Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Books now read in ’07: 19
Title: Gerald R. Ford
Author: Douglas Brinkley
Genre: Biography
Date Completed: 3-5
Pages: 160

Douglas Brinkley’s brief biography of Gerald R. Ford is a timely work, released only months after the former President’s death. The book is part of Times Books’ American Presidents Series. Brinkley charts Ford’s life and political career in tidy fashion – he’s elected to Congress by the end of the first chapter. Also the biographer of Rosa Parks (Penguin Lives), John Kerry and Jimmy Carter, Brinkley is even-handed in his treatment of the nation’s only unelected president.

Ford was a good man who helped restore the public’s faith in the government and who helped to heal the many wounds of the previous decade. Still, this book evokes painful memories – Watergate, Nixon’s resignation and subsequent pardon, Vietnam in its waning days, great distrust by the American public in our national leaders, a loss of confidence at home and a loss of face abroad, rampant inflation and high unemployment. For me, and for many Boomers, it was a difficult and uncertain time in which to come of age.

Brinkley summarizes Ford’s political legacy nicely in the following passage:

“From the moment Ford left the White House, that valediction that he had “healed” American would remain the most enduring legacy of his term in office, though hardly the only one. For it was Gerald R. Ford who dissipated the pall of Richard Nixon, however controversially, and who shepherded the nation safely through to the end of its most divisive war while living up to the United States’s ensuing responsibilities to South Vietnam’s refugees. It was Ford whose help in forging the Helsinki Accords opened the way for the collapse of Soviet communism. It was Ford who acknowledged the seriousness of the global energy crisis and who conveyed the urgent need for cooperation to do something about it to the rest of the industrialized world, and whose careful fiscal policies cut inflation in half and boosted the U.S. economy out of its direst fix since the Great Depression. And it was Ford who, purely by dint of coming across as a really nice, normal guy, restored Americans’ faith in the validity of their government.”

Perhaps of greatest interest is Brinkley’s treatment of Ford’s decision to pardon Nixon. That decision was universally scorned at the time and is generally credited with contributing greatly to Ford’s narrow loss to Jimmy Carter in the 1976 general election. From the perspective of three decades, Brinkley contends, Ford’s pardon was the right thing to do. Despite the waves of recrimination, national resentment and anger, the pardon ultimately allowed Ford and the nation to put Watergate behind them. Brinkley believes that in pardoning Nixon Ford acted, as he so often did throughout his political career, not in his own best interests, but in the interests of the nation.

Books now read in ’07: 20
Title: The Flanders Panel
Author: Arturo Perez-Reverte
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 3-6
Pages: 295

The Flanders Panel by Arturo Perez-Reverte is a delicious mystery within a mystery. It’s Perez-Reverte’s second novel and, as such, displays something of the fledging writer’s struggle to control the pace of the narrative. A few overly long sections given to introspection bring the narrative to a halt and dispel the atmosphere of menace Perez-Reverte so ably constructs. Such struggles are entirely missing from his later works.

The first mystery lies within a 500-year old painting portraying two men, a knight and a lord, playing chess, while a woman reads nearby. Hidden beneath the paint are the words, Who killed the knight? Julia, a young woman who is restoring the painting before it is to be auctioned, uncovers the mysterious passage. Out of professional curiosity and recognizing that a mystery will add great value to the painting, she sets out to solve this enticing riddle.

Julia quickly learns that the three people in the painting truly lived and that the knight was foully murdered two years before the painting was completed. The words beneath the paint, it seems, cry out for the knight’s murder to be solved.

Julia does solve this mystery midway through the book, even as the shadows of a second mystery draw around her. While investigating the mystery of the knight’s death, Julia’s former lover, an art historian, is found dead. Was he murdered? Or was his death accidental? Neither the police nor Julia are certain. That is until a second death occurs.

The 500-year-old mystery of the knight’s death is solved by playing the chess game pictured in the painting backwards. The mystery that envelopes Julia entails playing the same game forward to its conclusion. A solution exists at the end of the chess game, but in risking the white queen, Julia may be risking her own life.

The Flanders Panel is vintage Perez-Reverte.

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