If I’m not Blogging, I must be Reading ($20.74)

1. OK, here’s the plot: We know that a crime, a murder, has taken place. There’s been an arrest. There’s been a trial. There’s been a conviction. And a lengthy sentence. We know all that, but there is one thing that we are not certain of: did the convicted individual commit the crime? We just don’t know.

In spite of this, we have no sympathy for the defendant. There are many reasons for this, including his personality, and many of his prior activities. We also know that he hated the victim. Moreover that he said, in conversation and in writing, that he intended to kill the victim. The victim was his father.

But there were no witnesses, no evidence left behind. And there was at least one other possible perpetrator, a man who, unfortunately, has died of a chronic illness just before the trial began. And what about wanting to kill your father, threatening him, fighting with him, making clear your intention? Should that be a crime, even if you didn’t actually commit the murder?

Add to this a most dysfunctional family, three brothers and a father (all of whom appear, to themselves at least, to be competing for the same woman, and for control of family assets that might, or might not, even exist). Add even more – the servants, the peasants, the wealthy young ladies, the “loose woman”, the ascetic monks. And, yes, the Devil, God, and the Grand Inquisitor.

And there you have it – “The Brothers Karamazov” – a thriller, a mystery, a psychological novel, and religious quest. A picture of Old Russia.

2. American poet Anne Sexton had one hell of a life, culminating in her suicide when she was in her mid-40s. Born into a dysfunctional family, she developed early signs of mental illness, which after her own marriage and the birth of her two children, became more and more extreme. For over 20 years, she was in and out of mental institutions, she was on medication after medication, and constantly getting therapy. And, time and time again, until the final time, she attempted suicide.

Her own marriage was a mess. It lasted over twenty years, but was continually punctuated by incidences of domestic violence. Her husband, usually when drunk, would sock her in the jaw with his full fist; he would push her to the wall, and knock her head back against it – again and again. Then, he would have remorse, and apologize, and treat her.

Throughout all of this, she became a highly respected poet, spilling out her problems in her work (I think most of her readers did not really see the now apparent horror behind her poetry), winning awards, becoming friends with the other great American poets of her day. How much did they suspect.

Their daughter, Linda Gray Sexton, wrote her memoirs, “Searching for Mercy Street”, a memoir of her life with her mother (and, tangentially, her father).

It’s a miracle that Linda Gray Sexton survived at all – she has written several novels, she has a husband and two teenage sons, and lives on the West Coast. I assume she is surviving as well as the rest of us.

She also writes well – and it would appear that there was nothing out of bounds for her in writing about her mother’s life, and her family’s problems.

Let’s talk about the domestic violence. Linda Sexton seems to blame her mother, more than her father, for all of the smacking around. She believes that her father would never have hit her mother had her mother not baited him, dared him, egged him on, wanting to be beaten and then to be comforted. Now, I wasn’t there, but I do find this a bit hard to believe. And, even if it is true that her father was baited by her mother, since when is this an excuse for violence?

It’s an awful story, but a very well written and readable book. But where does the truth all lie? No pun intended.

3. Thomas Griffith was a Time Magazine editor, back in the day. One of his fellow Time journalists was the well known Theodore H. (Teddy) White. In 1995, Griffith published “Harry & Teddy”, about the relationship between Teddy White and his long time boss, Henry Luce, whose publishing company owned Time and Life.

White worked for Luce for many years. During most of this time, they got along very well, but all good things must come to an end, and their relationship hit hard times. The subject was China.

Before he wrote his famous “Making of the President” series, White’s concentration was on China, as it had been since he was a Harvard undergraduate studying under well know scholar John King Fairbank. The Luce organization hired him to report from China.

During World War II, when White first went to China, a large portion of the country was occupied by the Japanese. The Chiang Kai-Shek government had been pushed back to Chungking, and the still nascent Chinese Communist party leaders were hiding out in Yunan Province. Luce was a fervent supporter of Chiang; White, living with Chiang, became convinced that Chiang was incompetent and corrupt and was not the answer for China. For a while, he believed that the Communists might be a better answer, if only the Americans would work with them.

In spite of these differences (and in point of fact, both Luce and White seemed to realize that their initial preferences were wrong, and that in fact there was no right answer at the time for China).

Like everyone else, both White and Luce were flawed human beings, with weaknesses as well as their evident strengths. “Harry & Teddy” does a remarkable job, I think, of looking at them in an even-handed way, respectfully commending their careers while pointing out their shortcomings, all the while giving insight into the workings of Luce’s publishing empire (including Luce’s philosophy of the news, his anti-Communism and the time that Whittaker Chambers worked on the magazine), China during and immediately after the war, and White’s relationship with John F. Kennedy, which led to the first of his “Making of the President” books.

Well written, the book is worth reading.


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