From Bob Wells - our intrepid traveler and reader...
This summer, you could pack the family up in a station wagon bound for The Cape, or Vineyard... Or, you could call your wacky brother, fly to Kansas City, buy a covered wagon -- and three unsuspecting mules, not to mention an ungodly amount of canned chili and other supplies -- and head West along the 2,100 mile Oregon Trail. An unforgettable adventure? Yes. And as a result, a book by one Rinker Buck.
This wasn't entirely out of the blue. Back when the author and his brother, Nick, were kids their father packed the family up in an Amish wagon with a sign on the back reading "See America Slowly" and meandered around Eastern Pennsylvania. (Just proves again: Apples don't fall that far from a tree.)
This delightful little narrative details what the Bucks did to hit The Trail. It sprinkles doses of historical perspective about the mass migration of wagons heading West in the mid 1800's. And then, invites you to enjoy their "reenactment" ride -- as they traced old wagon ruts still plainly visible along the way. Who knew The Peter Schuttler Wagon Works was Chicago's largest factory in 1850. Or that peak migration years -- like 1852 -- saw over 60,000 pioneers leave the Midwest for California and Oregon. The story of Ezra Meeker. Or a Pony Express rider named Jim Moore -- who survived one of the greatest endurance rides in history.
Face it, suspension systems on wagons were and still are butt awful. Today, The Trail is bisected with interstates and Walmart parking lots. Rinker's mules needed water every day. Painted over dry rot on wheels broke through out of nowhere. Yet the trail kept on. Rocky Ridge. California Hill. Cattle guards galore. Barbed wire fences. Surging streams. Irate land owners. Windlass Hill. Ash Hollow. Jail House Rock. A tipped over "Trail Pup". Hair-raising drops off mountain sides, littered with boulders and brush.
Readers can't avoid getting dirt in their shoes. Kinks in their shoulders from sleeping vicariously on bumpy and soggy ground. But for those who have lingered along a trail in nowhere Wyoming... smelling the sage, watching the sun dip over some badlands as everything turns brilliant red... a bit of Bierstadt tickles your imagination as you flip pages and wander your the way West.
The last documented crossing of The Oregon Trail was in 1909. What Rinker and Nick Buck did to do it again, was epic. Get ready for some gosh darn salty cursing between the two. And hold on, or you'll get bounced right out of the wagon. Just be glad you're probably able to read this on The Cape or Vineyard.
If you're deep into AARP-dom, you might remember Ronald Reagan as "The Gipper", or maybe emcee of The GE Theatre in the 1950's. A bit younger? Reagan's the guy in 1987 who from Berlin extolled, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" Or if you're a Millennial Tea Party fan, you might hear people place him right up there with America's political gods.
At any rate, this book -- all 737 pages of it -- traces Reagan from the grips of an alcoholic father to his struggles with Alzheimer's and death at age 93. Whether you liked Reagan or not, Brands does a fine job of giving readers a straight-up sense of the man. He was a committable optimist... always looking for the new dawn for whatever. His early days as a sportscaster and B-movie actor gave him the gift of presence, as well as gab. He focused like a laser on "the big picture".... earned a reputation as "the great communicator"... avoided controversy... and always left the dirty work and details to others. He was the best presidential joke teller since Abraham Lincoln. FDR was his hero. (What? A "rabid righty" liking a "luny leftie"?)
Reagan held a political spotlight for decades. He's known as a champion of cutting taxes -- yet he operated as a pragmatic compromiser. Times were different back in the 1980's. Like all presidents, he was surrounded by a colorful cast of characters. Weinberger. Shultz. Ollie North. Don Regan. Bush, the elder. Volker. "I'm in control here" Haig. And then there was Nancy -- and her astrologers...
Probably the most interesting part of this tome tells tales of Reagan's negotiations with Gorbachev regarding nuclear disarmament. Each knew what they wanted. The 90% of deals could be achieved -- but not unless the intractable 10% could be added as icing. And geez, these cakes took forever to bake. Meanwhile Raisa Gorbachev and Nancy were steaming at state dinners. Looking wistfully at Washington today, one pines for the days when Tip O'Neill would pay visits to the White House. Cigar smoke would make the curtains reek in the West Wing. Too much bourbon would spill on the furniture. But things would get done. Maybe some day ultra-partisanship will recede and it can be "morning again for America". Wouldn't it be lovely to take a page from Reagan's playbook (and FDR's for that matter), and have both sides work together to restore Americans' faith in our country. Read when. It's possible.
Not one for surprises? Here's one where the punch line is right out in the open without opening the book. Big boat torpedoed... sinks... many die. But what's with the title, "Dead Wake"? It's an archaic nautical term for the lingering disturbance on water's surface left after a vessel (or torpedo) pass. And goodness, were there ever entrails left behind from the sinking of the nearly 800-foot passenger ship, Lusitania in 1915.
Eric Larson is a story teller -- a master at "narrative non-fiction". Yes, there are the facts. But beyond that lurk the coloration, the noises, the smells -- all the little things that bring history to life. There are more sub-plots in this tale than in Downton Abbey! Right from when the Lusitania leaves Pier 54 and slices its way out of New York Harbor on May 1, 1915 an epic story unfolds. England and Germany had been at war for months... in just the week prior, U-Boats had sunk 23 British merchant ships... editorials from newspapers pleaded with people not to sail to Europe. Yet 1,959 passengers and crew set sail on the majestic, 4-funneled Cunard liner as if the world and its war were not happening.
The U.S. had declared neutrality, so who would do harm here? Also, the ship traveled at an average speed of 24 knots -- much faster than any U-Boat. Passengers ranged from Alfred Vanderbilt -- son and primary heir to Cornelius' fortune -- to relatively regular folks catching a ride to the Continent. The book invites you on board with them. Readers attend 1st Class dining quarters, attend afternoon teas and vicariously sun top-side. Meanwhile, Kptlt. Walther Schweiger sweeps the horizons (periscope up) in his cramped and dingy U-20 looking for prey.
The British Admiralty knows where danger lurks. In fact, in a secret "Room 40", they received and decoded messages from German subs -- tipping them off to exact locations of each U-Boat. Captain Turner of the Lusitania steamed eastward. Wary but oblivious to specific enemy positions. Why was there no naval escort? The Lusitania barreled ahead. Radar and sonar had not been invented yet. Why wasn't there warning? Then out of a fog burning off near the Irish coast on May 7th, it happened. Even passengers on deck could see a tiny trail of phosphorous approaching from a distance, In it came. Then a muffled thud -- followed by a massive explosion. The ship went down in only 18 minutes as 1,198 souls perished.
Was there a plot to endanger the Lusitania to enrage the U.S. enough to get them into the war? I don't know. You'll just have to absorb this little book. Keep your life vest handy. And make up your own mind.
In 1901, the year of Queen Victoria's death, an official tribute book covering her reign claimed there were two eras in British history: The Elizabethan Era and The Victorian Era. In today's mirror, the latter held much to matter. From a family perspective alone, Victoria and Albert of Coburg (the Prince Consort) delivered nine children to the world–and these kids seeded off-springs that ruled no less than six nations in Europe. You might say, "What's love got to do with it?". Well, back then, not much. Marital plotting of the rich and powerful was truly a blood sport.
Victoria herself held German blood–and also was a grand daughter of King George III. She had an unhappy childhood even though it oozed with pure indulgence. She was intensely shy–took to her monarchical role with dutiful dollops of reticence–and when her beloved husband, Albert, died when they both were so young, she understandably became completely unhinged and awkwardly adrift. But at this point in her life, she was just warming up. Wilson's book consumes readers with the tittles and tattles of this amazing lady and those around her. Disraeli comes and goes. Gladstone becomes her gall stone. And then there's John Brown (not the guy in Harpers Ferry) who might have been a bit cozier with the Queen than Brits would like to admit. As Empress of India she adopted a couple of cute guys from Agra –but it's best not to talk about them either. (You know those Victorians...)
Victoria's reign spans from 1838 to 1901–longer than any monarch in English history. On her watch were The Crimean War... the creation of Germany and Italy as countries... famine and the struggle for Home Rule in Ireland... the "scramble for Africa... The Boer Wars... and a continuing flow of global strife. Bad news? She genetically carried hemophilia to her kids. Worse news? Her kids learned about syphilis the hard way. Through all, she ruled by a boiling mixture of common sense and "sheer caprice". And after her death, to bend the arc of history, King Edward II went on a rampage gathering as much written material to and from his mother as he could... so he could burn it.
Okay. Face it. This lady was bigger than life She left an indelible image on this notion we call The United Kingdom. When you slip into some of the issues she confronted as one of yesterday's world leaders, "awe" might be the best summary of her legacy. Bob Wells
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When imagining life in France around 1430, one can't underestimate the influence of The Church–actually, the bunch of old men who used altars to sway dirt-poor villagers. These men were doors to salvation, controllers of medieval life. In the pews, a young dauphin Charles struggled to take on the mantel as King of France... while the English are nipping at France's vineyards around Burgundy.
Enter a 16-year-old peasant girl from a peanut sized village who hears voices from God, rises from obscurity to scramble a hopelessly disorganized and timid people, somehow convinces knights and nobles she is the one to lead warriors against invincible foes. And this is where the tale gets interesting. She'd never ridden a horse. No sweat. She'd never had any martial or leadership experience. No sweat. Armor back then weighed a ton -- literally. No sweat. Girls had no right to lead armies. No sweat. So a kind of "what do we have to lose?" mentality set in greasing the way for "Joan the pucelle" (or the Maid), and off history rode.
In short, Joan proved to be super human, ultimately her undoing. She piled up conquest after conquest. Charles, who should have been elated, wilted at the thought of his legitimacy being forged by a female who wore men's clothing and heard voices from strange sources–like angels. And predictably, "the old men of the cloth" felt threatened. It wasn't long before success and adulation morphed into whispers about witchcraft. Yet for little reciprocal reason, Joan was fanatically faithful to Charles.
Finally, during a fierce battle she was pulled from her horse, captured and thrown into a dungeon. For months she lived in an iron cage chained to a block of wood six feet long Guards tried to rape her.Three bishops were appointed to try her. The trial was a lengthy farce. And at the tender age of 19, she was ignominiously burned at the stake.
Joan of Arc was incredible.and Harrison’s tale does her justice. What a lass! What a book!.
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Chances are, if you hear of Spain's Queen Isabella, you might imagine her and King Ferdinand waving goodbye to Christopher Columbus as he sails West in 1492. What you probably don't know is much about how this extraordinary leader became unquestionably the most powerful force in Europe during the latter part of the 15th Century. At the time, lineage dictated who ruled what. Isabella's was (and still is) suspect. But few can ignore her impact as the world shook off a medieval past.
Isabella was nothing less than the right person at the right time. She was a born leader, fair, honest, fearless, compassionate, intelligent and utterly devoted to Catholicism and its God. She unflinchingly shared or gave credit to her husband, Ferdinand, who often proved he seldom deserved it.
Men thought no woman was "up to" leading nations. In fact, up to Isabella's time, history was punctuated by perilously few leading ladies. Isabella was one who looked westward and saw promise in New World.
She negotiated Spanish control over much of the New World with the help of Rodrigo Borgia, the infamous Pope Alexander VI. She also annihilated all who stood against her by establishing a bloody religious Inquisition that would darken Spain’s reputation for centuries. Whether saintly or satanic, no female leader has done more to shape our modern world.
As with many current historians, Downey plumbs newly accessible original sources to deliver fascinating insights to Isabella's reign. Credit to Isabella is due. And having the author bring forward a tapestry of tales about this laudable Queen and Spain's history during this period is equally overdue.
"He's a crazy man!!" Well, yes, that he was. Thomas L. Jackson... later known as the infamous Stonewall Jackson. General Jackson began as an unlikely leader. He came from the backwater of nowhere... force fed learning into himself... earned the last slot in a West Point class... was a highly pious introvert... and toiled as a lousy professor of science at VMI. Then the Civil War ripped the country apart.
As a member of the Confederate forces, he began as an irritant. A genuine odd duck. Jefferson Davis didn't like him. Robert E. Lee had no reason to differ. But soon, incredibly enough, he blossomed a true leader. He held natural abilities to create decisive strategies -- throwing conventional warfare to the wind. He regularly drove his troops to utter exhaustion -- but in so doing, baffled his rather inept enemies. Soon, he bagged one battle victory after another. Federalists grew to fear him. His men revered him. In short, he had an uncanny ability to see through walls, develop "impossible" plans and then execute them. Both sides of the War went to school on his tactics, as he professed that God was directing his every move.
Most books on the Civil War focus on Lee, Grant and the line up of Union generals who proceeded Grant -- as Lincoln ignominiously striped them of their commands. For some reason, Stonewall Jackson -- who was probably the most competent one of the lot -- escapes literary coverage. Why? Maybe it's because he died in battle (from friendly fire). He was not around to glorify himself and rewrite history decades after the bugles ran out of air.
Jackson was devoted to his cause, devoted to his troops, devoted to his little family -- and always sided on what he felt was right. Battles he waged saw row after row of infantry mowed down by blistering fire. The carnage of his campaigns was tragic. (Surely, there must be a better way to address disagreements.) But on the War dragged... through mud, sweat, filth, horror, violence, blood- soaked ground. When Jackson was cut down -- riding ahead of his troops at night to scout enemy positions -- the world of the Confederacy crashed. Suddenly, the end seemed near. A sun of hope sank beneath the trees. And time ran heavy for those on the fields who remained.
Rebel Yell re-introduces a true American hero -- regardless of which side in the Civil War favor. This is a book about passion, commitment, dignity, purpose... and a man who deserves so much more.
The year 2015 will be the 100th anniversary of an ill-fated Antarctic expedition. Few recall a similar venture more than three decades earlier to the earth's polar flip-side by commanding officer George De Long -- to enter the Arctic's "Open Polar Sea" and discover the North Pole. The voyage was to be funded by the slightly outrageous, James Bennett -- owner and publisher of New York's Herald Tribune newspaper.
At the time, horrors of the Civil War stood tall in peoples' memories. In 1867, the U.S. bought Alaska from Russia. A financial crisis gripped the world during the mid-1870's. Good news was scarce. A legendary cartographer from a small town in Germany (Dr. Petermann) was cranking out maps touting the feasibility of polar exploration made possible by following temperate Pacific currents. De Long was gnashing at a nautical bit. Bennett was game. A capable craft was readied, as was a truly international crew. And in no time, the Jeannette was steaming up California's coast to parts unknown.
From here, Hampton Sides launches into a gripping tale of saltwater, endless impenetrable ice packs, a pressurized destruction and sinking of the Jeannette, dog sled treks to find relative civilization in Siberia, frostbite, boots oozing seawater, fearful footfalls over "messes" of rotten ice, walrus slaughters interspersed with starvation, a desperate scramble of three small boats over a hostile open sea to reach land... followed by fate. The author uses journals and logs from De Long, published by Emma De Long in 1883, as well as horrific tales from others in the crew. Bob Wells
Many times in our country's past have seen Americans spitting vitriol at each other. Even today, listening to extreme Tea Party advocates -- or rabid defenders of 2nd Amendment rights -- civility seems invisible. These times of extreme tension are not new. During the election of 1800, supporters of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson rhetorically ravaged each other. It was
ultra-ugly! But through this lens, taking the cake was our very own Civil War.
Another less written about period of discontent was the period between 1939 and 1941 -- when our country was considering entering yet another war. WWI was bad enough -- and it was fresh in everyone's mind. Then came a disastrous depression of worldwide proportion. Approaching the 1940's, sides were quick to form -- "isolationists" vs. "interventionists". "America First". "Friends of Democracy"... "The Century Group". Germanic sympathizers shrilly shouted about "the phoney war"... while others cried out to aid our English brethren.
Heroes like Charles Lindbergh -- recently honored by Goering with a "Service Cross of the German Eagle" -- rightly flew into a buzz saw of criticism because of his unwavering support of Nazi Germany. Speeches he made enraged people -- even causing towns to rename streets, remove plaques and destroy "Spirit of St. Louis" monuments. Meanwhile, Roosevelt and his team of New Dealers hunkered down by doing everything they could to dither and dawdle their way to indecision. A few old destroyers here... a large bit of "Lend-Lease" there. And all the while, England -- not to mention Poland, France and the rest of civilized Europe -- was
getting pummeled by Hitler.
The Bund, a fascist group here, churned out propaganda like popcorn... and even aired a radio program named "The Goebbels Hour". Not to be outdone, the Brits cranked up a machine on our side of The Pond to influence people and flood our media with sympathetic messages.
The result? Emotions were set aflame. You couldn't fiddle in the middle. Either you felt this way or that. The heat on the stove was stuck on high.
You've probably read enough about this period in history. But Olson carves out the particular tensions of 1939 through 1941 in America and enables readers to crawl inside the heads of our mothers and fathers as they worried about whether their children would put on uniforms. It all ended on December 7, 1941 when Pearl Harbor was attacked... and a few days later when Hitler finally declared war on The US. The rest is history.
Somehow, I suspect most of you have not heard of Alexandre Antoine Davy, the Marquis de la
Pailleterie. (Alias Alex Dumas) But The Count of Monte Cristo? Aha! And here the tale
In 1762, on a French possession in the Caribbean (Saint-Domingue... present day Haiti) a sturdy
mulatto boy was born to a slave girl and French nobleman hiding from his family. Life on
sugar plantations brought vast riches mixed with brutality. Le Code Noir (the Black Code) in
the islands institutionalized extremes of injustice. In 1776, a young Alex joined his father on an
Atlantic crossing where he was soon thrown into a totally new world of learning the art of
surviving in France. And survive he did.
During these times, nobility was schooled to fight. Making war was about as common as
breathing air. In short order, Dumas excelled in swordsmanship and all manners of learning.
He grew to be over six feet in height with a "Herculean" build. Entering the lowest level in the
Army, he quickly rose to General -- striking, as he had dark skin. He proved to be a brilliant
soldier -- leading elite Dragoon units, and even divisions with thousands of troops. Fantastic
heroics became his trademark as France battled endlessly during the dark times after its
revolution in 1789. He fought for the new republic. Fought for Napoleon -- joining the future
dictator in a secret mission to Egypt. While fighting for dignity and honor, he crossed hairs
with less than noble souls... including our boy, Bonaparte. Sailing back from Egypt in a leaky
boat, he was thrown into a horrific Neapolitan prison where he languished in decrepit
conditions. Yet survived all.
To be blunt, Dumas should have been counted as one of France's most brilliant heroes. Yet his
color stood in the way of recognition for over 200 years. Dumas' son, the writer Alexandre
Dumas, employed memories of his father as the model for The Count of Monte Cristo. And
today, Tom Reiss devoting himself to original research -- accessing never-opened safes filled
with Dumas documents... pouring through dusty stacks in old European libraries... gaining the
trust of peoples with relevant personal letters -- unfolds wonderful tales to tell. "The Black
Count" was truly bigger than life. A tragic figure tainted only by his color. This book carries a
fabulous lesson in 18th Century French history -- all wrapped around a true yet utterly
forgotten story. If you're looking for some good "swashbuckling" fun, en garde!
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Coming out of WWII, Ike could have run for God, not just President. A true “anti-partisan”,
his mission was service to country. The Republican Party saw him as just the ticket to purge
bad tastes from FDR/HST days. Few were ready to mess with “I Like Ike” and his presidency
For those old enough, geopolitical tensions during the 1950’s were rife as nations and peoples
around the globe remade themselves. Khrushchev redefined bluster – employing nuclear
threats. Mao was tickling Chiang Kai-shek. Tensions in Laos and Vietnam were bubbling.
Hungary popped. Lebanon burped. Germans were grousing – as Berlin became two. Historic
colonial empires were evaporating, replaced by unstable regimes. And then there was
Sputnik. Our “Flopniks”. Bomb shelters blooming in back yards. This was the placidly
peaceful time Ike inherited.
So, why did semblances of peace reign? It took a leader who knew the idiocy of war to
navigate through the foibles of man to perpetuate calm. For Ike, this was second nature.
Massive egos constantly knocked on his door – trying his patience during and after the war.
His temper was monstrous. But his extraordinary discipline kept it under wraps. As President, “the world’s consummate warrior” kept the peace by tacitly threatening all out war in a strategic bluff. Because of this, he successfully avoided war and thereby virtually saved the world.
As President, disarmament was his secret passion. But underlings had other ideas. Ike was
probably the first to confront the military-industrial-congressional complex – a force that raises
its ugly head even today. Lobbyists floated lies to intelligence influences about burgeoning
Soviet missile strengths. Journalists harped on Ike’s public persona of “softness”. While the
Cold War burned on, Ike could be seen playing round after round of golf – or bridge. He
suffered heart attacks… strokes… he looked old, tired. His administration was seen as “the
bland leading the bland”.
Evan Thomas takes readers through these seemingly benign times in a breezy way. As in each
preceding decade, the 1950’s was a foundation for today. So much has changed. Yet so little
has changed. Or is it all just a “bluff.
Few would deny that Thomas Jefferson was a towering figure. Not only in physical stature, but in intellect, curiosity, wile, creativity, "language", architecture and plain old luck (as seen when Napoleon decided to unload Louisiana). If Washington "inspired awe"... and Adams "respect"... Jefferson was the one who could charm the pants off of anyone. And as the Hemings family knows, he was known to do this. Lord knows enough has been written about our third president. But this volume should easily be considered along side Ron Chernow's Washington, or McCullough's John Adams. Definitive it is. Meacham introduces us to a young lad from a plantation in Virginia and with each page, doggedly tails him through an extraordinary life to his death 50 years to the day after July 4th, 1776... incredibly, the same day John Adams breathed his last. One reason this book is so timely? The presidential election of 1800. Two nascent parties solidified. Federalists (or "monarchists") vs. Republicans. And rabid partisanship raised its ugly head for the first time in our young country's history. In short, if you think 2012's presidential election was a mud-slinging extravaganza, 1800's election beat it hands down. Blasphemous stories spread in the media of the day (broadsheets) trampled truth. Jefferson and other Republicans -- using pseudonyms -- penned blatant lies about Adams and other Federalists. Hamilton and other authors smeared in kind. Jefferson's election still stands as the dirtiest in American history. So, take that, you current Citizens United fans. In a letter to Edward Rutledge, Jefferson wrote: "You and I have formerly seen warm debates and high political passions. But gentlemen of different politics would then speak to each other... It is not so now. Men who have been intimate all their lives cross the streets to avoid meeting, and turn their heads another way lest they should be obliged to touch their hat." Sound like the dysfunctionality of Washington today? Meacham's book paints a vivid picture of why Jefferson earned the right to be one of our more colorful founding fathers. His facility with language was legendary -- yet he could barely speak in public. He operated as a complete detail artist and total control freak -- yet he paid out great amounts of rope to others so they could help make history. He personified eloquence -- yet he often entertained in his slippers wearing "slovenly" clothes. He winced at slavery -- but did not fall on its moral sword when needed. He was a consummate shopper -- and always was able to pull an expensive bottle of wine from his cellar. After living life to its fullest, he died deeply in debt. But truly, a few centuries later, the debt belongs to us. You'll just have to read this book to fully understand.
Would the world be a better place if more women were heads of State? Between the sexes, "competence" scores a draw. Yet women seem to carry more compassion, empathy and "workforce finesse" than power-hungry men. Not convinced? Well, if there ever was a proof point to this view, it came in the name of Catherine the Great of Russia. She rose from obscurity in Anhalt-Zerbst (Germany) to marry the grandson of Peter The Great, thanks to an arranged hook-up by Empress Elizabeth. Peter III was ill fit for anything -- except playing with toy soldiers. Consequently, Catherine spent her first nine years in marriage a virgin. I know, why wait? To heir is human, but they were not coming. So, she took matters into her own bed and began relations with the first of 12 "favorites". Face it, she knew how to ruffle the sheets.
Peter flitted about in idiocy, eventually dying and laying the ground for Catherine to rule the largest empire at the time on earth. Up to the task? For her 34 years on the throne, few could keep up with her. She was incredibly bright, well read, shrewd, courageous, open minded, enlightened about personal liberty with a distaste for human suffering. In short, she ruled with an iron hand and a head full of grand plans. Where she was rather spectacular about making love, she also excelled in making war. She hob-nobbed with the likes of Voltaire and Diderot, took time to rewrite basic laws (Nakaz) for Russia, formed the first college of medicine, turned a back-water St. Petersburg on the Baltic into worldly magnificence -- thanks to her collection of over 4,000 paintings amassed in her spare time.
Russia. So monumental. So dark and mysterious -- particularly during the time of our American Revolution. This book throws the doors open to a fascinating place and period in world history. In 1980, Robert Massie published Peter the Great. More than 30 years later, he follows with Catherine. If you have an itch to explore Russian history -- the Orlovs, the Romanovs, an odd fellow named Potemkin and others -- and gain a better understanding of how this massive nation became what it is today, this book is for you. We Americans tend to be influenced more by Western European lore. There is so much more. Russia possesses a heritage rich in multidimensional textures and flavors that beg to be sensed. And Massie brings everything to light in delicious prose. Cold winter nights ahead will have a glow when this book is in your lap.
In a book on my shelves, The History of Slavery and the Slave Trade -- published in 1860 on the eve of The Civil War -- there's a reference to an event in October 1859 by "deluded men" who tried to overrun a U.S. armory at Harper's Ferry. The abolitionists from Ohio who published this old volume panned the attack as "defective in its theory that the Negroes (sic) were ready for insurrection".
But John Brown was not your average run-of-the-mill abolitionist. He was not one to simply raise his voice and rattle cages. He was a fighter and believed that divine providence compelled him to form a militia -- guided by his own view of a constitution -- and lay siege to vile slave owners. The law? His law was his interpretation of the Bible. Slavery was a "peculiar institution"... an "existing evil"... one that politicians turned blind eyes to, in deference to the U.S. Constitution. All of this drove John Brown crazy. Born in Trinitron, CT and residing in Ohio (CT's Western Reserve), Brown assembled like-minded malcontents and dabbled in dust-ups through Missouri and Kansas where slavery was coloring newly settled farms.
But from the beginning Brown had bigger intentions. He ordered a great number of pikes (knives on long handles) -- to arm slaves. And percolated plans to raid a U.S. armory in Harper's Ferry, VA packed with thousands of rifles waiting to be doled out to slaves just waiting to be freed from oppression. He slunk for months in a farm house across the river... assembled a menagerie of misfits... and on the night of October 16, 1859 with a band of 18 stormed across the Potomac. "I want to free all the Negroes in this state", shouted Brown to unwitting citizens caught in the way. And so events unfolded on an unsuspecting sleepy little hamlet. Brown tore through the town, took a bunch of people hostage (including the grand nephew of George Washington) and proceeded to arrest the armory. Unfortunately, Brown neglected to develop a rational "exit plan" (remind anyone of Iraq?) and to make a short story long, he and his side-kicks were captured by none other than Robert E. Lee.
The story of the raid, however, immediately "went viral". And subsequent lynching trials became the match that lit the brush that ignited the passions that ripped apart a Union. Why is this book nothing more than a rehash? For generations, sources have been scattered into the wind. Now the author has assembled many pieces for the first time. And he's done so with a verbal gravitational pull to draw readers through a spell-binding tale. "John Brown's body lies a-moldering in the grave"... but through these pages, you can dig it back up and be silent witness to an event that shook our nation. It's dark. Don't forget the password if you get caught.
James Garfield. Elected President of the United States in 1880. Assassinated in 1881. Who? Most of us hold memories of JFK's assassination. And we've read about Lincoln at the Ford Theatre. Some might even recall President McKinley meeting up with a bullet in the early 1900s. But Garfield?
Garfield could easily have been one of our greatest Presidents. But he was cut down too soon. Hailing from "nowhere" Ohio, he ripped himself away from abject poverty by perseverance alone. He didn't seek the presidency. In fact, he tried with all his will to decline his nomination. But he was a man of immense intelligence, leadership abilities, character -- and the art of being able to sway masses with words.
Unfortunately for Garfield, the White House in the 18802 entertained all sorts of visitors with an alarmingly open door policy. One such regular visitor was a madman with a gun. In these times -- even so close to Lincoln's assassination -- presidents strolled around town and rode about in uncovered carriages. Secret service details didn't come into being until after 1900 -- with McKinley's death.
When Garfield was shot (as he was about to board a train), a second factor of fortune plagued him. Doctors at the time refused to recognize invisible germs. Sterilizing implements was simply not done, even though a Dr. Lister in England had opened the eyes of a majority of the medical profession in Europe to the pesky little microbes. Garfield was "enslaved" by an arrogant American doctor who believed antisepsis was dangerous. In the months to follow, this MD embedded more filth into his body than anyone could endure. Bullets did not kill Garfield. It was an ignorant Dr. Bliss... and we all know "ignorance is bliss".
This book unleashes a torrent of tales -- about an amazing yet relatively invisible president. If you thought John Wilkes Booth was a nutcase, here comes Charles Guiteau. Alexander Graham Bell you'll learn was enlisted to invent an "induction balance" to locate the bullet. Robert Todd Lincoln was there -- to witness a third president die in office. Political patronage began to die a slow death at the feet of Chester Arthur -- who took over from Garfield. And in the process, our country was compelled to pull together at a time right after the Civil War in a way that would cement all to the cause of one nation indivisible.
This book is all about a chapter in American History that has received far too little attention. The author -- whose last best seller was The River of Doubt -- will without a doubt have a best-seller on her hands here. And the fun begins as you find yourself here. It's 1880... yet it's 2011.
The Floor of Heaven by Howard Blum -- Crown Publishers, April 2011) During the 1880s and 1890s, the California Gold Rush was nothing more than a fleeting memory. Scars from The Civil War still lingered to make people genuinely uncivil. The economy was coming off of a rocky recession. And people were basically bored. It made no sense to stick around, wherever you were. Silver was being chipped out of Colorado quartz -- turning scrubby towns of The Old West into rollicking "places to be". Here, boozing, gambling and whoring pretty much summarized life's idle hours for hordes of unshaven folks who were allergic to bathing. Then all hell broke loose. Nuggets of gold the size of eyeballs were being picked out of ice cold streams in The Klondike. The Where? Up North! The Yukon! Where nobody but a few nutty Indians were. Where it was colder than a witches mitt. And where everybody with an itch stampeded off to strike it rich. So goes The Floor of Heaven. Howard Blum spins a Yukon-laden yarn based on true accounts of three outrageous characters -- "Soapy" Smith, George Carmack and Charlie Siringo. Each one is real and more interesting than the others. And boy, do they ooze tales to tell. "Soapy" is a world class con man. George is basically the man who ignites the Yukon Gold Rush. And Charlie -- an ex-cow puncher turned Pinkerton detective -- tries to make everything right. Before you know it, you're wrapped up into their amazing world -- as they stake claims, bamboozle innocents and haul gold from the wilds of Alaska. This is The Wild, Wild West. You're up to your boot-tops in mud. And you better get out before the snow flies. The author seems to have great fun painting pictures of these three unforgettable men and the people who surround them. Greed has a way to make people crazy. And when you stir it into a pot filled with images of wagons wending their way through colorfully carved out canyons in The Old American West -- and pans glittering with flakes of gold from a creek named "Bonanza", watch out! You're hooked.
Events leading up to the 1890's bred boredom for privileged "young turks" frequenting smoking rooms in upper-class clubs. Hellish memories of the American Civil War -- already decades old -- faded and were replaced by glorious images, dust flying, bugles blaring and flags fluttering in stiff breezes. Those were the days. Excitement. Patriotic purpose. Heroism and hubris. Tangled up in this yearning for glory and desire to "get into a scrap" were the likes of Teddy Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge and William Randolph Hearst. They oozed "Ivy League" and Harvard -- were personified by a "mugwumps" and a group called "goo-goos" -- many of whom bemoaned a growing "culture of non-virility". Lodge and Roosevelt were peas bursting in a pod, while Hearst independently spent most of his life as a "Teddy Want-a-be". As precursors to more recent "neo-cons", these three fell into a loosely formed collection of characters exposing "Americanism" -- even "American Expansionism" and "jingoism". When the U.S.S. Maine exploded in Havana Harbor in 1898, the media-man Hearst unleashed a barrage of flimsily fabricated news stories that ripped through the American psyche. "We've been attacked!" Someone (in this case, Spain) must pay! In no time, flames of anger spread across the country inciting young men to volunteer for "excitement" in droves. If you see some similarity to how our leaders felt after 9/11/2001, you're not the only one. But back to 1898, President McKinley was called a jelly fish... with no more backbone than a chocolate eclair. Remember, there were idle little rich boys then just itching for a fight. The author, Evan Thomas, takes us back to the turn of the 20th Century to paint a lively picture of the times -- dropping us onto San Juan Hill while The Rough Riders charged into enemy fire. Our boy Teddy was no dummy, he made sure a reporter was close to his side... while Lodge and Hearst were burnishing images of valor and heroic conduct. Together with another recent book, The Imperial Cruise, readers today will gain a fascinating portrait of the life and times of Teddy Roosevelt that is possibly a bit less flattering than the images made popular recently in books by David McCullough and others. Face it, Truth be told, Teddy is legendary, from a number of different perspectives. Bob Wells
For centuries European royalty has ensured friendly relations with its neighbors by arranging marriages between sons and daughters. Princes and countesses were sprinkled back and forth across borders to gain favors, bolster treasuries and simply solidify allegiances. Queen Victoria was particularly effective on this front... so much so that, careening into the 20th Century, three grand children stood as the Tsar of Russia, Kaiser of Germany and King of England. What a group. If any of you feel like your family is overly laced with dysfunctional relatives, you ain't seen nothin'. Thanks to Miranda Carter, author of The Three Emperors, readers get to sneak in and out of courts and castles vicariously witnessing mountains of monarchical madness. Each of these three spoiled little royals earns title to gold medals for being royally incapable of ruling nations and embracing the rapidly changing world around him. Sadly, George, Willy and Nicky delivered verbal hugs to each other while crossing their fingers firmly behind their backs. Each was consumed by pinning new ribbons on their uniforms and running around whacking Africans and Asians over the head, adding them to their territorial control. Peoples' rights were trampled. Pettiness ruled. Trust was nowhere. National pride trumped honorable dialogue across borders. The Kaiser the Tsar and the King each became detached in his own way and over time lost control of their empires. The world drifted blindly toward a world war. All it took was a mindless assassination and trigger-happy hawks on all sides overran peaceful intentions. All three leaders wanted peace, but were unable to turn the tide of peoples itching for expressions of national pride. Even if you're not a history buff, you'll find this book an absolutely fascinating account of how European royalty lived in the latter half of the 1800's and first part of the 1900's. You'll see how a powerful family of multi-national rulers coexisted and communicated with each other. Foibles. Weaknesses. Incredible blunders and blind spots. You might feel like you're reading a mystery novel -- except the words and deeds here are real. And there impact cascaded down on all of us. I'll make a bet with you. You'll have trouble putting this book down. Bob Wells
Dateline 1933 -- Berlin. Germany was still reeling from crushing stipulations in peace agreements from The Great War more than a decade earlier. On top of this? Desperation from a growing worldwide depression. Dark clouds were everywhere -- and conditions were ripe for riven fanaticism. In Germany, a muffled drum beat of nationalistic fervor was in the air. Things had to be "put right". And a newly appointed chancellor, Adolf Hitler, was hell-bent to do so. Back in Washington, Roosevelt faced a problem. The U.S. embassy in Berlin had been vacant for months. No one wanted the job. At the time, the Foreign Service was populated by pusillanimous people of privilege. People who cared more about opulence and expensive champagne than the lowly toils of effective diplomacy. With this backdrop, enters William E. Dodd a bookish professor at The University of Chicago... his wife, son and rather "lovingly loose" daughter, Martha. Bill Dodd was truly cut from a different cloth. He didn't take spit-polish for an answer. Lavish embassy expenses appalled him (he even had his old Chevrolet shipped over). And then there was this Jewish thing... Throughout the mid-1930's, the world slept in deep denial about what was happening in Germany. A Gestapo, "SS" and "SA" were formed. Aryan clauses were imbedded in the laws of the land. (Note: At this time only about one percent of Germany's sixty-five million people were Jewish.) A "Hitler Salute" was to be given by all -- even at the most mundane of encounters. Or else. The Press and courts were co-opted. Even moderately inclined Germans were bull-dozed into silence as a paranoiac frenzy blossomed. Then the atrocities came. Slowly but persistently, a monster climbed out of the black forests. The author brings to life this dark period in Germany's past. 1933-37 unleashed untold misery felt around the world. And yet, much of what happened in the center of Germany before "The Night of Long Knives" has received little attention. This is an utterly transfixing tale -- told amid the eyes of events in the Dodd family. You'll wonder why the world could have been so blind. You'll be entertained by Martha's many romances -- which even include ripplings of Russian espionage. You'll shake your head in disbelief -- as fellow humans descend into depths unplumbed by the past. And then there's William E. Dodd -- who stands (quite invisibly in history) as a "lone beacon of American freedom and hope in a land of gathering darkness". What a book.
If you were clattering down the cobblestones of Clydeside, Scotland in the 1850's, you might have bumped into a scrawny teenager wheeling a barrow from docks laden with basic foods from local farms. Tommy Lipton was a grocer's son, eking out a living close to the margins of destitution. His father was a master of the word "no"... while his mother was an open door to possibility. And in the decades ahead, Thomas Lipton built a fabulous food enterprise based on innovation, perseverance and passion. From his humble beginnings, Lipton never forgot where he came from -- and treated the poor like royalty. Unfortunately, in a stuffy/snobby old world across the pond, the powdered wig set treated him like a vermin. Never more was this as apparent as his constant and shameless "black balling" from the Royal Yacht Squadron -- even though Lipton assembled five spirited challenges to the greatest yacht trophy in the world, The America's Cup. Lipton redefined sportsmanship, and for this, he was revered by millions of Americans. He was part P.T. Barnum. Part Bill Gates. Part Will Rogers. But alas, because he grew out of a humble "tea bag" (which he invented, by the bye), stuff shirts like Teddy Roosevelt went out of their way to avoid him. (And we all thought Teddy was a tolerant fellow...) Lipton's yachts were marvels. All Shamrocks -- the last of which is still sailing off Newport today! The only problem for Lipton was a wizard in Bristol, Nathanael Herreshoff, who had a habit of designing speed-demons on water. Each time he tried, Lipton lost. For decades, he lost. And as each challenge was mounted, even Americans crossed over to root for him... so much so that after his final loss, money poured in from everywhere to have Tiffany create a surrogate cup he could steam back home with. Sir Tea was bigger than life. An icon of good. Never married -- with no children. Yet he left the world as his family, and an indelible image that continues to live on. And thanks to Michael D'Antonio, we will know him more than through a teeny tea bag. Beyond skipping through waves, this book is packed with tasty little morsels. Who knew that R.H. Macy's red star logo was copied from a tattoo Macy received while working on a whaling ship? Then there's a tale of an adventurous Scotsman named Robert Fortune (amazingly...) who bucked the Chinese penchant for beheading anyone who swiped tea seeds and planted them firmly in British Empire plantations in Ceylon and India. Bad boy! So, all you history buffs, pull on your boots and take a ride through the transformation of "retail", the development of sound over wires, the blaring of "ooh-gah" horns startling horses and flimsy flying machines flopping in fields. A Full Cup is great summer reading. Bob Wells