Third in Caro’s serial biography of Lyndon Johnson, this massive volume covers Johnson’s decade in the Senate. For most of the 1950s LBJ ran the senate with an iron fist, at once the youngest and most skillful man to do so perhaps in the Senate’s history. In following Johnson’s story we learn how the Senate really operates; a civics lesson far in excess of anything any one ever (used) to learn in school. We see the deep divide among red states and blue states over issues of business versus labor, wealth preservation in opposition to support for the needy, the Cold War, and greater than any other issue, race relations. Through the 1950s most black Americans in the south were prohibited from voting, fully segregated from whites in schools, stores, hospitals, and anywhere else blacks and whites might find themselves in extended proximity, and subjected to mob justice. Whether the stranglehold on black lives could be addressed by the United States federal government divided the South (opposed to Federal usurpation of States’ rights) from the north and Johnson gets credit in this book for managing a compromise that for the first time cracked the door open to let a slim ray of light expose the darkness of southern discrimination. Partly what makes the book so fascinating is how complex is Johnson’s personality: driven, ambitious, cajoling, vicious, denigrating, sycophantic, manipulative, caring, and insufferable. Taking on any of Caro’s books is a commitment — they are very long — but his able technique includes stories both small and large that together assemble into a complete tale of America in the mid-20th Century.
A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers *** (of 4)
In this rewrite of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, aptly named Alan Clay, a former salesman of Schwinn bicycles finds himself in Saudi Arabia trying to sell the King a new technology for holographic communications. Clay has a fragile exterior: he doesn’t really understand holograms or computers, his ex-wife is annoying, his financial debts are insurmountable, his college-aged daughter is directionless, he hasn’t been in a substantive relationship with a woman, or even a male colleague, for nearly a decade, and he has a lump on his neck he is certain is cancerous. Now he is in sprinting as best he can in the Arabian desert of a globalized economy trying to make one last sale he hopes will alleviate all his worries. Only Saudi Arabia is not what his guidebook led him to expect. Women flirt, men drink, and cities in the sand sometimes don’t live up to expectations. Neither does the book, I’m afraid. As strong a writer as Eggers is, it’s hard not to feel as despondent as Alan Clay. His demise seems preordained and who wants to spend forever reading about that?
Richard Mayhew, a boring British office worker, finds himself fighting for his life in London Below, a dark mysterious world beneath London’s subway system. Heroes and villains abound, most with special powers that poor Richard never manages to expect nor understand. He wanders day upon day asking stupid questions while he tracks after Door, a young female on a quest to find the key that she can give to the angel Islington so it can help her avenge her slaughtered family. Very much of the Harry Potter genre, with a lick of Brain Jacques Redwall series tossed in. I much preferred Gaiman’s Anansi Boys. The well-made point of Neverwhere is that grinding through a daily life in London Above — monotonous job, mind-numbing commute, accompanying a standard girlfriend on her unimaginative weekend shopping trips — is not very far from a living death. Facing real death and testing one’s limits even in the face of mortal danger is far closer to having a real life.