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Bob's Book Talk

From Bob Wells - our intrepid traveler and reader...  


ISBN-13: 9780679456728
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Published: Random House, 11/2011
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.

ISBN-13: 9780805091533
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Henry Holt and Co., 10/2011
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.

ISBN-13: 9780385526265
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Published: Doubleday, 9/2011
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.

ISBN-13: 9780307461728
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Crown, 4/2011
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.

ISBN-13: 9780316004091
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Little, Brown and Company, 4/2010
The War Lovers  (by Evan Thomas -- Little Brown & Co.   April 2010) 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

ISBN-13: 9781400043637
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 days
Published: Knopf, 3/2010
George, Nicholas and Wilhelm, by Miranda Carter -- Alfred A. Knopf, March 2010) 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

ISBN-13: 9780307408846
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 days
Published: Crown, 5/2011
In the Garden of Beasts (by Erik Larson -- Crown Publishers, May 2011) Dateline 1933 -- BerlinGermany 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.

ISBN-13: 9781594487606
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Riverhead Hardcover, 7/2010
A Full Cup of Tea -- Sir Thomas Lipton's Extraordinary Life and His Quest for The America's Cup(by Michael D'Antonio -- Riverhead Books, July 2010) 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

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