Saturday, January 26, 2013

Nasaw's The Patriarch -- more than you ever want to know about Joe Kennedy

Book 15 -- The Patriarch by David Nasaw

Let me begin by airing a perennial grievance -- fat, honking biographies. I don't like'em. So I am not altogether certain why I purchased David Nasaw's biography of Joe Kennedy late last year.

The Patriarch weighs in with 787 pages of text, plus an introduction, notes, bibliography and index.

And it is filled with far more details about Joe Kennedy's life than I could possibly care to know.

Carping aside, Nasaw's biography is balanced, spritely written and, despite its bulk, manages to keep the narrative moving swiftly, from Kennedy's birth in East Boston in 1888 to his death in 1969.

Kennedy was not an appealing man. He cheated on his wife, cut corners while building a personal fortune that placed him among the richest men in America and seemed incapable of governing his temper or his tongue.

Worse, his unfortunate appointment as the American ambassador to England, destroyed his reputation and led to his alienation from the halls of power in Washington.

While in London, Kennedy earned a reputation as a man willing to appease Hitler -- Nasaw suggests Kennedy wanted to protect both his fortune and his children -- and a defeatist.  There were even suggestions, some not so veiled, that he was pro-Nazi and an anti-Semite.

A bitter man, Kennedy ultimately emerged as a tragic figure.  Four of his children preceded him in death -- Joe killed in the war, Kick in a plane crash and JFK and Bobby were assassinated. For all practical purposes, he also lost daughter Rosemary to mental retardation and an ill-considered lobotomy.

Nasaw's The Patriarch is a fine work of biography limited only by the unappealing subject matter.

Book 14 -- Trophy Hunt by C.J. Box
Book 16 -- The World at Night by Alan Furst

I am reading through the entire oeuvre of both Box and Furst; Box in chronological fashion, Furst catch as catch can.

Both men are skillful writers. Box is building a respected series with his thrillers featuring game warden Joe Pickett.  Furst explores Eastern Europe, especially Paris, during the early stages of World War II.

In Trophy Hunt the mysterious mutilation of cattle and wildlife soon turns to murder.  Are the mutilations caused by birds? Aliens? A government experiment? Joe must uncover the secret to the mutilations to solve the murders.

The World at Night opens with German troops massed on the French border. Film producer Jean Casson wants to live life as he did before war threatened, but it is soon clear that is not possible.

Casson is called to war. His service in uniform is brief, but after returning to Paris he is embroiled in demands from both the British and Germans that he aid each side in its espionage.

Here's a passage from The World at Night that illustrates Furst's mastery of atmosphere:

"Perlemere ordered two dozen Belons, the strongest of the oysters, now at the very end of their season. He rubbed his hands and attacked with relish, making a thrup sound as he inhaled each oyster, closing his eyes with pleasure, then drinking the juice from the shell, a second thrup, followed by a brief grunt that meant arguments about the meaning of life were irrelevant once you could afford to eat oysters."
The World at Night is distinguished by a love story between Casson and a young actress. A love story all the more poignant because of a cruel war and the demands its places upon Casson's life.

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