An in-depth biography of 20th-century journalists Joseph and Stewart Alsop from historical writer Merry (A Country of Vast Designs, 2009, etc.).

Born into a wealthy Connecticut family in the early 1900s, the Alsop brothers followed a trajectory of American aristocracy from private school (Groton) to the Ivy League (Harvard for Joe, Yale for Stewart) to the top tier of Washington, D.C., society. With help from family connections (they were relatives of the Roosevelts) and their own tenacity, the brothers developed close relationships with many of the movers and shakers of 20th-century American history. The Alsops gained national attention for their syndicated column, “Matter of Fact,” and both continued their careers as journalists once the column ended. The list of government officials the brothers met with under settings both formal (on the record interviews) and somewhat less formal (dinner parties) reads like an answer sheet to a U.S. History 101 exam: John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon, etc. Reading about the personal and professional lives of two well-connected journalists can at times seem like one long parade of champagne and expensive suits. At their most domesticated, the brothers interviewed sources, formed their opinions and made sure their column was complete before cocktails were served. The story of the Alsops fascinates when the brothers are working well beyond their comfortable homes in Washington (or a friend’s comfortable home in Paris or elsewhere). Joe’s time spent with the French Foreign Legion in Vietnam provides a haunting look at the struggle the U.S. would come to face following the French defeat. Stewart’s reporting on the Watts Riot in Los Angeles shows an almost comical view of the challenges facing America in the 1960s. Merry’s handling of the Alsops’ story, though at times sluggish with their blue-blooded excess, creates a multidimensional understanding of their lives, work and country. While portions of the book—such as coverage of Robert A. Taft’s primary results—may appeal only to select political junkies, the range of historical topics the Alsop brothers traversed offers something for anyone interested in the time period and the people who helped to shape it. Dawdles occasionally, but ultimately a satisfying tour of 20th-century American politics via the life of two D.C. insiders.


Pub Date: N/A

ISBN: 978-1467901840

Page Count: 688

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: April 26, 2012

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A clear, useful guide through the current chaotic political landscape.

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A sharp explanation of how American politics has become so discordant.

Journalist Klein, co-founder of Vox, formerly of the Washington Post, MSNBC, and Bloomberg, reminds readers that political commentators in the 1950s and ’60s denounced Republicans and Democrats as “tweedledum and tweedledee.” With liberals and conservatives in both parties, they complained, voters lacked a true choice. The author suspects that race played a role, and he capably shows us why and how. For a century after the Civil War, former Confederate states, obsessed with keeping blacks powerless, elected a congressional bloc that “kept the Democratic party less liberal than it otherwise would’ve been, the Republican Party congressionally weaker than it otherwise would’ve been, and stopped the parties from sorting themselves around the deepest political cleavage of the age.” Following the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, many white Southern Democrats became Republicans, and the parties turned consistently liberal and conservative. Given a “true choice,” Klein maintains, voters discarded ideology in favor of “identity politics.” Americans, like all humans, cherish their “tribe” and distrust outsiders. Identity was once a preoccupation of minorities, but it has recently attracted white activists and poisoned the national discourse. The author deplores the decline of mass media (network TV, daily newspapers), which could not offend a large audience, and the rise of niche media and internet sites, which tell a small audience only what they want to hear. American observers often joke about European nations that have many parties who vote in lock step. In fact, such parties cooperate to pass legislation. America is the sole system with only two parties, both of which are convinced that the other is not only incompetent (a traditional accusation), but a danger to the nation. So far, calls for drastic action to prevent the apocalypse are confined to social media, fringe activists, and the rhetoric of Trump supporters. Fortunately—according to Klein—Trump is lazy, but future presidents may be more savvy. The author does not conclude this deeply insightful, if dispiriting, analysis by proposing a solution.

A clear, useful guide through the current chaotic political landscape.

Pub Date: Jan. 28, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-4767-0032-8

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Avid Reader Press

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2020

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Bibliophiles will love this fact-filled, bookish journey.


An engaging, casual history of librarians and libraries and a famous one that burned down.

In her latest, New Yorker staff writer Orlean (Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, 2011, etc.) seeks to “tell about a place I love that doesn’t belong to me but feels like it is mine.” It’s the story of the Los Angeles Public Library, poet Charles Bukowski’s “wondrous place,” and what happened to it on April 29, 1986: It burned down. The fire raged “for more than seven hours and reached temperatures of 2000 degrees…more than one million books were burned or damaged.” Though nobody was killed, 22 people were injured, and it took more than 3 million gallons of water to put it out. One of the firefighters on the scene said, “We thought we were looking at the bowels of hell….It was surreal.” Besides telling the story of the historic library and its destruction, the author recounts the intense arson investigation and provides an in-depth biography of the troubled young man who was arrested for starting it, actor Harry Peak. Orlean reminds us that library fires have been around since the Library of Alexandria; during World War II, “the Nazis alone destroyed an estimated hundred million books.” She continues, “destroying a culture’s books is sentencing it to something worse than death: It is sentencing it to seem as if it never happened.” The author also examines the library’s important role in the city since 1872 and the construction of the historic Goodhue Building in 1926. Orlean visited the current library and talked to many of the librarians, learning about their jobs and responsibilities, how libraries were a “solace in the Depression,” and the ongoing problems librarians face dealing with the homeless. The author speculates about Peak’s guilt but remains “confounded.” Maybe it was just an accident after all.

Bibliophiles will love this fact-filled, bookish journey.

Pub Date: Oct. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4018-8

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: July 2, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2018

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