Books

Short Takes: Book reviews, in brief

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Nonfiction

Landslide: LBJ and Ronald Reagan at the Dawn of a New America

Jonathan Darman, Random House, 480 pages

“Landslide” argues that a single moment marked a political rebirth for Lyndon B. Johnson and Ronald Reagan, who were on steep downward career trajectories when the assassination of John F. Kennedy shook the nation.

Reagan’s path to the White House had less to do with Nixon’s misfortunes, he argues, than with the assassination in Dallas, the national turmoil of the 1960s and the disaster of Johnson’s presidency. While the book focuses on Johnson, Darman ties him and Reagan into a single narrative, from both a historical perspective and also from the viewpoint of their combined impact on politics today.

Johnson promised, impossibly, to make government the savior of the poor and righter of all civil wrongs. Reagan pledged to lower taxes and reduce the size of government. Instead, he broke the budget and ran up a huge deficit with no regard to the consequences. Today, we suffer the national political divide that LBJ birthed among Southern whites. And the deficit-without-consequence leadership style Reagan birthed, to paraphrase another president, will live in infamy.

Dallas Morning News

Fiction

The Betrayers

David Bezmozgis, Little, Brown, 240 pages

“The Betrayers” is the story of an Israeli politician who, on the losing side in a dispute over settlements, flees Tel Aviv with his young girlfriend for Yalta.

Baruch Kotler, a hero of the Jewish state, spent better than a decade in the Soviet gulag after he was betrayed by someone he considered a friend. The broad lines of his life resemble those of Natan Sharansky, the Russian-born refusenik who became a cause célèbre in the 1970s. Like Kotler, Sharansky became a high-ranking Israeli official; in 2005, he resigned to protest the withdrawal from settlements in Gaza and the West Bank. What separates them is that Kotler throws it all away by having an affair with his assistant Leora.

Left behind are his wife, who lobbied 13 years to free him from the Soviet Union, and his son Benzion, an Israeli soldier who cannot stomach the evictions he has been ordered to perform. This is the novel’s central dichotomy, between public and private, between the demands of what we stand for and the more tenuous territory of what we feel.

Such a tension grows after Kotler and Leora lose their hotel reservation in a mix-up and find a room with an older couple who rent to vacationers. Half of this pair is Vladimir (now Chaim) Tankilevich, the man who betrayed Kotler to the Soviet authorities. Once Kotler realizes his landlord was his betrayer, he becomes intent on a reckoning. At the same time, the author wants us to consider, can there really be a reckoning when, as Tankilevich insists, what he has given Kotler is a gift? It’s a fascinating question that turns the dynamic of this novel in an unexpected direction.

Los Angeles Times

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