REVIEW: More gifts for book-lovers

Nov. 30, 2012 @ 12:44 PM

"Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F. Kennedy”
Selected by Ted Widmer, with foreword by Caroline Kennedy (Hyperion, $40). Contains two audio discs.

In July 1962, President Kennedy had a taping system installed in the Oval Office and Cabinet Room of the White House, known to few people and not made public until the Kennedy Library announced it had the tapes in the 1970s. The tape excerpts in this collection are meant to give a daily inside look at the Kennedy administration, and try to de-mythologize JFK, writes compiler Ted Widmer in his introduction.
Widmer organizes these conversations as they relate to major historical events and decisions of the JFK era – civil rights, nuclear weapons, Vietnam and Cuba among them. In the civil rights chapter, one hears (some of the conversations are duplicated on the audio CDs included with the book) the president trying to walk a diplomatic tightrope with Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett as he tries to alleviate violence that erupted from opposition to James Meredith integrating the University of Mississippi. (Kennedy stifles a laugh when Barnett thanks him for his interest in “our poultry program.”) In the Cuban Missile Crisis chapter, readers hear the wide ranging discussion, even deep disagreement, that accompanied the decisions that brought the crisis to a peaceful conclusion. Kennedy shows true respect for his predecessors. He leans on Dwight Eisenhower for advice, and Herbert Hoover and Harry Truman get courtesy calls and updates during the crisis.
There are lighter moments, including some brief exchanges with Caroline and John Jr. The president has a rather salty exchange with Air Force brass over money spent to set up a special delivery room for Jacqueline Kennedy, then pregnant. (Today, one might marvel that a president would bat an eye at the expenditure.)
The audio is not always the best quality, and these tapes probably are best enjoyed by those who have read a Kennedy biography or are familiar with this history.
I am a child of the Eisenhower era, and was a toddler when Kennedy was president. I count myself as a Kennedyphile. This book is a must for anyone who still remembers even a faint glow from the New Frontier.

--Cliff Bellamy, The Herald-Sun

“The Secret Lives of Codebreakers: The Men and Women Who Cracked the Enigma Code at Bletchley Park”
By Sinclair McKay (Plume, $16)

The names Alan Turing and Thomas Flowers are not as familiar as those of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, but Turing, Flowers and countless others did much of the groundwork for modern computing. For some 30 years, they couldn’t talk about their work, because it was in conjunction with a secret codebreaking operation that began in 1939 in Bletchley Park in England.
Sinclair McKay has written a fascinating and entertaining book that pays tribute to the men and women who broke Germany’s supposedly invincible Enigma code machine in World War II. The leaders of Bletchley searched for people who had nimble and flexible minds – mathematicians, linguists, language experts, even people who were adept at crossword puzzles. Employees worked grueling shifts, and Dwight Eisenhower said their painstaking work shortened the war two years. McKay’s book offers a measure of late recognition for the achievements of these intellectual pioneers.

--Cliff Bellamy, The Herald-Sun

“Through the Window”
By Julian Barnes (Vintage International, $15.95)

In this collection of 17 essays and one short story, Julian Barnes, author of novels and essays, has written a tribute to books and what they mean to him. Barnes writes in his introduction, “I have lived in books, for books, by and with books; in recent years, I have been fortunate enough to be able to live from books.”
In “George Orwell and the F------ Elephant,” Barnes, without canonizing him, makes the case for why Orwell’s novels and essays will continue to matter. In “Ford’s ‘The Good Soldier,’ ” Barnes makes a plea that Ford Madox Ford’s World War I novel “needs The Good Reader.” Barnes teases Ernest Hemingway aficionados in “Homage to Hemingway: A Short Story,” which brilliantly examines Hemingway’s literary reputation, high points (Barnes has high praise for his short stories) and low points (“Across the River and Into the Trees”), all without parodying Hemingway’s distinctive prose style. This collection is for anyone who, like Barnes, loves books.

--Cliff Bellamy, The Herald-Sun

“This Living Hand and Other Essays”
By Edmund Morris (Random House, $32)

In this wonderful collection of essays, Edmund Morris, the author of a three-volume Theodore Roosevelt biography and “Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan,” offers his take on subjects ranging from Mount Kilimanjaro (which he writes was “a constant on my horizon” during his boyhood in Kenya), to Beethoven, to the superiority of handwriting over typewriting. His 1975 essay “Heard Melodies Are Sweet, but Those Unheard Are Sweeter” argues that New York may have too many classical music radio stations (imagine this state of culture in our time). In the book’s final essay, he discusses his controversial decision to use an imaginary narrator in “Dutch” – a fascinating read, even if you are not convinced.

--Cliff Bellamy, The Herald-Sun