“A Life of My Own” introduces Claire Tomalin to those who do not know her. Born in London, and educated in English grammar schools, Tomalin graduates from the University of Cambridge to become a writer.
Tomalin meets and marries a fellow Cambridge student named Nicholas Tomalin who becomes a successful journalist. He is killed on assignment while reporting on the Arab Israeli war.
As a listener/reader one appreciates Tomlin’s writing. As a respected biographer, Tomalin illustrates the importance of honesty in writing about one’s life story.
Tomalin writes with candor and detail that make one believe what she writes. Tomalin has written several biographies of famous people like Mary Wollstonecraft, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Jane Austin, and Samuel Pepys. References she makes to her research for earlier biographies assures listeners of her diligence in revealing her own life. How well we know ourselves is always a question, but the facts Tomalin reveals suggest she, like Bronte’s “Jane Eyre”, is a woman of substance.
As with all who have lived a long life, Tomalin experiences good and bad fortune.
She is raised by a father and mother who love her but divorce. As a child growing up, Tomalin mostly lives with her mother who cares for her. However, as a single mother, the two undoubtedly struggle to make a living. Her father remains a part of Claire Tomalin’s life but seems only later to provide some level of trust and security in their relationship.
There seems a great deal of love but a sense of frailty and insecurity in Claire Tomlin’s life with her mother. Her mother is a musician and unpublished composer who works at odd jobs to support their life together. Most divorced wives recognize how difficult it is to lose one/half (usually more) of a family’s income when divorced.
Claire Tomalin’s life enters a new phase when she marries Nicholas Tomalin. Because of Nicholas’s job, he is away from home on assignments. Claire pursues her own career. They separate. They come back together. Nicholas is tragically killed while on a 1973 news assignment to report on the Arab Israeli war.
At some point in Claire Tomalin’s marriage, the man she married becomes physically abusive. Tomalin explains her husband is a bon vivant who attracts other women’s attention.
Claire Tomalin is left with five children, three daughters and two sons. She publishes her first book in 1974 (“The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft). She becomes the literary editor for the “New Statesman” and “The Sunday Times”. Her mother dies. Her father dies. One of her sons is born prematurely and requires special aid. A daughter commits suicide. She manages through it all and marries the novelist and playwright Michael Frayn in 1993.
She continues to write into her late 80s. Along the way, she meets some of the greatest writers and authors of modern times. As with anyone who lives into their 90s, it seems Claire Tomlin has had an eventful and good life, but it required grit and determination. Something one cannot help but admire is that Tomalin is a woman of substance.
You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A personal History of Our Times
By: Howard Zinn
Narrated by: David Strathairn
Howard Zinn (1922-2010, died at age 87, Author, Historian, Pacifist.)
Howard Zinn’s personal biography suggests being brilliant does not mean being good. Zinn is a controversial historian who grew up during the depression. He became a famous anti-war activist during Vietnam and wrote a controversial book about American history.
Zinn characterizes his family as poor with a father and mother who were factory workers with little formal education. He tells of his early life and how it influenced his political and social beliefs. He joins the Army Air Force during WWII and becomes a bombardier. That experience reifies Zinn’s early anti-war beliefs that become a consuming passion during Vietnam.
In some ways, Zinn’s enlistment in the Air Force seems a contradiction but the fascist nature of Nazi Germany, subsequent realization of the holocaust, and his Jewish heritage undoubtedly influence his decision to join the military.
Zinn’s role in bombing civilians creates an ambivalence about WWII; particularly when the atom bomb is dropped on Japan.
One wonders what Zinn would write about the Russia-Ukrainian war?
America did not militarily enter WWII when Poland was invaded. Similarly. America has not militarily entered the Russia-Ukraine war. However, in both circumstances America financially invested in a western alliance against war. Eventually that financial investment turned into American military participation. One wonders how Zinn would view America’s financial investment in the Russian-Ukrainian war. Is our investment a prelude to military intervention?
Returning to the biography, the nuclear attack on Japan is considered barbaric and unjustified by Zinn.
Some, like President Truman reason the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings avoided loss of thousands of Americans and Japanese that would have been killed in an invasion of Japan.
A question is whether those thousands are different than the thousands killed immediately and later from radioactive fallout? To some Americans, the answer is yes because none of the added deaths would have been American. Presumably, Zinn would say using an atomic bomb is a step too far.
Zinn survives WWII and uses the GI Bill to get a college education. He becomes a professor at Spelman College, a Black women’s college in Atlanta, Georgia.
Roslyn Zinn (1922-2008, Artist, Activist, Social Worker, Teacher)
Howard Zinn and his wife live in a low-income, largely Black neighborhood.
The Zinn’s become political activists for equal rights. In the 50s and early 60s, the Zinn’s become acquainted with SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and civil rights activism in the South.
Later, Zinn tells the story of his life as a professor at Boston University. He becomes a tenured professor, having written some novels and a controversial academic book about American history.
In his life at the University, Zinn continues political activism against the war in Vietnam. This is in the 70s. Nixon is bombing North Vietnam and Cambodia in an effort to get Ho Chi Minh to the table for a negotiated peace. Daniel Ellsberg becomes one of Zinn’s acquaintances. Zinn also becomes friends with Reverend Daniel Berrigan and his brother who become jailed activists because of the Vietnam war.
Daniel Ellsberg (analyst who became famous for Pentagon Papers disclosure about American government lies about Vietnam. Shown here at age 91.)
A theme of Zinn’s anti-war story is reflected in his experience at Boston University in conflicts with the President of the University. Zinn’s reputation with students is characterized as a highly popular. That popularity and his political activity put him in direct conflict with the President of the University.
John Silber is the seventh President of Boston University. He is from Texas but earned a PhD in philosophy from Yale University. Though Zinn does not mention this, Boston University is having financial problems at the time of Silber’s hiring. Zinn’s story is that Silber is overpaid for his work and disliked by several professors and their staffs.
Zinn characterizes Silber as a misogynist who denies tenure to women professors. A female professor takes Silber to court over denial of tenure. She wins her case, and the Judge requires Silber to give her tenure. The judge fines the University and orders a $200,000 settlement for Silber’s unfair treatment. (Despite Zinn’s proof of Silber’s misogyny, a brief review of Silber’s Boston University’ history suggests the faculty and financial picture of the school substantially improved under Silber’s management.)
Misogyny, inequality, and war are unforgivable human tragedies to Zinn and most rational human beings. It seems the smart ones are the greatest perpetrators of these tragedies.
Brilliance takes many forms. No leader of any country is dim witted. Each has their own kind of brilliance, or they would not be leaders.
Journey to the Edge of Reason (The Life of Kurt Gödel)
By: Stephen Budiansky
Narrated by: Bob Souer
Stephen Budiansky (American writer, historian, and biographer with B.S. in chemistry and S.M. in applied mathematics, Yale and Harvard.)
Stephen Budiansky offers a biography of one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century. His name was Kurt Gödel.
Kurt Gödel (Logician, mathematician, philosopher 1906-1978.)
It is the biographic details and good writing that make “Journey to the Edge of Reason” interesting. Budiansky sets a table for what becomes Gödel’s life.
Budiansky explains the history of Austria before WWI and WWII. Gödel’s family lives an upper-middleclass life when their son Kurt is born. That lifestyle is interrupted by WWI and destroyed by WWII. In the mid-19th century, the Austro-Hungarian empire, particularly Vienna, is a center for education and culture in Europe. Unlike much of the continent, equality of opportunity, regardless of religion and ethnicity, were available in the Austro-Hungarian’ capitol of Vienna. For a short time, Vienna became a magnate for Jewish immigrants seeking education and opportunity.
When the heir to Franz Joseph’s throne, Archduke Francis Ferdinand is assassinated, religious and ethnic difference becomes increasingly disparate and nationalistic. After WWI, it becomes impossible for the empire to stay together, but Vienna remains a cultural and educational center for Europe. It is in this environment that Gödel is born and formally educated.
Gödel is an excellent student who attends studies among many who were increasingly discriminated against, particularly Jews. Though not Jewish, Gödel is not infected by growing anti-Jewish sentiment of the times. Budiansky reminds listeners that Hitler grows up in this Austrian Viennese environment.
WWII arrives and the Gödel family falls on hard times. Before the second world war, in 1931, Kurt Gödel develops the “incompleteness theorem” of mathematics. He is only 25. He is soon recognized by leading mathematicians for this foundational theory.
Kurt Gödel developed two theorems of mathematical logic that limit the provability of mathematics. One plus one makes two, but Gödel’s fundamental theories claim its truth is mathematically unprovable. To one steeped in mathematics that may make sense. To this reviewer, it does not.
Budiansky explains how Gödel eventually escapes Vienna at the beginning of WWII. He arrives at Princeton in 1940. Gödel becomes close friends with Einstein and Oskar Morgenstern. Budiansky notes how instrumental other geniuses, like John von-Neumann, were in advancing Gödel’s career.
John von Neumann (1903-1957, Hungarian American mathematician, physicist, computer scientist, engineer and polymath with an eidetic memory.)
A striking fact in Budiansky’s biography of Gödel is how many geniuses came to America from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Without its education system, the Viennese equal opportunity, and the attraction of western freedom, the advance of science and its role in the world would be diminished.
Gödel’s life story revolves around math and its provability limits. Gödel’s life waivers between paranoia and accommodation with periods of terror and intermittent tranquility. Gödel’s paranoia is relieved at times and Budiansky notes his friends recognized his genius while noting his episodic behavioral abnormality.
A surprising sidelight to Budiansky’s biography is Gödel’s odd marriage to what Budiansky characterizes as an uneducated Austrian woman named Adele.
Budiansky explains Adele saves Gödel’s life by bringing him back to reality when he nearly starves himself to death with a paranoid belief that someone is trying to poison him.
Gödel takes daily walks with Einstein. Their walks are legendary according to Budiansky. They were frequently seen together at Princeton. Einstein recognizes Gödel’s paranoia for what it is but acknowledges the brilliance of his understanding of mathematics, its logistic continuity, and its limitation.
There often seems a fine line between genius and normality. One is reminded of the unheralded Paul Dirac who is compared by some to Einstein but, because of his isolationist behavior, is largely unknown to the general public.
As a non-mathematician one may not understand the importance of Gödel’s theory, but Budiansky does a great service to the public by writing Gödel’s biography.
Now Comes Good Sailing (Writers Reflect on Henry David Thoreau)
By: Andrew Blauner
Narrated by: William Hope, Barbara Barnes, Kaliswa Brewster, Kate Harper, Peter Marinker, Ako Mitchell
Andrew Blauner (Founder of Blauner Books Literary Agency, Editor of anthologies.)
Blauner’s compilation of essays about Thoreau’s life and philosophy is broken into five sections.
Excursions Near and Far.
Direction of His Dreams.
David Henry Thoreau (1817-1862, Writer, environmentalist, ecologist, philosopher.)
An apocryphal saying by Thoreau on his death bed is “Now Comes Good Sailing”.
The first section is ironically titled “Near and Far”.
Thoreau lives a narrow parochial life which explains “Near”, but his writing reflects a wide philosophical understanding of nature. Of course, Thoreau’s most famous book is “Walden”.
“Walden” is a short book about Thoreau’s two-year experience in his self-built house beside a Massachusetts’s pond.
The essayists in the first section of the book lauds Thoreau’s view of solitude and peace that come from communing with nature, away from the hustle of everyday life. One living in this time is discomfited in some ways by these essays of Thoreau’s sabbatical because most who wish to live a life of solitude and peace have bills to pay and children to raise. Thoreau’s answer is “simplify your life”.
Thoreau works as a surveyor, builds his own house, and chooses self-sufficiency as a goal for living within one’s means. He did not look for hand-outs as a way of simplifying his life. He chose to live a simple life, not a life dependent on other’s charity.
When young there is little understanding of who we are or what we can do. As we age, Thoreau argues for understanding yourself and living deliberately with choices based on one’s self-understanding.
Deliberate living is living within one’s means and capabilities. Alan Lightman, a physicist, and writer, recognizes his life is slower now than when he was young. He chooses to live deliberately based on what his life has become, not on what life was when he was young. He obviously misses that fast pace but deliberation, careful consideration of life as it is now, compels deliberative recalibration.
Jennifer Boylan (Author, transgender activist, professor at Barnard College.)
Jennifer Boylan’s essay about Thoreau reveals how much better life is when you are who you are rather than what others think you should be. Boylan chooses to live a deliberative life.
“Directions of His Dreams” is a personal speculation by essayists of Thoreau’s feelings about love and life. James Marcus suggests Thoreau is in love with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s wife. He bases that speculation on scant evidence in Thoreau’s written correspondence. Whether Thoreau is gay, bi, or hetero seems superfluous whether in dreams or reality. Marcus’s speculation seems more titillation than revelation.
“As for Clothing” Amor Towles and Adam Gopnik note Thoreau finds comfort and utility as a measure of value for what one wears.
The point is that clothes made for a King that are only worn once have little comfort and no value. In contrast, Thoreau would suggest clothes that keep one warm when it is cold, comfortable from long wearing, and useful for work have great value.
Geoff Wisner (Author, editor of Thoreau’s Animals.)
Geoff Wisner suggests Thoreau’s measure of “what is worth doing” is based on answering the question of “Is It Worth the While”.
The last section of the essays reflects on independence and political risks Thoreau chooses in his short 44 years of life. Thoreau actively supports abolition by physically participating in the underground railroad with help for escaping slaves. Thoreau wrote about and actively participated in civil disobedience. He went to jail for non-payment of taxes (eventually paid by Emerson) because he disagreed with government policy.
Thoreau aides one of the participants in the abolitionist uprising by John Brown in the 1859 Harper’s Ferry raid. (Brown was hung for his action.)
There are reasons to admire Thoreau in these essays whether one has read “Walden” or not. Equally, there are reasons to question interpretation of Thoreau’s thoughts by 21st century essayists.
Shlomo Avineri (Author, Professor of political science at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.)
Is economic evolution about mind or matter?
Shlomo Avineri offers a more studied view of one of the three most influential economist in history, Karl Marx. Marx’s influence extends to philosophy, history, sociology, and politics.
Avieneri illustrates how categorization of Marx as an influential economist minimizes his historical significance. Marx is born in Trier, Germany.
His father, Hirschel HaLevi (aka Heinrich Marx), is a practicing lawyer, the son of Marx HaLevi Mordechai and Eva Lwow.
In Trier, after Napoleon is defeated at Waterloo, Germany returns to a highly discriminatory Prussian attitude toward Judaism. Karl Marx’s father, and eventually his mother, are compelled to convert to a Christian religion to advance Marx’s father’s career as a lawyer. Karl Marx’s grandfather is the rabbi of Trier who passes on that title to Karl Marx’s brother.
Avineri gives this brief family history to explain Marx’s Jewish heritage. It offers some insight to why Marx outwardly discounts his religious heritage while putting him on an intellectual journey toward political and economic reform.
Marx’s father might be considered a classical liberal because he promoted constitutional reform of the Prussian government’s denial of equal rights. Avineri implies the experience of his father leads Karl to pursue the study of history and philosophy because of discriminatory treatment of his family. The act of discrimination naturally makes one class conscious. Karl Marx’s political and economic ideas grow from that familial background.
Avineri suggests Hermann Hesse and Hegel are significant influences in Karl Marx’s life. Hesse is a contemporary of Marx. Hesse is influenced by Rousseau who believed in natural equality. Hesse’s literature addresses the inequality of workers and the capitalist class. He sensed the growing political danger of that inequality and, in writing about it, became an influence on Karl Marx’s view of capitalism.
Avineri’s explanation of Hegel’s influence on Karl Marx is a little more complicated. Fundamentally Hegel believes social development is an evolution of one’s mind to recognize that all humans are created equal. In contrast Marx believes social development is an evolutionary process of society’s actions in regard to material things. Marx believes the haves of the society recognize the inequity of the have-nots and will evolve to establish common good in the distribution of material things. Both Hegel and Marx agree that there is a dialectic process, but Hegel thinks it is a state of mind that changes while Marx suggests it’s a state of equal distribution of concrete goods.
It is impossible to deny Marx’s notes about inequality. One can argue that this was truer in Marx’s lifetime than it is today. The advent of social security and national health care, and welfare programs have reduced human inequality. However, human inequality remains a serious social problem in every society and all government systems of the present day.
Whether Marx or Hegel’s evolutionary dialectic is true remains unknown. Neither capitalism, socialism, or communism have evolved to solve the problem of inequality, whether it is the dialectic of mind or matter.
Avineri’s biography of Marx is better than the previous biography reviewed in this blog. He offers a more intimate understanding of Karl Marx’s life and how he came to believe what he believed. The answer to the question of whether economic evolution is one of mind or matter is, of course—both. Human brains must evolve, and matter must be equally available.
The Club (Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age)
By: Leo Damrosch
Narrated by Simon Vance
Leo Damrosch (American author and professor of Literature at Harvard)
“The Club” is more of a biography of James Boswell than “…the Friends Who Shaped an Age”.
James Boswell (1740-1795, died at 54, Lawyer, diarist, biographer.).
Though many pages reflect on Samuel Johnson (best known for the “Dictionary of The English Language”), the primary source of information on Johnson, as well as “…the Friends…”, appears to come from Boswell’s diary and notes.
Samuel Johnson (1709-1784, died at age 75, Author, poet, playwright, moralist, editor, and lexicographer.)
An irony of Damrosch’s story is that Boswell neither has the intellectual depth nor historical significance of Johnson or many of the “…Friends who shaped an Age”. What Leo Damrosch explains is Boswell is a great mime for the opinions and voices of Johnson and Friends. Damrosch suggests Boswell is the first biographer to capture natural dialog with detailed features of friends and acquaintances.
In some ways, Boswell is like a court jester, eliciting laughter and opinion in a court of higher-ranking superiors.
Damrosch is not denigrating Boswell’s contribution to historical information but shows Boswell as a bon vivant, rather than an intellectual. “The Club” is an association of writers, artists, and thinkers formed in a London tavern in the 1760s. Damrosch notes that the club is formed by Joshua Reynolds, a noted portrait artist. In addition to Reynolds, the original members are Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, Edmund Burke, John Hawkins, Topham Beauclerk, Anthony Chamier, Bennet Langton, and Christopher Nugent. To become a member of the club, one is elected by existing members.
Sir Joshua Reynold’s Club
Boswell, Edward Gibbon, and Adam Smith become members in the 1770s. From an American perspective, the names of Reynolds, Johnson, Burke, Gibbon, and Smith are the best known. Many will recognize Reynolds for portrait paintings of famous people of that time. Reynold’s portraits are in galleries today. Damrosch notes the portraits represent the best of what a person looks like with creative enhancements of the subject’s best features. Burke is famous for vilification of the French Revolution and his conservative views of government. Gibbon is famous for his “…History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, and Johnson for his dictionary.
Contrary to what Damrosch notes, it does not appear David Garrick, a famous Shakespearean actor and producer, was in that club but had his own tavern club called the Garrick Club. Garrick had been a pupil of Samuel Johnson. Damrosch may have identified Garrick as a member of “The Club” because of his association with Johnson.
David Garrick (1717-1779, died age 62, English actor, playwright, theater manager, and producer.)
Boswell is characterized by Damrosch as an excellent conversationalist because of an ability to listen and ask questions that have interest for those whom he questions. However, at times, Damrosch notes Johnson becomes irritated with Boswell’s questions because of their vacuous value. The example given is Boswell’s question to Johnson about why Apples are round while Pears grow with narrow shoulders and wide hips.
Boswell’s question to Johnson-why are Apples round while Pears grow with narrow shoulders and wide hips?
Damrosch shows Boswell comes from a wealthy, aristocratic family. He is the eldest son, in line to receive the wealth of his family when his father dies. Boswell moves to London to become an attorney but fails to learn his profession well enough to be financially or reputationally successful. He meets Johnson whom he admires, and through association, Boswell manages to meet the movers and shakers of his day. Boswell becomes a diarist that records his life and the lives of people he meets. His writing makes him famous, largely because of his association with Samuel Johnson and his remarkable ability to reproduce the natural conversation of “…Friends Who Shaped an Age”.
Boswell, from Damrosch’s description, is a hedonist. He lives for pleasure from conversation with luminaries, drinking to excess, and dalliance with women of the street and lovers whom he seduces.
Boswell is characterized as a pursuer of women who have an interest in sexual encounters for pay or pleasure. Boswell’s lifestyle leads to periodic treatment for crabs and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Damrosch notes that Boswell marries but continues his profligate behavior. Boswell professes love and remorse to his wife, who knows of his dalliances. She bares his behavior and accepts his remorse. His wife dies of consumption with seeming disregard by Boswell’s self-absorption.
Margaret Boswell (1738-1789. died at age 51.)
Boswell inherits his father’s wealth but squanders it and fails as a barrister. Nearing the end of his life, he produces the best biography of Samuel Johnson ever written. It becomes a best seller in his time and is still read by some today. Damrosch notes Boswell’s contribution to biography is in making his subjects human by including detailed descriptions of their appearance, and emotive qualities.
More detailed information about the lives of Edmund Burke, Edward Gibbon, and Adam Smith would have made “The Club” more interesting to this reviewer but any who have listened to other narratives by Simon Vance will be pleased by Damrosch’s story. At the least, a struggling writer may be encouraged to keep a diary of life’s events to become a better author.
William Taubman (Author, Political Science professor at Amherst College, received 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Biography of Krushchev.)
The length of William Taubman’s audiobook requires a Gorbachev II review. The first review addresses Gorbachev’s personal life. The second reflects on Gorbachev’s political life. Gorbachev’s life is suffused with great accomplishment and tragic failure.
Georgy Malenkov replaces Joseph Stalin after his death in 1953. Malenkov is believed to be a reformist who plans to reduce military spending and Stalinist suppression.
However, within weeks, Malenkov is pushed aside by Nikita Khrushchev who takes supreme power within two years of Stalin’s death. Surprisingly, Khrushchev becomes something of a reformist himself.
Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971, First Secy. of the Communist Party 1953-1964)
Stalin’s autocratic, paranoid leadership is semi-privately exposed by Khrushchev in a speech to the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Khruschev’s vilification of Stalinist suppression, imprisonment, and murder eventually become known to the world.
The overriding concern of Russian leaders is to maintain suzerainty over Baltic nations and satellite territories in the face of ethnic and economic diversity. Taubman notes older Russian leaders tend toward autocratic dictate to maintain political control. The younger and more politically astute lean toward confederation of adjacent soviet republics and East Berlin with the U.S.S.R. as an umbrella organization. Gorbachev is in the “politically astute” group.
Mikhail Gorbachev rises to chairman of the Communist Party and eventual President of the U.S.S.R., with the expressed intent of democratizing the Baltics, Russia, and East Berlin into a democratic socialist block. However, ethnic, and cultural differences, accompanied by general economic failure, defeat Gorbachev’s unionist objective.
There is no question of Gorbachev’s success in democratizing U.S.S.R.’ citizens.
However, in that democratization, the drive for independence becomes paramount to the satellite countries. German reunification, and the breakaway of Baltic nations from the U.S.S.R. is inevitable. Freedom, based on ethnic and cultural identity, surmount all efforts by Gorbachev to reinstate U.S.S.R. suzerainty. Only by force could the U.S.S.R. prevail over state and territorial independence. Taubman notes force is not within Gorbachev’s nature as a leader.
Once socialist democracy is dangled before the electorate, the die is cast. Gorbachev’s governance could not provide enough economic stability to justify confederation. That is his tragic failure.
Gorbachev’s immense success is liberating millions of former U.S.S.R. citizens. With liberation, former citizens of the U.S.S.R. return to govern as citizens of their own countries. This at a time of Reagan’s conservative government in the United States, and European distrust of U.S.S.R. militarization. Taubman shows Gorbachev becomes an international hero based on his personality and persuasive power. He is greeted as the great liberator of the twentieth century even though his primary objective is to retain those countries seeking freedom within the U.S.S.R.
Gorbachev raised the bar for nuclear disarmament by cultivating American and European participation in the reduction of nuclear weapons.
Taubman explains Gorbachev is a tragic hero because momentum-of-change is halted by a cult of personality, compounded by economic insecurity. Gorbachev is replaced by acting President, Alexander Rutskoy, after the 1993 constitutional crises. Rutskoy is replaced by a second acting President, Viktor Chernomyrdin. Boris Yeltsin succeeds Chernomyrdin as President in an overlapping term.
The Russian economy falters in its transition from communism to democratic socialism. Russian history of “rule-of-one” reasserts itself with the rise of an incompetent President (Boris Yeltsin) and an autocratic but effective leader, Vladimir Putin. However, Putin’s autocratic effectiveness is in question with the invasion of Ukraine.
Taubman suggests and infers Gorbachev’s success, and world history in general, are two steps forward with one step backward. Based on historical precedent of “one-man-rule” (dating back to czarist Russia) Taubman’s inference seems spot-on.
Gorbachev flipped a switch that released the power of democracy but failed to provide adequate economic infrastructure to assure U.S.S.R. survival. Taubman optimistically infers economic infrastructure of eastern bloc countries will improve overtime, even with autocratic leadership by people like Vladimir Putin.
The growth of democracy has always been messy, but it moves forward in the face of temporary setbacks. Spheres of influence will always be in play. It seems a matter of time for another Gorbachev to make two more steps forward with a repeat of the next leader’s “one-step-backward”. It appears in 2022, Putin makes that “one-step-backward” with the invasion of Ukraine. Taubman reminds readers of America’s trial in the civil war. Slavery is abolished but institutional racism remains a work in progress. The risk is that the world destroys itself before freedom and economic security become real for all.
William Taubman (Author, Political Science professor at Amherst College, received 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Biography of Krushchev.)
Having reviewed the first two books of the planned Stalin trilogy by Stephen Kotkin, it seems wise to review William Taubman’s “Gorbachev”. Kotkin’s analysis suggests Stalin was a pragmatic autocrat who systematically eliminated potential adversaries who might challenge his leadership. In contrast, Taubman’s Gorbachev is characterized as a democratic rather than autocratic leader. This is not to say Gorbachev is less strong willed than an autocrat, but Taubman suggests he chooses to listen to both equals and subordinates before deciding and acting. Kotkin shows Stalin keeps his own counsel before deciding and acts as his paranoid behavior demands. Gorbachev is a politician, not a dictator.
Mikhail Gorbachev (Pres. of the Soviet Union 1990-1991, General Secy. of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union 1985l-1991.)
Through force of intellect, ambition, and persuasion Gorbachev tries and fails to reify Leninist socialism. Gorbachev’s ambition is to turn an increasingly dysfunctional Russian autocracy to democratic socialism. Democratic socialism would theoretically provide Russian citizens a voice in control of their fate.
Taubman notes Gorbachev is a student of Lenin’s writing. Gorbachev argues for change in Russia to what Lenin called democratic socialism. Gorbachev’s belief is that the 1917 revolution is more than a rebellion against monarchy
Gorbachev is not alone in believing Stalin abandoned Leninist idealism by instituting a government of the one in control of the many. Many historians note Lenin did not want Stalin to succeed him as the leader of the revolution.
Kotkin suggests Lenin views Stalin as a soldier who enforces discipline but fails to understand the importance of creating a platform for power to the people.
The sad consequence of Stalinist history is that it reinforces kleptocracy, “a society or system ruled by people who use their power to steal their country’s resources”.
Taubman shows Gorbachev understood Stalinism from personal life experience. Taubman explains how Gorbachev comes from humble surroundings in a farming village in Russia. Gorbachev sees firsthand how the idea of collective farming decreases, rather than increases productivity. The bureaucratization of collective farming has the same impact in communist Russia as it did in communist China. Leaders in charge of collective farms distort production quotas to make themselves look good to superiors. The result is either lower productivity, or worse, the famines of 1920s and 30s in Russia and the 1950s in China. (This is not to say famines do not occur in democracies, but the cause of famine is not bureaucratic lying but nature, or something beyond human control.)
Gorbachev loved his father and adored his grandfather. Both parents were great influences on Gorbachev’s belief in hard work and education. Gorbachev’s mother is the disciplinarian in the family. She rules the young Gorbachev with a belt until he is old enough to say, “no more”. “Tough love” from Gorbachev’s mother, in Taubman’s telling, instills respect for women. Taubman suggests Gorbachev’s choice of a wife is based on belief in equal partnership to help him achieve life’s evolving goals.
Taubman suggests Raisa, Gorbachev’s wife, is an equal partner in his decisions in life and in governing the Soviet Union.
A reader/listener is only halfway through the book at this point. The last half of this 32-hour narration deals with Gorbachev’s failure as the eighth and final leader of the Soviet Union.
Jonathan Eig (Author, Former reporter for WSJ, Eig also wrote Luckiest Man, and Opening Day.).
Jonathan Eig’s research of Muhammed Ali’s life offers some surprises to listener/readers. One who grew up in the sixties will be reminded, entertained, and appalled by Eig’s biography of the greatest heavyweight fighter of all time. Muhammed Ali, aka Cassius Clay, The Greatest, The Champ, The Louisville Lip, and less flattering nicknames, shows Ali lives up to every name noted in Eig’s biography of Muhammed Ali.
A criticism one may have of Eig’s detailed biography is its length. The last chapters dwell on Ali’s deterioration as a boxer with more detail than necessary. It becomes too repetitive in its reification of a man’s life who is ultimately only human.
The defeat of Sonny Liston.
One might think sports, particularly boxing, is no measure of intelligence.
However, Eig notes Ali had an instinct for knowing when a punch is going to be thrown. Ali’s reflexes responded with such great speed punches often missed their target. That skill and Ali’s showmanship made him the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time. Ali’s voice and opinion during the early years of his fighting career show him to be a brilliant actor, comedic insulter, and revered representative of Black America. What hid the truth of Ali’s intelligence is standardized testing, and the social circumstance of the 1960s.
There are many forms of intelligence.
Ali is classified as 4f by the military when he flunks its reading and comprehension test for the draft. Eig suggests Ali is dyslexic which makes reading a laborious and unrewarding task. To reinforce the idea that Ali is dyslexic, Ali only receives a high school diploma because of his school principal’s intervention. The principal recognizes something in Ali that is missed by standardized tests. As most Americans know, Ali goes on to become the heavyweight champion of the world by beating Sonny Liston, a monster of a man who was a 7 to 1 favorite to beat Cassius Clay before the fight began. What is revealed by Eig’s research is the complexity, the joy, and sorrow of Muhammed Ali’s life and world renown.
Ali beats Sonny Liston and becomes the heavyweight champion of the world. After his ascension to champion, Ali does not want to be drafted. He does not see how he could be ineligible for the draft when he was evaluated by the service and found to be 4f but now is considered draftable. He enjoys his life as it is and notes that he has no desire to go to war against Vietcong for whom he has no understanding or hate. Ali refuses the draft without arguing his newly found Muslim faith could make him a conscientious objector. The government sentences him to 5 years in prison. Ali is stripped of his title and banned from boxing for 3 years. He is 25 years old and in the prime of his boxing career.
Those who grew up in the sixties knew of Ali whether they were sports fans or not. Vietnam is raging in the sixties. Many young, and some older Americans rebel against government overreach with anti-war protests, and human rights demonstrations.
While many enlist or are drafted into the service, a few burn their draft cards and escape to Canada. Some draft dodgers stay in America and publicly fight the draft because they view Vietnam as an unjust war. Ali chooses to stay in America and fight the draft based on his early 4f classification. Though that argument does not stand up, Ali refuses to be drafted.
With the help of growing public unrest, Ali is eventually released from a lower court’s charge of draft dodging by the Supreme Court of the United States. His ban from boxing is removed but only after the suspension removed Ali from the healthiest years of his boxing life.
What makes Eig’s biography so interesting is there is no singular motive for Ali’s choices in life. Ali is a human puzzle. He chooses to become a Muslim and devotes his life to the Nation of Islam (NOI). Ali appreciates NOI’s teaching because it directly challenges white America for unfair treatment of Black Americans. However, Ali is not a religious zealot. He is shown to be a human with many of the same failings of all human beings. He prays to Allah but violates many preachments of NOI. He pursues conjugal pleasures of other women while married.
Ali is suspended from NOI for a year by the order of NOI’s leader, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. The suspension is not because of philandering but because of Ali’s public pronouncements about boxing as the source of his fame and fortune.
Elijah Muhammed, the leader of NOI, considers sports and entertainment as frivolous and unworthy of anyone who believes in the Muslim faith. Ali accepts the punishment and is never officially released from his banishment, though he remains a Muslim.
Ali does not abandon his religion, but he says his greatest regret in life is having abandoned his friend, Malcolm X (aka Malcolm Little) who criticized Elijah Muhammad’s flaunting of marriage vows because of sexual relationships with women other than the leader’s wife.
Malcolm X is murdered. Some say he was murdered at the direction of NOI. One wonders if Ali is fearful of the power of Elijah Muhammed or just aware of NOI’s potential for harming followers if they differ with the leader’s pronouncement. Eig’s biography implies Ali’s intelligence and hedonism are likely motives for Ali’s actions, not fear of NOI’s punishment. After all, Ali is a prolific violator of his own marriage vows and cash income from fighting remain his most important goal. However, it is a puzzle that Ali said his biggest regret is abandoning his friendship with Malcom X who vilified Elijah Muhammad’s morality and rejected belief in a separate, exclusively Black, NOI nation.
Eig’s biography implies Ali is inadvertently, rather than deliberatively, on the right side of history. One wonders if it is inadvertent. Vietnam is a tragedy, badly managed by America. Resistance to the war, Malcolm X’s recognition of the equality of all human beings, and Ali’s regrets about their friendship being broken suggests something more about what Ali really believed. Hedonism is one of many faults of humanity. Eig clearly shows Ali is no Saint, but Eig implies Ali has a moral center beyond his ill treatment of women.
The last half of Eig’s book recalls Ali’s boxing matches, his relationships, and the terrible impact of boxing on the human brain and body. Ali is shown to be an inveterate user of prostitutes when training for fights regardless of its consequence to four marriages. (It’s interesting to note that the Muslim faith accepts the right of men to have four wives at the same time. This is forbidden in America but violated by more than one religion. Is it a coincidence that Ali marries four women?)
It is difficult to believe a fighter could fight for 15 rounds when 3 rounds for an amateur are exhausting. Ali’s stamina throughout his boxing life is seemingly supernatural. He loses and wins the Heavyweight Championship’ title 3 times in his boxing career.
Eig’s detailing of Ali’s fights is particularly interesting to anyone who has boxed as an amateur or professional. Eig points out Ali’s change in the way he fought left-handed boxers without understanding that leading with one’s right is what a trainer tells a right-handed fighter to do when fighting a lefty.
Ali, and opponents like Frazier, show energy and determination that seem other-worldly. One wonders how much of that energy and determination is based on subliminal punishment for a profligate or hedonistic life. That may be personal psychobabble more than objective interpretation of Eig’s biography of Ali. One may ask oneself; what avenues were open to Black Americans in the 1960s to become rich and famous in order to be hedonistic?
Ali obviously fought for money and fame, but Eig shows Ali and other boxing champions pay a very high price. Ali died at 74 years of age but suffered from diagnosed Parkinson’s for 32 of those years. Though there is no proven direct correlation for Parkinsons’ diagnosis, it has been shown that boxers are more suspectable than the general public to speech impediment, Alzheimer’s, and erratic body movement from blows to the head. Frazier died at the age of 67. (Ali was 33 and Frazier was 31 in the “Thrilla in Manilla”, the fight of the century–it is won by Ali in this third fight between the two, but that fight sent both to the hospital after its conclusion.)
Eig pulls no punches in his biography of Ali. Ali was a flawed human being that treated women as property. Ali entertained the world in his rise to fame. Ali made the most of what he could in the time he lived. Ali was the greatest in some ways and the least in others. He exemplified much of what many want to achieve but at a price few are willing to pay.
Robert Caro is a great biographer but his history of the early years of Lyndon Johnson is diminished by his political idealism.
Politics is the pursuit of power. Some pursue that power by any means necessary. Others may be less constrained, but the goal is the same–To Be Elected to Rule.
Caro shows the young Johnson as a Machiavellian politician in the vein of Donald Trump but without a silver spoon. History shows Johnson and Trump are willing to lie their way to power. Both are willing to do whatever it takes. Caro shows Johnson, like Trump, are bullies who intimidate subordinates to get what they want. There is no moral or ethical line that these two ex-Presidents would not cross to stay in power. Trump lost his second term because of rejection by the voters, and Johnson resigned because of embarrassment by Americans who opposed the Vietnam war.
Caro reveals Johnson’s bullying treatment of his wife and people who report to him.
Caro shows Johnson is far superior at getting his way when compared to Trump. Caro notes Johnson stole his first election to the Senate from former governor of Texas, Coke R. Stevenson.
Coke R. Stevenson (1888-1975, Former governor of Texas, died at age 87.)
Without big money contributors like Brown (of Brown and Root) to pay monitors to stuff ballot boxes in San Antonio, Texas, Lyndon Johnson would have lost. With a legal maneuver by Johnson’s friend, Abe Fortas, and illegal help from election monitors, Johnson beats Stevenson for election to the Senate by 97 votes. (Fortas became an Associate Supreme Court Justice appointed by Johnson in 1965. He resigned in disgrace for unethical practice in 1969.)
In every election, the elected is beholding to someone. Caro notes Brown and Root received a great deal of federal and State financed work in Texas because of Johnson’s support.
Johnson is shown to be a consummate politician, a good storyteller with the ability to persuade superiors like the leader of the House of Representatives, Sam Rayburn, to support his ideas. This is no small thing because Rayburn is history’s longest serving Speaker of the House, with possibly more power and influence than any past or modern Speakers of the House.
Sam Rayburn (1882-1961, 43rd Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.)
President Johnson, as the Senate Leader kissing the head of Sam Rayburn.
Caro notes Johnson uses his 6-foot, 2.5-inch height, to dominate associates who are either reporting, beholding, or superior to him.
Johnson is shown to be extraordinarily energetic when pursuing power. Caro explains how Johnson uses helicopter visits to Texas communities when he runs for the Senate against Stevenson. Johnson works himself into a frenzy that makes him ill (recurring kidney stones) because of an indefatigable need to do everything he can to be elected.
In Johnson’s presence, many were awed by his stories, even when they knew the stories were lies or gross exaggerations. During the war years, Caro notes how Johnson appeals to Texas voters by claiming he will go to the front to fight Germany and Japan. To fulfill that pledge, he accompanies a “band of brothers” flying a bombing mission on a Japanese island off the coast of Australia.
Johnson’s (Observer Mission in Austrailia during WWII.)
Caro explains Johnson’s only direct combat experience is as an observer in Australia.
In Caro’s telling, the mission did occur. There is great danger. The plane is damaged by enemy gun fire. Caro’s research shows Johnson maintains a cool demeanor during the flight. Johnson plays no combatant role in the mission. But, he was an observer on the plane when it is strafed by the Japanese.
Caro notes the story of the flight is changed many times. In Johnson’s retelling he explains he is a hero who fought in many bombing raids, a lie. Caro dispels Johnson’s brave hero characterization by telling of Johnson’s childhood that shows him to be a physical coward. Caro interviews former childhood friends who recall Johnson’s cowardice. When confronted with violence, Johnson is reported to lay down and kick his feet out to ward off anyone who might attack him.
Caro notes Johnson’s will power is extraordinary when it comes to doing whatever it takes to be elected to public office.
Caro’s research suggests Johnson is a focused and relentless seeker and user of power. Johnson could use his position for either good or bad depending on whether it increased or diminished his power. One example Caro gives is Johnson’s rejection of an oil interest offered to him by a constituent. It could make him rich. Johnson’s concern is it would diminish his chances for election to higher office if he were recognized as an oil interest’ owner.
In contrast to the oil interest rejection, Caro shows how Johnson acquires a radio station to become a source of income for his family and a tool for his political ambition. Johnson had been appointed to the FCC as a junior congressman. He used his influence with the FCC to acquire and grow the radio station, with his wife as the holder of record. A competitor is shut out of buying that station through Johnson’s influence with the FCC. The FCC also expedites the gift of a popular frequency that widely expands the radio station’s area of coverage in Texas.
Lady Bird and her ownership of KTBC in Texas.
“Means of Ascent” is not Caro’s finest work. Johnson is painted too harshly in the context of American Democracy.
Like America’s experience with Trump, there is much to hate about Johnson’s rise to the Presidency.
The reality is–Democracy is a messy process that brings both good and bad leaders to the world.