Master of the Senate, by Robert Caro

Summary: some Johnsons know how to wield power

Master of the Senate is the third volume of Robert Carol’s massive biography of Lyndon Johnson. Like the previous volumes, it is something of a history of his times as well as being a biography of Johnson.

So, Johnson is absent for large chunks of this biography as it introduces us to crusading economist Leland Olds, Hubert Humphrey, doyen of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, Richard Russell, the leader of the Senate’s virulently racist Southern caucus, and, of course, Martin King.

Among other things this book is a study in power. It is fascinating to learn how Johnson transformed the hitherto irrelevant role of Senate majority leader into an office of incredible power.

There was little personally attractive about Lyndon Johnson. He was a bully, an serial adulterer, and a racist. But he understood power and he wanted to be president. So to obtain a viable presidential candidacy, Johnson destroyed Olds to keep his financial backers in the oil industry happy, and cosied up to Russell and his determined efforts to maintain state sanctioned terrorism against the black citizens of the United States across the South.

Caro observes in the course of this book, as he has in previous volumes, that Johnson’s life is composed of light and dark threads. However where Johnson’s instinct for compassion conflicted with his personal advancement, then his selfish interests won out.

But, in 1956 as he made his first attempt at the Democratic nomination, Johnson discovered that the support of corrupt oil interests and racist bigots was not enough. He needed support in the North as well. And Johnson revolted Liberal Democrats. So he had to do something to appeal to them. This led him to championing what became the 1957 Civil Rights Act, after first gutting it of all the substantive portions that Russell and his ghouls objected to. The negotiations and manoeuvring towards this end provide a gripping climax to this volume, as compelling as anything in The West Wing or The Wire.

Caro argues that ultimately Johnson was by far the most important civil rights president since Lincoln. It is a remarkable aspect of his story how such an extraordinary narcissist was led towards this achievement beginning with his overweening and selfish hunger for power.

Glass, by Emily Cooper

Summary: an exquisite collection reflecting on life and loss

“I buy a slide projector in a charity shop/ another woman is after it/ I avoid eye contact” (Glass).

Antje Krog, in her remarkable book on the South African Truth Commission, Country of My Skull, suggested that finding a new way to say, “I love you, but you don’t notice me,” is a measure of a fine poet in Western society. In her book, Glass, Emily Cooper finds new ways of describing this and many other aspects of ordinary life, from heartbreak to cooking to bereavement.

Her poem, Notions of Sex, a poignant description of determined recovery from romantic disappointment, is also overlaid with echoes of the violence and threat that women and girls have to endure. Her poem Old Lives is a mediation on the regrets associated with paths not taken, the repercussions of very real grief, and lonely optimism: “Open the window and/ Drink a glass of cheap French brandy/ To bring in the New Year.”

With her Northern accented ponderings on life through the prisms of some of the quainter corners of our common European homeland, eel cookery, and the myths of ancient Greece, Cooper shows an echo of Seamus Heaney. But her voice is still all her own and she is an exquisite successor to that giant.

The Women of Troy, by Pat Barker

Summary: continuing the story of Briseis, perhaps with diminishing returns

By any measure The Women of Troy is a fine novel. I just have a niggling wish Pat Barker hadn’t written it.

This book is set in the days following the fall of Troy, but before the Greek fleet has embarked for home, it’s departure delayed by inclement weather. However It adds little to the peerless Silence of The Girls, Barker’s retelling of the Iliad and Euripides’ Trojan Women. Instead, borrowing heavily from Sophocles’ play, Antigone, The Women of Troy deals with the conflicts arising around the burial of Priam. While gripping it has few of the arresting insights on war and slavery that made its prequel so powerful.

So, there’s a bit of a Jaws 2 vibe to the whole thing. Still, paradoxically, I will be waiting with bated breath for a further sequel: the character of Briseis is a superb creation and I feel invested in her well-being now.

Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Summary: in the tradition of War and Peace but maybe better

Half of a Yellow Sun is an incredible book. A sort of a 20th century War and Peace but, for me, carrying a heftier emotional wallop than Tolstoy’s masterpiece.

Thirteen year old Ugwu gets a job as “houseboy” for Odenigbo, a lecturer at Nsukka University in Nigeria. There he meets Olanna, Odenigbo’s posh, beautiful girlfriend. He doesn’t quite realise for some time, as he continues with his household duties, that the two have effectively adopted him as part of the family, ensuring that he goes to school, planning university for him, and, when they can, taking care of Ugwu’s blood relations.

Into the orbit of this non-traditional family, comes Olanna’s non-traditional sister Kainene, a business executive, and her English boyfriend, Richard, an academic drawn to this part of West Africa by his love of its art. None of these adults receives much approval from their other relatives and parts of their communities for their choice of lovers and the tensions that these bring allows for particular insight into the diversity of Nigerian cultures and British and Nigerian attitudes towards each other.

But all of these prejudices pale in the face of the bloodbath of civil war that engulfs Nigeria and leads to the establishment of the breakaway state of Biafra.

When I was growing up Biafra was still a by-word for famine and the punchline for knuckleheaded racist jokes. With Half of a Yellow Sun, Adichie describes the horror of the war there through the eyes of this small group of young people.

As well as the specific details and dynamics of that half-forgotten war, Half of a Yellow Sun tells the universal story of the impact of war on ordinary people, shattering life and love and brutalising and breaking even the best of people.

It is a masterpiece and wholly deserved of its reputation as one of the greatest books of the 21st century.