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JFK, FDR, SCOTUS and Other Great Reads From September

“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free” is often attributed to Frederick Douglass. Whoever said it, it’s eternally true. Maybe even more so in a year when so much of life is limited. Reading a good book is beyond the clutches of the coronavirus, and surveys say a lot of us are doing a lot more of it. Here’s what I’ve been up to, the last month or so.

“Jack: The Struggles of John F. Kennedy” by Herbert Parmet (1980) In this most unusual semi-biography, the author’s focus is on the private life of the young and rising JFK. Think of this book as taking more time with the offstage episodes and influences. It’s clear the author is playing it right down the middle—whether it flatters or diminishes Kennedy, it makes the book.

“The Case of the Stuttering Bishop” by Erle Stanley Gardner (1936) One of the earliest “Perry Mason” novels also became one of the earliest movies. Yet, it was late in the second season of the iconic TV series before they got around to adapting the story of a mysterious Australian prelate who’s seeking the legitimate heir to a fortune.

“The White Company” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1891) The author, and many critics, would tell you this short historical novel might be even better than his beloved “Sherlock Holmes series. Set against the 14th century backdrop of the “Hundred Years War”, it was popular at publication and almost forgotten now. I’d always been curious about it, found it in one of my Doyle “works” collections, and now I see why he was so proud of it.

“Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs the Supreme Court” by Jeff Shesol (2010) Get and read this book right now. You’ll have an advantage to what is sure to be one of the hottest political questions of the next few weeks, and probably the next couple of years. Can a president, who’s frustrated by the Supreme Court, restructure it to his advantage? And if he does, what happens to judicial independence and the three co-equal branches of the federal system? FDR failed as “court-packing” in the short term, but won his way in the long run.

“Set In Darkness” by Ian Rankin (2000) Rankin’s Inspector John Rebus is among my favorite fictional police detectives. Like most literary lawmen, he’s always coloring outside the lines. As the new Scottish Parliament is about to convene, a 20-year-old corpse complicates things. A more recent, political murder follows.

“The Eagle Has Flown” by Jack Higgins (1990) I’m a Higgins fan, and as this is the sequel to his landmark novel, “The Eagle Has Landed”, I’ve been looking forward to reading it. Like many sequels, it’s not as gripping and strong as its predecessor.

“The Innocent Man” by John Grisham (2006) His novels are broadly popular, because he can tell a story well and deal with matters of law authoritatively. Those skills serve him in this true story. Small town baseball phenom rises fast, crashes hard, and is on death row, protesting his innocence. I couldn’t stop reading this—even th0ugh I knew how it was going to end.

“Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus” by Samuel Eliot Morison (1942) The great historian not only did his research and delved into primary materials, but even sailed some of the explorer’s waters. He comes away with a Columbus who was far from perfect, but deserves better than “cancel culture” is doing to him at present.

“Seawitch” by Alistair MacLean (1977) The master of the disaster/terrorism novels, which also make terrific movies (“The Guns of Navarone”), MacLean’s subject here is a controversial oil platform targeted by rival oil barons. The author takes a lot of liberties (I think) with certain facts and details, but it’s great escapist suspense.

“Risk” by Dick Francis (1977) You’re always getting some British horse-racing in the plot with this author, whose storied life included WW2 service in the R.A.F and time as a champion steeplechase jockey. Here, Roland Britten is a parttime jump jockey and fulltime accountant, who keeps getting kidnapped even before he knows why.

“Nothing to Lose” by Lee Child (2008) The Jack Reacher character survives everything and fears nothing. In this novel, he’s literally and figuratively caught between Hope and Despair (two Colorado towns Child made up). Hope has some mysterious and forlorn visitors, and Despair is desperately protecting its secrets. I always love Reacher and these books, although the ending here feels very tacked-on and far-fetched. Up ahead these days may be Reacher’s greatest challenge: the author is retiring, and “handing off” the character and series to his younger brother. Shelves of literary awards, millions of global sales, and the Tom Cruise movie franchise. Nothing to lose?

Let me know what you think if we’ve shared any of these, and I’m always interested to hear what you’re reading.

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