Francis Bacon

The Book of the Week is “Francis Bacon, The Temper of A Man” by Catherine Drinker Bowen, published in 1963. This biography describes the life and times of an English aristocrat born in 1561.

When Bacon was in his late teens, his father died. His older brother got the lion’s share of the estate. Bacon was an arrogant debtor, always blaming others for his debt. Nevertheless, he continued to maintain the standard of living to which he was accustomed, thanks in part to his uncle– who was immensely wealthy with a global network of contacts and a collection of mansions with hundreds of rooms.

England in the 1570’s was a nation of four million fronted by Queen Elizabeth. It was still seen as a primitive backwater, “…her native tongue rude, her food and wines execrable… No less than eight hundred men, women and children were hanged each year… maybe for picking a pocket or stealing a sheep.” Deaths from disease were rampant.

The church elders at Trinity College, Cambridge– where Bacon started his higher education at thirteen years of age (not uncommon for his generation)– thought more truth could be found in faith than in knowledge.  Bacon, an extremely intellectually curious lad, a budding grand thinker and passionate, prolific writer, disagreed. “Beyond the first row of the House of Commons were men unlike Bacon, nonintellectuals who knew more of hounds, horses and crops than of Latin and philosophy.”

During Queen Elizabeth’s reign, the custom was to arrange a marriage between next door neighbors so as to enlarge the families’ estates and wealth. Bacon finally wed in 1606 to a fourteen year old girl. He was 45.

In 1620, Bacon published a fictional story whose plot mentioned many of the advances in humanity he anticipated, such as the existence of institutions of higher learning that would perform empirical research in the “hard” sicences. It was written in Latin so that all of Europe could read it.

Read the book to learn about the ups and downs of Bacon’s legal career, and how he became one of the first victims of the beginning of reform for England’s political system in the 1620’s.

Jerry Orbach, Prince of the City

The Book of the Week is “Jerry Orbach, Prince of the City” by John Anthony Gilvey, published in 2011. This is a biography of multi-genre actor Jerry Orbach.

In 1985, at 50 years old, Orbach chose to pursue roles in the fickle world of TV and movies to achieve fortune and fame, instead of a secure income on Broadway, where he would have much less fame. Luckily, he hit it big with the surprisingly successful 1987 movie Dirty Dancing. He received 1% of the gross revenue of the movie. After that, he started to play a slew of bit parts on TV. Thus, people recognized his face on the street, but did not know his name. That is, until he became a major character on “Law and Order” in autumn of 1992. Unfortunately, cancer cut his career short.

Read the book to learn more about Orbach’s fabulous career and personal relationships.

The Crusader

The Book of the Week is “The Crusader, The Life and Tumultuous Times of Pat Buchanan” by Timothy Stanley, published in 2012.

Born in 1938, Buchanan, a journalist, commentator, conservative-Republican political aide and presidential candidate with sometimes unexpectedly radical, contrarian views, was the third oldest in an eight-child family of Irish descent. They lived in the Catholic Georgetown section of Washington, D.C.

In the 1950’s, the American economy was so good that a man could support a ten-person household, and afford to hire a maid. Buchanan and his brothers would crash keg parties. “The Buchanan boys respected the cops who busted up their parties and chased them into the trees, and the next morning the gang lined up outside the confessional to lay it all before God.” Joe McCarthy was Buchanan’s hero.

Buchanan attended Columbia University School of Journalism in the late 1960’s when there was cultural snobbery– the school didn’t deign to teach TV journalism. He thought the civil rights movement was a Commie front. In 1972, he was horrified when Nixon had the U.S. reopen diplomatic relations with China to contain Soviet expansion, and signed an agreement with Mao Tse Tung saying China included the territory of Taiwan.

There is nothing new under the sun. In the presidential campaign of 1972, “The [media] made a genuine attempt in open democracy look like a freak show.” By the late 1970’s, Buchanan co-hosted political talk radio and TV shows. He specialized in ad-libs and putdowns — the kind where he loudly and obnoxiously interrupted callers and guests if he didn’t like what they were saying, or if he was losing an argument.

 In early 1990, Buchanan was a panelist at a forum of The National Interest magazine, which consisted of neoconservatives– people who felt that all countries of the world should adopt the American way– politically, economically, culturally and socially, etc. Buchanan disagreed with doing this, opining that democracy was right for the United States, but not for all nations of the world.

Buchanan wanted to help form a political group to protest the First Gulf War. It was theorized that three different groups conspired to push for war in the Middle East: the military industrial complex, neoconservatives, and the religious right.

 When Buchanan ran for president in 1996, he had changed his stand on certain issues. “Buchanan once saw public enemy number one as the socialists in Washington. Now, it was the corporations on Wall Street.” He asserted that America faced moral, social, economic and spiritual problems, and not only an income tax issue, as 1996 presidential candidate Steve Forbes contended. In Louisiana, Buchanan assumed an anti-vice stance, denouncing gambling, prostitution, drugs and the corruption they caused. He also wanted to blur the lines of separation of Church and State, and was pro-NRA. He was accused of palling around with racists. His communications method to achieve maximum voter reach was doing interviews on radio shows. Candidate Bob Dole went to shopping malls.

In late 1999, Buchanan switched to the Reform Party and traded fighting words with Donald Trump. The former appealed to the far left and the far right who agreed on “… war, trade, the slow decline of American capitalism into a kind of Walmart communism– materialist, greedy, heartless.” The Reform party attracted voters who were neo-hippies, people who believed in meditation, aliens and religious fundamentalism (took the Christian Bible literally) and gun enthusiasts. Buchanan “shot himself in the foot” by choosing a black female running mate.

In 2003, Buchanan opposed the war against Iraq and said the 9/11 attack on America was due to the nation’s meddling in the Middle East.

Read the book to learn more details of Buchanan’s decades-long political consulting, publishing and commentating activities, and their historical backdrop.

Extreme Measures

The Book of the Week is “Extreme Measures” by Martin Brookes. This is a biography of Francis Galton.

Galton was born in Birmingham in 1822, the youngest of seven children of a wealthy, prominent family in the Victorian Era. During his third year at Cambridge University, Galton had a mental breakdown. Ironically, he wrote, “…life seemed a game, played for the benefit of a select few, and from which he had been excluded…”

Galton had two major passions in his life:  a) exploring Africa, specifically Namibia– where he reported on navigation, land formations, climate, flora, fauna and its tribes– at the time, territory uncharted by Europeans; and b) collecting data on humans and what made them tick. He coined the expression “nature” or “nurture” to describe the roles played by genetics or the environment on people’s behavior and circumstances. He also labeled the statistical concepts of “regression” and “correlation.”

“Eugenics, his socio-scientific philosophy of the future would be built, according to Galton, on a solid foundation of knowledge, and exercised through a ruthless system of competitive examinations.”

Through the decades, other science projects of Galton’s included but were not limited to tea brewing, and a fingerprints database for law enforcement. Read the book to learn of the contents of the resulting publications, and how Galton seized upon the intellectual ideas of his generation, in a way that allowed him to achieve a minor footnote in the history books.

Michelle Obama

The Book of the Week is “Michelle Obama” by Peter Slevin, published in 2015. In this biography, the author writes that Michelle possesses the skills, talents and abilities of a politician. She is a great public speaker who appeals to blacks of all economic classes. However, the book also implies that she is looking forward to living a life free of the political spotlight and its attendant stresses.

Initially, the book describes the historical backdrop of Michelle’s generation as much as a general overview of her life, and then, Barack’s political life. She is a rare bird, having risen from humble beginnings in Chicago. She is what Malcolm Gladwell would describe as an “outlier.” She grew up in a loving but strict home environment where her parents had high expectations for her, and believed that success could be achieved through hard work. After receiving an elitist education, she became a community organizer. She was able to raise a family while managing her high-powered career despite her politician-husband’s frequent absences, because she got assistance from relatives and close friends, who also rose to prominence and prosperity.

It will be recalled that during the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack was attacked on various fronts– his beliefs, nationality and high school and college lifestyle. His skin color also evoked the controversial debate on the root causes of black disadvantage.

Michelle’s experience in community organizing came in handy on the campaign trail, enabling her to: exchange personal stories, make one-on-one connections, gather a following and inspire voters and volunteers to lead. Nevertheless, by 2012, Michelle had been characterized as elitist, socialist and militant by her critics.

Upon his election, Barack faced a difficult state of affairs. For, “The $236 billion surplus at the end of the Clinton years turned into a $1.3 trillion deficit under George W. Bush, thanks to substantial Republican-inspired tax cuts for the wealthy and a pair of wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, churning along without end.” Not to mention a recession. Meanwhile, as First Lady, Michelle was expected to hire and supervise staff to work in the the White House, where there are 36 rooms, including 11 bedrooms and 16 bathrooms.

Read the book to learn of the three major political initiatives Michelle launched:  Let’s Move, Joining Forces and Reach Higher, and the details of her life and times.

Trouble Man

The Book of the Week is “Trouble Man” by Steve Turner, published in 1998. This is a biography of Marvin Gaye. His father, a Pentecostal preacher for the House of God church, and violent drunk, was the third oldest of thirteen surviving siblings, born in October 1914.

Gaye was born in April 1939. His full name was Marvin Pentz Gaye II. “His Motown image was still that of a polite, handsome black man who believed in fidelity, success and family life… like his father, Marvin was misogynistic. The function of women, he believed, was to serve and obey men.”

Unfortunately, his life spiraled downward into drug addiction and promiscuity, not unlike another famous and popular peforming artist of a later generation– Richard Pryor. Read the book to learn the details.

UPClose: John Steinbeck

The Book of the Week is “UPClose: John Steinbeck” by Milton Meltzer, published in 2008. This is a brief account of Steinbeck’s life, in the context– superficially described– of the historical backdrop of his generation, including labor unrest, migrant farmworkers, political elections, The Great Depression, wars of various nations, and the then-literary taste of the United States. The author fails to mention stock market speculation as a cause of The Great Depression.

Steinbeck was born in 1902. At different times in his life, he was a journalist, novelist and short-story writer. He covered wars, wrote neutrally about unionization in America, and sympathetically about migrant farmworkers and their deplorable living conditions. When his novel “Of Mice and Men” was released, his publisher “… insisted John submit to the usual publicity projects for launching a new book: press conferences, interviews, book signings, cocktail parties.”

Read the book to get an overview of Steinbeck’s life and his times.

Wolf

The Book of the Week is “Wolf, The Lives of Jack London” by James L. Haley, published in 2010. This is the biography of an American author whose books and short stories were popular at the turn of the 20th Century.

London’s mother died giving birth to him in 1876. He was the eleventh and last child in the family, and the ninth to survive. Due to his stepmother’s gambling addiction, when he was ten years old, he was forced to work at various jobs, such as paperboy, ice wagon boy and pinsetter at a bowling alley, to lend financial support to his family. He quit school after eighth grade.

London was determined to escape a life of hard manual labor via writing, which paid significantly better. In 1898, “… to the average American indoctrinated with the ideals of patriotism– socialists, communists, and anarchists had all become lumped together into a bomb throwing vaguely Slavic cartoon that was inaccurate, and out of which they needed to be educated.” When he tasted success in publishing, ironically, he cruised the globe in a $30,000 yacht, taking with him one hundred books, a phonograph and five hundred records, but his writings were of exploitation by robber barons who were “…oblivious to the havoc they were wreaking in the lives of the have-nots.”

Read the book to learn more of London’s adventures stealing oysters, riding the rails, serving as a war correspondent and socialist lecturer, as well as in the sexual realm and personal relationships.

You Might Remember Me

The Book of the Week is “You Might Remember Me, The Life and Times of Phil Hartman” by Mike Thomas, published in 2014. This biography has a spoiler in the introduction that ruins the suspense of the ending, if the reader is unfamiliar with Hartman’s life.

Hartman was a multi-talented actor. He did eight seasons on Saturday Night Live, voiced various characters on the animated TV show “The Simpsons” and appeared in various movies. A middle child with seven siblings, he had a difficult childhood.  He thought that people are filled with rage, but many do not know how to express it in healthy ways. As an aside (unrelated to Hartman), if the truth makes one angry, one is living a lie.

Read the book to learn of a major incident involving Hartman in the spring of 1998. His brother John kept a hounding press away from the family. His brother Paul explained why “If it bleeds, it leads”: “People are miserable, and when they see more misery than they’re experiencing [themselves], it makes them feel good.”

Molly Ivins

The Book of the Week is “Molly Ivins” by Bill Minutaglio and W. Michael Smith, published in 2009. This is a biography of Molly Ivins– witty, brash journalist.

Born in 1944, Ivins was someone whom Malcolm Gladwell would characterize as an “outlier.” Her daddy was a social climber in the oil industry in Texas. The family was good friends with the political Bush family. They lived in the wealthy area of River Oaks. Ivins and her older sister and younger brother went sailing on her father’s yacht and their house had a swimming pool.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, female journalists were relegated to writing about food, the country club and fashion. Except for Ivins. She did years-long stretches writing about urban issues and politics for newspapers in Minneapolis, New York and Austin. While at the New York Times, she wrote, “I am becoming a Yankees fan, that’s how low I’ve sunk.”

Ivins was morally repulsed by the conflicts journalists had. She thought objectivity in reporting was virtually useless. Her irreverent, wickedly funny articles, frequent participation in the nicotine- and alcohol-fueled social culture of journalists, and her generosity in her personal life earned her a large following.

Read the book to learn the details of how Ivins achieved her fame and eventual fortune.