Paperback reviews: JFK’s Last Hundred Days, Torch, Men of Letters, Sedition, The Awakening

 

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The Independent Culture

JFK’s Last Hundred Days: An Intimate Portrait of a Great President by Thurston Clarke (Penguin £9.99)

Last year marked 50 years since the assassination of President Kennedy and a rash of biographical portraits emerged, of which this is probably the best: highly informative on policy issues and the reasons behind them, as well as making a thorough stab at understanding the man himself. Clarke captures Kennedy’s vanity well, both about his physical appearance and for his political legacy. He wouldn’t wear a hat, pressing down on all that luscious blond hair, and he obsessed about his place alongside past US leaders, devouring historical biography after biography.

Clarke concedes that Kennedy was no economic mastermind when he arrived at the Oval Office, but he studied hard and learned, and that seems to be a strong element of his presidency: his tremendous willingness to learn. He learned from the people, too, preferring impromptu walkabouts to set speeches about policy in official surroundings. And, of course, there is the extraordinary womanising, minimised after the death of his premature-born son, Patrick, as he and Jackie came together in their grief.

It’s almost inevitable that a serious biography of Kennedy will be awash with wish-fulfilment, a sense of “what might have been”, and comparisons with the anti-intellectual George W Bush and the hampered, some would say even compromised Obama, are irresistible and depressing. He wasn’t perfect on civil rights, occasionally failing to record a response when atrocities took place, and for many his relationship with the then Soviet administration was risky at best, kow-towing at worst. But few individuals have attracted the global response of shock and sorrow he did when he died. Kennedy had had private reservations about running for a second term but his final hundred days had seen a shift in his thinking. The glamour of great, untapped potential will never leave him.        

****

Torch by Cheryl Strayed (Atlantic, £8.99)

The first part of this novel about a woman diagnosed with terminal cancer concerns her directly, as we witness radio advice host Teresa Rae Wood being given the news of her illness, and her own conveying of it to her son, Joshua and her daughter, Claire. We see her fear and we see her in pain, as well as her love for her family, which is maybe as we would expect. What we don’t necessarily expect is how her family will react to her illness and subsequent death: her partner, Bruce, who has decided he will kill himself after she has gone, finds he can do no such thing, and ends up quickly in another relationship instead, much to the horror and disgust of Teresa’s children: this is the first time that they have sensed a split between their loving step-father and themselves. Claire, meanwhile, has already cheated on her partner David, and Joshua is dealing crystal meth to make some extra money. Strayed’s family unravelling stays just this side of soapy melodrama, thanks to her clear prose style and her honest look at people’s emotions in difficult situations. 

***

Men of Letters: The Post Office Heroes Who Fought the Great War by Duncan Barrett (AA Publishing, £8.99)

Among the many accounts being published this year to mark the centenary of the start of the First World War is this history with a more unusual focus. We forget how much families at home and men fighting abroad relied on a speedy and sure postal service, and this book doesn’t just look at the hundreds of volunteer postmen who took up arms, but also at the service at home, how it was maintained when so many had left. As a result, we hear a great deal from different men’s own words about conditions at the Front and some truly catastrophic battle strategies, but we also learn about the women who took on jobs delivering the mail (boys had always been provided with waterproof boots whilst working, but the girls who arrived were expected to provide their own footwear). The individual human cost is not forgotten: the poet Rupert Brooke’s lesser known brother Alfred fought with the Post Office Rifles: he, too, was killed, depriving his mother of both her sons, and one of the most touching letters of condolence was written to her by a fellow officer.

***

Sedition by Katharine Grant (Virago, £8.99)

Grant’s debut novel for adults is a quirkily dark and original tale that delights in the peculiar, even down to the names of her characters, and in the tragic. Ultimately it is the tale of two 18th-century girls living in a world that doesn’t seem to like either of them very much, and which they find themselves resisting with all their might, with some fatal consequences. Alathea Sawneyford has had several abortions after being repeatedly impregnated by her own father, and Annie Cantabile is disfigured by a harelip, which her father can never resist mentioning, or using to keep her down. But the girls find one another through music, when Annie’s secret love, a French monsieur, goes to teach Alathea and her knowing, conspiring sisters lessons on the pianoforte, in their parents’ hopes of them all acquiring suitable and wealthy husbands. Grant’s style is playful and spirited, reflecting the personalities of the girls themselves, and if its strangeness occasionally seems a little contrived, it is nonetheless highly effective at creating the world of a perverse sort of fairy tale.  

***

The Awakening by Kate Chopin (Canongate, £7.99)

Kate Chopin’s brilliant portrayal of a marriage gone wrong and the woman at the centre of it has been compared to Madame Bovary in its naturalism and mercilessness, but for me it exceeds even that classic of 19th-century literature. Canongate has issued this new edition with an introduction by Barbara Kingsolver that places it in the context not so much of fin-de-siecle work of the time (with which it fits less easily) but rather of the work of second wave feminism, such as The Women’s Room or The Feminine Mystique. Edna Pontellier’s “awakening” is not just a sexual one, it is also a creative one, as she starts to chafe against her family’s annual summer holiday that leaves her listless and bored, and against her husband’s demands of her as a conventional wife and mother. A quietly explosive study of female impotence, it is quite superb.

*****

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