Thursday, July 19, 2012

Keeping up with the Kennedys

I've been on a Kennedy reading kick lately. It started when a friend loaned me the audio CDs of Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy, continued when I visited the Museum The Kennedys in Berlin and read Letters to Jackie: Condolences from a Grieving Nation, and concluded this week when I finished listening to the (very long!) audiobook in the car of Ted Kennedy's True Compass: A Memoir.

No different than for many others around the world, the Kennedy family absolutely fascinates me. I can't think of any other family that has had so much tragedy. They just continue to hold our interest. I'd wholeheartedly recommend all four of the things mentioned above if you're as interested as I am, and here's why:

In Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy by Jacqueline Kennedy, the interviews were conducted by historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. about four months following President Kennedy's assassination. In the eight CDs, the former First Lady answers all kinds of questions about her late husband's political aspirations, his visit to West Berlin, the Cuban Missile Crisis, his health problems and his campaigns for office. Hearing the interviews was particularly interesting. In places you can hear the ice clinking around in Mrs. Kennedy's glass (I wonder what she was drinking), addressing her children when they interrupted the interviews, the traffic on the street outside and muffled whispers of her answers to questions she only wanted Schlesinger to hear. When the long interviews exhausted her and she asks to stop and pick up again later. She is so honest and so candid.

The basis for Museum The Kennedys in Berlin is President Kennedy's 1963 visit and his speech addressing West Berliners near the Brandenburg Gate. The footage of this speech repeats over and over for visitors, who can view personal items of the Kennedy family and many photos taken over the years of the whole clan at Martha's Vineyard, on the campaign trail and in other places. It was one of my favorite things in Berlin.

In experimenting with how to borrow books from the library via my Kindle, I came across Letters to Jackie: Condolences from a Grieving Nation by Ellen Fitzpatrick and thought it fit my current theme. In the months after her husband was assassinated, Mrs. Kennedy received over a million and a half letters from Americans of all ages who wrote thoughtful letters expressing their sympathy to the First Lady and her children. Of those million and a half, 250 are included in Letters to Jackie. They are from schoolchildren, postal workers, housewives, military personnel, Republicans, Democrats, hospital workers and every other type of person you can imagine. Some letters are long and eloquently written. Some include poems. Some are short and filled with misspellings and other mistakes. What these letters have in common, though, is that they are all expressing sympathy in touching, heartfelt, personal ways. This collection of letters is really a powerful statement of how average Americans reacted to the loss of their president.

Ted Kennedy's account of all of these things plus many more are recounted in his autobiography, True Compass. Though it was quite long and read by an actor rather than the author, the audio version kept me interested. Ted Kennedy's account of both of his brothers' assassinations and other family tragedies, the support he and the rest of the Kennedys gave to Jacqueline Kennedy upon her husband's death, and his own political campaigns and his personal life are all covered in detail. It was really great to get his perspective on the same events and situations Mrs. Kennedy commented on in her interviews.

I highly recommend all these works if you're as interested in this American family as I am.  

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Book Review: Lincoln, Inc.: Selling the Sixteenth President in Contemporary America by Jackie Hogan

Title: Lincoln, Inc.: Selling the Sixteenth President in Contemporary America by Jackie Hogan
Published by: Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group
Published on: November 28, 2011
Page count: 220
Genre: Nonfiction, adult biography
My reading format: Advanced reading copy for Kindle through NetGalley
Available formats: Hardcover and Adobe Reader


My review:

Hogan, a Midwesterner, has written up her close study of how Abraham Lincoln is marketed today, and posited that how we perceive our 16th president today has changed over time from how he really was. She claims that we see a little bit of ourselves in Lincoln's modern-day portrayal, and says in the first chapter, "this is a book about the ways Abraham Lincoln is packaged and sold in the marketplace of American ideas." Hogan examines the marketing of today of Lincoln from several angles: memorabilia and presidential tourism, themes in his biographies, his portrayal in literature, television and film, from the perspective of modern-day politics and how he is taught in today's classroom. 

Hogan traveled around the Midwest while doing research for her book, and until I read Lincoln, Inc., I was not aware that so many sites existed across Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois dedicated to sharing parts of his lives with presidential tourists. Interest in Lincoln is increased right now with the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and other events, and it seems like a good time reexamine our perceptions of this president. As Hogan traveled, she discovered that some of the the historic Lincoln sites take great liberties to make, she writes, "the tourist experience more pleasurable" (Chapter 2). Hogan writes, "...whether Lincoln adorns Mount Rushmore or a souvenir shot glass, the effect is the same. His name and image remind us of our shared ideals, the ideals Lincoln seems to have both embodied and died to preserve" (Chapter 2). However, Hogan poses the question that if we're using Lincoln to sell things, does this make us lose a part of his authenticity?

As far as Lincoln's portrayal in literature, television and film, Hogan analyzes the appearance of certain themes that reappear over the past 150 years, and she speculates as to why some themes are more explored now than previously (for example, his struggles with depression and questions about his sexuality). Lincoln is examined with regard to modern-day politics, including an analysis of President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign where comparisons were drawn between the two men. Finally, Hogan reasons that classroom lessons on Lincoln may teach the importance of having good character rather than reporting with accuracy the facts about his life.  

I liked Hogan's academic and balanced approach to her topic, as well as her writing style in presenting all this material in an interesting way. I've done relatively little reading about Lincoln, but this book makes me feel like exploring him a little more. As it's an election year and I've recently been doing some reading on former President Jimmy Carter, I ought to add more Lincoln to my reading list. While I'm a much more frequent traveler across the Southeastern United States, some day when I do make an extended trip through the Midwest by car, I'll have to be sure to check out some of the Lincoln sites she mentions for myself. 

I think all of these things are what Hogan is hoping for for her readers: that people will seek out Lincoln for themselves and in doing so, will see him as a man of the time in which he lived, but a leader who still have relevance and significance in today's world. I enjoyed this read and I liked that it got me thinking about some things that I might never have considered otherwise.

Four out of five stars

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Recent Read: In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

I've just finished reading a book on Berlin I've been wanting to read forever: In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson (you can see my German reading lists here and here). I've been a fan of Larson ever since I visited Chicago for the first time and read his Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America. I still have to say that I think his book about Chicago is a bit more compelling, but Garden of Beasts still fascinated me due to my recent visit to Berlin. I could picture some of the places he mentions which is always fun.

From the title of the book I thought the main characters would be William Dodd, American ambassador to Germany, his wife Mattie and their adult children Martha and Bill. Perhaps the more interesting of the foursome were William and daughter Martha, and most of the book centered around the two of them. William had the impossible task of being American liaison and diplomat starting in 1933 in Germany and ending in 1940. He was overworked and underpaid, had difficulty with German government officials and experienced a host of other problems. Besides the work he did while there, his socialite daughter's love life and infatuation with communism is explored (I thought this part was very interesting).

I love when something I read in one book coincides with something I've read previously. There were several such occurrences during this read. First, before departing Chicago for Berlin with her family, Martha had an affair with author Carl Sandburg whose home I visited in Flat Rock, North Carolina, a couple of years ago. Sandburg was later a pallbearer at William's funeral. In chapter seven, Larson says that on William's first day as American ambassador, a new law took effect, "the Law for Hereditary Diseases, which authorized the sterilization of individuals suffering various physical and mental handicaps." We learned about this is at the Topography of Terror Museum in Berlin, and particularly disturbing was the medical experimentation performed on children with disabilities, since they were deemed "unfit" to have families of their own one day. Unfortunately, government-mandated sterilization happened in the early and middle parts of the 20th century in the United States as well. In graduate school for a gender and medicine elective I studied forced and coerced hysterectomies primarily in North Carolina. Today, a state-run foundation in North Carolina is waiting for government funding to award reparations to living victims and their families (here's a recent article from Raleigh's CBS affiliate, WRAL). Martha also had an affair with author Thomas Wolfe when he was visiting Berlin (another North Carolina connection. I visited Wolfe's house a few years ago on the same trip as Sandburg's Connemara).

Martha and a friend were invited on a weekend getaway with one of the few authors who did not leave Germany during Hitler's regime, Hans Fallada, who wrote Alone in Berlin, which I absolutely loved. In chapter 40, Larson says,

"In the months following Hitler's ascension to chancellor, the German writers who were not outright Nazis had quickly divided into two camps - those who believed it was immoral to remain in Germany and those who felt the best strategy was to stay put, recede as much as possible from the world, and wait for the collapse of the Hitler regime. The latter approach became known as 'inner emigration,' and was the path Fallada had chosen."

Finally, in the Sources and Acknowledgements section, Larson mentions that he relied heavily on Christopher Isherwood's books in writing Garden of Beasts (I recently read The Berlin Stories after returning from Germany).

I really enjoyed Garden of Beasts and would recommend it for anyone wanting to know more about the American presence in Berlin from 1933 to the start of World War II.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Celebrating Andy Griffith

Due to the fact that I'm a native North Carolinian, can appreciate old television shows, and have a father and grandfather who were/are obsessed with The Andy Griffith Show, I'm convinced I've seen every episode ever filmed (though sometimes the channel got changed if an episode in color and without Deputy Barney Fife came on). My husband is amazed if we catch the beginning credits that I can name that episode within the first few seconds of the first scene (I can also do this with The Cosby Show). In my family there's no need to call the show by it's full name; it's just simply "Andy."

My favorite episode is the one where Aunt Bee makes the kerosene pickles, but I have several runners-up too. There have been many times (particularly in Atlanta traffic) that I've wanted to "citizens arrest" someone Gomer-style. Raleigh is my hometown, the place Barney went to party and stayed in "the corner room at the Y." When someone in my family is being an extreme rule-follower, someone will usually start by saying, "Here at the rock..." and the rest of us will chime in with the rest. And how many times has my dad told me to "nip it, nip it, nip it?"

So Tuesday when I saw that Andy Griffith had passed away, I just couldn't believe it. Isn't it kind of like we've all lost someone important, like a family member, like someone we knew really well? We should all be so lucky as to be treated as kindly, and loved and cared for as much as Sheriff Andy Taylor did his son and aunt, his deputy, his neighbors and fellows residents of Mayberry.

In the spirit of this blog, I found a clip that I particularly like, where Andy explains Romeo and Juliet to Opie.

We'll miss you, Sheriff Taylor.