6 Books to read before you die: Part 1

Demons by: Fyodor Dostoevsky

The Brothers Karamazov might have been Dostoevsky’s best work, but Demons speaks most directly to the inscrutable nature of the man’s genius. You slog through 100 pages, 200, 300, 400, wondering if anything is going to happen; then, in the last couple pages, you get punched in the gut. Really, I felt a physical revulsion reading the last chapter of this book – a chapter Dostoevsky didn’t include in the original manuscript. Art happens, eh?

As always, my great fascination with the Russian heavyweights of the 19th century is in their uncanny ability to transcend 150 years and illustrate the stubborn, unchanging idiocy of the human nature.

A common criticism of Demons is that its characters are too often transparent stand-ins for moral or political ideas. Well excuzes-moi! but I think Dostoevsky’s warning about mankind’s dangerous susceptibility to extremist ideas seems to be. . . rather relevant – current times considered.

Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn by: Evan S. Connell

A fascinating character study and a clear-eyed look at a very ugly period in our history. Connell really explores the natives’ perspective instead of just defaulting to the cliché of the virtuous savage. There were atrocities committed in tribal beefs that were every bit as nasty as anything the white man could dream up. And contrary to popular legend, it wasn’t just the white men who left the plains littered with wasted, rotting buffalo carcasses. Before we swell up with honky pride, however, check out the exploits of the “bloody 3rd” cavalry regiment – real brave boys if hacking up women and children then taking their scalps is your thing.

Custer himself comes off as a jingoistic, hubris-drunk clown. Bad times, man.

The Years of Lyndon Johnson by: Robert A. Caro

Okay, so it’s actually a five book series; The Path to Power, Means of Ascent, Master of the Senate, The Passage of Power, and a book forthcoming. This thing is a fucking tour de force. I’ve never read anything so exhaustively researched and well reported. And Caro does it all with a deft storyteller’s touch. Good Uncle Bob does nothing less than create the template for understanding a man we never knew and events we didn’t live through. To call Caro a disinterested biographer misses the mark; he is completely interested – bent on extracting the TRUTH. Instead of reciting facts textbook style, the author invites you on a voyage of discovery. When the biography is complete, you both stand back, behold the behemoth and say, “shit Christ, what of this monster of a man, after all?” Johnson used to force his aids to stand by and take dictation while he moved his bowels. He referred to his own johnson as “Big Jumbo”. He also rammed through congress the first significant piece of civil rights legislation in U.S. history.

My favorite story is of Johnson’s run for the senate in 1949, where he employed a shockingly brazen system of grassroots bribery; perfected, if not invented, the art of the smear campaign; hopped around Texas day and night in an experimental prop-plane, stumping in dirt farm fields, refusing to trim his itinerary, even while kidney stones were cutting up his insides and raising a fever that damn-near killed him. Ultimately, he had to just flat-out steal the election. It took an injunction from Johnson’s buddy, Abe Fortas (who Johnson later appointed to the supreme court) to keep sealed a West Texas ballot box that held just enough voter signatures to put Lyndon over the top – all of them written in an identical hand, many of them from folks who were legally dead. Final vote tally: LBJ – 494,191 Coke Stevenson – 494,104. Are you good at math? Are those numbers close? Those numbers are fucking fraudulent, buddy. When LBJ greeted his fellow senators that session, he smilingly introduced himself as "Landslide Lyndon". No shit.

Oh man, I’m getting all heated up. The good word makes me howl and like, shout it from the rooftops. We’ll have to do books 4-6 in part II.


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