The Art of Fielding
by Chad Harbach
You don't have to love baseball to enjoy this novel, although it will be enhanced if you do. It's a masterpiece, all the more remarkable for being a debut novel. The characters are fully three-dimensional and mostly very likable.
The situation is a small liberal arts college with an unremarkable sports program; most of the characters are baseball players on a team that has never won a championship. Then a fantastically talented freshperson (is this really the current term? aargh!) steps in as shortstop and brings the team to a new level of cohesiveness and skill.
The college president and his daughter are also major characters. It's the interaction of the characters that makes the story, interwoven with the winning season. And a beautiful story it is. Highly recommended.
Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010
by Charles Murray
The Left hates Murray and will despise this book as they did The Bell Curve. The accusations of racism leveled at TBC perhaps explain why he limits his discussion here to white Americans, although as he points out in part of one chapter, race makes little difference when one measures social pathologies such as loss of the work ethic, unmarried mothers, and lack of interest in education. As a fellow libertarian, I share most of his views and liked the book.
I found the first two parts of the book, full of charts depicting and contrasting various characteristics of the "new upper class" and the "new lower class," rather tedious. His summary and conclusions are presented in the last three or four chapters, and I would suggest starting with Part III, and going back to earlier parts if you want more documentation.
Can anyone deny the decline of what we used to think of as classic American values such as the will to work hard to accomplish something important, the value of marriage and family, participation in activities that benefit the community, honesty, neighborliness, and a moral code mostly based on religion (whether one is a believer or not)?
Murray presents two alternative futures for the U.S., a pessimistic one and an optimistic one. I hope even my leftist friends will read that part and think about it.
The Man Within My Head
by Pico Iyer
A superb critique of Graham Greene, both the good and the bad, by a man who regards him as a sort of literary earworm, identifying whether he likes it or not. If you're a Greene fan (as I've been for upwards of half a century) it's a must-read. If not, you will be after reading this. The major themes are struggles with faith (Greene became a Catholic when he married his wife, but couldn't quite buy the miracles and the dogma) and being a foreigner in an exotic culture, an experience that Greene and Iyer have shared extensively.
I've rarely been so captivated by nonfiction that I could hardly put it down. I devoured this book in 2 days.
LBJ: The MasterMind of JFK's Assassination
by Phillip F. Nelson
I had read the first three volumes of Robert Caro's The Years of Lyndon Johnson with fascination, so naturally I went to look at the amazon reviews of volume 4, The Passage of Power. There were 23 five-star reviews, and 10 one-star reviews, with few in the middle. Curious, I started reading the negative reviews, and found many accusations that the respected historian and biographer Caro had toned down his previous portrait of LBJ, turning him from a raging lion into a pussycat. If so, who had bribed, threatened, or otherwise influenced him? My curiosity led me to read this book for more detail.
And shock. This is history I lived through, and remembered many of the names and stories from headlines and Uncle Walter's reports as they were happening; Nelson had explanations that make more sense than any I had read before, and fit perfectly with my impression (partly created by Robert Caro, along with my own memories) of LBJ as the most corrupt and vicious politician of them all, skilled at flattery (known as the "Johnson treatment") and personally tailored manipulation of all sorts.
I never questioned LBJ's willingness to kill JFK, only his ability to bring it off. This book explains how, with the help of Johnson's neighbor J. Edgar Hoover, friends in the Pentagon, the CIA, the Secret Service, and the Mafia. Nearly all participants were kept in the dark about all but their particular part of the plan. Some were bribed, some blackmailed with material from FBI files. The press was managed before, during, and after. Many witnesses received threats against themselves and/or their families. Quite a few who knew too much or talked too much died under suspicious circumstances.
All the details are here, collected and assembled from 48 years of assassination research, with huge sections of notes, a large bibliography and a good index. It's well written (although poorly edited) and held my attention throughout. I'd sincerely like to hear from anyone who reads it all the way through and fails to be convinced.