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A Noble Life

James Madison Lynne Cheney

James Madison: A Life Reconsidered by Lynne Cheney (Penguin Books, $18.00, 576 pages)

Every law student begins his or her studies by reading the case of Marbury v. Madison, in which the U.S. Supreme Court invoked its right to strike down governmental actions which violate the law. As James Marshall strongly stated, “It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.” It was a decision that the then-defendant and Secretary of State James Madison – later the fourth president of the U.S. – was to disagree with: “This makes the judiciary department paramount in fact to the legislature, which was never intended and can never be proper”

The average person is not likely familiar with the life and political career of president Madison, something which is remedied by reading James Madison: A Life Reconsidered by Lynne Cheney. Cheney’s book builds a fine case for the greatness of the man known as the “Father of the (U.S.) Constitution.”

He had used his remarkable gifts in one of the most important ways a man could, by playing a key role – the key role, one might say – in creating a framework for laws and establishing institutions that would secure liberty and happiness for generations (of Americans) to come.

Madison may not have been as charismatic or attractive a figure as others of his time, such as George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, or Thomas Jefferson, but he was clearly – along with Jefferson – one of the most intelligent humans alive at the time. Madison was to join with Jefferson in giving birth to a new form of democratic government.

Each was probably the brightest person the other ever knew, and both were well schooled, giving them a vast fund of common learning on which to draw as they talked and planned. Both continued to study throughout life and considered books of mighty importance. Each was known to buy them whether he had ready cash or not.

It was the team of Madison and Jefferson – as Cheney clearly details in her account – that was largely responsible for creating the Constitution of the United States. And Madison, who was initially opposed to the Bill of Rights, was later to play a key role in its enactment. Madison was, as one speaker stated, a man who produced “Power and national glory… without the sacrifice of civil or political liberty.” He was to die as the final living signer of the Declaration of Independence.

There are some fascinating details supplied by Cheney, such as when she describes the secret code that Madison and Jefferson used to communicate with each other. Since mail was often lost or misdelivered in those days, they developed a system in which they assigned telephone number-like digits to each major figure they came in contact with. This meant that if anyone got hold of their correspondence, they would not be able to determine who the writers were referring to when they made less than complimentary remarks about an individual. And Cheney turns the rivalry between Aaron Burr, Jefferson, and Madison on one side and Hamilton on the other into something so dramatic, it reads like one of Gore Vidal’s history-based novels.

A major concern about this nonfiction work never comes into play, the fear that Mrs. Cheney – the wife of Richard (Dick) Cheney, would bring modern day politics into the telling. This is never an issue; there’s not a single instance in which she attempts to analogize between the past and present, or in which she is critical of a modern day political figure. Cheney on occasion does use academic language, such as the term “inquietude” (physical or mental restlessness or disturbance), but this is easily remedied by access to an online dictionary.

For the majority of readers, James Madison: A Life Reconsidered will be James Madison: A Great Life Encountered.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book was released in a trade paper version on May 5, 2015.

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“Compelling, elegant, original… Lynne Cheney brings the great, elusive James Madison back to life.” Michael Beschloss, author of Presidential Courage.

This review was originally posted on the Blogcritics site:

http://blogcritics.org/book-review-james-madison-a-life-reconsidered-by-lynne-cheney/

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The Patriarch

The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Tubulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy by David Nasaw (Penguin Books Reprint Edition, $20.00, 896 pages)

The Patriarch paper

“If this was fiction, no one would believe it,” historian David Nasaw quipped on NPR’s Fresh Air about the extraordinary life of Joseph P. Kennedy, the subject of this biography, which is now available in a trade paperback.

In this 800-page tome [this refers to the hardbound edition], The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy, Nasaw, The Graduate Center of the City University of New York’s Arthur M. Schlesinger Professor of History, captured one of the most enigmatic figures of the twentieth century. Although the length of the book might turn away readers, this Shakespearean tale – which was six years in the making – is surprisingly a page-turner. As he did with another larger-than-life twentieth century character, William Randolph Hearst in The Chief, Nasaw goes into depths previously not explored about Kennedy’s strengths and weaknesses.

Nasaw puts to rest many of the lingering myths about the patriarch. As the first biographer to be granted full acess to Kennedy’s papers, Nasaw left no rock unturned. What one gleans from The Patriarch is that Joseph P. Kennedy was a complicated man, full of contradictions.

Joe Kennedy and sons

He was an attentive, loving father, anxious to meet the needs of his nine children. Whether it was a school assignment or a common cold, Kennedy was engaged and quick to offer help, but he was hardly present in any of their lives. He was either off conducting business in Hollywood, serving in Washington and later in London, or vacationing in Palm Beach.

Kennedy adored his devoted wife, Rose, though he was unfaithful even when he was courting her. The infidelities would not let up until he had his stroke.

His view of Jews varied. On the one hand, he was ambivalent about saving the Jews from Nazi Germany and always had an anti-Semitic joke at the ready. On the other, some of Kennedy’s closest confidantes were Jewish, including his chief liaison to the media, New York Times columnist Arthur Krock (whom Nasaw discovered had an unusually close relationship with Kennedy, which for a journalist was borderline unethical).

Austere in his personal life, Kennedy rarely drank, exercised regularly, took few financial risks once his wealth was established and attended mass as often as he could given his hectic schedule. But in public life he was unable to restrain himself and could be viewed at times as self-destructive. Kennedy had little regard for social etiquette or political deference. Against the wishes of the FDR administration, he aired his opinions before they could be vetted, views that eventually had an adverse effect on the political futures of his sons.

In the same vein as David McCullough’s Truman or A. Scott Berg’s Lindbergh, Nasaw has produced a book that will appeal to the scholar, the book critic, and more importantly the general reader. The book’s scholarship is unmatched and its prose flows effortlessly. For those infatuated followers of the Kennedy family or interested in twentieth century American history, I could not recommend a more gratifying read – just make sure (due to its weight) it’s the electronic version.

Highly recommended.

Adam Henig

Adam Henig is a biographer, blogger and book reviewer. You can read more of his work at:

http://www.adamhenig.com/

This article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website:

http://blogcritics.org/book-review-the-patriarch-the-remarkable-life-and-turbulent-times-of-joseph-p-kennedy-by-david-nasaw/

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Wild Child

chill-of-night

The Chill of Night: A McCabe and Savage Thriller by James Hayman (Witness Impulse, $11.99, 432 pages)

The setting is Portland, Maine, the month is December and the weather is bitter cold. The tale affords an escape from the everyday world in more ways than one. The main character, Detective Sargent Michael McCabe, has accomplished what many folks only dream about, transplanting himself and his daughter from New York City to a closely knit community away from big-city violence and crime. But has he? A German luxury car abandoned on the Portland Fish Pier for several days contains a frozen body in the trunk. So what happened to the charm and quaintness of the postcard setting, much less the implied safety? It seems evil lurks in the nicest of locales.

After the body is carefully thawed out, the identification is made and the detective work begins. Since most folks know each other around this part of town, McCabe bounces back and forth among his suspects gathering clues while attempting to eliminate suspects. To his credit, Hayman includes Abby, a young woman with schizophrenia, and the only witness to the crime. Without getting on a soapbox or dragging down the story, he develops her character with solid information about her disease which helps to explain her actions. Unfortunately, the policeman on duty when she bursts into the station house has a very hard time believing Abby’s excited ramblings about the murder and dismisses her report as a hallucination. This lack of understanding delays the hunt for the killer and places others in jeopardy.

James Hayman seamlessly picks up from his first mystery novel, The Cutting, with his core characters McCabe, his artist girlfriend Kyra, his 13-year-old daughter Cassie, his ex-wife Sandy and Maggie Savage who is his police partner. Hayman spares a loyal reader from too much catching up by keeping to the tale at hand, providing only pertinent information that confirms the identities of the characters and their relationship to McCabe.

There are plenty of quirky and charming elements to the story that keep it from being maudlin. McCabe has his own form of mental challenge. He’s got an eidetic (perfect) memory which affords the author many opportunities to sneak in a bit of trivia that will delight most readers. On a more philosophical note, McCabe wrestles with his own personal demons and makes real progress toward disengaging from his frustrations with his ex-wife, Sandy. His relationships with Kyra and Cassie progress nicely. These characters and their interactions are compelling enough to merit a sequel.

chill-of-night-back-cover

Well recommended for mystery lovers.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

“Taut, suspenseful… as dark and sinister as Lehane or Connelly.” Richard Montanari, author of The Killing Room.

thechillofnightlge

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Oh! Darling

The Darlings: A Novel by Cristina Alger (Penguin Books, $16.00, 352 pages)

“I’ve been stumbling on good hearts turned to stone…”   Bruce Springsteen

Cristina Alger’s debut novel is to Wall Street and corrupt investments what Robert Daley’s Prince of the City was to corruption inside New York City’s criminal justice system; and it makes just about as powerful a statement about contemporary life in this country.   This is a story about New York’s monetary elite (the One Percent) and about Greed with a capital G.   It’s a frightening tale about a place in which people equate money with love – in which money is, quite simply, the most important thing in the world.

As the novel opens, financier Morty Reis has killed himself.   Reis, a figure apparently based on Bernie Madoff, is an outside manager for Delphic, the investment company hedge fund run by the powerful billionaire Carter Darling.   (“The Frederick Fund, Delphic’s only single-strategy fund, had 98 percent of its assets invested with Reis Capital Management…  Morty was a brilliant investor.”)   The problem, as Darling’s son-in-law Paul Ross soon finds out, is that Reis Capital Management was a Ponzi scheme and Delphic’s clients stand to lose billions of dollars.   Ross, in need of a job after being pushed out of the Manhattan law firm he worked for, learns this sad truth soon after becoming the head of Delphic’s legal team.   He’s barely had a cup of coffee before learning that the SEC is on the phone.

It’s a Grisham-like opening but Alger, who has worked as both a financial analyst (Goldman, Sachs, & Co.) and white glove firm attorney, quickly steers the action to the fiscal side.   And she exposes the reader to the rough underbelly of life in the top stratum of New York high society – a class in which a small apartment in the Big Apple goes for $1 million with grossly high monthly maintenance fees, tuition for one child at a private school runs $34,000 per year, a summer rental in the Hamptons goes for $100,000, and SAT tutors ask for $1,000 an hour.   “Who had the stomach to run these kinds of numbers?   For even the very rich, this sort of daily calculus required a steely nerve…  a ruthless will to succeed.   (Carter’s daughter) Merrill would see schoolchildren on Park Avenue, golden-haired cherubim in pinafores and Peter Pan collars, and she would think:  Those are the offspring of killers.

Merrill is soon to find that her father is the most ruthless of the outlaws on The Street – a man who hides behind opulence – and his actions may have doomed not only his own livelihood and reputation, but also those of Paul and Merrill.   “Carter Darling was hard to miss for anyone who read the financial news.”   The strong-armed, patrician Darling is presented as a man who possesses some of the personality traits of both Donald Trump and Mitt Romney.   He’s proud of his success (Merrill refuses to give up her maiden name when she marries Ross) but God only knows what he’d be without his hundreds of millions of dollars…  His wife knows that he sees her as little more than a cash drain, “an extra person on the payroll.”

To her credit, Alger permits us to examine a legal system in which cheap, easy quick wins are valued more than prosecutions that can achieve social and economic justice.   For today we live in a world in which billionaires can outspend local, state and federal agencies in the courtroom.   When justice has been turned upside down – and the accused control the process – it’s all about the plea agreement, the deal.   (Financial wheelers and dealers are extremely proficient at fashioning the deals that benefit themselves the most.)

The Darlings (paper)The reader knows that Paul Ross, aided by his legally trained spouse Merrill, and an investigative reporter looking into Delphic are going to have to make some hard moral choices before the story comes to its conclusion.   The same is true for the near-omnipotent (if flawed) Carter Darling.   Alger cleverly ties together two plot lines at the conclusion of this powerful novel in a way that’s not foreseen before the final chapters.

Who wins in the end – the white hats or the black hats?   You will need to read The Darlings to find out.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  “Alger…  knows her way around twenty-first-century wealth and power…  a suspenseful, twisty story.”   The Wall Street Journal

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I Still Miss Someone

Composed

Composed: A Memoir by Rosanne Cash (Viking, $26.95, 245 pages; Penguin Books, $17.00, 256 pages)

“It’s me.   They are all me, the good and the bad.”

Rosanne Cash’s memoir starts off flat and rather dull before it kicks into gear; it then becomes more engaging with every page.   Composed has the same type of non-chronological structure as Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, which perhaps is not an accident as Bob gets a lot of play in this account of the life of Johnny Cash’s daughter.   It almost goes without saying that this is also a first-hand tribute to her late father, the Man in Black.

“On Friday, September 12, air had still gone in and out of his lungs; he had moved his limbs and made sounds.   He had actually squeezed my hand and lifted his eyebrows.   It was a difficult day, the last day of my dad’s life, but not unbearable to me.   The next day, the beginning of my dad’s life in the past tense, was unbearable.”

Rosanne paints her father as a man with faults and addictions (brought on by a jaw broken during dental surgery), but also as a loving man who quietly gave guidance to his daughters.   She came to take him for granted during his life – always sharing him with the world – but has found life difficult without him.

Early in his career Bob Dylan wrote songs based on dreams, and here Rosanne points out that her life has been shaped by a series of remembered dreams.   One of them involved Linda Ronstadt and Cash’s realization that she had been faking it in her career to that point, afraid to take serious chances.   After having that momentous dream, Rosanne resolved to work harder, especially as a serious songwriter.

Another dream involved her father and her need to let him go:  “When I woke…  I felt relief.   It was no longer my job to take care of him, as he was being taken care of, wherever he was.   The legacy of his work was intact, in my dream preserved as carefully and conscientiously as if it had been in a museum.   Something settled…  I could let him move on now.”

One surprise about reading Composed is finding out that Johnny Cash’s daughter is far more a fan of rock musicians than country singer-songwriters.   Yes, she has her idols and heroes in the latter category but she was heavily influenced by Dylan, Ronstadt, Joni Mitchell, Janis Ian, James Taylor, Bruce Springsteen and the Beatles.   All of these influences seem to have come together in her biggest hit single, “Seven Year Ache.”

As with the afore-mentioned Chronicles, Rosanne Cash writes in a style that is so unique it could not have been ghostwritten.   She has been a long-time student of words and she finds just the right ones to accompany each and every tale of her life told here.

“If Magritte had painted my childhood, it would be a chaos of floating snakes, white oxfords, dead Chihuahuas, and pink hair rollers.”

Composed paper

Perhaps the biggest compliment that can be paid to a memoir is to say that it enabled the reader to come to know the person who wrote it.   Having read Composed, I feel that I now know Rosanne Cash and I like her.   I look forward to hearing more of her music.   As a songwriter she’s joined her idols as one of the best.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Less Really is More

Street Fighters by Kate Kelly (Portfolio, 245 pages)

On the Brink: Inside the Race to Stop the Collapse of the Global Financial System by Henry M. (Hank) Paulson, Jr. (Business Plus, 496 pages)

“Bear Sterns, as it turned out, was only the first in a long string of financial firms to suffer mortal harm.  …By September 2008, just six months after Bear’s sale to J. P. Morgan, the investment banking industry had effectively ceased to exist.”   Kate Kelly

Kate Kelly’s book, subtitled The Last 72 Hours of Bear Sterns, the Toughest Firm on Wall Street, proves once again that less can be more.   This is a riveting, fly on the wall, account of the rapid demise of the once-powerful Bear Sterns investment firm.   Sterns was Wall Street’s fifth-largest investment bank with a market value of $25 billion dollars – with a “b.”   It was virtually given to J. P. Morgan for the fire sale price of $236 million – with an “m.”

Kelly’s book, an expansion of a three-part series of articles that she wrote for The Wall Street Journal, tells us how this all came to pass in less than half a week in March of 2008.   These were mad-crazy times, the beginning of this country’s fiscal implosion and she covers it in a manner that brings to mind Robert (Bob) Woodward’s reporting.   As with Woodward, Kelly interviewed hundreds of individuals who were present at the meetings and events described here and quoted them without attribution.   But in some instances the reader can clearly tell who the source was, as in cases where an underling criticizes a supervisor.   However, Kelly’s style is smoother and less choppy than Woodward’s first drafts of history.

Street Fighters has 229 pages of actual content and it appears to be just right.   The typical reader will finish the true tale thinking that everything essential was told and little was left out.   There’s both a new preface and a prologue to the trade paperback edition for those who don’t choose to supplement the account with Google searches.

That the length appears to be just right is not something that can be said of On the Brink, the loveable Hank Paulson’s 496 page account of the U.S. and the world’s financial meltdown.   If the mention of 500 pages doesn’t make the point, consider that it takes 13 full CDs to contain the unabridged audiobook version.   Apparently no editors were employed to deliver this effort.

What’s mind-boggling, and often frustrating, about Paulson’s account is that he appears to cover every meeting, every phone call, every thought over a period of weeks and months with dozens of important figures.   Yet he tells the reader that he does not maintain briefing papers, nor ask his staff members to do so, and does not keep records (including e-mails) other than phone call and meeting logs.   From this, he’s recreated virtually everything that happened from an apparently perfect memory – or could it be that recordings were used?   It doesn’t really matter.   It’s just that there is so much detail that this reviewer was worn out less than a third of the way through.

There are also some contradictions apparent in Paulson’s telling.   He gives us several of his seemingly expert opinions about the financial events of the last two years before reminding us that, “I’m not an economist.”   This has the same effect as someone writing about brain surgery and then stating, “I am not a physician.”   He also tells us that he’s not a sentimental person, but he writes of the often-criticized Tim Geithner like a father writing about his favorite son.   One half expects to read that Geithner solved the financial crisis by walking on water.

For those looking for an explanation as to why the U.S. government saved or bailed out some companies but not others, the explanation is not here.   Why did the government ensure that Morgan purchased Bear while permitting Lehman Brothers to fail?   All that can be said is that Paulson provides a few non-explanatory explanations.   In the end they just do not add up.

And lastly, as Bob Seger might have warned, what to leave out is just as important as what to leave in.   Kate Kelly in her nonfiction account nailed it.   Paulson was not even close.

Take Away:  Street Fighters is highly recommended.  

A copy of Street Fighters was purchased by the reviewer.   A copy of On the Brink was provided by the publisher.

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Everything Matters!

everything matters

Everything Matters!: A Novel by Ron Currie (Penguin Books, $16.00, 320 pages)

Years ago I read a now out-of-print novel about a man who dies but is then given a second chance at life.   I thought of that book while reading this unique and inspirational story from author Ron Currie, Jr.   Everything Matters! begins with an amazing premise:  when John Thibodeau, Jr., known as “Junior,” is born he is informed there is “one thing for certain,” which is that the world will come to an end in 36 years, 186 days, 14 hours and 23 seconds from the time of his birth.

The question is, of course, what will Junior do with this knowledge?   Will he inform others – even if he is thought to be insane – or use his great intellectual skills (he is the fourth most intelligent person on the face of the earth) to fashion a science-based escape for mankind?

Junior must ask himself the key question:  Will anything I do matter?   In the end, he finds his answer:  that in the here and now of life, anything is possible.

This is a work of faith, just not in the usual sense.   It is a tale that validates the saying that even when there is no plan, everything works out according to plan.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

 

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