Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Book Review: "Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention," by Manning Marable

Malcolm X

Manning Marable, 1951-2011.
Recently I finished reading Manning Marable’s 2011 biography of Malcolm X, “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.” It’s a terrific book, one I would recommend to anyone interested in the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s. Marable does a great job of interpreting Malcolm X’s various incarnations throughout his short but eventful life. I read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” by Malcolm X and Alex Haley, last year, and Marable’s biography is a much needed companion. Marable successfully untangles the sometimes complicated web that Malcolm and Alex Haley wove. Any reading of Malcolm X’s Autobiography is complicated by the fact that Haley finished the book after Malcolm died, thus Malcolm obviously didn’t have a say on the final text of the book. Marable helps clear up what the Autobiography sometimes leaves unsaid. 

Marable does a great job of illustrating how the split between Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam festered and developed for years before Malcolm’s official split with the Nation in 1964. The Nation of Islam under its leader Elijah Muhammad was strictly opposed to African-Americans voting or participating in any kind of civil rights demonstrations. The Nation of Islam was an odd combination of radicalism and conservatism, as it preached total separation of the races, but yet also didn’t want to involve itself at all in politics or civil rights. Marable shows how Malcolm was always interested in the mainstream civil rights movement, even when he was criticizing Martin Luther King as an “Uncle Tom.” Malcolm wanted to be more proactive in the civil rights movement, but he felt hamstrung by Elijah Muhammad’s refusal to get involved in the movement. Malcolm knew that for African-Americans to win the rights they deserved, they needed to engage in politics, to engage in protest and the political process. Once he realized this, his split with the Nation of Islam was destined to happen, unless he could somehow persuade Elijah Muhammad to change his views. 

Malcolm X rose very quickly in the Nation of Islam, as he went from prison convert to national minister in just a few years during the 1950’s. Malcolm’s rapid rise to the top of the Nation and his high profile in the national news media made him many powerful enemies within the Nation, and Marable shows how they conspired to lessen Malcolm’s influence. One of those enemies was John Ali, the national secretary of the Nation. Ali did all he could to hurt Malcolm, eventually orchestrating a total news blackout of Malcolm in the Nation’s newspaper “Muhammad Speaks.” 

Part of what doomed Malcolm X was his misreading of people. He never figured out who his enemies were in the Nation of Islam until much too late. It seems as though Malcolm didn’t realize that he had any enemies in the Nation. As smart and perceptive a man as he was, he seems to have been taken totally by surprise when he was kicked out. Was Malcolm aware of the way he was not mentioned in “Muhammad Speaks” for more than a year before he was kicked out? It’s not clear if he was, but that should have been a signal to him that all was not well in the Nation. 

Malcolm X had a very close relationship with Elijah Muhammad and he looked up to Muhammad as a kind of father figure. Did Malcolm X see himself as the rightful successor to Muhammad as the leader of the Nation of Islam? The short answer is that Marable doesn’t know. But others in the Nation feared that Malcolm would be named Muhammad’s successor or that he would somehow usurp the power from the rightful successor. Elijah Muhammad had several sons, all of whom were active in the Nation of Islam and who were the most likely successors to the leadership of the Nation. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that Muhammad was going to make Malcolm his successor when he either retired or died. And while Muhammad was surely very pleased at Malcolm’s ability to gain followers for the Nation, he must have also felt threatened by the younger man. In many ways, Malcolm X was the opposite of Elijah Muhammad. Elijah was old, frail, short, and not a good speaker. Malcolm was young, handsome, charismatic, energetic, and a terrific public speaker. Muhammad must have seen Malcolm as a possible rival very early on. Surely the news blackout of Malcolm in “Muhammad Speaks” could not have lasted as long as it did without the tacit approval of Elijah Muhammad. 

There were many rumors that Elijah Muhammad had fathered numerous illegitimate children. Malcolm ignored these rumors for years, but finally he started investigating them for himself and at a meeting in the Spring of 1963 Muhammad confirmed the rumors during a private meeting with Malcolm. I think Malcolm was legitimately shocked and disappointed when he found out about Elijah’s affairs and illegitimate children. I think he really was deeply wounded by this, that the man he took to be Allah’s Messenger was as human and imperfect as anyone else. 

The differences between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad finally started to emerge in late 1963. After John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Malcolm said that Kennedy’s death was a sign of “the chickens coming home to roost.” Malcolm added, “Being an old farm boy myself, chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad; they’ve always made me glad.” (Marable, p. 273.) This was widely interpreted as Malcolm taking glee in Kennedy’s death, and it gave the Nation of Islam the perfect excuse to punish him. Malcolm was suspended as national minister for 90 days, and was not supposed to talk to the press during his suspension. Despite this harsh punishment, Malcolm still thought that he would be reinstated when the 90 days were up. But his enemies saw this as their chance to expel Malcolm from the Nation. Which is exactly what happened in the Spring of 1964. Malcolm was unceremoniously relieved of his leadership positions within the Nation. 

After his expulsion from the Nation, Malcolm began to talk more openly about the failings of Elijah Muhammad, including Elijah’s illegitimate children. As the feud between Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam grew more heated, there were calls within the Nation for Malcolm’s death. Malcolm made a pilgrimage to Mecca after leaving the Nation, and it was this trip that made him realize that people of different skin colors could get along in peace and harmony. His rhetoric began to change when he returned to the United States. He started two new organizations, Muslim Mosque, Inc., and the Organization of Afro-American Unity, the OAAU. Muslim Mosque, Inc., was an attempt to take followers away from the Nation of Islam’s brand of Islam and to move towards more orthodox Sunni Islam. Malcolm’s trips to the Middle East and Africa during 1964 helped get Muslim Mosque, Inc. recognized by other countries and by more traditional Sunni Islam groups. And just as Muslim Mosque, Inc. represented a turn away from the Nation of Islam’s brand of Islam, so too the OAAU was a definite step away from the racial separation preached by the Nation of Islam. Malcolm now talked more and more about all African-Americans working together to gain their full civil rights. He realized that he could no longer keep criticizing the more moderate elements of the civil rights movement. But, on the other hand, he still wrote an article explaining why he was supporting Barry Goldwater rather than Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 Presidential race, despite the fact that LBJ was hugely instrumental in the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, while Goldwater opposed it. 

Malcolm journeyed again to the Middle East and Africa during mid-1964, and he ended up staying there for about four months. He was trying to build his fledgling organizations, and he was also keeping safe from the Nation of Islam. When he returned to the United States in late 1964, it was clear that he would have to be protected all the time from violent threats. Just a week before he died, his house was firebombed in the middle of the night. Malcolm, his wife Betty, and all their children were able to escape, but their home was badly burned. The home was also at the center of a dispute with the Nation, as the Nation tried to get Malcolm and his family evicted. The Nation claimed that they had bought the house for Malcolm, and that the Nation still owned it, not Malcolm. Malcolm fought this in court, but he lost and was forced to leave his house. 

On the afternoon of February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was about to speak to an OAAU audience in Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom. He stepped to the podium and just before he started talking a disturbance broke out in the crowd. Two men appeared to be having a disagreement and started shoving each other. However, this was just a planned distraction, and as Malcolm and the audience focused on the two men’s argument, three other men rushed towards the stage and shot Malcolm with a sawed-off shotgun and handguns. Malcolm was wounded 21 times and died at Columbia Presbyterian hospital. 

As Marable makes tragically clear, the investigation into Malcolm X’s assassination was botched badly from the very beginning. While one of the assassins was instantly apprehended, two other men went free as two innocent men took the fall. It was clear that Malcolm’s death had been ordered by the Nation of Islam. The police simply didn’t care about a fight between black radical groups and did not investigate Malcolm’s murder as carefully as they should have. They just wanted to find scapegoats, even if they didn’t find the real killers. 

As with so many other fallen leaders, the question remains, what would have happened to Malcolm X if he had lived longer? He was a great inspiration to the Black Power movement, yet if he had lived, the Black Power movement might have scorned him as being too integrationist. That’s assuming that Malcolm’s thinking would have kept going in the direction he was headed in the last year of his life. One of the most interesting tidbits in the book is Malcolm’s visit to Selma, Alabama, in February, 1965, just weeks before his death. Malcolm didn’t meet with Martin Luther King, who was in jail in Selma at the time, but he did meet with Coretta Scott King. “After the talk he met with Coretta Scott King, stating that in the future he would work in concert with her husband.” (Marable, p. 412.) Had Malcolm lived longer and really started a united front with Martin Luther King, the ramifications would have been enormous. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King are so often seen as opposites, yet during the last years of their lives they were, for the most part, moving closing together, as Malcolm spoke more and more about tolerance and King got angrier with the status quo. That isn’t a perfect comparison, as Malcolm’s public statements were not very consistent, veering one way and then the other, making it difficult to say for sure what he really felt. But it’s clear that had he lived Malcolm X would have done a lot more work in support of African-American civil rights and in support of equality all over the world. 

Malcolm X was a very complicated man, a brilliant, restless soul who thought and cared deeply about the issues of his time. This essay can’t get to all parts and pieces of the man; I can’t dissect everything he said and thought. As a white man, it would be folly for me to say that I completely understand Malcolm X’s views on race in America. I can’t fully understand the racism that he saw and experienced throughout America during his life. But I’ve tried to understand more about Malcolm X’s remarkable life. He’s a very fascinating man, and I can respect him even when I might disagree with what he said. Manning Marable’s book presents a full, nuanced portrait of Malcolm X. It’s probably as close as we will get to the man himself. Sadly, Marable did not live to see his masterpiece published, passing away just weeks before the book was released. Marable was not able to soak up the glowing reviews, the healthy sales, and the Pulitzer Prize for History for 2011. All of those honors were well-earned by a truly remarkable book about a truly remarkable man.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Concert Review: Rufus Wainwright at the Minnesota Zoo

Rufus Wainwright
Last Friday night I saw Rufus Wainwright in concert at the Minnesota Zoo. Rufus put on a great show, which wiped away my memories of his weird 2010 concert at Orchestra Hall. During the first half of that concert Rufus played all the songs on his then-latest album “All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu” straight through with no dialogue and no applause in between songs as disturbing images of eyes opening and closing flashed on the screen behind him. The album was about the death of his mother, folk singer Kate McGarrigle. I can understand some of Wainwright’s artistic motivations behind the first half of the concert, but it didn’t make for a very fun experience, as most of the songs on the album are downbeat and very similar sounding. In the second half of the concert he had a lot more fun and talked to the audience. It probably wasn’t the best tour to see Rufus for the first time, but I was more than willing to take my wife’s word that Rufus was usually a lot more fun than the subdued troubadour we saw 2 years ago. I’m glad we saw Rufus again at the Zoo, as I think this concert came closer to capturing his essence as a singer, songwriter and performer. 

There were two opening acts for Rufus, which had the effect of making me more excited to see Rufus, because they weren’t that great. Krystle Warren was the first opener, and she also sings backup in Rufus’s band. She has an interesting voice, it’s super low and very jazzy, so she reminded me a bit of Nina Simone. She performed solo, mainly using her guitar to keep the rhythm of the song. I’d be interested to hear her with a full band. She was followed by Adam Cohen, who is the son of Leonard Cohen. Adam Cohen’s voice is somewhat similar to his dad’s, and his lyrics are similarly obsessed with religion and sex. But I found Adam Cohen’s lyrics to be trite and full of clich├ęs. My wife said, “I would have really liked him when I was 13.” I also thought he was trying too hard to be funny. Cohen is straight, as anyone listening to his numerous lyrics about going down on women could easily tell, but he felt compelled to make a number of gay jokes, which, although not really offensive, were out of date 20 years ago. Adam’s sister is the surrogate mother for Rufus’ baby, thus making them sort-of brothers-in-law, so Adam was joking about how Rufus knocked up his sister, “And he also tried to knock me up!” Not really funny in 2012. You’re opening for Rufus Wainwright, and probably everyone in the audience knows Rufus is gay, and no one in the audience cares that he’s gay. It’s not a big deal, there’s really no need to joke about it. Cohen name-checked his father’s song “So Long, Marianne” in one of his own songs-which just smacks of lazy writing to me. But for his closing song of the set, Cohen actually sang “So Long, Marianne.” This just seems like riding on his father’s coattails to me. If you’re in the same business as your very famous and successful father, wouldn’t you rather carve out your own identity? Rufus doesn’t sing his father Loudon Wainwright’s hit “Dead Skunk” as an encore. Adam Cohen and Rufus Wainwright have both followed in their father’s footsteps by entering the music industry. But Rufus has some advantages over Adam. Rufus’s songs are so different from Loudon Wainwright’s that no one is going to confuse them. They’re not working the same territory. Adam Cohen’s songs sounded like Leonard Cohen songs-his style seems very similar to his father’s. And there’s not much that Adam can do about that, except to expect constant comparisons. Their fathers are also at different levels of success. Loudon Wainwright is not as famous and shrouded in myth as Leonard Cohen is. Loudon Wainwright is, by and large, a cult artist. Leonard Cohen, though not as commercially successful as Bob Dylan, is often mentioned in the same breath as Dylan, and his critical standing among music critics is probably nearly as high as Dylan’s. This gives Rufus an advantage in that Rufus most likely had an easier time not being overshadowed by his father. 

Okay, now on to Rufus! Rufus opened the show in darkness with the largely a cappella song “Candles.” It was a great way to open the concert, and it showcases his truly amazing voice. There’s nobody that really sounds like Rufus Wainwright. His voice is so singular and distinctive. The only comparison I can make is that Rufus’s voice sometimes reminds me of Harry Nilsson, another supremely talented songwriter who had a soaring voice. Rufus was wearing sunglasses, black and white pants, a t-shirt and a blazer with red piping. He took the sunglasses off after 2 or 3 songs. It was clear right away that Rufus was in a really good mood. This was the last night of this leg of his tour, which probably helped contribute to Rufus’s exuberance. He performed a lot of songs from his new album, “Out of the Game.” I haven’t listened to “Out of the Game” very much, but after hearing Rufus sing these songs in concert, it’s next on my list. The title song is a great, catchy piece of pop writing. I’ve listened to it at least 4 or 5 times while writing this review. I was very happy that Rufus threw in a Judy Garland song, the terrific “The Man That Got Away,” written by Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin, from “A Star is Born.” If you’re a Rufus fan, you should get his great tribute album, “Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall,” in which he re-creates Garland’s famous 1961 live album, “Judy at Carnegie Hall.” Rufus did a fantastic rendition of “The Man That Got Away,” with just piano, bass, and drums, which showcased his amazing voice. During the intro to the song, Rufus said that Liza Minnelli has been very critical of his tribute to her mother, saying in an interview that she would never listen to the album. So Rufus got back with a couple of digs at Liza during the song. Rufus also sang one of his father’s songs, “One Man Guy.” It was a nice rendition of the song, and interesting to hear Rufus sing something his dad wrote. After having seen Loudon Wainwright perform live in May, I can say that there are definitely some similarities between father and son. (I wonder how many other people were at both Loudon’s concert and Rufus’s?) Loudon and Rufus look quite a bit alike-do a Google image search for the cover of Loudon’s second album and you’ll see what I mean. Both Loudon and Rufus are naturally funny people who are very engaging performers. They’re having fun on stage, and they let the audience in on that fun by establishing a very quick rapport with the audience. Both Loudon and Rufus are kind of hams on stage, you can tell that they like the spotlight and enjoy performing.

Rufus also sang some of his older songs during the concert. He did a great solo version of “Art Teacher,” with only his piano accompanying him. Rufus played rhythm guitar on quite a few songs, which surprised me. I think he only played the piano when I saw him at Orchestra Hall. He also didn’t play any instruments on some songs, which also surprised me. But he did his trademark head shake move quite a bit, which worked well since he has nearly shoulder-length hair. One of the things that struck me most about listening to Rufus in concert is what a gift he has for melody. His songs are always very catchy, and usually very complicated. His songs are a lot of fun to listen to. He sang a haunting rendition of “Going to a Town,” which features the chorus, “I’m so tired of you, America.” Rufus said he had just performed the song in Milwaukee the night before and dedicated it to the victims of the August 5th shootings at a Sikh temple. For the encore, he sang his most well-known song “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk,” and then brought Adam Cohen back for a duet of Leonard Cohen’s song “Chelsea Hotel #2.” That was awesome, and it was fun to hear Rufus’s soaring voice on another Leonard Cohen song. (Rufus sang Cohen’s “Hallelujah” on the “Shrek” soundtrack.) Rufus then closed with the dance-y “Bitter Tears” from his new album. Maybe that’s a sign of things to come from Rufus? This concert was a great show from one of the best singer/songwriters around.

Set list:
Grey Gardens
April Fools
The One You Love
Out of the Game
Perfect Man
The Man That Got Away
One Man Guy (Loudon Wainwright song)
Art Teacher-solo
Going to a Town
14th Street
Cigarettes & Chocolate Milk
Chelsea Hotel #2 (Leonard Cohen song performed with Adam Cohen)
Bitter Tears

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Gore Vidal 1925-2012

Gore Vidal, 1972.

Gore Vidal, 1964.

JFK and Gore Vidal, 1960.
A Life's Work. Gore Vidal, 1925-2012. Taken at Powell's Bookstore, Portland, OR. Photo by Mark Taylor.
The great American writer Gore Vidal died yesterday. Our world is a little less colorful today without him. Vidal was one of my favorite authors, and I was saddened to hear of his passing. Vidal was truly the last of a generation of American writers, including Norman Mailer and Truman Capote, who were also very public celebrities. Vidal famously feuded with both Capote and Mailer during his long career. It’s safe to say that all three writers shared a very high self-regard. 

Gore Vidal has been one of my heroes since high school. I admired his courage for speaking his mind, even when his views were not shared by a majority. I liked the way he presented himself, full of knowing humor, with a clever bon mot always within reach. If I become a famous writer, I said to myself in high school and college, I would want to be a lot like Gore Vidal. A straight Gore Vidal, that is. Well, I’m not a famous writer, at least not yet, and if I did become a famous writer I’m not sure if I would be as bold as Gore Vidal was in his public pronouncements, but I can still hope, can’t I? I even wrote Gore Vidal a fan letter when I was 17, and to my great shock and surprise, he wrote me back. One of the great thrills of my life was opening that envelope from Italy. I was always amazed that Vidal took the time to write me back.

In my past posts about Gore Vidal I’ve commented on his contribution to the screenplay of “Ben-Hur,” and been critical of his post-2001work.This post will be an overview of his career with my capsule reviews of the books of his that I’ve read. 

Vidal was a precocious talent, publishing his first novel, the war story “Williwaw,” at the age of 21 in 1946. “Williwaw” was well-received, but it was Vidal’s third novel, 1948’s “The City and the Pillar,” that truly made him famous. 1948 was also the year that Truman Capote published his first novel, “Other Voices, Other Rooms,” and Norman Mailer published his first novel, the monumental “The Naked and the Dead.” “The City and the Pillar” was one of the first, if not the first, American novels to deal seriously and honestly with homosexuality. The main character of “The City and the Pillar” is gay, but he does not conform to the limp-wristed stereotype of that era. It was a bold move for Vidal, as he essentially outed himself with the book. It was a scandalous best-seller, but it also made the literary establishment wary of this young author. Vidal quickly found himself informally blacklisted from the nation’s most important media outlets. The New York Times stopped reviewing his novels, as did Time and Newsweek. The New York Times obituary of Vidal mentions this fact, but it doesn’t mention that Vidal was right. “Mr. Vidal later claimed that the literary and critical establishment, The New York Times especially, had blacklisted him because of the book, and he may have been right.” Yes, he was right. You didn’t mention his name in your newspaper for years; you were blacklisting him because he was gay. Vidal’s next five novels all landed with a thud, as most people probably weren’t even aware of the books. So Vidal wrote for television, wrote screenplays-yes, he added the gay subtext to “Ben-Hur,” and wrote novels under pseudonyms. (He wrote three murder mysteries as “Edgar Box.” These were all favorably reviewed in The New York Times.) Vidal also ran for Congress in upstate New York in 1960. He ran as a Democrat, under the slogan “You’ll get more with Gore!” Vidal lost, but he always mentioned that he got more votes in his district than JFK did. It was for the best that Vidal lost, although the thought of him as an actual member of Congress is a delicious one. 

Vidal returned to the novel, publishing “Julian” in 1964. “Julian” was a historical novel about the 4th century Roman emperor who tried to turn away from Christianity and back to paganism. “Julian” was unquestionably the best book Vidal had written to that point. Finally reviewed again in The New York Times, “Julian” went on to become one of the best-selling novels that year. Vidal had found his niche-historical fiction peopled with real historical figures, but with all the gossip and detail that historians would never include. In 1967 Vidal published the first of his “American Chronicles” historical novels, “Washington, D.C.” (The “American Chronicles” series is also referred to by Vidal as the “Narratives of Empire” series.) Vidal was now on a hot streak, and through the rest of the 1970’s and 80’s he was on a roll, publishing one best-seller after another, while at the same time decrying the fact that the American public had no taste for literature. (How then did Vidal explain his own popular success?) Vidal was a frequent guest on television talk shows, and he proved that he really was an actor. Sure, he must have been funny and acerbic off camera, but Vidal clearly loved to perform for an audience. Vidal also wrote essays on many topics, from the Kennedy family to the novels of John O’Hara to his friendship with Orson Welles. And of course, he wrote many, many essays on the United States government, and our foreign policy, which he almost always disagreed with. 

Gore Vidal may have become more and more of a crank as the years wore on, but at his best he was always a funny, sharp, engaging crank. He saved one of his best books for late in his life, his memoir “Palimpsest,” published when he was 70. The title of the book is a word referring to something that has been written on more than once, with the earlier writing sometimes visible underneath. What a wonderful title. “Palimpsest” covers Vidal’s fascinating family, which I did not cover here, and his life until 1964 and the publication and success of “Julian.” It’s a wonderful book, full of gossip and yet very poignant. I don’t think that we shall encounter another talent quite like Gore Vidal. 

Some thoughts on the works of Gore Vidal:

Williwaw, 1946: A good first novel. The prose is tight as a drum, with doses of Hemingway and no sign of the gadfly that would eventually emerge.

The City and the Pillar, 1948: A fine novel with a sympathetic attitude towards homosexuality. It may seem prim and proper now, but at the time it caused a sensation.

Dark Green, Bright Red, 1950: An interesting short novel detailing a revolution in a South American country. The book is a premonition of the CIA-sponsored coup in Guatemala in 1954. Unfortunately, Vidal re-wrote many of his early novels in the mid-1960’s, so it’s tough to know what was in the book in 1950 and what he added later. 

The Best Man, 1960: Very funny play, later adapted into a movie and currently being revived on Broadway. Excellent portraits of Adlai Stevenson and Richard Nixon-under different names, of course.

Julian, 1964: An amazing book. I couldn’t put it down. This is one of my favorite Vidal novels. Vidal really puts you inside the waning Roman Empire. If you liked I, Claudius, you will enjoy Julian.

Myra Breckinridge, 1968: A funny, silly book. Combines two of Vidal’s favorite subjects: sex and the movies. It’s not my favorite of Vidal’s, but it was another shocking and scandalous best-seller.

Two Sisters, 1970: This is a weird one. A combination novel and memoir, it’s not very good as either. It’s about incestuous twins. Supposedly it was a veiled attack on Jackie Kennedy and her sister Lee Radziwill. The paperback edition features one of my favorite book blurbs of all time. Norman Mailer used to put his bad reviews in ads for his books, so Vidal decided to praise himself on the back of his own book. "A work of perfect genius!”-Gore Vidal. Which I think accurately sums up how Gore Vidal viewed all of his own books, and that makes me smile.

An Evening with Richard Nixon, 1972: This play, written before Watergate, is an attack on the character of Richard Nixon. Vidal uses Nixon’s own words as often as he can, which makes the play better read than performed. It’s very entertaining.

Burr, 1973: A wonderful examination of one of the most interesting of all the Founding Fathers. (Or members of the Founding Generation, or whatever you want to call Aaron Burr.) Vidal very successfully conjures up the scheming and devious Burr. Along the way there are many great portraits of all the other Founding Fathers. I always thought that a good miniseries could be made of Burr, with Vidal himself playing the aging Burr dictating his memoirs. 

Views from a Window-Conversations with Gore Vidal, 1981: An interesting book, this is a compendium of interviews with Vidal over the years. Very funny and very readable. 

Duluth, 1983: As someone from Minnesota, I felt like I had to read a Gore Vidal novel called Duluth. This is one of Vidal’s “inventions” where he just lets his imagination run wild. So the Duluth of the novel has little in common with Minnesota’s Duluth, as Vidal’s Duluth borders Mexico. A hilarious book.

United States: Essays 1952-1992: I haven’t read all of the essays in this massive tome, but this is the best introduction to Vidal’s essays, and maybe to his work in general. No matter what you’re interested in, Vidal will have an essay for you. He has an essay where he reads all of the books on the New York Times best-seller list, it’s wickedly funny.

Palimpsest, 1995: Vidal’s memoir. As I said above, this is a terrific book. Vidal pulls no punches as he chronicles the first 39 years of his life. There’s even a chapter about his one-night stand with Jack Kerouac. 

The American Presidency, 1998: A very short volume containing an essay about the occupants of the Oval Office. Brief, but entertaining.

The Last Empire: Essays, 1992-2000: I’ve read most of these essays, and as usual they are quite insightful and funny.

Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, 2002: Short collection of essays. Features Vidal’s thoughts about 9/11. Good, but it also includes some essays previously published in The Last Empire.

Dreaming War, 2002: Another short collection of essays published in the run-up to the second Iraq war. It’s very good, but also includes some essays previously published in The Last Empire.

Inventing a Nation, 2003: A short book about the Founding Fathers. Quite good.

Imperial America, 2004: Another short essay collection. The new stuff is okay, but I think it also has some previously published essays from, you guessed it, The Last Empire.

Point to Point Navigation, 2006: Vidal’s second memoir, this isn’t as good as Palimpsest and treads some of the same territory. 

And that’s all the Gore Vidal books I’ve read. It’s a lot, but when I look at this list all I can see are the many books of his I haven’t read yet. I need to read more of his “American Chronicles” series. Hopefully this will inspire some of you out there to read some of Gore Vidal’s books. He was truly a great writer.