Election Day Political Books

So it’s Election Day, and I’m hoping that most of you are voting today or already have.  Either way, it’s a good time to review some of my favorite political novels.

There are a lot, but I wanted to highlight four that you may or may not be familiar with.

AdviseandConsent1stEdAdvise and Consent by Alan Drury is a classic.  It is the inside story of  (wait for it) a confirmation battle in the US Senate for a nominee for Secretary of State.  Obviously timely, it was referenced on occasion during the recent Kavanaugh fight.  It is an excellent book. that shows us that cutthroat and ruthless personal politics didn’t start with the Trumps or the Clintons or the Bushes.  It won the Pulitzer Prize and was made into a movie with Henry Fonda.


TheLastHurrahA second book that is also well known is The Last Hurrah.  It is the story of Frank Skeffington, an old-school ward politician who runs one last time, only to find out that the world has changed when he wasn’t paying attention.  It contains an interesting bit of policy analysis (kind of) about how the New Deal changed the business of ward healers, who had formerly provided assistance to the needy…for a price.  This book was made into a Spencer Tracy movie.

GayplacesmallThe third book is nearly unknown.  It is by Billy Lee Bratton and is considered by many to be the best political novel ever written.  It’s called The Gay Place and it contains three novellas set in Texas in the orbit of an LBJ/Huey Long-like figure and in the era of “Beef, Booze and Blondes” politics in Austin.  It is indeed a great book that shows the political life in the most real sense…how power and personality shape the politics, not policy.

Here’s my favorite quote:

The truly able, it appeared, had only so much time to squander on disillusion and self-analysis. Then those destructive vanities were turned round and put to the business of doing what had got to be done. The truly gifted, as opposed to the merely clever, were too busy running things to be bothered.

sundayThe fourth is a little lighter and has won no awards.  It’s called the Sunday Macaroni Club…and it’s a delightful book that tells the story of a corrupt Philadelphia politician and one of his particular henchmen.  If you have been in politics, you know this guy.  It’s funny and it’s true.  Great beach read.

Oh, I forgot All the King’s Men.  And probably a bunch of other ones.  But for today, there’s your reading list.

Dmitry Faces the Music

lanoire_detectivesartworkAfter the non-stop, rollicking action of the last section, Dostoevsky clearly felt that he had to pull back on the throttle a little bit and give the reader a break.

In this section, Dmitry is questioned by the prosecutors who are investigating his Father’s murder.  This is no easy task.  It has already been established that Dmitry is impulsive and wild…crazy, most would say.  Add to that the fact that he almost certainly DID kill his Father and every piece of evidence is 100% incriminating, and Dmitry’s mind is hopping around like an exposed wire.

First, he is informed by the prosecutors that he doesn’t have to answer any questions. You have to figure that they sort of wished he would take that route, because unlike many interrogations where the criminal snarls “you can’t make me talk, copper,” Dmitry is more than willing to talk and talk and talk.  And talk.

You have to give the investigators credit, because they doggedly pursue their questioning.  The key issue is one we noted when reading…how exactly did Dmitry go from pawning his guns for 10 roubles and then all of a sudden have 3,000 roubles to throw the party of the century?  And, there’s an empty envelope in the father’s room which formerly held 3,000 roubles?

Dmitry is working all his faculties.  He claims it wasn’t 3,000 roubles but was actually 1,500 roubles and that he had just been boasting about having 3,000.

This section is a little trying.  We are talking a minute examination of Dmitry.  There’s a section where he says he had a purse around his neck and the prosecutors are trying to catch him in a lie.  And they work every detail of that purse.  Where did you get the cloth?  What did you do with it?  Where did you get the needle and thread?

Even inside this tedium, though, the picture between these investigatory bureaucrats ridiculously trying to make sense of the ludicrous story Dmitry is making up as he goes along is pretty funny.

The outright funniest scene is when the investigators inform Dmitry that they will have to strip search him to make sure that he doesn’t have the remainder of the money on him.  Dmitry is trying to present himself as an officer and a gentleman and takes great umbrage at this.  He doesn’t end up totally stripped, but he is standing in front of the investigators and some average citizens in his underwear, wishing he had put a clean pair on that morning.

The second thing is really interesting.  A slight diversion…in listening to the latest episodes of Serial, they mention how defendants in the court are treated differently once they have a prior arrest–it is referred to as having “the stink” on you.

Well, you can see that here.  Dmitry arrives in style, in a carriage, followed by another carriage filled with champagne and fancy snacks.  Now, he leaves in the equivalent of a wheelbarrow.  When he arrived, he was treated…well…like a man bringing free liqour…and he leaves being treated like…well…a man who is suspected of killing his Father.

Dostoevsky is clearly a master of the human condition.  One of the things he has accurately captured is how people can love you, and then something happens and they can instantly switch to “I never liked him anyway.”  Dmitry is one example and the putrefying Starets is another.

On we go.

Book 8: Dmitry Has Issues

crime sceneBook 8 is one for the ages.  Honestly.  I can only imagine what it was like when this little bombshell dropped in the homes of subscribers to the Russian Messenger.

What I imagine is that it had tongues wagging.  I don’t think people had water coolers, but where ever people gathered, I imagine them saying “did you read that?”

And I can imagine they couldn’t wait for the next issue to show up, kind of like “Who killed JR?”

Essentially, after a long period of time following Aloysha around, we now switch to the opposite side of the spectrum and follow Dmitry while he has what in today’s world would be considered an “episode.”

The objects of the madness are, of course, Grushenka, and money, a related subject.  She’s not on the most stable ground herself—or, she’s the only one in the book who is and she’s running circles around these other dopes.  Either way, Dmitry has a well-known obsession with her.  Like many self-destructive people, he is ready to change…tomorrow.  In fact, his idea is that once has he Grushenka, he will go on the straight and narrow.  They will move to Siberia and live a life of purity and hard work.

Grushenka says she buy into this as well, claiming that she cannot wait to work the dirt with her hands, but she may just be playing the odds after her long-distance soldier crush turned out to be a dud.

So, you’re rolling along, watching this darkly hilarious scene unfold and escalate in intensity and ridiculousness.

Until the end, when the story takes its key turn.

First, I’m not sure how spoilers work in books that were published in 1880, but this is one.  I’m not even sure if it counts because anyone who is reading this book probably knows that Dmitry is accused of killing his Father.

So a couple things about that from a literature standpoint.

First, Dostoevsky does something very interesting when we are in the part of the action where the murder occurs.  Remember, we are in Dmitry’s head.  As we see it, he is spying on his Father and then he wakes up with 3,000 rubles, a bludgeoned servant and blood everywhere, including on a pestle, the purported murder weapon.

We wonder where he got the money and therefore know that something has been omitted, but then we don’t know what until the final part of the section when the police show up and accuse him of murdering his Father.  This is the first time we learn that the Father is even dead.

It is an odd way to frame a mystery, but it moves it into (I assume) a question of consciousness of evil/madness as well as the manifestation of evil, a philosophical whodunit, as in whodunit and who are you and who am I?

The other literary-type thing is that Dostoevsky has chosen to have his key event happen just past the mid-way part of the book.  There have been hints all the way along, which I assume were designed to keep readers reading.  I don’t think, however, that there’s any modern novelist who would have done this.  It certainly would have been a rough day in the MFA workshop.

People are still reading The Brothers Karamazov, so it has to work.  The challenge from a writer’s standpoint is for Doestevsky to pay off all that exposition in the second half of the book–particularly the parts involving Aloysha.

Read on, Macduff.

Book Seven Extra: Grushenka and Alyosha

aloysha and grushenkaSo stuck between the putrification and mysticism of Book Seven we have an equally incredible scene.  Ratikin–the squirrelly little seminarian–talks Aloysha into going over to visit Grushenka.  From a plot standpoint, I think this is perfect because it puts some space between the scenes taking place next to the Starets body.

Even with that, we get a pretty show-stopping surprise when Grushenka sits on Alyosha’s lap.  If there’s a scene you didn’t expect to see, this would be it.  The irony of the scene is painfully obvious on a couple levels.  First of all, the woman who has slept with both Alyosha’s Father and his brother and who is the object of a battle between them–one that has left her fearing that Dmitri is hiding in the bushes waiting for her.

Alyosha, meanwhile, is the only Karamazov who is a virgin or in any way virginal.  Any way.

So, we can’t be surprised at Aloysha’s reaction to having Grushenka on his lap.

…the woman who was now sitting on his knees and was cuddling up to him evoked in him a completely different, unexpected, and peculiar sensation, a sensation of some huge, unprecedented, and open-hearted curiosity…

A sensation?  Oh, indeed.

She even confesses that she had meant to seduce Aloysha (for a Karamazov Hat Trick) but has decided not to.  (Trust me, he’s the winner in that arrangement).

Beyond broad humor and pure entertainment value, this scene does serve a purpose.  Remember, the Starets told Aloysha to go out into the world.  He did not want him retreating to the monastery.  With Grushenka on his lap, Aloysha reports that the experience leaves him “without any of his former terror,” which I assume means he is ready to marry and join the real world for the first time.

Book Seven: Putrification to mystical transcendence

CanaBook Seven is the one where Dostoevsky dragged out the big guns.  There are some big happenings in this section, and each of them laced with the dark humor that is at the core of this book.

As noted previously, the Starets died in the last section.  In this section, his body is on display in the hermitage–all while a rotating team of monks reads the Gospel, filibuster-style.  Then, something shocking happens.  His body begins to smell.  Honestly, this is as earthy as Chaucer.  But the best part is the reaction of the acolytes.  Apparently, the body of a true holy man isn’t supposed to putrify.  Who knew?

This part of the story just fits so snugly on the intersection of the human and the religious, which is where this book finds itself so often.  All these people, who a day ago revered the Starets, now begin to doubt him.  Actually, it was more than doubt–they literally decide he must not have been the holy man he thought.  In fact, they react with a kind of satisfaction that would indicate they were possibly a tad jealous of the old man.

We’re then treated to the arrival of Father Therapon, the crazy (even by Russian monk standards) extreme ascetic who lives in a part of the Hermitage.  He lays the smack down on the deceased Starets.

‘He did not observe the days of fasting as befits a monk of his monastic title, hence this sign from on high. It is there for all to see, and to deny it is a sin!’ The zealot could restrain himself no longer and, in his fervour, overstepped all bounds of reason. ‘He was tempted by sweets brought to him by ladies in their pockets, he sipped tea for pleasure, he indulged his stomach with sweet things, and his mind with arrogant notions… Therefore hath this ignominy befallen him…’

When I read the putrification section, I see it as Doestovsky continuing to show us the difficulties when extreme expressions of faith collide with actual human life. Taken in concert with the previous faith healing pilgrimages, I think we can see how extreme faith is difficult to sustain in the real world and Alyosha shows us how difficult it is to live with piety in a sin-filled world.

Then, at the end of this section, we see Alyosha back at the Staret’s wake.  In an absolutely incredible scene, Alyosha has a mystical experience in which the Starets takes his hand and escorts him to the Marriage at Cana and Alyosha experiences a mystical love and understands that Jesus’ love is for everyone, even the poor and destitute.

Something burned in Alyosha’s heart, something swelled in it till it hurt, tears of ecstasy welled up within him… He put out his arms, cried out, and woke up…

And here is what I think that Doestevsky thinks is real Christian love–direct communion with God.  From the Grand Inquisitor to the biography of the Starets to the putrification controversy, we see what happens when humans involve themselves in religious matters.  But, here, Alyosha has a direct, mystical vision of the love at the root of the faith.

He leaves the Hermitage.

He did not even stop in the porch, but descended the steps quickly. His soul, brimming with ecstasy, was yearning for freedom, for wide-open spaces. Overhead, stretching into infinity, was the heavenly dome, full of silent, shimmering stars. From the zenith to the horizon stretched the forked outlines of the faintly visible Milky Way. A cool, silent, motionless night had enveloped the earth. The white towers and gilded cupolas of the monastery church gleamed in the sapphire night. The splendid autumn flowers in the beds around the house were dormant for the night. The silence of the earth seemed to merge with the silence of the heavens, the mystery of the earth appeared to reach out to the stars

So, if you can’t appreciate the brilliance of that paragraph, you aren’t a reader.  Who hasn’t walked outdoors on a clear night and felt the infinite beauty of the “silent, shimmering stars” above us.  You can see the cupolas in the sky, the flowers, and when you know what “the mystery of the earth” means.

This is our own transcendent moment through the power of literature in the hands of a genius.

Book Six: Freedom

staretsIf you read the blogs and the criticism, the Grand Inquisitor section we reviewed last time is considered the book’s signature moment.  For my money (and of course, I haven’t finished the book), the next book is far more entertaining, intellectually stimulating and enlightening.

The story is a biography (of sorts) of the Starets we have come to know and love in the early sections of the book.  The framing tale is that the biography was written by Alyosha, based on (sort of) a long talk the Starets gave shortly before his long-anticipated death.

The story is a fascinating account of how the Starets came to be a monk, with all the expected elements, from living a materialistic life to the visit of a mysterious and mystical stranger.

There were a couple of things that I found interesting about this section.

The first thing goes back to the reason for picking the book in the first place, which is Kurt Vonnegut’s observation that everything you need to know in life you could learn reading The Brothers Karamazov.

I’m not sure I have been able to completely see that in my reading of the book yet, but I did feel that this section spoke to our present times.

By interpreting freedom as the propagation and immediate gratification of needs, people distort their own nature, for they engender in themselves a multitude of pointless and foolish desires, habits, and incongruous stratagems. Their lives are motivated only by mutual envy, sensuality, and ostentation.

Is it me or does that feel like we’re looking in the mirror at ourselves.  More so than prescience, Doestovesky is latching onto a long-held theory of societal collapse:  see Rome.

Of course, it is an essential question.  Even David Foster Wallace more or less made this point in This is Water when he let the graduates of Kenyon College know that if they decided to worship something in the material world it would “eat them alive.”

Tying it back to the Inquisitor…who told Christ that he erred by giving people freedom.  In this section, we see the same question with a different answer.  The Inquisitor says Jesus should have sent them false miracles to essentially enslave them and to get them to ignore their baser desires.

In this section, we find the opposite answer, provided by the mysterious visitor.  The path to real “freedom” is to renounce materialism…the Starets asks who is freer, “the rich man in his isolation or the man liberated from the tyranny of material things and habits?”

I’m not very religious, but this is a compelling idea.  You don’t have to look around you very long to see the seeds of self-destruction in the way our defaults are set (h/t DFW).

The difference is that I don’t think you need to believe in a religion to get that freedom.

Of course, as time goes on we seem to make little progress toward this goal–or possibly we merely tread water.  The mysterious visitor makes this point to the Starets–brotherhood “grows ever weaker in the world.”

Now, the book of Revelation has its answer to how this will end up.  The Starets has this idea:

And how many ideas have there been on this earth, in the history of mankind, which, seemingly unthinkable even ten years previously, nevertheless when their mysterious time was ripe suddenly emerged and swept over the whole earth?

How many?  Not many.  But work with me here.  As unlikely as it might seem…and I’m with you…open yourself up to think the unthinkable.  What if we slide ever deeper in the direction where we appear to be sliding…could there not be a shift in consciousness that would take the energy of the descent and use it to funnel in the other direction?  And, given with how deeply-seated our flaws are, could it happen any other way?  Species only advance through extinction, not comfort.

Do you believe in religion?  Or do you believe in evolution?  Either way, it’s interesting.

One other little paradox.  It goes to Pascal’s Wager, which is the thing you hear all the time…if you believe in God and he doesn’t exist you are better off than if you don’t believe in God and he does.  Which, in my mind doesn’t count as true mystical fate and I think the Starets would agree.

Yet, he describes the idea of being good to your brother and as a stated reason says that when you come before God:

God too will look upon you all with more kindness, for if you have shown such mercy to them, how much more mercy will He show to you

Isn’t that just another Pascal’s Wager? It doesn’t seem worthy of the Starets.  Anyway, I thought that was an interesting paradox.

On we go.

Review: Powerhouse/Guilty Pleasure

CAA bookOne of my favorite guilty pleasures is stories of Hollywood people having badly.  Love The Player.  Love Entourage.  Always a good time.

I was therefore naturally attracted to Powerhouse by James Andrew Miller.  This is the story of the founding of Creative Artists, the ground-breaking literary agency.  (I also read Miller’s book on ESPN).  Miller’s trademark is writing oral histories, and he is extremely good at it.  There is commentary when needed, but it is used sparingly.  He doesn’t re-invent dialogue (I’m looking at you Bob Woodward), but takes the actual quotes and puts them under the name of the actual person who said it.  (It’s a little Studs Terkelish).

There’s a huge amount of skill in how these things are assembled.  He lets the reader play along.  For example, he will juxtapose two recollections which are 100% divergent, and let you, first, gawk, and then second decide for yourself who is right.  ProTip:  When you are faced with an employee saying that the work environment is shit and a CEO saying it was collegial and supportive, believe the employee

Anyway, the book has more than its share of bat-shit crazy people, starting with Michael Ovitz.  There are certainly others–this is Hollywood–but Ovitz is the king of the bat house.  Someone calls him a “maniac” and that might be the most perfect word for it.

Not only are the agents included, but many of the clients as well.

The only thing I didn’t expect to find was good guys.  Ron Meyer, a co-founder, is just a 100% good guy.  In fact, there are numerous testimonials of performers who credit CAA for their very career–people like David Letterman, Sarah Jessica Parker, Tom Hanks, Eva Longoria–and do so in such an emotional and effusive way that it blows away the caricature of the agent we usually see.

CAA’s innovation was to work across the functional lines of the company, allowing Eva Longoria (for example) to develop a film career along with extending her into other businesses.  Letterman had a similar story and there are others.  And they made a difference in the lives of a wide variety of artists and performers in a wide variety of fields.

One other thing.  I don’t know what I thought, but the agents in this book work incredibly hard.  It’s a 24/7 story, at least for the ones who excel.  There’s no downtime and little sleep.  I am not sure I have ever met any single person who works as hard as ALL these people do.  It’s a lifestyle decision.  Yes, you will get rich but you have to live like this to get it.  Nothing comes without trade-offs.

My recommendation is that if you like stories of Hollywood, this book is for you.  And if you like business dramas, this book is for you.