Here is a mixed bag of books that I’ve picked up this summer, mostly light reading, in the general areas of politics, music and sports. I hope you will find something that interests you.
Being Nixon, A Man Divided, by Evan Thomas, 2015, 619 pages
The public perception of Nixon as an evil, twisted, cartoonish character is unfair to the real history of his era. But, time after time, I felt that Thomas was contorting his perceptions to give Nixon more benefit of the doubt than he deserved.
Nixon’s rise to prominence even now seems incredible. He attended Duke Law School, but couldn’t find a job until his mother arranged a position with a local law firm in Whittier, CA in late 1937. He wasn’t thrilled with writing wills for the rich folk in that small town. It seems he did little but meet and marry Pat during those pre-war years. Eventually he was recruited to work in the war bureaucracy in Washington, but soon left to join the navy, where he was a respected officer.
After the war a bank manager and Whittier College trustee proposed that Nixon run for Congress. Surprisingly he received the nomination and won the election. Four years later he won a Senate seat, and two years after that he was running as Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president. Thomas points out the incongruity of a man so shy and socially awkward choosing the outgoing business of politics. Despite that contradiction, his political rise was meteoric.
Even with this success there was a paranoia, a permanent chip-on-the-shoulder that infused his personality from the beginning. At college and in Washington Nixon always felt that he was an outsider. Initially he used this as a motivation to succeed. Later, after his electoral victories, it was time for payback for all the slights suffered over the years. “He stored grudges and grievances - to be burned later as fuel.”
Nixon was not an ideologue, and policies, like his overtures to China and Russia and the establishment of the EPA, would horrify today’s doctrinaire conservatives. But he certainly shaped our international world for the better. Despite Thomas’s balancing efforts, it’s impossible to ignore the catastrophe of Watergate - the responsibility lies squarely with Nixon. He created the atmosphere of hate and payback that inevitably lead to the extreme illegality of the Plumbers, dirty tricks and cover-up.
“Being Nixon” catalogues all the reasons why Nixon was treated unfairly or merely adopted tactics first used by Democrats. It even postulates that his many anti-Semitic, anti-Democrat rants were just Nixon blowing off steam, and he didn’t expect to be taken seriously.
But how were his aides supposed to know? Most of the time they wisely ignored their boss's crazy imprecations, but they could’t help but absorb the general attitude of retribution that inevitably lead to the break-ins at the Brookings Institution and Watergate, and the opéra-bouffe cover up that followed.
I’ll agree with Thomas that Nixon is an incredibly complex man and that our inability to see him clearly is a product of his aversion to any possible self-reflection or sense of culpability. But Nixon doesn’t deserve all the slack cut for him in this book. His debilitating emotional issues brought the country to the brink of the greatest constitutional crisis since the Civil War.
How Music Got Free, The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century and the Patient Zero of Piracy, by Stephen Witt, 2015, 296 pages
We grew up buying 45’s and albums at our local record store, which sounds as quaint today as the horse and buggy did to us in our teens. We lived through eight-tracks, cassettes, then CD’s and may have even advanced today to iTunes and Spotify. “How Music Got Free” is the fascinating story of how a bunch a young computer hackers and a single worker at a CD-manufacturing plant in North Carolina devastated the music industry, whose products we have loved.
There was a time at the end of the millennium when no one under 30 was buying music. They had all figured out ways to get the music they wanted online for free. It required more computer skills than our generation was willing to acquire, but it wasn’t that difficult and was certainly acceptable, even if technically illegal.
How were these hackers able to upload this music that the industry spent millions of dollars to protect? The fun in this book is meeting Bennie Lydell Glover and learning how he outwitted all that security. As author Stephen Witt puts it, he was “the man who destroyed the music industry to put rims on his car.”
This thoughtful, cogent book is more than just about the music industry. It is about how technology is disrupting and changing everything.
There Goes Gravity, A Life in Rock and Roll, by Lisa Robinson, 2014, 361 pages
How do you experience the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle without being a star or a groupie? Lisa Robinson lucked into the life by becoming one of the first rock ’n’ roll journalists. The aptly titled “There Goes Gravity” chronicles her travels with the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, John and Yoko, the Jackson 5, as well as her discovery of punk at the CBGB’s of Patti Smith, the New York Dolls and the Ramones. Later she covered U2, the emerging rap scene in LA, and Lady Gaga.
Needless to say, she has seen it all. Often accompanied by Annie Leibovitz, who the book is dedicated to, Lisa tells us the stories behind those iconic Leibovitz pictures. Is this “inside baseball?” Definitely! But, if rock ’n’ roll is something more to you than just background noise, if your body reacts viscerally when you hear the opening bars of songs like “Midnight Rambler” and “Stairway to Heaven,” if you truly believe that Patti Smith is a great poet, you will find much to like in this breezy recounting of Robinson's extraordinary access to the greatest musical figures of our life.
The book is like the music itself: it may not address so-called “serious” issues, but it provides an informed rhythm that allows life to be just a little sweeter. Enjoy, if this is your thing.
Big Data Baseball, Math, Miracles and the End of a 20-Year Losing Streak, by Travis Sawchick, 2015, 256 pages
This is another book for aficionados, but in an even more narrowly defined target. This is, in fact, inside baseball. To appreciate this book, you have to love the sport and the arcane data it produces; you may also have to love a specific team, the Pittsburgh Pirates.
For those of you I haven’t already eliminated, welcome and “Beat ‘em Bucs,” the team’s rallying cry since the late 50’s. This team has seen glorious highs - Maz’s seventh game walk off against the Damn Yankees in the 1960 World Series, Roberto’s 1971 Series and “Pops” Stargell’s 79 series. And the highest of the high - Dock Ellis pitching a no-hitter, tripping on acid.
But then came the slow years. Followed by the Streak - 20 consecutive losing seasons, a record for major-league sports. A small market-team with ownership that didn’t seem to care and a befuddled management, the Pirates were unable to field a competent team despite getting top picks in the draft, year after year.
But it all turned around in 2013, when the Pirates not only won more games than they lost, they made the playoffs. They did it again in 2014 and barring a late season collapse will be playing again this October. How did they do it?
Travis Sawchick’s theory is that a bunch of math geeks showed the tradition-bound management that the team needed to change how they play defense. For left-handed hitters, pitchers needed to throw “cut” fastballs that induce ground balls, and the fielders needed to shift to the right side of the infield to stop them. Add MVP winner Andrew McCutcheon and you have a team that has the third-best record in baseball as of late August.
It’s fascinating in a geeky kind of way, but there is a little of that odd love of stats in all baseball fans. The sport thrives on tales of .300 hitters, 20-game winners, Joe D’s 56-game hitting streaks, Bonds vs Aaron vs Ruth. Dig in!
Grade: B-, but for Pirates’ fans, A+!
Joe, You Coulda Made Us Proud, by Joe Peptone and Barry Stainback, 1975, revised 2015, 264 pages
I don’t know what possessed me to read this book. Maybe it was one of these ubiquitous “Best of …” lists. Maybe a reference in another book to the high living and stunted career of a player with great promise.
The book is really about Joe working out his love/hate relationship with his long deceased father who beat him unmercifully before finally getting over his own jealousy at Joe’s initial success to become his son’s biggest fan. It’s a sad, pathetic story and not worth reading about.
740 Park Avenue, The Story of the World’s Richest Apartment Building, by Michael Gross, 2005, 576 pages
If you want to indulge in some serious schadenfreude, this is the book for you. While purportedly telling the tale of how the top .1% came to inhabit this over-the-top co-op, it is actually a cautionary tale. Alcoholism, adultery, childhood neglect, white-collar crime all infect its inhabitants like a disease. Despite the luxurious surroundings, personal misery abounds.
Author Michael Gross revels in their agony. First it's the society-page names: Rockefeller, Bouvier, Hitchcock, Dorrance, Harkness. Then come the men and women who built great businesses: Marshall Field III, Estée Lauder, Edgar Bronfman, Walter Annenberg and Steve Ross. Lately it has been the big money men of Wall Street, like Saul Steinberg, Ron Perelman, and Henry Kravis, who have fixated on 740 Park as the ultimate prize.
Despite dwelling on misfortune, Gross is also a snob and delights in telling you who, even with all their money, couldn’t get into 740. Coop boards are one of the last bastions of legal discrimination, and Gross gives tacit approval to their closely guarded and random use of power. You will hear a lot about “Jewish” quotas. Surprisingly, it doesn’t seem to be condemned, merely that it exists as an obvious fact of life.
I have to admit it’s fun, for a while, to look behind the curtain, but Gross wallows in it. Eventually, you become bored with another recitation of ridiculous wealth and careless lives. Like a lot about the rich, it’s fascinating and repelling at the same time.
Thunderstruck, by Erik Larson, 2006, 463 pages
I picked this up because I had enjoyed “The Devil in the White City” so much. Erik Larson follows the same pattern in this book, mingling an historic event with gruesome murder. In this case he narrates the invention of the radio while telling us about a murder as horrific as any of Jack the Ripper’s.
Only these dual stories doesn’t work as well. There is very little connection between Guglielmo Marconi’s struggle to create wireless radio around the turn of the twentieth century and the Crippens murder ten years later. Plus Marconi turns out to be not such a nice guy, in a dull kind of way, and the wireless invention is technical and dry. You’re not really rooting for him to succeed as much as observing.
Like the mass murderer in “Devil,” Dr. Crippens hides his sadism behind a very bland facade. When the ghoulish aspects of his wife’s murder are finally revealed, you are bored with him. In “Devil,” Larson made the murderer, the creators of the Columbia exposition and the fair itself indelible characters. In ”Thunderstruck” nothing pops.
It makes me wonder how good “Dead Wake,” his latest about the sinking of the Lusitania, will be, but I’m sure I’ll get around to it. By the way, “The Devil in the White City” is being made into a film, again teaming Martin Scorcese and Leonardo DiCaprio, who collaborated so successfully on “The Wolf of Wall Street.”