Fascinating presentation of what, for most Americans, made Kennedy who he was.

FORTY WAYS TO LOOK AT JFK

The 1,037 days of Camelot and the life preordained to produce it. What was real, and what wasn’t?

Readers who like sequentially flowing biography may initially recoil at Rubin’s approach. This isn’t what we now know about Kennedy; it’s what we’ve known all along—words, pictures, ideas, deeds—resorted and pinned together as if on a corkboard in a homicide case. But if it worked at all with the former Yale law professor’s initial subject, Winston Churchill (Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill, 2003), it works to the nines with Kennedy. Her first chapter, for instance, showing JFK as an ideal leader, is followed by a critical account based on different sources. Whether Kennedy, had he lived, would have extricated the country from Vietnam is handled similarly later on, in two speculative, conflicting accounts, both convincing, that make a clear case that there were differences between his public record and his confidences to aides. It all sheds light on why historians have tended to rate his presidency considerably lower than the public recalls it. Yet Kennedy’s machinations to project an image that captured what Lincoln once pegged as “public sentiment” were so successful, Rubin argues, because he himself was a unique vehicle. The author does not shrink from delineating the scope of JFK’s promiscuity and marital infidelity; taken together, JFK’s sexual exploits represent an appalling amount of risk (appetite aside), rendering insignificant, by comparison, the dalliances of, say, Harding and Clinton. It does impinge on his greatness, Rubin allows, but doesn’t deny it.

Fascinating presentation of what, for most Americans, made Kennedy who he was.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2005

ISBN: 0-345-45049-3

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Ballantine

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2005

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A slim, somber classic.

BLUE NIGHTS

Didion (We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Nonfiction, 2006, etc.) delivers a second masterpiece on grief, considering both her daughter’s death and her inevitable own.

In her 2005 book, The Year of Magical Thinking, the much-decorated journalist laid bare her emotions following the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. The same year that book was published, she also lost her adopted daughter, Quintana Roo, after a long hospitalization. Like Magical Thinking, this book is constructed out of close studies of particular memories and bits of medical lingo. Didion tests Quintana’s childhood poems and scribblings for hints of her own failings as a mother, and she voices her helplessness at the hands of doctors. “I put the word ‘diagnosis’ in quotes because I have not yet seen that case in which a ‘diagnosis’ led to a ‘cure,’ ” she writes. The author also ponders her own mortality, and she does so with heartbreaking specificity. A metal folding chair, as she describes it, is practically weaponized, ready to do her harm should she fall out of it; a fainting spell leaves her bleeding and helpless on the floor of her bedroom. Didion’s clipped, recursive sentences initially make the book feel arid and emotionally distant. But she’s profoundly aware of tone and style—a digression about novel-writing reveals her deep concern for the music sentences make—and the chapters become increasingly freighted with sorrow without displaying sentimentality. The book feels like an epitaph for both her daughter and herself, as she considers how much aging has demolished her preconceptions about growing old.

  A slim, somber classic.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-307-26767-2

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: April 5, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2011

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This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

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BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME

NOTES ON THE FIRST 150 YEARS IN AMERICA

The powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future.

Atlantic senior writer Coates (The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, 2008) offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son’s life. “I am wounded,” he writes. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” Coates grew up in the tough neighborhood of West Baltimore, beaten into obedience by his father. “I was a capable boy, intelligent and well-liked,” he remembers, “but powerfully afraid.” His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated. Howard, he writes, “had always been one of the most critical gathering posts for black people.” He calls it The Mecca, and its faculty and his fellow students expanded his horizons, helping him to understand “that the black world was its own thing, more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white.” Coates refers repeatedly to whites’ insistence on their exclusive racial identity; he realizes now “that nothing so essentialist as race” divides people, but rather “the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” After he married, the author’s world widened again in New York, and later in Paris, where he finally felt extricated from white America’s exploitative, consumerist dreams. He came to understand that “race” does not fully explain “the breach between the world and me,” yet race exerts a crucial force, and young blacks like his son are vulnerable and endangered by “majoritarian bandits.” Coates desperately wants his son to be able to live “apart from fear—even apart from me.”

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

Pub Date: July 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9354-7

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

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