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Books

in brief | kATe tuttle

‘It’s Not You,’ ‘Pat and Dick,’ ‘The Wisdom of the Myths’

Pat and Dick: The Nixons, an Intimate Portrait of a Marriage

By Will Swift

Threshold, 479 pp., illustrated, $30

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When they met, Richard Nixon was a young lawyer, not as successful as he had hoped, and Patricia Ryan was a popular high school teacher, adored by her students. Different as they seemed, writes Will Swift, Pat and Dick “shared an outsider’s mentality — born of their emotional shyness and their distrust of fancy people in fancy places.” In this sprawling account of the Nixons’ marriage and life together, Swift attempts to revise the couple’s reputations — his for shiftiness, hers for rigidity — portraying a decades-long love affair between two gritty perfectionists, both in some ways their own worst enemies.

Swift’s sympathy for his subjects, though laudable on a human level, at times serves him poorly as an author. Chronicling the Nixons’ early marriage and young parenthood, the book’s first half offers an intriguing new view — Dick’s respect for Pat’s intelligence is notable, and likable. Yet an aggrieved tone creeps into the narrative when Swift describes Nixon’s political battles, culminating in his 1968 presidential election and increasingly turbulent terms in office. It feels as if Swift himself has taken on some of his subject’s famed paranoia when he describes Nixon as a victim of “the incessant hostility that was directed at their White House fortress by liberals and antiwar activists,” for instance, and the couple’s last months in office as “a slow crucifixion.”

The Wisdom of the Myths: How Greek Mythology Can Change Your Life

By Luc Ferry, translated from the French by Theo Cuffe

Harper Perennial, 404 pp., paperback, $15.99

What is there to be learned from the tales of Oedipus and Antigone, Pandora and Odysseus? In this marvelously wise and expansive book, Luc Ferry argues for the primacy of Greek myth not only as part of our “broad cultural inheritance” in the West, but also in forming what he calls “a prehistory of philosophy,” a series of stories that can help us make sense — even now — of life’s central contradictions. The great dramas of the Olympian gods and goddesses, Ferry writes, have little to do with religion in the Abrahamic sense; rather, he points out, these narratives owe more to Grecian philosophies we would now see as nearly existential.

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In the Oedipus tragedy, Ferry writes, we can see the Greek case for “accepting the absurdity of things as they are”; while his daughter Antigone’s struggle against political and social strictures heralds “the early ferment of a humanism to come.” The beauty of these tales goes beyond the poetic, he asserts; with their unstinting focus on making sense of life as it is and how we can live it best, they are “bearers of a profound and coherent body of wisdom.” A professor of philosophy at the Sorbonne and former French minister of education, Ferry writes with warmth, wit, and energy; one could call his prose conversational, but it’s rare to have a conversation quite this wonderful.

It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single

By Sara Eckel

Perigee, 208 pp., paperback, $15

“I’m not an expert,” writes Sara Eckel. “I don’t have a PhD or a reality show.” What Eckel brings to this slight but disarmingly honest book is her own experience as a single woman fielding (unsolicited) advice about her situation. Now happily married, Eckel heard all the digs — you’re too picky, you’re too negative, you’re too demanding, you’re too intimidating — and now, in handy book format, she obliterates them, one by one. By turns silly and serious (with an occasionally heavy dose of Buddhist thought thrown in), “It’s Not You” provides a cheering reminder that life is complicated, and so are people. Instead of torturing yourself with a self-improvement checklist, she asks, why not see yourself “as a flawed but basically lovable human being?”

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.

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