Wednesday, January 25, 2012

"Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero," by Chris Matthews

There are stories foretold and stories that have been told.

"Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero" falls into the latter category.

It's all here, the way the Kennedys built a political party within a political party, the vaunted "glamour" of the young couple, the Cuban missile crisis, the Berlin airlift, the confrontation with southern governors over desegregation of the universities down there...

Hardballer Chris Matthews said on Bill Maher's show that he wrote the book largely because he felt time had softened and obscured Kennedy's legacy. He noted how little younger people know much about this president who fired the imagination of an emerging generation so long ago.

"Elusive Hero" is a cradle-to-grave affair in which Matthews puts Kennedy on the couch and draws connections between his adult and political life and that of the sickly boy who lacked attention and took solace in history books.

Although cradle-to-grave, it becomes clear to anyone whose age exceeds Kennedy's 46 years, that the book surveys a short life.

Reading his trajectory as a younger fellow, highwayscribery saw a giant. Now, with Matthews help, Kennedy is more a powerful life-force hounded by death and the dark throughout a fantastic and terrible life.

Matthews writes okay. It's a kind of Beltway journo-talk that exults in political "donnybrooks," back room deals, and campaign "hijinks" when referring to corruption and wrongdoing.

"Elusive Hero," states its estimation of the man in the title. But this is updated hagiography that confronts Kennedy's marital infidelities, his ruthlessness, and all the rest. It's more honest and critical than the encomiums produced by the generation most burned by his murder.

The author's best contribution is his willingness to go beyond the donnybrooks and hijinks and demonstrate how the Kennedys engineered takeovers, corralled delegates, strong-armed state governors and so forth.

He gives you an operative's view of how things are put into place at the grass roots. The plotting and planning, the marshalling of forces, and the final application of power are put into motion here by Bobby and

Jack, legitimate historical figures, regardless of where you stand politically.

Interest in this book should bifurcate along a fault line separating those who know about JFK and that "one brief, shining moment," and those for whom Camelot is just some old and outdate Broadway play.

The latter should give it a try.

"Waiting for Robert Capa," by Susana Fortes

Gerda Taro was a pearl with no oyster in which to enfold herself.

She's the one "Waiting for Robert Capa," a Hungarian photographer named Andre who she coddled, loved, and turned into an international artistic product.

Taro herself was one of those strong and independent women in a time when her gender was allowed no such prerogative and those who chose to exercise it were left on the vine to dry and die.

"Waiting for Robert Capa," is the story of their brief, youthful, and productive love affair. It is, in her case, a holocaust story because she is a displaced Polish Jew who does not survive the Nazis and Fascists of her time.

And it is mostly Gerda's story. That of a woman whom watching evoked, "an Angora cat hunt down a mouse with the street smarts of a stray," someone, author Susana Fortes tells us, who was "automatically loved. It's something you're born with, like the way you laugh as you tell a joke in a low voice."

The couple meet in Paris after being chased from their respective homelands. Fortes' strongest contribution may be her depiction of how suffocating and terrifying Fascism had become for the average person in the European street.

The portrayal suggests the couple were happier in a war zone, where they could be free, where utility outranked pedigree, and where they could confront the enemy earlier than most.

Fortes puts these characters into Spanish Civil War action at the places history knows they had been: the defense of Madrid, the refugees' flight from Malaga, the exiled government in Valencia, and the fateful battle of Brunete.

She peppers her text with the names of forgotten poets and International Brigadists in the style of Mexican writer Elena Poniatowska.

But mostly Fortes imagines the internal and emotional lives of her subjects, the lovers Gerda and Capa, although these inner personalities are not put into "play" very often. Rather the author tells us what they are thinking about themselves and one another, mixes said feelings with politics, Jewish identity, and their zest for life into an interesting, if low-volume literary affair.

Although the players in action took more work, and despite the fact "Waiting..." is situated in war time, the author favors the internal dialogues and, as such, this book is mostly a projected mapping of these two peoples' emotional souls.

This is a European romance of the old-fashioned kind that continues the ongoing effort to recuperate the memories of remarkable people forgotten, because they were losers in a chapter most critical to modern history.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

"History of Pleasure Seeker," by Richard Mason

"History of a Pleasure Seeker" is a randy, raucous romp through belle epoque Europe.

It descends from a long line of young-man-seeks-fortune-in-the-big-city yarns by giants such as Balzac ("Pere Goriot") and Guy de Mauppassant ("Bel Ami").

What with cable networks morphing novels into television series, author Richard Mason may have a winner on his hand if he'll only go with snappier title, "Bourgeois Behaving Badly."

The scene in "History of...," mostly, is turn of the century Amsterdam. Our hero is the humble-born Piet Barol who is skilled most at enjoying life and given the rapier tool best suited to this pursuit: beauty.

Barol is vain and ambitious in calculating, but it must be in a way that we all are, because the reader wishes him well and prays for his escape from some of the scrapes he rather hungrily gets himself into.

He's installed as a tutor in a burgher's house on an affluent Amsterdam canal as a tutor.

The man's wife is hot and unloved, his daughters flowering and enigmatic in interesting ways. A puritan runs the house staff, a pervert the service crew.

highwayscribery will avoid mentioning the ways, crafty and not, Barol navigates these seas while still reaching better shores.

Mr. Mason does what they call in comedy, "blue." If homosexuality or hearing the name of that thing hanging between men's legs called by its street name offend you, let us recommend Jane Austen.

"History of a Pleasure Seeker" is an easy read, rendered in efficient prose, and blessed with curious insights about Old World ways.

Mason permits himself no artistic indulgences, working with a strong forward moving structure, few flashbacks, al palatable tableaux peppered with good visual and historical detail.

It is really an Old World book, pulled from Old World ways of writing literature, with the novelty found in the voices of past masters sort of blended or woven into it.

Here you'll find erotic drama, laced with humor, with strong accents of Austen, Georges Bataille, de Sade, and Henry James.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

"Conversations with Nelson Algren"

Highlighting a mostly forgotten author, "Conversations with Nelson Algren"
is rich with themes relevant today, and a critique of American life a worthy of consideration.

Algren was a "tough guy" writer from Chicago's west side. He was jailed in Texas as a young man, enlisted in World War II, traveled to Asia on a merchant ship, maintained a long-time romance with the existentialist and feminist intellectual Simon de Beauvoir, to name just a few of the adventures which filled his life.

Much of his literature concerned itself with drug addiction in the mean streets, to shedding light on the realities of this particular sliver of the demimonde. To such themes did he stake his name and novels, among them "The Man with the Golden Arm" and "Walk on the Wild Side."

"I thought I'd make a dent," he tells his interrogator. "I didn't make the least dent, because there is no way of convincing or even making the slightest impression on the American middle class that there are people who have no alternative, that there are people who live in horror, that there are people whose lives are nightmares. This is not accepted. The world of the drug addict doesn't exist. The world of the criminal doesn't exist. The world of the murderer doesn't exist. Nothing that does not touch the person individually exists."

Two of Algren's novels were made into A-list movies, one starring Frank Sinatra. Otto Preminger produced one of them. Algren's is the quintessential Hollywood writer's story, the one where he gets ripped off, recounted in an angry, detailed narrative that makes "Conversations with..." worth the trip.

Not that he finds things much better in New York or Chicago: "I put up with the disdain. I accept that as part of the creative person's lot in the United States. You must live with the disdain. There's something criminal about being a writer, that is, if you're not a successful writer, that is if you're not a yes man."

He should see how things are today. Algren's own experience sounds like some contrived fantasy for television kids.

For example, his first time in New York, "I went right up to Vanguard Press and met James Henle. And he said, 'What'll you need to write a novel?' I said, 'I'd go back to the Southwest.' He said, 'What would you need to do that?' I said, 'I need thirty dollars a month."

And he got it, plus "ten dollars to get out of town."

Products of long ago, his conversations do double service as memoirs that explain mid-century America, starting with the Great Depression and heading into the early '60s.

He was employed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the '30s, starting out at $87 a month and rising to $125 over the life his job. A window on government's turn at fomenting fortune in the art world.

"The WPA? Yeah, it was very good. I believe that the first thing it was, it served to humanize people who had been partially dehumanized. There had been, I believe, in those years between 1929 and 1930, '31, when people who had been self-respecting, lost their self-respect by being out of work and then living by themselves began to feel the world was against them. To such people WPA provided a place where they began to communicate with people again."

If you do not find something like that interesting, you should bypass this book, which is sociological and political in nature, glazed with a Chicago-street patina.

Algren was friends with Richard Wright, had a tense encounter with James Baldwin, disliked Jack Kerouac's work, but liked John Clellon Holmes and, generally speaking, had enough to say about his times to generate a panoramic view of the same.

That panorama is on display in these interviews conducted by the also-forgotten H.E.F. Donohue.