A Chechnyan who claims to be from Poland, Slava says with a ”…face turned headstone-cold,” “I am shamed in my soul.” Now his past has caught up with him, and he needs Gus’ help. He saved Gus’ life in the last book, so Gus has no choice.

Gus also has no choice except to help an acquaintance of Father Tom, the ex-priest who helped keep Gus alive. He asks Gus to help  Micah Spear, like Slava, a broken man who has broken men. He’s “…distant, superior, knowing with hints of blackened soul,” but Gus agrees to help him find out why his granddaughter was killed. These two tasks take Gus and the reader into the dark side of both sides of the tracks on Long Island.

Out of Coleman’s’s pen, L.I. proves as atmospheric as L.A., with the “…Long Island Expressway acting as our own version of the Mason-Dixon Line.”  As Gus wends his way through plot complications, we get a  tour of the place, as well as why “…a trip out to the Hamptons …becomes a test of a person’s road-rage threshold.”  When he crosses the railroad tracks in Bellport, Gus points out that they “…might just as well have been a wall or a moat, but you didn’t need physical barriers when economic ones were just as effective and far less conspicuous.” Coleman is a master of noir that sheds light on society.

After a crackerjack car chase in which “…’shotgun’ wasn’t just a figure of speech,” and a two-man assault on a barricaded site that has “the stink of heated rubber and plastic” as well as the “rank odor of sweat and fear,” Gus discovers the reason behind the girl’s murder on the way to extricating Slava from a death penalty. The price he pays is worth it, for him and the growing cadre of his fans.

 

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The chase is on

This new book by one of Bob Moyer’s (many) favorite authors came out late last year, but we’ll forgive him for not getting around to reviewing it until now.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

THE OLD MAN. By Thomas Perry. Mysterious Press. 337 pages. $26.

oldmanThe Old Man looks like a harmless retiree, having lived quietly in the small Vermont village for 19 years now. He’s a familiar sight, walking Dave and Carol, the two dogs he picked up after his wife died. A calm, idyllic life — until his past appears in a silver Subaru with a pistol on the passenger seat.

Within hours he has killed an intruder and taken to the road with his “bug out” kits, complete with fake ID’s credit cards, pistols — and the dogs. Back when The Old Man was a young man, he was a special ops who delivered money to American “friends” in Libya. After he found out how corrupt one of these friends was, he took the money back. When he returned to the U.S., his agency wanted him, not the money. He had been on the lam successfully ever since — until now. No matter what he offers or to whom, that “friend” apparently wants him dead. So the chase is on.

No one is better at these chases than Thomas Perry. Sometimes it’s the hero who chases the villain; sometimes it’s the other way round. In this stand-alone novel (Perry does a number of series), he gives us both. In an interesting twist, the hunt for The Old Man is engineered by a veteran of the Afghan conflict, a young special op as good as his prey — and as principled. Will the kid catch the old guy?  If he does, what will he do?  That tension and the tricks The Old Man pulls to hide in plain sight keep the pages flipping.

Car crashes, a chase through the snow, a couple of plot twists and a turn-around at the end make this a most satisfying read. Perry shows us you don’t have to teach an old dog — er, man — new tricks to make a story work.

 

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Still waters

 


 Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

INTO THE WATER. By Paula Hawkins. Penguin Audio. Read by Laura Aikman, Sophie Aldred, Rachel Bavidge, Imogen Church and Daniel Weyman. 11 ½ hours; 9 CDs. $40. Also available in hardcover from Riverhead Books.

waterWhile I liked and was impressed by Paula Hawkins’ runaway bestseller The Girl on the Train, I didn’t love it as much as a lot of readers did. My problem was that, although the writing, the suspense, the mystery and the psychological insights were terrific, I didn’t really like any of the characters. If there’s not a character I like, one whose fate I care about, one who seems worth of my concern, then I don’t get fully engaged in a novel.

I have no such reservations about Hawkins’ excellent new book, Into the Water. This novel, too, is beautifully written, even poetic at times. The mystery – or mysteries – surrounding the deaths of several women in a particular part of a river that flows through a small English town is intricate and deeply layered. Again, there are riveting psychological insights that gradually unfold, enabling us to better understand various characters.

And this time, several of those characters are people I find not only interesting but also sympathetic – people about whom I come to care.

As the book begins, a woman, single mother of a 15-year-old girl, is found dead in the river’s “drowning pool.” A few months earlier, a girl who was the teenager’s close friend drowned in the same place. The town’s history includes other women who died in the river.

Are the deaths related? Are they suicides or murders? What is going on?

There are even those in the town who communicate – or so they say – with the dead, adding to the mystery.

The younger sister of the most recently drowned woman, long estranged from her sister, arrives to take care of her newly orphaned 15-year-old niece. She has her own dark secrets, as do the police officers investigating the deaths. The more we learn about people in town, the more secrets come to light, and the more we realize connections among various people. Then too, there are questions not only about who is telling the truth, but also about what truth is, and how memories can be unreliable.

The audio version of the book, using five voice actors, enhances the story, making for a gripping presentation.

The Girl on a Train is good; Into the Water is even better.

 

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Disaster, resilience and Grace

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE STARS ARE FIRE. By Anita Shreve. Random House Audio. Read by Suzanne Elise Freeman. 8 ½ hours; 7 CDs. $35. Also available in print from Knopf.

Stars-are-Fire-jacketIn the long, hot summer of 1947, a drought took hold in Maine with a vengeance. By October, conditions were dire, and when fires broke out, they savaged the forests and moved eastward, devouring towns and racing on toward the ocean, destroying homes and killing people and animals. Evidence of the Great Fires of 1947 can still be seen in some places.

Combining this history with her fertile imagination, Anita Shreve has created a vibrant and dramatic story of a young mother’s struggles to survive disasters of more than one variety.

Grace Holland is 24, the mother of two young children and pregnant yet again when the fire hits the small coastal town where she lives. She’s already distressed by the troubled relationship she has with her husband, Gene, a surveyor and a veteran who does not talk about his experiences in the war.

The night the fires come to their town, Gene has gone out with other men to make a firebreak, thinking he’ll have time to get home and evacuate the family if necessary. But Grace is awakened in the middle of the night to see that there’s no time to wait. With no vehicle, she flees with her toddlers and a few necessities, rousing her best friend next door. They head for the beach, where they huddle in the sand under wet blankets for hours.

Grace, her friend and their children survive, but Grace miscarries at the hospital. When she recovers, she finds that she must make a new life for herself and her two children with no house, clothes or household goods, no money, no vital paperwork and no word of what might have become of Gene. He is listed as among the officially missing.

Eventually, Grace takes the children and her mother, who also has been left homeless, to the mansion that had recently been left to Gene upon the death of his mother. Grace and her mother-in-law had never gotten along, and Grace had not wanted to move into the mansion, but now everything has changed.

The mansion, she discovers, is not empty. An Irish concert pianist named Aidan who had been traveling in the area on a concert tour has been staying there since he fled the fires. Grace invites Aidan to stay and use her mother-in-law’s piano while he finds his next position.

Grace gets a job, learns to drive and blossoms into a whole new person. She’d married Gene soon after starting college classes and had never been on her own. Now, responsible for herself, her children and her mother, she discovers resources and strength she never knew she had. With Aidan, she also discovers a different sort of relationship.

But then one day the new life she has built is shattered in an unexpected way, and Grace is challenged anew. Will she have the strength and courage to deal with this new threat?

The plot is a bit convenient or contrived at times, and some details are never convincingly explained. While there are some real surprises, other developments are predictable, even if they are welcomed.

We come to understand and sympathize with Grace, but some other characters, particularly Gene, are never completely comprehensible or fully developed.

All in all, though, the book is well worth reading. Shreve’s prose is vivid and descriptive, making the fire and the devastation it leaves seem real. Her portrayal of post-war American society and women’s place in it is interesting and instructive. Grace’s story is an ultimately inspiring one that will resonate with many women.

Suzanne Elise Freeman does a fine job of bringing the story to life in the audio version.

 

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At the intersection of nature and imagination

It’s always a pleasure to have a review from Tom Dillon, who draws attention to books I might otherwise miss.

Reviewed by Tom Dillon

THE INVENTION OF NATURE: ALEXANDER VON HUMBOLDT’S NEW WORLD. By Andrea Wulf. Alfred A. Knopf. 473 pages. $30, hardback

natureBe honest, now. Who was Alexander von Humboldt? Do you know? The chances are, if you have been living in 20th and 21st century America, you don’t. He may be memorialized in things like the Humboldt Current running up the coast of Chile and Peru, dozens of parks and monuments and mountains in Latin America and more than 100 animals. Indeed, the state of Nevada was almost named for him. But for too many, he’s been forgotten.

It’s fair to say, says Andrea Wulf in this absorbing 2016 book, that the peripatetic German scientist and explorer is responsible for our concept of nature itself. He was a mentor for such people as Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, Ernst Haeckel, John Muir and others. Go look at “The Andes of Ecuador,” Frederic Church’s marvelous painting at Winston-Salem’s Reynolda House, and you’ll be looking at the work of another person inspired by Humboldt.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries – Humboldt lived from 1769 to 1859 – he was probably the best-known scientist and explorer in the world, breaking new trails in the South American rain forest, climbing to heights unknown on Ecuador’s Chimborazo volcano – then thought to be the tallest mountain in the world – and influencing people as diverse as Thomas Jefferson and Simon Bolivar.

But Humboldt was German, and things German fell out of favor in much of the West in the early 20th century. “Both world wars of the 20th century cast long shadows,” Wulf writes, “and neither Britain nor America were places for the celebration of a great German mind anymore.” In Cleveland in 1917, German books were burned in a public bonfire – where 50 years earlier thousands had marched in celebration of Humboldt’s centennial.

So why should we care? Well, Wulf says, partly because Humboldt’s life was colorful and “packed with adventure.” He was one of the first explorers of Latin and South America and later traveled far across Russia, longing to reach the Himalaya. But more than that, she says, Humboldt’s writings blurred the line between science and the arts. He could talk to both farmers and scientists.

“Humboldt’s insight that we can only truly understand nature by using our imagination makes him a visionary,” Wulf writes. “Environmentalists, ecologists and nature writers today remain firmly rooted in Humboldt’s vision – although many have never heard of him.” She calls Humboldt their “founding father.”

Humboldt and his brother, Wilhelm, were born to an aristocratic Prussian family but had an unhappy childhood after their father’s early death. Both boys were tutored by a string of Enlightenment thinkers who taught them a love or truth, liberty and knowledge, but their mother expected them to become civil servants, a future that agreed with Wilhelm but frustrated Alexander.

Alexander took a job as a mining inspector, but on his mother’s death began planning with a young French scientist, Aime Bonpland, for a voyage to South America. They were eventually able to get permission from Spain to visit its colonies, and in 1799 set sail for what today is known as Venezuela – then New Andalusia.

That was the start of five eventful years during which Humboldt and Bonpland explored the rain forests, established a connection between the Orinoco and Amazon river basins, climbed mountains and eventually made it to Peru, Mexico, Cuba and the new United States, where Humboldt found a kindred spirit in President Thomas Jefferson. His writings about all this made his international reputation among both scientists and the reading public in Europe.

Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of his travels attracted immediate attention in Europe and was eventually followed by dozens of other books, papers and articles, culminating in his publication of his five-volume Cosmos: Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe, in 1845. The first two volumes were huge best sellers and by 1851 had been translated into 10 languages.

This book is a follow-up to Andrea Wulf’s Founding Gardeners and The Brother Gardeners, about the interest in the natural world among America’s founders. And while it takes Wulf in a new direction, it features the same seemingly effortless writing and fine attention to detail. It’s fair to say that the sections on Humboldt’s travels are by far the most interesting part of the book.  But it’s all very readable.

Humboldt could perhaps captivate others as he captivated John Muir, who wrote at the start of his own travels, “How intensely I desire to be a Humboldt,” desperate to see the “snow-capped Andes and the flowers of the Equator.”

  • Tom Dillon is a retired journalist who lives in Winston-Salem.

 

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What did the president know …

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

RICHARD NIXON: The Life. By John A. Farrell. Random House Audio. Read by Dan Woren. 29 hours; 23 CDs. $60. Also available in hardcover from Doubleday.

nixonThere have been other biographies of Richard Nixon, the only American president to resign from office. From what I’ve read, this new one by John A. Farrell measures up well and provides some new information, most notably the revelation about how Nixon’s secret communications with the president of South Vietnam in 1968 sabotaged President Lyndon Johnson’s attempts at a peace deal, probably extending the Vietnam War for political gain.

Like many others, I, however, have not read any previous biographies, so my reactions are based solely on this one. I found it fascinating, fair, enlightening and a story that became hard to put down (in my case, the kind of audio book that makes me drive farther than I meant to, because I want to hear what happens next).

Many Americans born toward the end of World War II or in the early days of the baby boom, as Nixon’s two daughters were, have memories of much of what Farrell details. With scandals, the Cold War, assassinations, civil rights and antiwar protests and then Watergate, he has a wealth of material.

Younger readers can gain valuable insight into how American politics and society have come to be the way they are. Much of what we struggle with today has its roots in the story Farrell tells so well.

I was privileged to be a young journalist on the national news desk at The Sun in Baltimore, just up the road from D.C., when Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, resigned in disgrace and during the Watergate scandal. Even though I lived and breathed the news events of those days, I learned a lot from Farrell’s book. In addition to information that was not known at the time, his insightful treatment provides the sort of context and perspective that are in short supply when dramatic events are unfolding.

One of Farrell’s most impressive achievements is the way he manages to describe the life of this complex man with great fairness and even, at times, compassion. He is more sympathetic to Nixon than might be expected, but he never fails to point out the man’s flaws and failings. The Nixon he describes is clearly a tragic figure in the classical sense, a man with much greatness but also with flaws that lead to his own destruction.

While not indulging in too much amateur psychoanalysis, Farrell does make a good case for the warring drives that motivated Nixon – the good instincts inherited from his Quaker mother, whose approval he was never quite sure of, and the sometimes ruthless determination to fight and win that came from his harsh father. Though Nixon was intelligent and accomplished, he never got over his feelings of insecurity. Those feelings made him thin-skinned to the point of being paranoid. He also came to believe that he was on a mission, and that whatever it took to keep him in power and help him to achieve his goals was justified.

Nixon did many bad things, although part of what Farrell accomplishes is to show that he was not the first or the only one to commit many such transgressions – he just went further, and in a more reckless way. He also did a number of good things that tend to be forgotten, including more to help the environment than any president since Theodore Roosevelt.

Farrell’s book inevitably sparks discussion about the many parallels between Nixon and Donald Trump, the man who surprisingly became president while this book was about to be published. The most notable similarity is their extreme distrust and hatred of the press.

But, as others have pointed out, there are many ways in which these two men are quite different. Nixon came from a working-class family, and even when he was hobnobbing with the wealthy and mingling with world leaders, he never felt that he belonged. Nixon was a professional politician, not an outside amateur, having worked his way up from congressman to senator to a two-term vice president, and having weathered some difficult defeats, before reaching the White House. Nixon, highly intelligent, did much research and was deeply involved in policy decisions. He was plagued with self-doubts.

And yet … the similarities are disturbingly there. One of the oddly comforting takeaways from Farrell’s book, however, is that the United States has survived even through times when its leaders fell far short of its ideals and terrible events threatened our democracy.

This is a fine biography, a good story as well as well researched and documented history. Dan Woren’s presentation in the audio version is just right, making the listener feel like an intimate witness to history.

 

 

 

 

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