Sunday, June 2, 2024

The May Book Report

I'd hoped to get in another book this month but I'll happily settle for six diverse ones. On the list, a best selling book looking back at the history of '60s presidents Kennedy and Johnson, a Hallmark-ish type of novel, a White House mystery written by a president's son, a thriller, a fascinating behind-the-scenes diary of the designer of the musical "My Fair Lady," and a funny little cat book. Definitely diverse!

"An Unfinshed Love Story" by Doris Kearns Goodwin

I'm fascinated by history and as one who became aware of politics in the 1960s, this is an area that intrigues me. And, I confess, one that I knew little about, at least in my early days. I knew that Kennedy was president, that there was this "thing" called the Bay of Pigs, that we had to duck-and-cover in case of nuclear war, and that he was assassinated. I knew he had a pretty wife and two cute kids and that Marilyn Monroe sang to him on his birthday.

When it came to LBJ, I knew a little more because the Vietnam war was kicking in. Although I didn't follow the 1968 convention, I knew there were riots, and those riots were not unknown to Michigan which had its own batch of racial unrest with the Detroit riots. I remember his speech, ending with the announcement that he wouldn't seek the another term in office. But it wasn't really till the Nixon administration and my college years that I became more politically aware.

So, reading historian Doris Kearns Goodwin's fascinating new book was both a  reminder and a revelation. Goodwin is a wonderful writer, a historian who brings the depth of presidential history into something very accessible and this book is no exception. (And you don't have to have lived through the sixties to fully appreciate it!)

If you saw the film "Quiz Show," you might recall Richard Goodwin as the investigator who helped bring down the quiz show scandal of the 1950s. A brilliant law scholar, he clerked in the Supreme Court before coming to the attention of John Kennedy as a potential addition to his 1960 campaign staff. Goodwin became a valued member of an intimate group that traveled with Kennedy, crafting many of his best known speeches. He stayed on in the Kennedy administration, forming strong bonds with the president and his family, working both within the White House (specializing in Latin American affairs) and in the newly launched Peace Corps. 

After Kennedy's assassination, he went on to work in the Johnson administration, then, as he became an active peace activist, became part of the Eugene McCarthy campaign, quitting only after his friend, Robert Kennedy, entered the 1968 presidential race. He was in California with the campaign when Kennedy was assassinated. 

Doris Kearns was a student at Harvard when she began an internship working with LBJ in the Johnson administration. The two hit it off and she later became one of his biographers, spending much time with the family at their Texas ranch. But she was no stranger to politics before that, having been involved in the civil rights and anti-war movements as well. She and Goodwin met when they were both working at Harvard, though in their rich political histories, there were many times when they were in the same place at the same time but never connected.

Goodwin was in his 80s when he came downstairs one morning and said "It's time to go through the boxes." He had saved every bit of material amassed during his life -- letters, journals, drafts and final copies of speeches written for various presidents, news clips, photographs, and personal memorabilia. Dozens of boxes awaited his attention. Together, they went through the history of 1960s politics, combining their own memories with a vast archive of materials.

Doris Kearns Goodwin tells a love story bound by politics, one that is both personal and historic. As the couple ventured through the boxes, they shared discussions, had arguments (which administration did more -- Kennedy or Johnson?), connected with others who had been at the events they recalled, some with well-known names like Bill Moyers, and others who were participants in movements like Peace Corps or demonstrations. Richard Goodwin died before her book was written but it remains a remarkable legacy to his career in politics -- and to hers. 

"Murder at Midnight" by Elliot Roosevelt

After digging into the presidential politics of the 1960s, I thought I'd step back into the 30s, but this time it was a light romp. "Murder at Midnight" was written by the son of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the two (along with Roosevelt's faithful secretary, Missy LeHand) play roles in the mystery, with Eleanor taking center stage.

When a member of the president's "brain trust," Judge Horace Blackwell, is found dead in his bedroom at the White House by an African American maid, Sara, in the wee hours, she is immediately arrested despite her protests of innocence. Eleanor is concerned that investigators are jumping to conclusions because Sara is black (and granted, what was she doing in Blackwell's room at that time -- her story is not convincing). Together with Secret Service agent Pickering and Detective Sergeant Rainey, she continues to investigate the case from within the White House.

This one is a bit of fluff -- good after reading about the turbulent sixties but not a particularly memorable outing. It's a bit like empty calories, yet the Roosevelt angle is fun and being written by the First Lady's son brings a sense of what it might be like behind the scenes at the White House in 1933. 

"The Last Garden in England" by Julia Kelly

Let me start by saying that books with multiple narrators bug me. And I'm not all that fond of books where there are a lot of multiple narrators AND the plot bounces back and forth between time periods (in this case, the three time periods are 1908, 1944 and present day). Nor am I all that fond of obviously romantic novels that seem a bit too much like a Hallmark movie. 

So, I wasn't predisposed to having this be my favorite book of the year (and it's not).

But "The Last Garden in England" has a lovely setting, is set in the English countryside and is based around gardening, so there is indeed much to enjoy here.

The constant in the book is Highbury House, a manor house in the Midlands of England. We initially meet Vernetia Smith, a rare woman gardener designer in the early 1900s, who is hired to create the gardens and landscaping for the house, coming up with several individual gardens (the Bridal Garden, the Tea Garden, the Winter Garden, the Poet's Garden, and more). Then we flash to present day when gardener Emma is hired by the current owners to restore the garden to Venetia's designs to the degree possible. We also meet Beth, a Land Girl during World War II and an aspiring artist whose assignment is near Highbury and who becomes friendly with its owner of the Highbury during this period, Diana, and is allowed to sketch there.

Confused yet? We also hear from Diana and Estella (Highbury's cook). And of COURSE there are predictable love interests in each of the three women's stories. And of COURSE there is tragedy and sadness. And of COURSE there are issues that pop up that may throw a monkey wrench into those relationships. And of COURSE you can figure out how the book is going to end and the lives of the three woman will wrap up long before the book brings the stories together.

That said, there is much to love about the writing of the garden and the house with the vivid descriptions of the plants and foliage. One can almost believe it is a real garden (or collection of small gardens) and it does let the imagination wander -- "What if I had a tea garden AND a children's garden?" (Since I can't even keep things in pots alive all that well, it is indeed a fantasy!)

Would I recommend it? Oddly, yes -- if you like romantic novels set in multiple periods. It is lovely and while it was empty calories and might not be my cup of tea overall, I was  not sorry I spent time with it. 

"Is Your Cat a Psychopath?" by Stephen Wildish

I've been pondering this question of late. No, I never  thought Lizzie was a psychopath but I'm pretty sure she has an oppositional behavior disorder. So, when this arrived in my box from a good friend, I had to indulge! 

This tiny book is one of those "for fun" books. Not much text or depth but delightfully witty writing in brief bits with an array of very well done cat illustrations. The best part of the book is a 40 question multiple choice quiz to determine your cat's personality, much like the personality tests many of us have taken.

Lizzie is a "BURN" (Bold, Unsociable, Restrained and Nice) and referred to as "Mother Purresa" type. "A pleasant cat that lives frugally at a somewhat leisurely pace. (Somewhat?!!) Why waste energy on walking when sitting and watching will do? Mother Purresa is not entirely bothered with food (Nope -- it's Lizzie's passion). Although she is restrained, her bold streak means Mother Purresa knows her own mind and will be stubborn and sometimes lash out if things don't go the way she wants them to. (Like choosing puppy pads over the litterbox that is RIGHT NEXT TO THEM!)

The tips for a peaceful coexistence tell me, "Left to her own devices, Mother Purresa will do nothing all day (yup) and not interact with you at all (unless she wants something. Lizzie is the most transactional cat in the world.) She needs gentle coaxing with play and new and flavorsome treats regularly. 

They tell me she is not a psychopath, but a quiet, simple-living cat. No arguments here!

Overall, a fun book for cat owners and a real delight.

"Nine Lives" by Peter Swanson

More thriller than mystery, but not that scary, "Nine Lives" begins when nine different people, seemingly unconnected and living in places across the country, receive a letter in the mail with nothing on it but the names of the nine. Shortly after, the death of one on the list triggers an investigation. It appears to be murder -- but with what motive?

As "Nine Lives" plays out, we meet the others on the list, ranging from an FBI investigator, a waitress, an author, an actor, an aspiring composer, a professor, a business man, and a younger man.  We also learn that the list has attracted the interest of the FBI because it includes one of its agents. After a second murder, the FBI provides police protection for as many of the names as they can find. But will it be enough?

While we never form deep relationships with any of the characters, the plot is intriguing and a tough one to figure out. (I did, but couldn't nail the motive). I'd love to tell you more about this page turner but to do so might be to scoop some of the action and I don't want to spoil it.

What I can say is if the thriller genre is a favorite of yours, this is a a good entry with minimal gore (despite the quantity of murders). Swanson weaves a good tale and while the end felt a bit abrupt to me (what DID happen to the FBI involvement, anyway?) it was a satisfying read.

"Cecil Beaton's Fair Lady" by Cecil Beaton 

When I think of Cecil Beaton, I think of his photographs of royalty, particularly the Queen Mother, whom he once described as his favorite subject. I had forgotten that he was the recipient of four Academy Awards for his work on "Gigi" and "My Fair Lady." 

This little gem of a book is his diary from his Hollywood experience designing the sets and costumes of "My Fair Lady," one of the last musical blockbusters of the 1960s and arguably, one of the most beautifully designed films of all time.

Beaton arrived in Hollywood from England for about nine months to design and supervise the art direction and costumes for the musical and this book delves deeply into his experiences, from working with director George Cukor (the relationship started well and later soured), stars Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison (among others) and the countless costumers, make up artists and set technicians responsible for turning his designs into reality. 

The cast was enormous. There were hundreds of extras -- theatre goers in the opening scene, the elegant at Ascot, the vendors in the Covent Garden market, the friends of Eliza's father and the guests at the Embassy ball. All had to be costumed, coiffed and made up, some with enormous hats, others in clothing that allowed them to dance with abandon. Amusing is the fact that the casting went through dozens, no, hundreds of women looking for those who were beautiful and elegant. "Doesn't Hollywood have any showgirls," Beaton moaned after rejecting another large group. (I'd love to pull a few more quotes from here about his succinct descriptions of the wardrobe staff -- brief but so clear you could recognize each one in the street.)

Equally impressive was the set design. For Henry Higgins' home, a replica was built of Beaton's physician's Wimpole Street home -- three stories with multiple staircases and rooms. (It's a magnificent set.) The sets of Ascot, Higgins' mother's home and the ballroom were equally grand, the Covent Garden area looking aged with time.

Beaton is a lively writer and diarist and in addition to the stories about the film work itself, he also recounts his feelings of being in California -- far from England both physically and in personality. His story of learning to drive the L.A. freeways is delightful and his observations astute. 

As I read this I decided I needed to revisit the movie, which I'd recorded when it was streamed. I'd always found it beautiful (if long) and well acted, performed and designed. But now I looked at it with fresh eyes, noting the details of the props and recalling the stories of how it came to be. 

A note. This 128 page gem (it has pretty tight leading and should be more pages!) was published in 1964 in England. (It was one of my treasures found in the basement!) It may be difficult to find but if you love musicals and movies or are fascinated by design, and if you appreciate witty and insightful writing, it is well worth chasing down. I did see the hardcover version on Amazon for a hefty price. But I'm inclined to think it might be worth it.

Sharing with:    Share Your Style   /   Slices of Life  


Tom said... have been busy!

DeniseinVA said...

That’s a wonderful list of reading Jeanie, thank you!

Anvilcloud said...

Pretty eclectic. I've just been reading mysteries on Kindle, set in Wales and Scotland.

My name is Erika. said...

An Unfinished LOve Story is in my audible account. I just finished a history about John Wilkes Booth and Lincoln's assassination so I figured I needed some thing light first, but I can't wait to read it. Thank you for the review and getting me prepped for it. I've been thinking about reading some more of Peter Swanson's books ever since reading 8 Perfect Murders. So I was really interested in that write up also.You really did have a diverse reading list for May, and even though a couple of books were fluffy and light, sometimes that's just what works between other books. I always get happy when I see your book post is up, and I always enjoy reading it. Just finishing up mine now as I had one very long book. Have a great rest of your weekend. hugs-Erika

Steve Reed said...

What an interesting assortment! That Cecil Beaton diary sounds fun. I love reading the diaries and journals of creative people. (It's the blogger in me!)

Susan Kane said...

This is an amazing pile of books.

Valerie-Jael said...

You have been reading some great books, I love going early to bed and reading, always so good! Have a great week, hugs, Valerie

Sandi said...

"...the investigator who helped bring down the quiz show scandal of the 1950s."

Am I the only one who gasped at the purity of this scandal? Ok, not exactly pure, but compared to today this sounds like a delightful era for scandals.

R's Rue said...

Love Doris Kearns Goodwin. Happy Sunday.

eileeninmd said...

Hello Jeanie,
What a variety of books, I do tend to read mostly the Mysteries and Suspense/Thrillers. The Peter Swanson, Nine Lives sounds interesting.
I will add it to my reading list. Take care, have a great day and happy week ahead.

Carole @ From My Carolina Home said...

I enjoyed Last Garden in England as well. I have to say, though, that I am getting tired of the dual timeline structure. It is always the same idea, a person in present day is trying to find out what happened years ago. Been there, done that.

Rita said...

The book on the 60s would be a good one for me...and the cat one, of course--lol! You always have a wide assortment of interesting reads. I thank you for taking the time to share them. :)

Boud said...

Thanks for reviewing without telling us so much we needn't read the books! So many bloggers do that, faithfully recounting the entire plot.
I read an earlier Roosevelt mystery and had a similar reaction to yours.
The other titles are noted thank you.

Anonymous said...

This is Lisa. The Kearns Goodwin book sounds like something I would like. We are fascinated by that period of history. Phil and I have watched so many documentaries about the late 60s. Those docs kind of give us hope about the current state of the world. Things seemed very bleak in 1968 with multiple assassinations and so much political unrest. But what if you had social media back then. Would we have recovered as well as we appeared to back then? That is what makes me feel extra bleak about today. There is so much fake news and so many people only interest within their echo chamber which is easy to do thanks to social media. Gah. It’s bad.

I have read other Swanson novels but not that one. I really liked ‘the kind worth killing’. But I have kind of taken a break from thrillers now - I can’t handle them like I used to!!

Carola Bartz said...

That is quite a diverse list, Jeanie. "An Unfinished Love Story" sounds very interesting and for me is the most tempting of your May books. Although the cat book seems to be real fun as well, not only for cat owners but for "adopted against their will" owners as well. Sometimes I like thrillers, so maybe one day I'll give Peter Larson a try. At the moment my book "pile" is pretty tall, so it won't happen anytime soon. Like all of your book reviews, this one was enjoyable to read.

Joyful said...

An impressive summary of the books you've read recently. I'm most interested in the Godwin book you've shared but afraid my reading slowed to a trickle during the month of May. Not sure how much I'll be up to reading over the summer though right now I'm trying to get through a few books as they are coming due soon. Thanks for sharing your reads.xx

Marilyn Miller said...

At some point I would like to read Doris Goodwin Kearns book on the 1960's. I once heard her speak and was so impressed by her knowledge and experiences.
The cat book made me smile to read about. I would probably enjoy The Last Garden in England, except I agree with you on jumping from time period to another with multiple narrators can be tricky to get into. But I probably overall would like it.

David M. Gascoigne, said...

I have never read anything by Doris Kearns Goodwin, but I have seen her interviewed on TV. a couple of times, and she seems like the kind of person I would love to get to know.

ashok said...

Good books !

Lisbeth said...

What a lot of interesting books. One thinks we should remember what happened in the 60s or nearby, but we don't always do. I remember my parents talking about the Bay of Pigs and how they almost were a little bit afraid of what is going to happen.
I love cats, and I do think they have a personality that exceeds most of humans. I would love to read this book, will see if I can find it.
A very good reading months it seems with a variety of themes.

Buttercup said...

You've reminded me that I want to read the latest by Doris Kearns Goodwin. The Peter Swanson looks good, too.

Carol @Comfort Spring Station said...

The 1960's were a strange time. I ended the decade at college. Later I had a friend who worked for one of the 1968 presidential campaigns and who was targeted by the IRS. To this day, she won't do anything but a standard deduction as she was audited every year for decades.

Hena Tayeb said...

What a wonderful variety of books. I have read a few Peter Swanson books.. they are usually pretty good.

DUTA said...

The various presidents of America serve as a rich background to interesting and historical books.
My favourite book on your list, though, refers to Cecil Beaton's My Fair Lady (which of course, reminds us of the unique Audrey Hepburn).

DUTA said...

The various presidents of America, serve as a rich background to interesting and historical books.
My favorite book on your list, though, refers to Cecil Beaton's My Fair Lady (which reminds us of course, of the unique Audrey Hepburn).

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

I've been very curious about Unfinished Love Story. Thank you for sharing it with us.

This N That said...

I don't know when you find the time to read! Have a fun week.

Bill said...

An interesting list of books. I want to read Doris Kearn's book, sounds great. I just finished, First to the Front, the story of Dickey Chapelle, the pioneering photojournalist. It was an excellent book.

Debbie-Dabble Blog and A Debbie-Dabble Christmas said...

All look like great books...I have to definitely put aside time to read more....Something I need to focus on doing....Thanks so much for always visiting and for always leaving such sweet comments!!
Debbie-Dabble Blog

The French Hutch said...

A great diverse list and you've had a lot of interesting reads. I really enjoy thrillers as long as they aren't scary. I am adding "Nine Lives" to my reading list. It may very well jump to the top of the list.
Hope you are recovered from your cataract surgery and heading to the lake. Look forward to pics and stories.......Happy June

Anonymous said...

Ohhhh I have GOT to find, somewhere, "Cecil Beaton's Fair Lady" by Cecil Beaton !!! This is one of my ALL TIME favorite movies; my parents gave me an anniversary DVD for one of their last Christmas' they were still with us! Everyone in my family knows I am a SUCKER for the old musicals (Singing in the Rain, My Fair Lady, Oklahoma, Sound of Music, White Christmas, Holiday Inn, you get the point, lol). So Yep, I have got to find me this book!!!
Dawn P. Albany, GA

Anonymous said...

HOT DIGGITY DOG - I found "Cecil Beaton's Fair Lady" by Cecil Beaton in Thriftbooks!! And I ordered it for my library!! YIPPEE
Dawn P.

crackercrumblife said...

I like that you have Nine Lives listed after the cat book!

Is Your Cat a Psychopath sounds cute! Miso is not either but now I curious (like a cat...) about what she is! Lol.

Sandra Cox said...

Nice selection here, Jeanie.
I can't believe Wildish wrote about Frank. ROFL.

Pam Richardson said...

Jeanie, this is a diverse group of books. Several sound fascinating, but I would love to find Cecil Beaton’s diary! I was a child in the 60, but I have vivid memories of the assassinations! Your reviews are always interesting and well-written. Thank you, Jeanie!

Linda Sue said...

Jeanie- this is off subject but you may want to take virtual walks with this man, He is fun!

There are so many to choose from!!

Iris Flavia said...

This really is a dangerous time of the month with bloggers giving reviews of their books! ;-)
I am stuck at DVDs atm, but, oh, your list sounds very interesting, too!

Pam said...

As always, I read every evening for weeks maybe months, then all of a sudden, i am not doing it for about as long. lol

Mae Travels said...

I enjoyed your summary of the book about My Fair Lady. It hasn’t been that long since we watched it once again, and as you say, the costumes are amazing, and the scenes where massses of gorgeously dressed people appeared. Needless to say, I never gave any thought to how this was designed and executed!!
best, mae

Dixie @ Arranged Words said...

What an interesting array of books.
"My Fair Lady" such a favourite of mine.
Time to watch it again.
The book is on my list to buy. Thank you.
Have a great week, Jeanie.

Ricki Treleaven said...

You read quite a variety of books last month! I had The Last Garden in England on my TBR List, and I might have even checked it out, but I haven't read it yet. Now I think I might skip it. I have a hard time with more than two narrative timelines, and I don't like "head hopping" much, either.

Bleubeard and Elizabeth said...

I love Doris Kearns Goodwin and love her books. However, I had no idea about her private life until you shared this book with us.

I read somewhere years ago that Merv Griffins wife came up with the idea for Jeopardy. After the scandal, she suggested to give the answer and let the contestant guess or provide the question.

I've not read the book by Elliot Roosevelt, but I have read several books by Margaret Truman, the only child of Harry and Bess. Her books are great and not a bit of fluff. She wrote the Capital Crimes series. They were all murder mysteries set in and around D.C.

The one thing I would enjoy about the Last Garden in England would be reading about the original gardens. Not much else would interest me.

Bleubeard is Mr. Social Butterfly and Squiggles is MY cat. He hides when anyone else is around and most people have never seen him. My neighbor used his cell phone to find my channel changer I accidentally kicked under my couch. That's when he saw Squiggles hiding. That sounds like a great book.

Nine Lives reminds me of an Agatha Christi knock off.

I've never seen My Fair Lady, but I enjoyed your review.

Lux G. said...

That psychotic cat book just caught my attention. Aren't most cats? Lol! I'd be adding The Last Garden in England on my TBR.

Joanne said...

The Last Garden in England sounds like one I'd really like! I do like stories with multiple narrators and timelines (as long as they all come together somehow in the end in a cohesive way).

Memphis Bridges said...

What a great variety of books! Thanks for linking up with us!

Arti said...

Cecil Beaton's book sure sounds interesting. I remember very well that movie, saw it while I was still a child growing up in Hong Kong. The LP album of the movie soundtrack was the first record in our home at that time. And I saw the musical in London years later. Thanks for sharing this.

Lowcarb team member said...

This really is a wonderful variety of books.

All the best Jan said...

Great reviews Jeanie! I think I will read An Unfinished Love Story,it sounds fascinating, thank you~

Anca said...

"Is Your Cat a Psychopath?" by Stephen Wildish and "Cecil Beaton's Fair Lady" by Cecil Beaton sound really lovely both. A light fun book can be either annoying or relaxing, depending on the mood, so I might read the one about cats if I can find it when I am in the right state of mind for it. :)

Popular Posts