A Vast Conspiracy by Jeffrey Toobin

Sex, lies and audiotape…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Every detail you ever wanted to know about the whole Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, and several that you didn’t. This is more than a salacious recounting of the affair that nearly brought down a President, however. Jeffrey Toobin argues convincingly that politicians on both sides of the aisle had gradually been using the courts more and more to decide political questions, and that the Clinton scandal was a clear indication that the balance of power had shifted, and that the legal system was from now on to be the arbiter of all political questions in the US. He also suggests that it was the beginning of the sordid game beloved by politicians and the media (but not so much by the public, he implies) of dragging political opponents down, not by dissecting their poor performance as politicians, but by pretended moral outrage over their private behaviour.

The book was originally published in 2000, so long before the MeToo movement but at a time when questions of sexual abuse in the workplace were being raised by feminist groups. In his introduction, Toobin admits that he may have treated Lewinsky differently had he been writing now, when terms like “power imbalance” are part of the everyday lexicon. To be honest, I’m glad he wrote it when he did then, for two reasons. Firstly, my opinion then (when I was still a fairly young, ambitious, working woman) and now is that a 22-year-old woman is a grown adult, perfectly capable of making her own decisions, and therefore morally responsible for her own behaviour. There was never a suggestion that Clinton forced himself on Lewinsky – quite the reverse – so while I think he’s a disgusting and rather pathetically inadequate adulterous pig, I’m not willing to see her as his victim. (Her treatment later, by her tape-recording “friend” and the lawyers investigating Clinton, seems to me far more abusive than anything Clinton did to her.) Secondly, because Toobin wrote it in the heat of the moment, more or less, it gives a much clearer picture, I think, of the attitudes prevalent at that time than any later history, trying hard to tell the story through the filter of a 2020 lens, could ever do. Although Toobin is pretty tough on Lewinsky, he also shows no mercy to Clinton, so this is in no way an apologia.

The happy couple…

Toobin spares us none of the intimate detail, and I fear I learned far more than I wanted or needed to about Clinton’s anatomy and sexual preferences, not to mention Lewinsky’s underwear and performative techniques. (It made me realise that, back in the day, although the case was reported on at extremely boring length over here too, our dear BBC must have decided to leave out the most salacious details, for which I belatedly thank them.) However, in terms of the book I do think it was necessary to include them, because part of Toobin’s argument is exactly that public interest arguments shouldn’t justify this level of intrusion into the minutiae of sex between consenting adults. This case opened the door to the constant diet of sleaze that is now common currency in what we laughably call political debate. Does the public have the right to know their President paid a porn star for her silence about their affair? Probably – it goes to questions of character and vulnerability to blackmail. But do we really need a detailed account of the act complete with anatomical measurements? I think not.

The other woman…

The bulk of the book, however, is about the Starr investigation, and how incestuous the whole relationship between the legal and political systems of the US has become, with partisan lawyers and judges acting to down political opponents and circumvent the laws of the land, rather than behaving as impartial administrators of justice. This provides a lot of insight for outsiders, and I expect for many Americans too, on why the most important agenda item for many politicians seems to be to pack the courts with their own appointees. One only has to see the reaction of the left to the appointment of Kavanaugh (who plays a bit part in the Clinton story), or the desperation with which the Democrats are praying that Ginsberg will be able to remain in her role until next January, or the disgust of Republicans that Chief Justice Roberts has “betrayed” the right in a couple of recent judgements to know that this politicisation of the legal system is corrupting even the Supreme Court. Toobin shows us the origins of this, and the collusion of all sides in allowing it to happen. There were several chapters where, had the names been omitted, the book could as easily have been about Trump, Mueller, and the biased and polarised media of today’s America.

The real US Government…

So despite all the sleazy details, I found this a fascinating and illuminating scrutiny of the modern American political system. It also surprised me that so many of the political players back then are still influential now – Kavanaugh, George Conway, Ann Coulter were all linked to the Starr investigation, while many of the Senators and members of Congress on both sides, mostly not young or junior even back then, were trotting out opposite arguments during the Trump impeachment two decades later. It made me wonder why the US seems to have stuck – these same people have been running it, badly, for decades. Maybe it’s time for a generational shift, though since the major question in this year’s election seems to be which of the candidates is less senile I’m not expecting it to happen soon. Recommended to Americans who want to understand how and why their system fails them, and to Brits and others as a stark warning not to follow them down the road of giving lawyers and judges more power than our elected politicians.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, William Collins.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 247…

Episode 247

A tiny increase in the TBR this week – up 1 to 209. So fortunately I’ve managed to avoid a book famine for yet another week – phew!

Here are a few more that will be on the menu soon…

Factual

A Vast Conspiracy by Jeffrey Toobin

Courtesy of William Collins via NetGalley. I wouldn’t normally be attracted to a book about a sex scandal, but I thoroughly enjoyed another of Toobin’s books on Patty Hearst, American Heiress, and I’m hoping that, although the blurb doesn’t say so, this one might explain the whole Whitewater thing which was behind the Clinton scandal, and which I never fully got to grips with at the time…

The Blurb says: The definitive account of the Clinton-Lewinsky sex scandals, A Vast Conspiracy casts an insightful eye over the extraordinary ordeal that nearly brought down a president.

First published a year after the infamous impeachment trial, Jeffrey Toobin’s propulsive narrative captures the full arc of the Clinton sex scandals – from their beginnings in a Little Rock hotel to their culmination on the floor of the United States Senate with only the second vote on presidential removal in American history.

Rich in character and fuelled with the high octane of a sensational legal thriller, A Vast Conspiracy has indelibly shaped our understanding of this disastrous moment in American political history.

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Scottish Classic

Bull Calves by Naomi Mitchison

Another from the Scottish section of my Classics Club list and I bet you’ll never be able to guess what it’s about – the Jacobite Rebellions! It’s just as well really that the Rebellions happened or there would be pretty much no classic Scottish literature… 😉 It’s also vying for the award for Shortest Blurb, which is surprising, since it’s a brick-sized book…

The Blurb says: Over a summer weekend at Gleneagles, the Haldane family gather. It’s 1747 and a cautious Scotland is recovering from the ’45 rebellion. To the party the family bring their own suspicions and troubles, and the weekend takes a dramatic turn when one of them conceals a rebel Jacobite in the attic.

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Crime

Maigret and the Ghost by Georges Simenon

The first of the two Maigrets I’ve included on my 20 Books of Summer list, which I’m already falling seriously behind with. And an even shorter blurb! At this rate I’ll need to do a song and dance routine to fill up space at the end of the post…

The Blurb says: During an undercover case Inspector Lognon is shot in a room he was sharing with a beautiful woman who has since disappeared. Inspector Maigret retraces Lognon’s secretive last few days and is drawn into the darker side of the art world.

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Classic Fiction on Audio

The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy read by Tony Britton

Sadly I didn’t get on with the narrator of the du Maurier I intended to listen to, so quickly abandoned it and have already started this one. So far Tony Britton is doing a marvellous job and I’m thoroughly enjoying the story, which I wasn’t sure if I’d read before, but am now sure I haven’t…

The Blurb says: In a fit of drunken anger, Michael Henchard sells his wife and baby daughter for five guineas at a country fair. Over the course of the following years, he manages to establish himself as a respected and prosperous pillar of the community of Casterbridge, but behind his success there always lurk the shameful secret of his past and a personality prone to self-destructive pride and temper. Subtitled ‘A Story of a Man of Character’, Hardy’s powerful and sympathetic study of the heroic but deeply flawed Henchard is also an intensely dramatic work, tragically played out against the vivid backdrop of a close-knit Dorsetshire town.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads, Audible UK or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

FictionFan Awards 2019 – Factual

A round of applause…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2019.

For the benefit of new readers, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2018 and October 2019 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

The categories tend to change slightly each year to better reflect what I’ve been reading during the year.

This year, there will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories:

Vintage Crime Fiction

Factual

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2019

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the author’s next book even if I have to buy it myself!

(NB If an author is unlikely to publish another book due to being dead, I will read a book from his/her back catalogue…)

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

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So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

FACTUAL

I’ve read fewer factual books than usual this year. I felt I needed a bit of a break from heavyweight history books, so instead I’ve been reading quite a lot of true crime and books on lighter subjects, and have thoroughly enjoyed most of them, giving nine books the full five stars. So yet again the decision has not been easy…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

Europe: A Natural History by Tim Flannery

Starting roughly 100 million years ago, Flannery sets out to tell the story of Europe – how it formed, the species that have lived, survived or become extinct in it, the rise of humanity, and the possible future impacts of our current galloping climate change. Along the way, he tells us of the many men and women who have contributed to uncovering this history or who have in some way affected it.

There’s so much in this fascinating book that it’s hard to know how to summarise it in a few hundred words. It gives a panoramic view, bringing together and linking all the bits of natural history that are often covered separately, such as the formation of the continent, or current rewilding projects, or the origins of humanity. It’s surprisingly compact, considering its huge scope, and yet never feels superficial or rushed. And Flannery is a master of the art of converting scientific information into language easily understandable by the non-scientist.

Cretaceous Europe

Click to see the full review

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The Hour of Peril by Daniel Stashower

Abraham Lincoln has won the Presidential election and now, in early 1861, is about to undertake the journey from his home in Springfield, Illinois, to Washington for his inauguration. But these are troubled times, and the journey is complicated because of all of the different railroad companies that own parts of the route. One of the company owners hears of a plot to destroy his railroad to prevent Lincoln making it to Washington, and so he calls in the already famous private detective, Allan Pinkerton. But when Pinkerton starts to investigate, he becomes convinced that there is a deeper plot in the planning – to assassinate Lincoln before he is inaugurated. This book tells the story of Lincoln’s journey, the plot against him, and Pinkerton’s attempt to ensure his safe arrival in Washington.

It’s written very much in the style of a true crime book, although it has aspects that fall as much into the category of history. Stashower focuses on three main aspects: a biographical look at Pinkerton and the development of his detective agency; the rising tensions in the still-new nation that would soon break out into full scale civil war; and Lincoln’s journey, and the plot against him. Well written, interesting and informative – thoroughly enjoyable!

The logo that gave rise to the expression, “private eye”.

Click to see the full review

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Seashaken Houses by Tom Nancollas

The author set out to visit seven of the major rock lighthouses that stand as warnings to shipping around Britain’s shore, sometimes getting permission to land and see the interiors, other times examining them from the outside. Along the way, he tells us tales of their construction and history, of the men who built, lived in and maintained them over the years, and of the many shipwrecks they have doubtless averted and of some they didn’t. Nancollas also fills in the historical background, lightly but with enough depth to give a feel for what was going on in Britain and the western world at each point. He talks of Britain’s growing status as a maritime trading nation and tells tales of the shipwrecks and disasters that gave an urgency to finding some reliable way of guiding ships safely through the rocky hazards around the coast.

His style is non-academic, sometimes lyrical, always enthusiastic, and I found myself coming to share his fascination for these incredible feats of engineering and his admiration for those who built and worked on them. A fascinating subject, brought wonderfully to life.

Bell Rock Lighthouse during a storm by John Horsburgh
Illus. in: Robert Stevenson, An Account of the Bell Rock Lighthouse.

Click to see the full review

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American Heiress: The Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst by Jeffrey Toobin

When Patty Hearst was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) back in 1974, it was such a huge story that it made headlines for months not only in the US but here in the UK too. Was she a victim or a terrorist? Willing or brainwashed? Heroine or villain? In this book, Jeffrey Toobin sets out to tell the story of the kidnapping and its aftermath, and to answer some of those questions. To do this, he also has to analyse the political and social forces of the time, and the counterculture which, in America, had grown out of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam protests.

The whole thing is well written and excellently told, as informative about the wider society of the time as it is about the philosophy and actions of the SLA and the counterculture. While I found it hard to have much sympathy for the spoilt little rich kid Hearst, Toobin maintains considerably more balance in his summing up, and the final section describes the legal consequences for Hearst and her surviving comrades, showing quite clearly that, when it comes to justice, money talks. A great read.

Fear not, Patty – Daddy’s on his way with his chequebook…

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2019

for

BEST FACTUAL

Furious Hours by Casey Cep

In June, 1977, a man walked into a funeral home in Alabama during a service, accused one of the mourners, Reverend Willie Maxwell, of murder and shot him dead. When the shooter, Robert Burns, was subsequently tried for the murder of Maxwell, everyone wanted a seat in court. Harper Lee got one. Years after helping Truman Capote with the research that lay behind his best-selling In Cold Blood, Lee had decided to write her own true-crime book, and the Maxwell case promised to provide plenty of material. In this book, Cep tells both stories: of Maxwell, the crimes of which he was suspected, his own murder and the trial of his killer; and of Harper Lee and her failed attempt to turn the Maxwell story into a book.

The section on the Maxwell case is very good true-crime writing in its own right, but what makes this one stand out from the crowd is the association with Harper Lee. The whole section on the writing of In Cold Blood and what eventually became To Kill a Mockingbird is excellent, succinct and insightful. It’s not so much a literary analysis as an examination of the two authors’ creative processes, casting a lot of light on their personalities; all of which would be sure to make this book appeal to admirers of either of those works as well as anyone interested in true crime for its own sake.

While any of these books would have been a worthy winner, this one stood out because I had recently read To Kill a Mockingbird and In Cold Blood, and then this inspired me to read Go Set a Watchman at last. Reading all four close together made it a truly immersive experience, with each enhancing the others.

Truman Capote signing copies of In Cold Blood with Harper Lee in 1966.
Photograph: Steve Schapiro/Corbis

Click to see the full review

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Next week: Best Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

American Heiress: The Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst by Jeffrey Toobin

Money talks…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Patty Hearst was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) back in 1974, it was such a huge story that it made headlines for months not only in the US but here in the UK too. I was in my early teens at the time – old enough to be aware of what was going on in the world but still young enough not to always fully understand it. Was she a victim or a terrorist? Willing or brainwashed? Heroine or villain? In this book, Jeffrey Toobin sets out to tell the story of the kidnapping and its aftermath, and to answer some of those questions. To do this, he also has to analyse the political and social forces of the time, and the counterculture which, in America, had grown out of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam protests.

Toobin begins by describing the kidnapping itself, which is effective in concentrating the reader’s mind on the fear Hearst must have felt at that moment, whatever her later actions may have been. He then backtracks to tell the story of the Hearst dynasty – Patty was the granddaughter of the newspaper magnate, William P Hearst, immortalised in Orson Welles’ masterpiece, Citizen Kane. It was therefore assumed that her family would be enormously wealthy and to a degree they were, although William P had left his money tied up in ways that allowed his children to lead pampered lives without having control of the capital. As was relatively normal then, Patty wasn’t fully aware of her father’s financial position so, like the members of the SLA, probably thought he had easy access to far more cash than was in fact the case. So his later inability to meet the SLA’s ever-increasing demands may have made her feel that she had been deserted and betrayed by him.

Marcus Foster – educator.
Murdered by the SLA prior to the kidnapping of Hearst.

Toobin then introduces us to the selection of misfits and oddities who made up the SLA. I never understood in my youth what the SLA was all about – who were the “Symbionese” and what were they trying to liberate themselves from? As Toobin describes it, it seems my vagueness on the subject is not so surprising after all. The leader, Donald DeFreeze, was a black man who had been “radicalised” in prison by a combination of the rhetoric of the Black Panthers and white, middle-class, left-wing students rebelling against their parents and The Man, man. DeFreeze and his two original followers – both female, both his lovers – drew up a kind of vague, incoherent manifesto, proclaiming themselves as a vanguard of the revolution against the fascist state and gave themselves a made up name, derived from the word “symbiosis”. They attracted a few more wannabe revolutionaries, all white, several of them theatre people, and they all liked to dress up and play soldiers and have copious amounts of sex to prove how much more politically mature they were than previous generations. It all sounds so silly and childish in retrospect, and Toobin makes it pretty clear they were a bunch of sad, insignificant losers. But with guns.

Myrna Opsahl
Mother of four.
Murdered by the SLA during a bank robbery in which Hearst willingly participated.

“Oh, she’s dead, but it doesn’t really matter. She was a bourgeois pig anyway.” – reportedly said by Emily Harris, murderer and one of Hearst’s fellow “revolutionaries”.

As Toobin tells it, the hope and innocence of the ‘60s had turned darker in the ‘70s, and in San Francisco the Summer of Love had been superceded by crime-filled streets, and the twin horrors of the “Zodiac” serial killer and the “Zebra” murders, carried out by a gang of black men randomly killing white people as a perverted kind of fightback against racial injustice. He talks about the disconnect between generations, and shows the widespread sympathy many on the left felt towards the low-level terrorist tactics of the counterculture, for a while, at least.

Jeffrey Toobin

Toobin then goes into detail on the events leading up to the kidnapping, and on Hearst’s long period in captivity. Hearst refused to talk to him for the book, but he had extensive access to other people and to primary source documents relating to the legal cases that followed. It seems clear that Hearst was radicalised in turn, and there will probably never be a definitive answer as to how much fear affected her, initially at least. But within a few months, she was gun-toting with the rest of them, willing to steal, bomb and kill for the cause, though subsequently it became clear she was equally willing to sell out her former fellow revolutionaries and go back to her pampered life when it suited her.

The whole thing is well written and excellently told, as informative about the wider society of the time as it is about the philosophy and actions of the SLA and the counterculture. I tried hard to maintain some level of sympathy for Hearst, but I see in my notes I’ve described her as “basically just a stupid, spoilt, violent, murderous little brat” so I guess my attempt to be non-judgemental failed. Toobin maintains considerably more balance in his summing up, and the final section describes the legal consequences for poor little rich kid Hearst and her surviving comrades, showing quite clearly that, when it comes to justice, money talks. Highly recommended.

The man who gave Hearst a full pardon following her conviction for armed bank robbery.
Money talks.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 187…

Episode 187

I’m getting a bit worried that my postman may have been abducted by aliens – there has been a distinct dearth of parcel deliveries so far this year. The result is a massive drop in the TBR – down 2 to 225! It’s worrying…

Here are a few more that should fall over the edge soon…

Factual

This is one I’ve wanted to read for a long time. I remember the Patty Hearst story from when it happened, when I was in my early teens. I was fascinated by it without ever fully understanding what it was all about – in fact, it may well have been that vagueness that made it so intriguing…

The Blurb says: Domestic terrorism. Financial uncertainty. Troops abroad, fighting an unsuccessful and bloody war against guerrilla insurgents. A violent generation gap emerging between a discontented youth and their disapproving, angry elders.

This was the early seventies in America, and it was against this backdrop that the kidnapping of nineteen-year-old Patty Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Front – a rag-tag, cult-like group of political extremists and criminals – stole headlines across the world. Using new research and drawing on the formidable abilities that made The Run of His Life a global bestseller, Jeffrey Toobin uncovers the story of the kidnapping and its aftermath in vivid prose and forensic detail.

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Fiction

Courtesy of Serpent’s Tail via NetGalley. It feels like too long since I randomly picked a book based purely on the blurb, with no prior knowledge of either it or the author. I suspect I shall either love this or hate it – I’m hoping it’s the former!

The Blurb says: As dusk approaches, a former surgeon goes about closing up his dilapidated clinic in rural India. His day, like all his days, has been long and hard. His medical supplies arrive late if at all, the electrics in the clinic threaten to burn out at any minute, and his overseer, a corrupt government official, blackmails and extorts him. It is thankless work, but the surgeon has long given up any hope of reward in this life.

That night, as the surgeon completes his paperwork, he is visited by a family – a teacher, his heavily pregnant wife and their young son. Victims of a senseless attack, they reveal to the surgeon wounds that they could not possibly have survived.

And so the surgeon finds himself faced with a preposterous task: to mend the wounds of the dead family before sunrise so that they may return to life. But this is not the only challenge laid before the surgeon, and as the night unfolds he realises his future is tied more closely to that of the dead family than he could have imagined.

At once dustily realist and magically unreal, Night Theatre is a powerful fable about the miracles we ask of doctors, and the fine line they negotiate between life and death.

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Fiction on Audio

I’ve often been tempted by Conn Iggulden’s books and the subject matter of this one sounded particularly appealing. So since I had some Audible credits to use up, I gave into temptation. I’ve sneakily started listening to this already and am loving it so far – Geoffrey Beevers is doing a wonderful narration…

The Blurb says: “I have broken my vows. I have murdered innocents. I have trod down the soil over their dead face with my bare heels, and only the moon as witness. I have loved a woman and she ruined me. I have loved a king and yet I ruined him.”

The year is 937. England is a nation divided, ruled by minor kings and Viking lords. Each vies for land and power. The Wessex king Æthelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great, is readying himself to throw a spear into the north. Behind him stands Dunstan, the man who will control the destiny of the next seven kings of England and the fate of an entire nation. Welcome to the original game for the English throne.

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Korean Crime

Courtesy of HarperCollins. I don’t get many unsolicited books from publishers except for vintage crime, but this popped through my letterbox a few weeks ago, and it looks like fun. The blurb makes it sound quite dark, but the quotes on the cover and early reviews suggest there’s lots of black humour in it. I’m intrigued…

The Blurb says: Reseng was raised by cantankerous Old Raccoon in the Library of Dogs. To anyone asking, it’s just an ordinary library. To anyone in the know, it’s a hub for Seoul’s organised crime, and a place where contract killings are plotted and planned. So it’s no surprise that Reseng has grown up to become one of the best hitmen in Seoul. He takes orders from the plotters, carries out his grim duties, and comforts himself afterwards with copious quantities of beer and his two cats, Desk and Lampshade.

But after he takes pity on a target and lets her die how she chooses, he finds his every move is being watched. Is he finally about to fall victim to his own game? And why does that new female librarian at the library act so strangely? Is he looking for his enemies in all the wrong places? Could he be at the centre of a plot bigger than anything he’s ever known?

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?