What We're Reading 

Hidden gems, hot favourites, slow burners and the odd guest columnist.

Summer Reading

 - Monday, February 03, 2014
'Jump up, bubble up, What's in store...?' Bryan Ferry, the Caliph of Cool, croons in the background as I ponder a Summer reading pile that just grew 'like Topsy'  to a ridiculous height. Less verbiage ... more book recommendations will be this year's motto in writing these articles. It would make the Editor's task much easier, however like most New Year's resolutions it may have a limited life. The 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination saw the inevitable flood of both new titles and reissues of older works—many of varying quality. Two books stood out for me:


A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination by Philip Shenon ($48, HB) 'Everybody will know who I am now', Lee Harvey Oswald said while being interrogated. Half a century later, however he remains indistinct—aspects of his life and motives are mysterious still. This major new work breaks new ground in two areas. Firstly, as an investigation into Oswald's curious visits to Mexico City in September 1963, and his tangled relations with both Cuban espionage agents and CIA operatives stationed there. Secondly, it examines the inner workings of The Warren Commission set up by President Lyndon Johnson, under the chairmanship of Chief Justice Earl Warren, to investigate Kennedy's murder. 
Through interviews with then junior staff lawyers and investigators, the author presents a homicide investigation stymied at crucial points by the CIA, the FBI and other Washington powers. A well written account that provides genuinely fresh information about Oswald and the mysteries of Dallas. No small achievement.


The Death of a President. 20–25 November 1963 by William Manchester  ($33, PB)  A long awaited reissue. Author Manchester (1917–2004) had written a worshipful biography of JFK in 1962, and was asked by both Jacqueline and Robert Kennedy to write an 'authorised' account of the events in Dallas and Washington DC. Manchester embarked on an arduous research quest, obsessively detailing virtually every minute of the ill-fated trip—at the cost of both his health and (almost) his sanity. When the original 1,200 page manuscript was presented to Jackie and Bobby for approval, both of them—shocked at the detail and intimate conversations recounted by Manchester, who had made use of ten hours of private interviews with Jackie—demanded numerous cuts and withdrew their official imprimatur. Legal action was threatened then resolved. Some deletions were made. The book was eventually published in 1967 and became a best seller. Manchester donated all his book royalties to help fund the Kennedy Library. A paperback edition appeared in 1972.
The book's last (brief) reappearance was 1988 (with a new preface) and it has been out of print till now. William Manchester was a fine writer. His purpose as he explained in the work was 'Catharsis. I do not spare the reader'. Indeed, reading it can be an overwhelming emotional experience in his recounting the (still echoing) impact of those six days in November 1963. Future Kennedy researchers historical footnote: William Manchester's complete interviews with Jacqueline Kennedy have been placed under seal in the Kennedy Library,  Boston, until 2067. Also under seal, not to be opened until 2044, 50 years after her death, is a 500 page oral history compiled by Jacqueline Kennedy herself. In 2009, when Kennedy biographer, Robert Dallek asked the Library director, whether biographers and historians will find Mrs Kennedy's recollections of interest, she replied, without revealing any of the contents, 'You bet!' 
The Kennedy assassination is now as far distant to us as the assassination of Abraham Lincoln was to people living through World War One, which is an appropriate segue into the topic that will dominate non-fiction titles this year: 'The outbreak of The Great War'—as it will be called in these columns. Already, a pile of hefty volumes are waiting to be read, among them Paul Ham's 1914 ($39.95, HB) and Christopher Clark's The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914.($25, PB). 
At present, I am halfway through Margaret MacMillan's impressive The War That Ended Peace ($45, HB). Most of the works on the events of 1914 ask why the Great War broke out. She asks a different series of questions: 'Why did the long peace not continue? Why did the forces pushing for peace—and they were strong ones—not prevail? They had done so before, after all. Why did the system fail this time?' Her clear, crisp style, acute analysis of an increasingly unstable pre-1914 Europe and her vivid, detailed portraits of the numerous personalities that allowed the continent to drift toward conflict reminded me of historian Barbara Tuchman's classic The Guns of August, published more than half a century ago (more of her next month).
Time to end on a lighter note. No book made me smile (and wince) as much this summer as Leslie Woodhead's How The Beatles Rocked the Kremlin: The Untold Story of a Noisy Revolution ($30, PB). Imagine living in a country where listening to the music of The Beatles was banned. No, this was not the Blue Meanies in Pepperland—look it up, youngsters!—this was the grey Soviet Union of the 1960s. A place where the rock sounds of the West were officially described as 'ape music', and blamed by the state for 'delinquency, alcoholism, vandalism and rape'. Popular music's role was 'to fulfil serious social and political tasks'. Dancing was limited to the waltz or the polka. Well.
This book chronicles how Russian youth discovered the Fab Four. How their music was smuggled in by merchant sailors, listened to (and taped) from Western pirate radio stations. How illegal copies of their records were made on X-ray film. How many youths were inspired by The Beatles to form their own bands and play this forbidden music even under the threat of imprisonment. All this is found in interviews the author undertook travelling through Russia, from the late 1980s onward. These range from ageing hippies, musicians, engineers, bureaucrats—one of whom is the notoriously reclusive Russian defence minister Sergei Ivanov. He confesses to a passion for The Beatles from age 10 (in 1963)—listening to their lyrics also began his English language studies. Author and interviewee spend the next thirty minutes swapping favourite Beatles songs, until Ivanov is summoned away by an impatient President Putin.
So forget free market ideology. The downfall of the Evil Empire (look that one up, too) was caused, in large part, by the four lads from Liverpool. Their music was irresistible. As another of Woodhead's interviewees says: 'After The Beatles, the Iron Curtain was like a fence with holes. That was our secret. We breathed through these holes.' Yeah, yeah, yeah.  Stephen Reid