Professor Makes Recommendations for Reading Over the Break

Novelist, Book Critic, Director of Creative Writing at UT Dallas, Dr. Clay Reynolds Offers Ideas

Dr. Clay Reynolds

Dr. Clay Reynolds is director of creative writing at UT Dallas and author of 13 books.

I always think that the holidays are a great time to catch up on history and biography.

This year, marking the memorial of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, I would recommend a couple of volumes. One is Strange Peaches, a novel based on the assassination by the late Edwin “Bud” Shrake. Although published in the early 1970s, it captures much about Dallas as it was at the time and of the people involved before they had become icons.

Another would be The Road to Dallas, by David Kaiser. I’m no expert in the field and have certainly not read even a fraction of the works published on the assassination, but this is a sober assessment of all the major players and events leading up to the moment; and it’s particularly good on Jack Ruby and several of the minor players. His analysis of the Kennedy response to the rise of the Castro regime is also an eye-opener for any who don’t realize how extreme our government’s reaction was to the Cuban Revolution.

Ike's Bluff bookcover

I also just completed reading a new book on Eisenhower, Ike’s Bluff, by Evan Thomas, which is an extraordinarily fine biography of his presidential years. This volume followed my reading of the more extensive biography, "Eisenhower in War and Peace," by Jean Edward Smith. I would rate this volume as high or higher than Thomas’ in the sense that it’s very well-written, even-handed, and remarkably compact for the ground it covers. He dwells far more in Ike’s military career, and his insights into U.S. strategy in the European Theater of War are telling.

For any who ventured out to see Steven Spielberg’s new film, Lincoln, and wondered about some of the political background, two recent issues are excellent reading. The first should very nearly be a “must read” for any who have wondered about our contemporary Congress. America’s Great Debate, by Fergus M. Bordewich is an analysis of the year-long deadlock in the Congress that ultimately resulted in the famous and ultimately useless Compromise of 1850. The analysis of the political giants of the time is dramatic, highly detailed, and very well-written. It also provides an insight into how our system works—or doesn’t—when polarizing issues rise to divide the nation along ideological lines.

Long Road to Antietam book cover


On a more pedestrian level, The Long Road to Antietam, by Richard Slotkin, offers a cogent and candid analysis of the political machinations that formed the foundation and background for the issuance of “The Emancipation Proclamation.” It includes a discussion of the attempt by George McClellan to alter the governing structure of the U.S. before Lincoln had the good sense, finally, to remove him from command.

Lighter fare could be found in The Man Who Shot the Deer, by Frank Waters, a much neglected American writer. Reissued recently in paperback, this novel about pueblo life in New Mexico in the ‘30s has been called “the most significant novel of Native American life to be produced.” Word is that a film produced by Robert Redford is in the works.

Swords and Deviltry by Lieber book cover

And for those whose addiction to fantasy worlds and strange lands hasn’t been sated by the new Hobbit movie and who have (secretly, I’m sure) waded their way through all five volumes of the J.R.R. Martin Thrones saga, I found that Fritz Lieber’s novels are all being reissued piecemeal.

Lieber, of course, was a major science fiction, horror, mystery, spy-novel writer of the late ‘30s through the early ’50s. He also was a Shakespearean actor, film actor, screenwriter, and raconteur, or so the story goes. His Swords novels (eight in all, although one was finished by someone else and published posthumously) are all now available. I assure anyone who dips into them that the adventures of Fahfred and the Grey Mouser will satisfy and amuse. For my money, he’s better than Tolkien, whose work he despised for its “simpering romantic pap.”

There’s probably more, but one cannot read all the time. There’s eggnog to make—or buy—and, I’m sure, a great deal of football to watch.

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