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On Sunday: Lyndon Johnson, Toni Morrison and the history of cookbooks

May 4, 2012 | 12:45 pm

A recent piece on Robert Caro in the New York Times Magazine carried the cover lines “ Roert Caro Is a Dinosaur and Thank God for That.” Caro is indeed a product of bygone days. He eschews a computer and continues to write on an electric typewriter. And he still composes long, thoughtful prose on the subject that has captivated him now for decades: Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Now  the fourth volume in Caro’s epic study of the 36th president, “The Passage of Power,” is out, and it is the focus of the books coverage in Sunday’s Arts & Books section. Our reviewer, Wendy Smith, notes that this volume covers Johnson’s years of deepest humiliation as he gave up his powerful role as majority leader of the Senate to become a vice-presidential candidate on the Democratic Party ticket headed by John F. Kennedy. This was the pre-Dick Cheney vice presidency, when it wasn't much of a job — and Johnson was indeed the subject of ridicule from the New Frontiersmen who populated much of JFK’s administration.

Fate intervened, however, and Johnson was there in Dallas with Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, when the president was shot to death. He took the oath of office and, over the next few months, took over JFK’s domestic program and made it his own. Johnson “bent Congress to his will as Kennedy had never been able to do,”  Caro writes. Those who have read the three previous volumes of Caro’s work, which carry the overall title “The Years of Lyndon Johnson,” will find that “The Passage of Power” has a “different tone from its predecessors,” Smith writes. It’s a tone of sympathy and admiration "for a man who ‘not only had held the country steady during a difficult time but had set it on a new course, a course toward social justice.”

Also Sunday, book critic David L. Ulin looks at Toni Morrison's new novel, “Home.” In Ulin’s reading, Morrison’s work can be astonishingly uneven. Three of her novels, Ulin says, are masterpieces — “Song of Solomon,” “Beloved” and “ A Mercy” -- but others are less so, and “Home” (at about 148 pages) falls into that category, Ulin writes. His explanation makes for a fascinating read on the construction of novels.

More after the jump.

Noelle Carter runs the test kitchen at The Times and is often shown with Times Food editor Russ Parsons demonstrating recipes on KTLA. So we turned to her to review Anne Willan’s “The Cookbook Library: Four Centuries of the Cooks, Writers and Recipes That Made the Modern Cookbook,” which tells the history of the cookbook from the 15th century to the present day.  While much of it has an academic feel, Carter notes, “Willan tackles fun tidbits of culinary history too. For instance, who knew the fork could generate such controversy?  While knives and spoons may have been common utensils at the medieval table, the addition of the fork added a bit of a stir, its two prongs seen as a symbol of the devil. ‘God preserve me from forks,’ Martin Luther is said to have remarked.”

In the novel “Rain Dragon” by Jon Raymond, the main characters Damon and Amy are headed for Oregon after leaving Los Angeles in the hopes of finding a more meaningful life at an organic farm called Rain Dragon.  Amy finds her footing quickly in these new surroundings while Damon has a harder time because, as our reviewer Carolyn Kellogg writes, he’s not “particularly good at the things a working farm needs: horticulture, animal husbandry, building … " He’s also “not constitutionally suited to take pleasure in learning any of the various physical activities of the farm.” And their two stories create the tension in this second work by Raymond who wrote “The Half Life” in 2004.

Dana Giola, the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, is now a professor of poetry at USC. More important, his new collection of poems “Pity, the Beautiful” is out and we run the text of one entitled “The Coat.”

Our YA column Not Just for Kids this week features “Insurgent,” the second title in Veronica Roth’s “Divergent” trilogy featuring Tris and Tobias as they head into new territory.  And if you missed it earlier this week, check out Sue’s interview with Roth on our Jacket Copy blog.

And our bestsellers list this week notes that Laura Hillenbrand’s “Unbroken” is still going strong at No. 7  on the nonfiction side, its 72nd week on the list.

As always, thanks for reading.

-- Jon Thurber, Books editor

Photo:  John F. Kennedy, left, Robert Kennedy, an unidentified man and Lyndon Johnson in 1960. Credit: Associated Press