In Review

Books of the Week: JFK Volume 1 - 1917-1956, Men Who Hate Women, Summerwater

This week’s three must-read books

This week’s must-read titles include the first volume of Fredrik Logevall’s biography of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Laura Bates’s “brilliantly fierce” Men Who Hate Women and Sarah Moss’s Summerwater, a tale which expertly captures the “agonised tenderness of family life”.

Book of the weekJFK Volume 1: 1917-1956 by Fredrik Logevall 

This book – the first of a two-volume life of John Fitzgerald Kennedy – is “the most compelling biography I have read in years”, said Max Hastings in The Sunday Times. It offers a peerless portrayal of a man of prodigious intelligence and charm who was “always in a hurry”. Born in 1917, JFK was the second of nine children fathered by the “horrible” Joseph Kennedy, a Wall Street tycoon-turned-ambassador who became notorious in the late 1930s for arguing that Britain was “not worth saving” from Hitler. As a boy, John was sickly and “academically lazy”, and at first his “much less intelligent” elder bother, Joe Jr, was “earmarked to become the Kennedy president”. But when Joe Jr was killed during a wartime bombing mission (one of four Kennedy siblings to meet violent early deaths), Joe Snr transferred his ambitions to his next son. 

The Second World War takes up a large proportion of this volume, and rightly so, because it “made JFK who he was”, said Andrew Preston in The Spectator. As aide to his father in London, he witnessed the “Nazis’ march to war” and was “in the Westminster gallery” to hear the defiant speeches of his hero, Winston Churchill. The War also offered evidence of his extraordinary physical courage, said David Runciman in The Guardian. Having signed up, despite his father’s objections to the conflict, JFK was in charge of a motorised torpedo boat that was sunk by the Japanese in 1943, killing two crew members. To find help, he “set out on his own in shark-infested waters” and eventually brought all ten survivors back alive. This incident, “much burnished in the retelling”, provided a launchpad for his entrance into politics. Logevall’s book is a “riveting” portrait of a life propelled by “valour”, as well as “vanity and greed”. 

Although Logevall makes his subject “amiably human”, he can be “lenient” in his judgements, said Peter Conrad in The Observer. He lets JFK off lightly for “some shocking marital truancy” – such as the time in 1956 when, with his wife Jackie pregnant, he went sailing on the French Riviera with a “flotilla of bikini-clad nymphets”. Even when Jackie suffered a stillbirth, he insisted on remaining on holiday, only “scuttling home” when an adviser told him: “If you want to run for president you’d better get your ass back to your wife’s bedside.” Logevall ends his narrative “at a cliff edge”: JFK’s decision that same year to aim for the White House in 1960. I hope a second “massive” volume follows soon: it is “bound to be enthralling”.

Viking 816pp £30; The Week Bookshop £23.99 (incl. p&p)

Men Who Hate Women by Laura Bates 

In this “brilliantly fierce and eye-opening book”, Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, investigates the “cult of male supremacy”, said Steven Poole in The Guardian. Her research takes her into some truly “hellish” pockets of the internet – places where it’s considered normal to glorify rape and murder. The “manosphere”, as Bates discovers, consists of several distinct, but interrelated, communities. Perhaps “most sinister” are “incels” – or “involuntary celibates”, said Mia Levitin in the FT. Enraged at being denied the sex which they consider their due, they “propose controlling women’s sexual autonomy through rape, sexual slavery or sex redistribution”. More “socially accepted” are Men’s Rights Activists, who are interested in “battling women” by seeking, for example, to defund domestic violence shelters. Then there are MGTOW (“Men Going Their Own Way”) who eschew women altogether because of feminism’s effects; and “Pick-Up Artists”, who use psychological tricks to “seduce” women.

It’s often assumed that groups such as these are made up entirely of “random weirdos”, said Lucy Pavia in the London Evening Standard. In fact, Bates argues, the cult of male supremacy is “bigger and more organised” than we might think. It has helped inspire terrorist atrocities – incel ideology has inspired several mass shootings – and teenage boys are increasingly coming under its sway online. Bates herself has observed this latter trend, during talks she regularly gives at schools. At one “prominent public school”, a boy in the front row “calmly puts up his hand to tell her men are more likely to be victims of rape than women”. Although at times a hard read, this “compellingly argued” book illuminates a phenomenon our society needs to pay attention to.

Simon & Schuster 368pp £16.99; The Week Bookshop £13.99

Novel of the weekSummerwater by Sarah Moss 

“Summer breaks have never been much fun in Sarah Moss’s fiction,” said Peter Kemp in The Sunday Times. In Night Waking (2011), a family in the Hebrides finds a baby’s skeleton in the garden of their rented home; Ghost Wall (2018) describes a camping trip that “escalates into horror”. In Summerwater, an “even grimmer holiday experience unrolls” in a cabin park by a Scottish loch, where we follow 12 characters over a single rainy day. All are in some kind of crisis – from a doctor who senses that his wife is succumbing to Alzheimer’s to a teenager who narrowly avoids drowning. While it “sounds a cheerless scenario”, Moss’s “imaginative versatility” makes this a rewarding read.

Moss excels at portraying the “fleeting” thoughts of her characters, said Melissa Harrison in The Guardian: the woman distracted from sex with her boyfriend by the “thought of a bacon bap”; the mother who, given an hour’s break from her children, can’t think of a better way to use it than cleaning behind the taps. Written in “simple, pellucid prose”, these portraits expertly capture the “agonised tenderness of family life”.

Picador 200pp £14.99; The Week Bookshop £11.99 

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