Reading Log, June 15, 2009

I appreciate the fact that many people have found my 2009 Summer Reading List to be helpful.  The list is just a start, of course, and it was intended from the beginning to be helpful also for Father’s Day.  Thus, it is long in history and military history — which is no coincidence given my own enjoyment of these reading fields. There will be more to come this summer.

A few comments have raised issues or questions.  Why no fiction?  Well, that is a horribly difficult genre to recommend in the same sense that I can recommend many non-fiction titles.  I will mention a recent novel below, but a recommendation is something else.  I find recommending fiction to be excruciatingly difficult.  I read several dozen novels a year, enjoy many of them, and would gladly recommend a few of them . . . if I knew what kind of fiction you like to read.  I like many forms of fiction and have a collection of favored authors.  I probably learn more by reading fiction than by reading much non-fiction.  Still, the great challenge vexes.

With Fathers Day looming, I read Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood by Michael Lewis.   Lewis is a well-known author who, like others before him, decided to reflect on fatherhood.  Nothing very profound appears here, but Lewis’s secular bemusement about what he is supposed to feel toward his young offspring is often fun to read.  His language is bracing, but he is onto something when he asserts, “Maternal love may be instinctive, but paternal love is learned behavior.”  Sadly, it is a behavior some men never learn.

Home Game is often funny, and the diary Lewis keeps after the birth of each of his three children is never boring.  He affirms the fact that the experience of parenthood makes a man grow up (something many men are reluctant to do).  My favorite line in the book, and one I know will be appreciated by my colleague Russell Moore: “School-age children are the rats of our time.”  His reference is to the fact that rats supposedly carried the Bubonic Plague and the Black Death.  As Lewis continued:  “After a day of happily swapping germs with their peers, my children apparently returned home with what felt to them like a mild cold, and kissed their baby brother — who promptly lost his ability to breathe.”   Don’t worry; he regained it.

In Republican Leader, John David Dyche offers the only significant biography of Sen. Mitch McConnell yet to appear.  Dyche does a good job of capturing McConnell in his essence — a master politician.  The most interesting part of the book for me was his recounting of McConnell’s boyhood and years as a college student.  The author’s account of McConnell’s political rise — and especially his campaigns for the U.S. Senate — is riveting.  Republican Leader will be of particular interest to Republicans (what a brilliant observation) and Kentuckians, but anyone interested in contemporary American politics will find the book both interesting and useful.  I wonder, would a biography of Sen. Harry Reid be as interesting?  I’ll be on the lookout.  In the meantime, I am on the hunt for a really good biography of Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Reading Republican Leader also reminded me what a lousy politician I would have made.  While every position of leadership is political in some sense, electoral politics requires what we might call a certain “flexibility” on the issues that I would find impossible.

In City of Thieves, novelist David Benioff has written a masterful work of contemporary fiction.  The plot of the book is absolutely brilliant, his characters are so authentic that they seem to jump off the pages, and the dialogue is spare.  Benioff takes the reader into the heart of despair as the Wehrmacht strangles Leningrad.  A 17-year-old Soviet patriot, Len Beniov, finds himself facing execution when he, along with a slightly older young man, are given a choice:  Find a dozen eggs for the colonel’s daughter’s wedding cake, or be shot in the back of the head.  So . . .  they go after the eggs.  Their determined search for the eggs becomes a journey into human depravity and lingering hope.  No one reading this novel will escape being moved by the account of horrors within and without Leningrad — and within and without the human heart.

City of Thieves is brutal, and is not for the faint of heart.  It glides very close to nihilism, but pulls back.  It is one of the most thought-provoking coming-of-age novels I have read in years.  I thank the eager salesperson at Borders who recommended it to me.  One interesting aspect of the book:  Supposedly, it is loosely based on Benioff’s own grandfather’s experience as a teenager trapped in wartime Leningrad.  After spending time with his grandfather (then living in Florida), Benioff told him that he needed clarification of parts of the story.  “David,” said the grandfather, “You’re a writer.  Make it up.”

“Golda” — An Incredible Story About an Indomitable Power

With Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni poised to become that nation’s next Prime Minister, historical parallels to the late Golda Meir are inevitable.  “Golda,” as she was known, served as Israel’s Prime Minister from 1969 to 1974.  She was expected to be a caretaker Prime Minister who would quickly be replaced with a more conventional leader.  Nevertheless, her indomitable will and grandmotherly manner made her Israel’s indispensable leader during critical days in the nation’s history and in the context of the Cold War.

Born in the old Russian Empire in 1898, Golda Mabovich migrated to America as a little girl, settling with her family in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  As a girl and young woman, Golda became urgently committed to the Zionist cause and moved to what was then known as Palestine in 1921 with her new husband, Morris Meyerson (she later Hebraicized her name to Meir).

When Israel emerged as a new nation in 1947, Golda was already recognized as a major figure in Zionist ranks.  She later moved through a succession of offices and responsibilities in the Israeli government, serving as Foreign Minister before becoming the nation’s first woman Prime Minister in 1969.

American readers of Golda, a new and fascinating biography of Golda Meir by Elinor Burkett (Harper), are likely to remember Golda’ starring role in history, especially on the international stage.  In a sense, Golda Meir’s leadership role cemented Israel’s special place in the American consciousness.  Even President Richard M. Nixon seemed to melt in her presence, and Israel got what the nation needed from America — vast financial support, overt and covert political support, and the sale of advanced American armaments and weaponry.  This was a grandmother who did business.

Less known to most Americans, but essential to this story, is Golda Meir’s political liberalism, her early decision to abort a baby (“her Zionist obligations simply did not leave room for a child”) and divorce from her husband.  Her story is instructive at many levels, telling the story of modern Israel through one woman’s role and legacy.

Her story is also a personal and national tragedy, as her legacy continues to divide the nation.  I found Elinor Burkett’s biography of Golda Meir to be most helpful in understanding the cataclysmic and chaotic events of Israel’s history, the internal divisions that existed in Israel from the beginning, the nation’s quest for a unified identity, and the socialist experiment that many intended the new nation to become.  On every page the backdrop is the young nation’s brave fight for survival.  The story of Golda Meir is often not pretty, but it is never boring.

An excerpt:

Her people adored her for all the wrong reasons — for how safe her towering strength made them feel and for the aplomb her edgy wit lent them — rather than because they heard their own hopes and dreams reflected in her exhortations about socialism, equality, and self-sacrifice.  While she was celebrated across the planet as the first personification of strong female political leadership, on the most pressing international issue — the alarming rise of terrorism — she was cast aside as a Cassandra despite what history has shown to be her prescience.  In her every attempt to move Israel toward peace, she was hemmed in — by the great game between the United States and the Soviet Union and by Israel’s political landscape as much as by her own obduracy.

And despite the reality that her nation’s political paralysis constrained her from accomplishing much of what she longed to do, she was nonetheless forced to stay in office well beyond her time because there was no other way for her to protect a nation at risk, from its neighbors, its refugees, its economic precariousness, and its own contentious divisions.

A woman of greater wisdom might have resigned and let the younger generation battle it out, no matter the cost.  A leader of foresight might have told her people everything they didn’t want to hear, that the situation was not sustainable, that a dozen problems were woven into the national fabric, and that they were living on quicksand.  A creative prime minister might have devised new approaches to everything from ethnic divisions to peacemaking.  And an innovator might have burst the bubble of arrogant self-consciousness by explaining that the political system was ossified or acknowledging that Israelis were not, in fact, the new superheroes.

The Defining Moment and the Art of Leadership

As acknowledged by his friends and his foes, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was one of the most significant Presidents in the nation’s history.  While debates over his policies, actions, and legacy will surely continue, his leadership gifts continue to impress historians across ideological boundaries.

Roosevelt’s self-understanding as a leader should be of interest to any student of the art and science of leadership.  For that reason, Jonathan Alter’s The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope has much to teach about the art of leadership.

Alter, a senior editor at Newsweek, notes that just hours before FDR was sworn into office for his first term, governors in New York, Illinois, and Pennsylvania ordered the banks in their states to close.  This meant that 34 of 48 states “now had no economic pulse.”  President Herbert Hoover was “a study in failure” even as he possessed a “brilliant understanding of complex issues.”  What Hoover failed to understand was the crucial role of the President as national leader.  Understanding this was Roosevelt’s great gift.  He knew that the nation needed decisive leadership — and fast.  His first 100 days were filled with a flurry of presidential actions and words.  Roosevelt aimed at hope and exuded optimism.  Hoover had declared a bank “moratorium.”  Roosevelt declared bank “holidays.”  Alter’s analysis in The Defining Moment of Roosevelt’s words and actions during his first 100 days is a great read.

An excerpt:

FDR knew the consequences of failing to seize the day.  A visitor — unidentified in the press — came to him not long after the Inauguration and told him, “Mr. President, if your program succeeds, you’ll be the greatest president in American history.  If it fails, you will be the worst one.”  “If it fails,” the new president replied, “I’ll be the last one.”

This sounds melodramatic to Americans in the 21st century, when freedom is flourishing in so many parts of the world.  But during the 1930s, democracy was on the run, discredited even by subtle minds as a hopelessly cumbersome way to meet the challenges of the modern age.