64. Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942 by Ian W. Toll (5 stars)
The Pacific Crucible examines the naval war in the Pacific theater of WWII from Pearl Harbor to Midway, and traces its origins back to the naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan’s seminal book, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History. This is the first in a nonfiction trilogy about the Pacific theater of WWII. The second, The Conquering Tide, was published in 2015.
I think it’s a fairly stellar book about half the time, alternating between both the Japanese and American sides, and going into a fair amount of depth. I’m reasonably familiar with the broad strokes of the conflict – though this is the first book I’ve read specifically about this theater of the war – but Toll peppers the book with information I’ve never encountered before. Beyond that, the condition aboard ship is detailed in vivid technicolor. He does a great job bringing to life the conditions on a 1940s military ship. If you didn’t know already – it’s not a place you want to be. Especially when the ship is ablaze and full of oil, munitions, and jet fuel.
I didn’t know, going in, that this was the first of a planned trilogy – so I was left bewildered at the sudden end. But I’ll probably pick up The Conquering Tide and the third book when it’s published.
65. The Executioners by John D. MacDonald (4 stars)
When Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear came out, I was too young to go see it in the theater – but the clips I saw of Robert De Niro were deeply unsettling to me. The name of the movie, however, had such a portentous and ominous ring to it, I couldn’t help but be sickly fascinated by it. When I finally saw the movie years later, I was left fairly disappointed – but I was even more disappointed by the fact that it wasn’t actually filmed in the Cape Fear region of North Carolina.
It’s a region I’m familiar with – because I live there.
Well, as it turns out, the book upon which the movies (this and the the Robert Mitchum original) are based isn’t set in North Carolina, either, but in Florida.
So go figure. I’m not sure why they changed the title, apart from Cape Fear sounding more ominous than The Executioners. Can’t argue with the results, though.
The Executioners follows the same basic plot: an attorney, Sam Bowden, learns that a man he helped put away for rape, Max Cady, has just been released from prison, is back in town, and is looking to get revenge. Cady is a brutal sociopath, physically imposing, and has spent the previous decade devising a brutal recompense for losing fourteen years of his life. The book plays out like a hard-boiled cat-and-mouse game set in the 1950s. It’s relatively fast paced, and there’s a fairly mean spirit at the center of the novel – Max Cady is a pretty great villain, and I can only imagine how imposing this story would’ve been in the era of Leave it to Beaver.
Stephen King counts MacDonald one of his favorite writers of the era, and counts his novel The End of the Night to be one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. That’s fairly high praise, and I’m ill-equipped to argue. I wouldn’t count this book one of the best novels of the century, but it was good enough to make me want to check out King’s recommendation.
Overall, I rate it an engaging read that’s well worth the little time needed to make it through the 200-odd pages.
66. Herbert Hoover: A Life by Glen Jeansonne (5 stars)
Herbert Hoover is, without question, one of the finest people to ever serve in the White House. He built himself up from a hard-scrabble, impoverished youth in which he struggled to read, nearly died from the croup, and was orphaned by age nine, to become an exceptionally wealthy mining engineer, scholar, humanitarian, war relief organizer, influential politician, president of the United States, Great Depression goat and, finally, highly valued consultant to two presidents. His efforts during and after WWI and (less often talked about) after WWII saved millions of lives, and he is rightly hailed a hero in Belgium for his relief efforts there. Less than eight months after taking office, the Great Depression hit, wiping out the economic growth of the 1920s and forever tarnishing his image. Franklin Roosevelt frequently blamed Hoover directly for the calamity, and this blemish was something Hoover would spend the remainder of his life trying to wash off – with limited success.
Glen Jeansonne does a marvelous job, here, detailing the life and career of the man without being overly influenced by popular sentiments. He, in fact, takes great pains to show that the policies Hoover endorsed as president weren’t demonstrably less effective than those instituted by FDR in the New Deal. FDR, in fact, borrowed heavily from Hoover while simultaneously ridiculing his inaction to stem the crisis. He would then spend the remaining thirty-plus years of his life offering sage advice to his successors, which, at times, proved invaluable and prescient.
Hoover’s greatest failings were probably timing and a preference for volunteerism over federalism. Had he been president in the early- to mid-20s, he would probably be hailed today as a good to near-great president. Taking office just prior to the crash, however, doomed him to an unfavorable historical opinion – regardless of the actions he took or positions he held.
This was a splendid biography of a man who accomplished a great deal while failing remarkably at the job which gave him the greatest platform for his message.
67. What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton (4 stars)
I’m not a fan of the Clintons. Never have been. Unlikely to ever be one.
I voted for Hillary last November. I did so without reservation. I would do so again if given a chance.
These polarized views, I think, are fairly common. A lot of people don’t like her – and not just because she’s a woman (though, indubitably, that plays a massive role in how she has been received). They dislike her political views, and her public persona. They find her attempts at humor awkward, and her ability to connect with people artificial. They find her disingenuous and overly-calculated.
I fall pretty close to that camp. I don’t think she is progressive enough, and I supported Sanders in the primary for that reason. I thought her time, her chance to be president, had passed in 2008 – and preferred a more progressive, populist direction to the party – especially to counter the growing populist white nationalism of Donald Trump. Her election was a foregone conclusion, however, and I begrudgingly stepped in line behind her. She often said the right thing, and she made the dismantling of the Republican platform a common occurrence. She thoroughly out thought and out performed Donald Trump in the campaign, on her way to garnering a couple million more votes than him. And then lost the White House because of our fucked up electoral process.
This book is her attempt to make sense of what happened. I would say she was mostly successful – but the best parts of this book aren’t her analyzing campaign failure or the public response to distortion, disinformation, and the dynamism of mass movements. The best parts of this book, ironically, are the personal anecdotes and observations from her life and career.
A strange thing happened about a quarter of the way through this book, I absolutely fell in love with Hillary Clinton. There’s a strange disconnect with her. Journalists and colleagues, that I’ve seen, pretty much universally acknowledge a warmth and strength of character that is often ignored or invisible in her public persona. I’ve read interviewers talking about her humor and earnestness before they sit down for an interview, only to have her put on the mask once she’s “[insert title] Hillary Clinton”. There are large portions of this book where that Hillary Clinton comes through. That Hillary Clinton is a person I could not only listen to for hours, but would want to listen to.
She clearly cares about issues impacting women and children, and has demonstrated this throughout her life. Here, she is both articulate, knowledgeable, and impassioned. There is no mistaking where she’s coming from, what she wants to happen, and her belief in herself. Those parts of the book are so unmistakably honest and forthright, I legitimately question whether I’ve ever given the woman a fair shot. I would happily vote for that woman every day of the week, instead of unapologetically doing it out of some distorted sense of self-defense.
She really digs into the minutiae of her everyday life – not to the point of excess, in my opinion, but to ensure that we, the reader, get a feel for who she is. And this, for me, is where some of the breakdown occurs. In her mind, this is wholly unnecessary. I couldn’t help but get the feeling that she doesn’t want to let anyone in. She doesn’t want to drop the veil of privacy. And while that is entirely understandable – she is a human, has been in the public eye for nearly 40 years, and must long for anonymity – it’s also part of why so many people are turned off by her. She seems inauthentic. She feels contrived, and malleable depending on the whims of who she is trying to cater to. She doesn’t seem entirely human.
I think Hillary Clinton is at war with herself. She wants to remain detached from her public persona, and just win people’s support by the positions that she endorses, but we are in a culture that prioritizes savoir faire in front of the public over intellectual competence. Hillary Clinton is undoubtedly gifted with the latter, but lacking in the former. And the truly endearing thing, to me, is that she is fully aware of this limitation in herself. But this reservation has always been the major hurdle for her, I think, and it really is a shame. When she actually does let down that guard, what’s revealed is valuable insight and a clear vision. She is deserving of the center stage and she knows it, but I don’t think she really embraces that it basically takes winning a popularity contest to get there.
Unfortunately, America isn’t a Meritocracy.
I’ve read about this book that she comes off as whiny – but I didn’t pick up on that at all. She seems to have a well-adjusted perspective on 2016 – which is more than I can say for many of us who went through it from a distance. It’s just that inherent to her position is a certain sourness – but who can honestly blame her? She was clearly the better candidate, had a demonstrably better platform with infinitely better qualifications, and she actually won the goddamned election by receiving a higher percentage of the popular vote.
If that doesn’t call for a few sour grapes, I don’t know what does. And, now that we’re nearly nine months into Trump’s White House, there is one indisputable truth, in my mind: it is to Hillary Clinton’s great disappointment that she didn’t win the presidency, but it is a national embarrassment that we didn’t give it to her. And that embarrassment is a fate we’ll have to relive a thousand times over before our penance is served.
She is a flawed politician, and I still don’t agree with many of the policies that she has endorsed. But, as a human being, I think it’s time we all acknowledge that we have done her a great wrong. To her point that much of the criticism against her is the result of her sex, I can only say that we have no defense against that charge. Say what you will about her – she has been wronged.
I honestly don’t know how much of this makes sense. I feel like I’m kind of all over the place without really honing in on a clear thought about this book. I don’t think her point was to change anyone’s mind, but instead was to present her vision of how things turned out so badly. In that regard, I would say she was moderately successful. I mean, she does certainly explain the election from her point of view – but I found the election talk to be the least meaningful parts of the book to me. The rest of the book, however, was highly impactful on me.
So she changed my mind on her without trying, I guess. Weird.