Non-fiction books for season’s gifts – or just for you by Marjorie Arons-Barron

You’re probably as sick of the daily news cycle as I am, despite the satisfaction of seeing the progress of the Mueller investigation.  Still, I highly recommend House of Trump, House of Putin,  by former Boston Magazine editor Craig Unger.  This well researched tome documents a Donald Trump who is a wholly owned asset of Vladimir Putin.  Starting in the early ‘90’s, the kleptocracy in the former Soviet Union, having raided formerly state-owned enterprises and skimmed resources,  needed places outside Russia to place their money.  At about the same time, with the demise of his empire (Trump shuttle, three Trump casinos, metastatic Trump real estate empire, including the Plaza Hotel), Trump was an estimated $2 billion in debt and down to his last $1.6 million. Real estate was the perfect place for the Russians to park their ill-gotten gains.  By paying cash and not borrowing from banks (with all their pesky disclosure requirements), the Russian mafia was a natural partner for the Donald. Vladimir Putin was  also involved with the Russian mob. The Trumps, pere and fils, already had a working relationship with organized crime in the construction business.  It was a natural fit.  Ah, if we only had seen Trump’s tax returns during his candidacy.  During trips to Russia to explore opportunities to build Trump Towers there, his “social” activities were duly monitored and recorded according to KGB (now FSB) custom, all of which helped Russians intrude in our electoral process and ultimately perhaps change the course of our history.

If you’re intent on avoiding Trump but still want a well-researched and informative piece of non-fiction, try  Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser, an exhaustive biography of the writer of the Little House on the Prairie series and her family. But, while the narrative focuses on the Ingalls then Wilder families and Laura’s relationship with her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, also a prodigious but controversial writer, Prairie Fires is the story of the hard-scrabble existence of the earliest settlers in rural America. The reader is dropped into the lives of pioneers settling in Minnesota, South Dakota, Missouri, and Kansas at the end of the 19th century, when government policy was to displace Native Americans to facilitate the opening of new territories. We come to understand the shortcomings of the Homestead Act, which gave opportunity seekers access to their own land, often acreage that couldn’t sustain farming, and the travails of drought, wind storms, fire, insects, blizzards, and grinding poverty that made their lives gritty and often impossible. Wilder supplemented their meager farm income by writing articles for farmer’s magazines and women’s journals until, after the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, she started writing children’s books. Adult readers came to love them as well. Her writing helped shape the mythology of American self-reliance and its emphasis on human dignity, determination, faith, and optimism. In that spirit, Wilder and Lane became fierce critics of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal for what they saw as undermining individualism and self-reliance. Well, yes, it does resonate with contemporary red state politics, but at least it’s Trumpless.  Thanks to Peg Scully for recommending it to me.

Two sports books that are pleasurable reads.

The Game: Harvard, Yale, and America in 1968 by  George Howe Colt.  Perhaps you remember the newspaper headline “Harvard Beats Yale 29-29.”  This entertaining book tells in great detail the story of that legendary game, called by many afficionados the greatest college football team in history. Both teams were undefeated, but Yale had rolled its opponents all season, and Harvard had won by far narrower margins.  Harvard was undoubtedly the weaker team and significantly behind for the first three quarters of the game. Many of the Harvard fans, including loyal alums, had left Harvard Stadium and headed for home. Yale was still ahead by 16 points in the last 46 seconds of the game, when, with grit and determination, Harvard tied it up. Both teams were undefeated for the season. Yale viewed it as a humiliating loss; for Harvard, it was a triumph. But the book is about so much more.  It was, after all the Vietnam War era, and the campus was split by those who initially saw it as their patriotic duty to support the war, and those ardent opponents, many of whom ended up occupying University Hall, the administration building.  The book is a splendid history of the era, what the game meant to the participants and what happened to the players, coaches and college administrators as their lives went in different directions in the wake of the social, cultural and intellectual upheavals of 1968.

Finally, there’s Mark Leibovich’s newest book Big Game: The NFL in Dangerous Times  in which he skewers the culture of the National Football League as acutely as he rearranged the anatomy of politicians in his last best-seller This Town.  And guess what? The men of the NFL, especially the billionaire owners, are as petty, hypocritical, testosterone-driven and narcissistic as many of our national political leaders. Leibovich also explores the relationship between many of the owners and Donald Trump, each craving the adulation of the other. In fact, Leibovich posits, if Trump had been allowed to buy the Buffalo Bills when he wanted to, he might not have needed the toy of the Presidency. As always, Leibovich allows colorful characters like Patriots owner Bob Kraft, Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys and Atlanta Falcons magnate Arthur Blank to reveal themselves by their voices, dress and mannerisms. In the process, the author’s candor about his own lifelong love of the Patriots and TB12 exposes the fans’ craziness. A great behind-the-scenes look at the pro-football-dominant culture.  Ultimately, the book fails as an escape from politics, but it is great fun.

Next time, a better escape from politics into fiction.