Bookworm: ‘Incomparable Grace’ – There’s nothing is new in politics

‘Social Lives of Animals’ is perfect for armchair biologists and animal lovers of all kinds

Terri Schlichenmeyer

“Incomparable Grace: JFK in the Presidency”

  • By Mark K. Updegrove
  • c. 2022, Dutton
  • $29, 355 pages

It wasn’t even your idea. If you’d had your druthers, in fact, you would’ve chosen another course of action but the decision was out of your control. The situation was picked not by you but for you and though it wasn’t your idea, you’ll press on. As in the new book “Incomparable Grace” by Mark K. Updegrove, there’s no option but you’ll do your best.

"Incomparable Grace: JFK in the Presidency"by Mark K. Updegrove.

It was blisteringly cold on the day that John F. Kennedy was inaugurated. After he took the oath, he removed much of his cold-weather wear to give a brief speech; afterward, he departed for various celebrations while his wife, who’d recently given birth, retired to rest.

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“Jack” hadn’t initially wanted the job of President, and he wasn’t originally supposed to have it. According to his father, Jack’s eldest brother was perfect for office but when Joe Jr. was killed in World War II, Joe Sr.’s focus turned to Jack. All nine of the Kennedy children grew up with the idea that politics were essential to the family, so while Jack seemed sometimes to grouse about this assumption that he wanted to be President, he ultimately embraced it.

"Incomparable Grace: JFK in the Presidency" author Mark K. Updegrove.

Insiders say that he was driven, always wanting to be in “the center of the action,” and for this, Americans gave him stellar approval ratings. But within weeks of the inauguration in 1961, JFK was faced with his first crisis in the Bay of Pigs in Cuba. He had to deal with a growing Civil Rights Movement that year, and unrest in Vietnam as well as troubles with Russia and East Germany. His own health issues plagued him, as did his father’s.

The following year was no better: early in 1962, Kennedy tangled with steel executives and the media wasn’t kind. The South boiled with Civil Rights issues; the Kremlin and Cuba forced him to face a real possibility of nuclear war. And during all this, his health issues worsened, and Kennedy was in pain nearly all the time.

He would not see the end of 1963 ...

In the past near-60 years, hundreds, if not thousands of books about the Kennedy assassination have packed bookshelves tight. “Incomparable Grace” touches upon that event briefly, but only after taking readers back and around.

Certainly, author Mark K. Updegrove shows that his subject possessed the trait that gives this book its title but still, it isn’t lavishly complimentary to the Kennedy legacy. While other political players circa 1955 to 1964 make their appearances here, JFK’s presidency – including his mistakes and trials – is the focus of this book, which helps to remind readers that there wasn’t a perpetually-glossy sheen to Camelot. Hints of what could have happened, in fact, seem to hover just on the edge of some paragraphs; so, do more than a few great anecdotes that will make historians grin with delight.

Readers may also be surprised to see that nothing is new in politics – there are parallels for the drawing here, fascinating evidence remains and for history-lovers, reading “Incomparable Grace” is a good idea.


For another scenes-before-the-White-House, look for “Growing Up Biden” by Valerie Biden Owens (Celadon Books, $28.00). It’s a great memoir of Owens’ big brother, his career, and how his life-long passion for politics has shaped her own life.

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“The Social Lives of Animals”

  • By Ashley Ward
  • c. 2022, Basic Books
  • $30, 373 pages

Sometimes, you’re such a goose. And that’s okay; a little horsing around never hurt anyone and times with friends are the best. You can chatter like monkeys, laugh like hyenas, get a little squirrely, and memories are made like that. You need your friends to get wild every now and then, and in “The Social Lives of Animals” by Ashley Ward, you’ll see that flying, running, climbing, and crawling creatures are really no different at all.

“The Social Lives of Animals” by Ashley Ward.

Anyone watching a few dogs playing in a park, or a clowder of cats in a windowsill would likely agree that animals can form relationships. But how does that matter to humans?

Says Ward, being able to “trace direct... parallels between our own societies and those of the animals...[can] help us to appreciate how sociality shapes our lives...”

We love to gather in groups, for instance, and Antarctic krill likewise hate to be alone. As it turns out, gathering in large groups helps keep krill alive because it confounds whales, who enjoy krill for dinner. Being in groups keeps locusts alive, too: locusts are can be cannibals, and the innate desire not to be eaten keeps them all moving “in the same direction.”

Teamwork may be essential at your job, just as it is with army ants. One bite from a single army ant hurts like crazy but it won’t kill you. A bunch of army ants, though? That’s a different matter entirely.

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Flocks of birds have influenced the making of self-driving vehicles. Fish have taught scientists how many influencers are needed to move a crowd. Studies with rats show the effects of dense crowding on mental health, and cows are good at recognizing friends by their portraits. Hyenas communicate to the pack which prey they plan to hunt for the day. Whales play, and dolphins play with them. Monkeys lie to get what they want. Animals innovate, reason, have a culture, and communicate, Ward says, and they have a lot to tell us...

"The Social Lives of Animals" author Ashley Ward.

So, you say that someone called you a birdbrain the other day. What a compliment, as you’ll see when you read “The Social Lives of Animals.”

Chances are – especially if you’re an animal lover – you’ve already an observer of animal behavior and, if so, you’ll be happy that author Ashley Ward extends your knowledge. There are, it seems, dozens of facts on each page that will delight lovers of fin, feather, and fur, as well as new findings and fascinating anecdotes.

But this book isn’t all serious bull. Ward is a lively writer who’s obviously interested in his subject – he’s a professor of Animal Behavior at the University of Sydney, after all – and his personal tales of exploration and discovery are academically lighthearted, like cocktail party banter that’ll make you chuckle.

Perfect for armchair biologists and animal lovers of all kinds, this is one of those “hey, listen to this” kinds of books that you’ll want to share out loud. Start “The Social Lives of Animals” and you’ll go ape over it.

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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books. Read past columns at marconews.com.