book round-ups, Recommendsday

Recommendsday: JFK-adjacent books

Last month, I wrote a post of Vanderbilt-adjacent books after picking Vanderbilt as my Book of the Week. And while I was writing it, I realised that I’ve actually read quite a lot of books that could be described as JFK-adjacent at various points, so now I’ve finished The Editor, here is a look at the best of them – and believe me when I say I’ve read some bad ones too!

The graves of John F Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy and their children who died in infancy.

Lets start with the non-fiction. And I’m going to start by saying that whether some of these will work for you will depend on how much you already know about the Kennedy clan. There are loads of biographies of each of the various members of the family, many of them really quite long. If you want a straight up biography of the man himself, the one I have read is Robert Dalek’s An Unfinished Life: John F Kennedy, which is long, but it is only one volume and it does give you a sense of what drove him and what the family was like. His dad comes across as being a particular type of nightmare – with massive ambitions for his kids that they could never live up to and that coloured all their relationships with other people as well. Of the non-politics members of the family, Kathleen Kennedy is possibly the most interesting – she had the family charisma and charm which she used to great effect while living in London while her father was the Ambassador. She married the heir to the Duke of Devonshire – who was then killed in combat. And she herself was dead long before her older brother became President. Paula Byrne wrote a biography of her called Kick – I think Byrne perhaps liked her subject a bit too much to grapple with some of the later parts of her life in depth, but it’s really good on most of her life and for what it was like to be one of the “other” Kennedys. I enjoyed it enough that it’s still on my bookshelves five years after I read it. There’s also (obviously) details about Jack and Jackie in Kate Andersen Brower’s books about the White House and its residents – I mentioned First Women the other week, but The Residence has a lot of detail about Jackie’s alterations and redecoration of the White House if that sort of thing interests you. You probably only need to pick one of them though – at least if you’re only reading for the Kennedy bits or if you’re planning to read them back to back!

There are also plenty of group biographies of the family out there but they do tend a bit towards the superficial – because there are a lot of Kennedy kids and thus a lot of Kennedy spouses! I read The Kennedy Wives by Amber Hunt and David Batcher around eight years ago – and even at that point I felt like I knew quite a lot of the detail already. But it was good for what happened to them all in the aftermath of JFK’s death – which is often where a lot of books stop. You will likely come away with the idea that the Kennedy men were hell to live with but that it is possible that some of the wives at least knew a little bit about what they were letting themselves in for. J Randy Tamborelli has also written about Jackie, Ethel and Joan – the wives of the political Kennedys – but it’s much older and I’ve not managed to get hold of it (yet). I have however read his biography of Marilyn Monroe – The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe – which had new (at the time in 2009) information about her relationship with not just JFK, but with Robert Kennedy and Pat Kennedy Lawford (and her husband Peter Lawford)

Dealey Plaza in Dallas, site of the assassination of JFK

On the fiction side of things, I’ve read several novels which feature Jackie Kennedy’s post JFK life, none of which I feel able to recommend – except if you want to be really annoyed! Most of them focus on the triangle between Jackie, Aristotle Onassis and Maria Callas. I can however recommend Steven Rowley’s The Editor, which as I mentioned at the top I finished last week. His latest book The Guncle was a BotW last summer and I went looking for what else he had written and of the two options this jumped out at me. Set in the early 1990s, it’s about an aspiring writer whose first novel is bought by an editor at a major publisher – an editor who turns out to be Jackie Kennedy Onassis. The book follows him as he tries to works on his book with her help but also as she encourages him to work on his relationship with his own mother. She’s not the main character – and she’s a very enigmatic figure – so it’s not trying to see inside her head if that idea is something that worries you about novels about real people.

And finally there’s my favourite of the novels I’ve read about the Kennedys – The Importance of being Kennedy by Laurie Graham. Those of you who’ve been around a while will know how much I like Graham’s writing style and her books featuring real people. This was her next book after my beloved Gone With the Windsors and is another fictional person inserted into a real situation, in this case Nora Brennan, a nursery maid who takes a job with a family in Brookline Massachusetts that turns out to give her a ringside seat for history. She arrives when Joe jnr is a toddler and the book follows her through until Kathleen’s funeral. It’s sad when it needs to be, but it’s also witty and fun to read. If you’re only going to read one book from this post, maybe make it this one.

Happy Humpday!

Book of the Week, holiday reading, new releases, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Traitor King

So as you can see from yesterday’s post, I read a lot of stuff while we were on holiday, so I had plenty of choice, and a lot of the stuff from that list will pop up somewhere else on the blog. But for today’s pick I’m going with Traitor King – which I spotted in Waterstones in hardback the other week and really wanted, but couldn’t justify buying two hardbacks – as I was also buying a signed hardback of the new Judith Mackerell. But when I spotted the airport version (that’s the giant sized paperback, but it’s still a paperback and not a hardback so easier to read) in the WH Smiths at Luton, I was delighted to pick myself up a copy as my holiday book.

Slightly battered copy of Traitor King - its been to Spain and back as well as to the beach in the beach bag!

Andrew Lownie’s Traitor King examines the life of the former Edward VIII did in the years following his abdication. As the title suggests (I mean it doesn’t have a question mark after Traitor King, so I think it’s fair to say that) what Lownie says he did was a lot of scheming and intrigue against the interests of his former Kingdom in the interests of himself and his wife both in terms of their position and their financial gain.

A lot has been written about the events leading up to the abdication, but not so much about what happened after – or at least not in as much detail as this. Lownie starts with the day of the abdication and moves on from there – assuming that the reader will know what has happened, which obviously I did because I’ve read a lot of stuff – fiction and non-fiction about this whole sitauation. Most of what I have read has suggested that the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (as they became) were as the blurb says “naïve dupes” of the Germans in the run up to and the early stages of the Second World War, but Lownie’s thesis is that they knew what they were doing and were active participants themselves. He draws together threads of stories that I’ve come across before – the closeness of Wallis to von Ribbentrop, the rather dubious Charlie Bedaux and the trip to visit Hitler among other things – and comes to the conclusion that this was part of a concerted effort by the couple to conspire against British interests to try and benefit themselves. Unfortunately for Edward – and fortunately for the UK – Edward was not that bright and his plans were spotted by the various arms of the British establishment that were keeping an eye on him (which range from his friends, to his secret service detail, to the embassy staff and more) and documented. This is the documentation that Lownie uses to make his case – and he’s got the footnotes to prove it! The book also touches on the more usual aspects of the Windsor’s married life – ie were they actually in love, was it worth it and did Wallis learn sex tricks in when posted with her first husband in China – and draws some conclusions about them that I won’t spoil here, but the main focus is on the macchinations.

And it’s a very enjoyable and interesting read. As regular readers of this blog will know, I am very interested in the history of the first half of the Twentieth Century and the abdication crisis is one of the key events of it for Britain, outside the two World Wars. I’ve read a lot on the subject and this added some new perspectives and interpretations of events that I have read a fair bit about before. It’s got an extensive set of references – whether it’s the author’s own research or references to other authors working in the field – and it’s also got a really good further reading list at the back, which has a fiction list featuring my beloved Gone with the Windsors, as well as the nonfiction stuff. Speaking of Laurie Graham’s novel, I don’t think you can read that and come away with it with a particularly high opinion of the couple, but it would seem from this that Graham understated the case when it came to their meanness and the way they treated their friends and their staff. Despite the couple’s efforts to establish their relationship as the romance of the century, public opinion at the time was mostly against them and reading about it in the history books it is hard to draw a lot of favourable conclusions about them – even before you come to the Nazi connection.

I’m very pleased with my decision to buy this, it’s about to be sent out on loan to my mum and when it returns, it will undoubtedly find it’s way on to the Keeper Shelf. If you’ve got an interest in the period, or in the history of the British Monarchy, or even on stories about awful people, this is probably one you’ll be interested in. You’ll probably do best with it if you have a working knowledge of the abdication crisis to start you off with, but it does give you the basics so it’s not essential. I’m off to try and get hold of some of the other books Lownie mentions at the end, as well as his previous book about the Mountbattens.

As mentioned at the top, this is a hardback if you’re not going to an airport anytime soon, but it’s in the bookshops (the Waterstones I found it in isn’t a massive one in the grand scheme of things, especially as they have their top floor shut at the moment for Covid safety reasons) and Foyles have lots of options for click and collect. And of course it’s on Kindle and Kobo as well – but because it’s a hardback, the ebook versions are fairly expensive at the moment – more than £7 as I write this.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Blitzed

So, you may have noticed from yesterday’s WiB that I didn’t finish that many books last week. But that was not a problem when it came to picking a BotW, because one of the books that I did finish was Norman Ohler’s Blitzed.

It’s only in hardback at the moment I’m afraid, but I’m just happy it’s been translated at all.

Ohler’s thesis is that large amounts of drugs were consumed by Nazi troops as they steamrollered through Europe, that drugs were equally consumed by people on the homair front and that during the latter stages of the war (from around 1941 onwards) Hitler himself was dependent on hard drugs. Ohler backs up his assertions with primary source research using documents held in archives in Germany and in America and makes a persuasive case.

Now before I go any further, I need to say that although I have a history degree, I have, in the main, avoided study of Nazi Germany because I find it too unbearably terrible. Luckily my school stopped studying WW2 Germany at A-Level the year before I started sixth form* and at university I managed to avoid Twentieth Century history for all but one term** so I am no expert.

I found Ohler’s book incredibly readable and very well researched. It’s an appealing idea. The Nazis were off their heads on drugs. That’s why they did it. It’s comforting and reassuring – it was the drugs which made them do it – and means that you don’t have to worry about what you would have done in their place. I don’t think this is what Ohler is trying to say. In the case of Hitler he’s very specific that it doesn’t explain all of Hitler’s actions – just enabled him to maintain and continue his rule. As for the man on the street, or the soldier in a panzer regiment, the drugs enabled them to keep going for longer than otherwise. So I suppose what I’m saying is that this book shouldn’t be seen in isolation or viewed as the whole story. That would be far too simplistic. But it has new ideas and research I haven’t heard about before and is worth reading, if only so that you know what the historians are arguing about.  Because they are going to argue about this.

Get your copy of Blitzed from Amazon, Waterstones or Foyles or on Kindle or Kobo.  The paperback is out in May – pre-order on Amazon. Or if you don’t want to read the whole thing, Dan Snow interviewed Norman Ohler on his History Hit Podcast and it was reviewed in the December issue of Literary Review (subscription needed).

Happy Reading!

*We did Tudor England, the French Revolution, France 1814-1914 and the Italian Risorgimento which was much more to my taste.

** the second term of my first year, where my seminar tutor was a German Post Grad whose thesis was on “images of death in 20th Century Germany”.