Monday, August 05, 2013

Summer Reading Round-up 6

I have invited some bloggers to nominate a couple of books they have enjoyed recently and write a few sentences about each. 

You are welcome to send me your own choices. I suggest you nominate one political and one non-political book, but I don’t insist on that.

You can read Round-up 1Round-up 2Round-up 3Round-up 4 and Round-up 5 on this blog.

Simon McGrath

The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson Volume 4 by Robert A. Caro

The best political book I have read recently is the fourth volume of Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson. Anyone interested in politics, and in the use of power, should read these books which show political life in the raw. You will not read a better description of an election campaign than the second volume in the series which shows how LBJ was elected to the Senate in 1946 by 87 (stolen) votes after a campaign of legendary brilliance and dishonesty.

The fourth volume 'The Passage to Power' concerns his period as Vice President and then the period as President up to 1964. LBJ was immensely unhappy as VP, treated contemptuously by the Kennedys and their court, who failed to achieve anything of substance , partly because they ignored LBJs advice on how to deal with the Senate. Then came the assassination and LBJ became President , something his whole career had been aimed at but which he could have achieved no other way ( the Northern democrats would never have selected a Southerner as candidate) . The climax of the book is Johnson breaking the power of the Southern Senators and passing the Civil Rights Act , something only he, with his mastery of Senate rules and genius at manipulating people could have done.

The parodox of LBJ is that in most ways he was a deeply unpleasant man, willing to do more or less anything to get on. But he was also the most effective liberal President since Roosevelt - willing ultimately to damage his own Party ( he knew that civil rights would mean the end of the South as a Democratic stronghold) to get them passed - and of course to secure his reputation. The next, and final volume will cover the Great Society that other liberal triumph, as well as Vietnam, where his reputation was destroyed but without Vietnam he would be spoken of in the same way as Lincoln and Roosevelt - great American presidents.

The Game of Thrones by George Martin

I never read books like this but happened to pick this up in my son's room and was instantly addicted. The extraordinarily complicated and clever plot, the brilliantly described characters, a world which is familiar but ingeniously different make this utterly absorbing. This is a world with few moral certainties, good people get killed, bad people prosper ( at least for a bit) and you never know what will happen next. Yes there are dragons, yes there is (a small amount) of magic but ignore all of that. Once you read 20 pages you will be hooked. Then you realise there are another six volumes to read. Bliss.

Simon McGrath does not blog but is on Facebook - "The largest Lib Dem Facebook page apart from the official party one." Follow him on Twitter.

Andrew Brown

I first read Raymond Briggs' When the Winds Blows as a child or teenager and always preferred it to its more famous sibling, The Snowman. Set in the early 1980s, it's the powerful story of Jim and Hilda, an elderly couple in rural England in the lead up to and immediately after a nuclear strike on Britain.

Of course, in many ways the book is dated; people would now rely on the internet for information on how to prepare, not the official leaflets from local and national government (which would treated with a great deal more cynicism and less trust than Jim shows in them). The power of the book, though, is in the contrast of a nuclear strike with conventional warfare, with the characters making constant references and comparisons with the War. Naive thoughts that the "blitz spirit" would see them through are thrown into sharp relief by the realities of a nuclear winter.

At a time when it's easy to forget quite how real the threat of nuclear war was (and the publication this week of an address prepared for the Queen in an exercise envisioning such an eventuality is a reminder of how close we came), When The Wind Blows still serves as a warning of the fallout, in all senses of the word, from a nuclear strike.

Whilst it's taken me far longer to read than it should have done, Iain Banks' last novel, The Quarry, is his best book for many years (with the exception of his science fiction work as Iain M. Banks, and 2009's Transition). 

Told from the perspective of Kit, an 18 year with some degree of autism, it relates the events of a weekend towards the end of his father Guy's life. Guy is in the final stages of a debilitating cancer but has organised a reunion of his former University housemates, ostensibly to search for a missing, but potentially embarrassing, video cassette. As the tale unfolds, old tensions are laid bare and scores settled, secrets explored, lies spun and unspun and a few home truths are spoken.

Its darkly comic take on the end of a life that had previously been hedonistic in outlook has been given an added poignancy with the very public suffering of the author himself. Although mostly written before his own cancer diagnosis, the announcement of that - and his death just two weeks before a publication date that had been brought forward specially - inevitably make one read the book through an additional filter: where are the tweaks and details inserted after he knew his own situation?

Ultimately, though, similarities between Banks and his protagonist are limited; aside, perhaps, from their political viewpoints. Certainly the outpouring of affection by his peers and readers far outstrips the send-off he gives Guy. That, of course, is how it should be: his books were so often gritty, grim and dark - the antithesis of a man of warmth, wit and humility. This reader, for one, will greatly miss him.

Andrew Brown blogs at The Widow's World. Follow him on Twitter.

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