Bob's Book Talk

Bob Wells, former long time Darien resident, founder of The Community Fund of Darien, co-founder of Barrett Bookstore's History Book Club, (just a few jots on his curriculum vitae) now resides in South Londonderry, Vermont, where he continues to generously give his time and talent to support the community. He also is an enthusiastic reader of history and biography, and we stay connected by sending him advance copies of upcoming titles which he, in turn, reviews. 





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American Dialogue: The Founders and Us Cover Image
ISBN: 9780385353427
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Knopf - October 16th, 2018

What did the founding fathers really mean when they crafted the U.S. Constitution back in 1787?  And more importantly, how does the language of this document inform decisions today? "Originalists", like the late Antonin Scalia, have felt like The Constitution is a rigid gospel, not to be reinterpreted (and thereby changed) to fit modern circumstance.

Ellis takes four seminal constitutional issues, injects added insights from the founders to help understand positions, and then transports these more inclusive meanings into current context:  Jefferson on slavery and racism;  Adams on economic inequality;  Washington on foreign affairs and American imperialism;  Madison on the doctrine of original intent regarding law.  In short, what Ellis so artfully does is go back to original sources to  explain a "why" for each stance and the slippery slope of compromise resulting in The Constitution's final language.   As Ellis articulates, while "the founders are busy being dead, they still speak to us in the vast archive of letters and documents they left behind."  But who of our leaders today really recognize these materials... materials that silently bring context to The Constitution. This volume is a wonderfully "digestible" discussion to help make what's old new.  In today's political world, one missing ingredient to most issues is "how did we really get that way" -- and what did the founding fathers really mean, when they whispered to each other as they pursued the weighty task of re-framing what it meant to be America.

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These Truths: A History of the United States Cover Image
ISBN: 9780393635249
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Published: W. W. Norton & Company - September 18th, 2018

Back in 2005, this reviewer noted, "If you have two books in your personal library, they should be Jared Diamond's  Collapse” and  “Guns, Germs, and Steel."   Well, here's the third book to put on your shelves. I know, at about 800 pages, this volume will make your shelves sag a bit.  But it's worth it. Much of facts between the book's covers trip over details that have been written about many times before.  Yet, if this volume has a virtue, it is truly a contribution to the understanding of how we got to where we are today.

The thing about Lepore (who teaches American History at Harvard), she is a sly little sleuth able to vacuum up  nimble little nuggets and apply them to her text. Here's one: Lore has it that Washington had wooden teeth. Actually, Lepore relates that his dentures were "made from ivory and from nine teeth pulled from the mouths of his slaves".  Insignificant?  Well, maybe.  But boy, these little tidbits sure make American history lively. Here's another:  The G.I. Bill, which was taken advantage of by over 8 million Americans and which was viewed as wildly excessively expensive, actually returned in increased personal taxes "as much as ten times as much as it cost to run the program in the first place".

All in all, I suspect this single volume will probably replace staple texts used by history classes in schools today -- casting aside volumes woefully out of date.  And good news!  You can enroll in a course simply by buying and reading this book.

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In the Hurricane's Eye: The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown (The American Revolution Series #3) Cover Image
ISBN: 9780525426769
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Published: Viking - October 16th, 2018

Five years after a collection of colonials penned a Declaration of Independence (1781), the war against Britain dragged on. The Continental Army's key strategy was to avoid annihilation, as General Washington pondered its next moves.  Truth be told?  At this point, the American Revolution was teetering on the brink of collapse.  Enter the French.

Without the French and their mastery of the sea, Washington's strategy of feigning an attack to win back New York City–then veering south, driving his troops through New Jersey to launch an assault on Yorktown where he would corner Lord Cornwallis in a classic siege—would never have happened.  The players?  Lafayette, Hamilton, Greene, Knox and thousands of rebel troops who would spare anything for Washington.  When the smoke cleared in mid October, 1781, Britain's proud army in The South capitulated in utter humiliation—while the rag-tag rebels looked on with Frenchmen at their sides.  In time, across the Pond, the British absorbed this shocking defeat, which eventually led to a decision to abandon their hopeless attempt to retain the American colonies.

The author, Nat Philbrick hails from Nantucket and salt spray drips from almost all of his previous books.  In the Hurricane's Eye is no exception and the reader will be able to understand the intricacies of warfare on the water during our fledgling founding days.

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On Desperate Ground: The Marines at The Reservoir, the Korean War's Greatest Battle Cover Image
ISBN: 9780385541152
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Published: Doubleday - October 2nd, 2018

To quote General Sherman from American Civil War days, "War is Hell."  And now, On Desperate Ground  details a Marine encounter at the Chosin Reservoir, the Korean War's greatest battle.  Hell might well be an understatement.

Hampton Sides, is a terrific story teller. And this is one terrific story.  There's General MacArthur who  from remote and cushy locations touts his boys will be at The Yalu River (in Northern Korea) in a jiffy.  "The push North has been carefully designed."  And it was "working brilliantly".  Really?  Tell that one to those on "the desperate grounds. Fortunately, for those in the trenches, there is a real hero and leader, the soft-spoken yet tough and cerebral Oliver Prince Smith.

The battle unfolds.  Readers quickly find bullets whizzing overhead and are not spared bone-chilling accounts of horrendous hardship.  The Marines inflicted astonishing casualties -- over 30,000 killed in action with over 12,500 wounded.  They negotiated an epic retreat where Oliver Smith accomplished a historically successful "breakout".  Or as a noted Army historian (S. L. A. Marshall) claimed, "The Chosin Reservoir campaign is perhaps the most brilliant divisional feat of arms in the national history." A gripping, military tale.

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Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Life Cover Image
ISBN: 9781400040483
Availability: Backordered
Published: Knopf - October 16th, 2018

If there's one person in America who happens to be attracting attention these days, it's Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, aka RBG. She's 85 years young.  And if she passes—during the current President's term—the course of the Court will undoubtedly be changed for decades. Who is this RBG?  No less than a fascinating human being. She's tiny in stature, while massive in intellect, judgment and effectiveness as a Justice. Her career has been consumed with fighting for the "little guy" when basic equality of treatment was at risk.  A liberal or conservative?  "She's proved herself too thoughtful for such labels.” This volume has been 15 years in the making. If the author takes her time with the events of RBG's early and middle years, De Hart's coverage of the recent past has a sense of urgency, Readers sense that RBG is troubled, maybe "appalled" would be a better word. The whole idea of the law in a world of fairness seems to be flipped up side down. What is equality any more?  Honesty?  Truth?  RBG will not be with us forever—and I suspect  at this rather fragile time millions of people not only want RBG to "hang in there", but  they also want to learn about this extraordinary little lady.  So here's your chance.

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In the Enemy's House: The Secret Saga of the FBI Agent and the Code Breaker Who Caught the Russian Spies Cover Image
ISBN: 9780062458247
Availability: Special Order
Published: Harper - February 20th, 2018

News flash:  The Russians have infiltrated our social and news networks  They have "trolls" out everywhere spreading bad stuff -- and by inference, threatening to pull the plug on all of our interconnected infrastructure to some day pitch us into oblivion.  What's new?  Not much...  Truth be told, ever since Soviet days, the Kremlin has sowed vitriol at us while following with vehement, outraged denials.  And that's where this tale begins.
Erase 75 years.  The Nazis were bulldozing through Europe.  We and the Brits needed allies.  Russia stood to the East.  Alliances were formed -- although Russia could hardly be called a friend.  It was more "our enemy's enemy".  Russian sympathizers were sprinkled all over The U.S.  And when word leaked out we were developing "the mother of all bombs" using atomic energy, somewhat less-than-friendly espionage exploded.  Before we could effectively react, secrets were spirited to Moscow -- and the Russians were able to replicate our extraordinary scientific achievements on the cheap.  The spy ring -- nominally led by Julius and Ethel Rosenberg -- was ultimately unraveled, but only years later, thanks to an unlikely partnership between an amiable FBI counterintelligence agent and a hyper-nerdy, utterly-brilliant code breaker.  So the Russians were allies?
This book is the incredible and true tale -- making use of recently declassified documents from both sides -- of how the Russians absconded with our "atomic jewels".  You'll marvel at how an impenetrable fortress of secret coding used by the Russians was vanquished.  Walking with Herbert Hoover's band of merry agents as they follow literally thousands of wispy slivers to weave an intelligence tapestry from a tangled web of clues, will leave you in awe.  And you'll witness the cascading reenactment of "unmaskings" as traitor upon traitor try to escape detection.
So, fast forward to today.  Russian leaders are still at it.  Infiltrating our media, even meddling with our elections.  Messing with borders in Europe -- and influencing who wins and loses in The Middle East.  Trying to dissemble the pillars that hold up democratic ways of life around the world.  By reading this book, you'll get a better feel for why the past is truly prologue.  Just keep telling yourself, "As history shows, Russians are really trying to be our good friends."

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Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man's First Journey to the Moon Cover Image
ISBN: 9780812988703
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Random House - April 3rd, 2018

One good thing about reviewing books about history, is you already know the punch lines.  And with this one, no surprise, NASA did indeed send astronauts to the moon!  But what you do get by consuming nonfiction accounts like this, is all the juicy little details that lurk behind the scenes to make history come alive.  As this book delivers.
Okay.  Fifty years ago, 1968.  Not a good year.  The Vietnam war was raging.  Thirty black students in South Carolina were shot protesting their right to sit at a lunch counter at a bowling alley.  Mayor Daley and his henchmen in Chicago bludgeoned crowds at that year's Democratic Convention.  Martin Luther king was assassinated, as was Bobby Kennedy.  The Summer Olympic Games saw two on a medal stand deliver raised fists in a Black Power salute during the playing of The Stars Spangled Banner.  And to boot, the Russians were aiming to send Cosmonauts to the Moon -- in an effort to stick their fingers into American eyes.
America badly needed some good news.  We clearly had the moon in our sights.  But the Apollo Program wasn't ready.   A year earlier, Apollo 1 with its crew incinerated during a simulation on a launch pad.  Apollo 7's crew suffered all kinds of problems with biomedical and other gear while in space.  Wernher von Braun's Saturn V rocket -- the most powerful machine ever built -- had never flown with men strapped to its nose.  Calculations and systems needed to send a space craft to a location a quarter of a million miles away were simply not ready.  And as if to illustrate the enormity of this mission, Charles Lindbergh commented at a lunch with the astronauts, "In the first second of your flight, you'll burn more than 10 times as much as I did flying the Spirit of St. Louis all the way from New York to Paris."
But "no" was simply not in NASA's dictionary.  All systems turned to "Go!"... as this book takes readers for a ride -- 50 years after the event that stunned the world.  The men.  Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, Bill Anders.  The women behind the men.  The angst.  The incredible walls that needed to be scaled to get the mission off the ground.  Followed by the all too human "pee" and "puke" in a zero gravity environment.  Years later, Neil Armstrong called Apollo 8 "an enormously bold decision", while Christopher Columbus Kraft -- head of Mission Control -- claimed, "It took more courage to make the decision to do Apollo 8 than anything we ever did in the space program."
You know the "punch line".  It's been around for 50 years.  But here's your chance to relive the incredible thrills of doing the impossible for the first time.

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Grant Cover Image
ISBN: 9781594204876
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Penguin Press - October 10th, 2017

If there ever was a time when our country needed a genuine hero, today might rival any other time.  There's a real darkness that pervades our pathetic politics -- with too few figures to lift our nation's psyche.  Looking back over 150 years ago in the early 1860's, we can now see a past that was proving prologue.  The United States experiment was evaporating into excruciating animosity.  "The South" wanted out.  Blood was running in the streets and fields.  No one seemed capable of turning the tides.  Until Grant.


In the past five years, there have been at least two epic books written about Ulysses W. Grant.  And yet now, another by Ron Chernow Why Grant?  The man is the perfect hero.  Someone who grew up from deep obscurity in the middle of nowhere.  A brilliant strategist who humbled even the best of foes.  In fact, a person dedicated to humility -- and to simply "doing the right thing" regardless. But maybe one of the most important factors for Chernow was that over 50 thousand "Grant's papers" were recently released in 32 rather massive volumes for historians to pour over -- all chock full of new insights about this fascinating man.


Chernow is a terrific storyteller.  He starts at square one.  And leads you through over 60 years of American history in 960 pages. So if you're thinking of curling up with a good book for the entire winter, this could be your best bet!  And what would you learn?  How some persevere against all odds.  Why Grant has been rightly compared in the same breath with Napoleon.  Why Robert E. Lee never had a chance.  Why Lincoln was saved at last by an ex "tanner boy".  Why Washington could be called the creator of The U.S. -- and Grant earned credit for preserving it.  How to succeed by taking the high ground when dealing with intractable issues like ending slavery.  How to breed endless loyalty, especially with one's partner in life.


But on loyalty, if Grant had a short suit, it was being blindly loyal to a few who deserved less.  Against stiff head winds of reality, Grant would simply not be able to see the bad sides of certain "friends"... friends who ended up fleecing him mercilessly.  Another fault line Chernow mines is Grant's genetic inability to drink.  Evidently, even the smallest dose of evil drink would turn Grant tipsy -- which gave his detractors endless opportunities to try to cut him down and drown him.  Grant always came up for air, and he eventually mastered an ability to "just say no".  Unlike other books on Grant, Chernow exposes all of this tendency to imbibe faithfully and fully -- something even Grant didn't do in his classic 1885 two volume Memoirs.


So get the book.  Read what Walt Whitman waxes poetic.  What Frederick Douglass has to say.  And how Mark Twain saved Grant's legacy in the end.  Grant truly is a towering figure in world history.  Just don't try to compare him to today's frightful lack of true heroes -- particularly Presidential ones.

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The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months That Changed the World Cover Image
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ISBN: 9780544617346
Availability: Hard to Find
Published: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt - October 24th, 2017

Back in 1992, David McCullough wrote a book:  Truman.  It took a decade to write... and won him a Pulitzer Prize for his efforts.  A. J. Baime's book does not try to outdo McCullough's... as it does not try to chronicle the development of the atomic bomb.  Rather, it takes a four-month snippet in Harry S. Truman's life -- the first month's after FDR's death -- and sends readers on a roller coaster ride through one of the most momentous times in our world's recent history.


Like other "veeps" succeeding presidents who were assassinated or otherwise died, accidents happened.  Few of these "2nd's" were fully prepared.  But none were thrown into a global boiling caldron like Truman.  WWII was raging.  The United Nations as a global concept was teetering.  Political knives were drawn everywhere.  The carnage that was Europe was laying fallow.  Concentration camps were still invisible to most.  Stalin was quietly grabbing spoils.  Hitler was still alive.  The Japanese were nowhere near surrender.  And the atomic Age was about to burst open.  How could an obscure country bumpkin from Missouri -- who few barely knew -- begin to replace the un-replaceable?


Harry S. Truman was born in 1884 -- two decades before Orville and Wilbur Wright showed the world how to fly.  What did the "S" in his name stand for?  Absolutely nothing.  He didn't have enough money to go to college.  Lived on a failing family farm.  Enlisted in the Army during WWI and became quietly and pleasantly surprised by an instinctive ability to lead.  After The War, he married a local sweetheart -- to the chagrin of her mother, who was convinced Harry would never amount to anything...


In 1943, when Truman landed a seat in the U. S. Senate, Time Magazine called the event "a queer accident of democracy".  Accidents with Truman seemed to be a pattern.  He careened from one "oops" to another.  But accidents are not all bad.  Truman would never admit he was destined for greatness.  Rather, he approached each insurmountable challenge with simple ingredients.  Clear-headedness.  Smarts -- with sleeves rolled up.  An unwavering moral compass.  Patience.  The "right people" around him.  Prudence -- in the face of fear.  (He was known as being "the calmest man in town")  Decency.  An ego kept firmly in his pocket.  And a sign on his desk -- and on his being -- that read:  "The buck stops here."


This wonderful tribute to Harry S. Truman's first four months of being President transports you back to a time when the world was literally exploding.  It could have swerved this way, or that.  Each day after FDR's death opened up new avenues for chaos -- which were deftly navigated through by The Accidental President.  When he left office in 1953, Truman's reputation was in tatters.  But fortunately, history has a way of cutting through the thickest of fog.  Today?  We might do well to look back at other troubled times -- when the presidency

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The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President Cover Image
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ISBN: 9780812992755
Availability: Hard to Find
Published: Random House - October 31st, 2017

Poor James Madison.  The most diminutive "founding father" standing only 5' 5" in height -- but soaring beyond most of the others in intellect.  He was a hopeless introvert... quiet to a fault... socially inept... and yet, arguably had the most indelible impact on the success of our nascent United States of America.  Why? Through one lens, The Articles of Confederation drafted in the first five years after 1776, and meant to be the glue that held the 13 Colonies together soon lost its "stick".  If it weren't for Madison, the onerous job of crafting, nurturing and basically delivering our country's Constitution -- not to mention The Bill of Rights -- would never have happened.


Madison sails along in America's history to many as relatively invisible -- one "unsung".  Sure.  Many books have been written about him... but popular history highlights a dashing General Washington.  The colorful and impulsive Thomas Jefferson.  Franklin the inventor.  Irascible Adams.  And most recently, the "rapped" Hamilton.  The author, Noah Feldman, tries to bring Madison back into the sunlight.  And he does it in a very clever way, by focusing on three quite distinct stages of Madison's over-three-decade stint as a public servant.  You might say to yourself, "Jeez, do I really want to read over 600 pages about this guy?"  To which I would say, this book -- more than many others -- will give you a gift of "context"... and help answer what it was really like back in the formation of our country.


Slavery?  How did we come up with that 5/9th of a person logic?  Partisanship?  How did that all happen?  The Constitution?  Who's its daddy?  And how did the "framers" feel about whether the Constitution could evolve?  Personal liberty?  Doesn't The Constitution get in its way?  Trade embargos?  Who originally tried to make them a political strategy?  Religion?  Aren't we just a Christian nation?


You'll be fascinated in James Madison, the mouse that he was.  (Not to mention his key partner and spouse, Dolley.  No, the book does not get into her supposed invention of ice cream...)  Madison was the perfect guy at the perfect time.  At a time when political sniping was blossoming into an art form.  Madison had the ideal combination of raw intelligence and calm rationality to stare down impossible tasks and quietly steer them to fruition.  Yes, The White House burned to the ground during his reign.  But so much more survived.  And now, all you need to do is curl up with this topical tome and learn why we are all blessed to be here.  Today.

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Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times Cover Image
ISBN: 9780307597960
Availability: Backordered
Published: Knopf - October 10th, 2017

"What's past is prologue."  Even Joe Biden used this Shakespearean quote in a 2008 VP debate with Sarah Palin.  And now.  Hoover.  Trump.  Two difficult characters.  Both political neophytes bubbling up from the business world... intent upon blowing up the political world.  Both a bit "bone headed"... control freaks who freak out when they lose absolute control.  But what rhymes falls discordant in details.
Hoover was a complicated package of peculiarities.  Orphaned at age nine, he had humble beginnings in a troubled Quaker family.  His inheritance had no monetary value (unlike Trump).  Rather, he inherited a will -- to persevere, regardless.  Opportunity came through pure grit.  His past produced a profound penchant to not only succeed but to serve others.  He became a wildly successful mining engineer with a keen business acumen, but always gave back when it mattered.  As Whyte mentions, he lived abroad for two decades and "circled the globe five times before the age of aviation".  Probably his most notable achievement came during and after WWI.  Hoover was the one credited with selflessly creating the machinery and means for millions of Europeans ravished by war to feed themselves -- saving countless lives.
Today, Hoover gets little credit for his philanthropy.  He is tarred with dancing America into a deep and Great Depression on his watch as President.  Events truly taint leaders.  And now, with almost a century of hind-sight, it's easy for some to ascribe blame.  The stock market collapses.  Financial markets follow suit.  And a blind pursuit of federal remedies fail.  Inadequate supplies of money from 1929-33.  Unwise decisions to strangle spending -- on a quest to balance the budget.  All while factories failed... and bread lines grew.
When FDR was elected in 1932, did he reach out to Hoover?  Not a chance.  In fact, each had spent years throwing vitriol at each other.  Why work together when it was so easy to toss the other guy under a bus?  In short, FDR let Hoover twist in the wind.  And so, The Depression dragged on... even triggering a rarely recognized Roosevelt Depression in 1937-8 -- spawning tent cities cast as "Hoovervilles".  Oh, life is so fair!
Hoover is probably one of the most misunderstood Presidents.  (Okay, okay... maybe Millard Fillmore claims this mantle.)  Walter Lippmann claimed Hoover "for the left" -- as a bona fide progressive.  While William F. Buckley claimed Hoover "for the right" as a father of real conservatism.  But turns out neither side wants to claim old Herby, for fear he might provoke a "pox" on their party.  Poor guy.  And truly one with more facets than The Hope Diamond.  Hoover.  As we trip through "Trumpism", you might benefit by peeling back a few layers of "Hooverism".  It's all here in Whyte's new book.

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Victoria: The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire Cover Image
ISBN: 9781400069880
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Random House - November 22nd, 2016

A couple of years ago, I reviewed "Victoria -- a Life" by A. N. Wilson.  And now, "Victoria -- the Queen" by Julia Baird.  Both volumes do yeoman's work to shed light on this less-than-light monarch.  In fact, each less-than-light volume could easily raise the begonias on your window sill enough to catch maximum light... and this is to say nothing about other literary tributes that have bloomed since her death in 1901.
So, what is it about this new book?  Baird has climbed into the Royal Archives to peel back the onion encapsulating the real Victoria.  Even after a century, secrets remain.  In fact, the onion has calcified as one peels deeper.  Why?  The Royals are devilishly secretive.  (And you thought Hillary was a bit paranoid...)   Victoria was a prolific diarist.  But unfortunately, for posterity, a daughter, Beatrice, executed one of the most effective censorship's of the 19th Century by burning all of the juicy tidbits from Victoria's hand.
But the author here redefines relentless.  Baird wriggled her way into the Archive's custodians... peeked at more than others could... and found a way to slip by the "crown's copyright" brigade.  At any rate, there's a lot more "oh my goodness, I didn't know that" in this book.  You know, the fun stuff.  Maybe it's just a female author's way.  And in this Queen, there's a lot to write about.
Victoria grew up a very "naughty princess".  She was short-tempered, defiant, arrogant, lonely, selfish, capricious and domineering.  (Sounds like fun, huh?)  Yet she was loyal, unpretentious, a decisive ruler, truthful... and had a good heart.  She saw nothing in bossing around contemporary lions of British history -- Disraeli, Gladstone and others.  Victoria ruled with an iron fist.  But as a wife, she lived in a time when wives were second fiddle to husbands -- e.g. their servants.  The good news was her husband, Prince Albert was a nice guy.  But wait a minute.  After Albert's death, who was this Scot, a personal servant named John Brown, who some said "oft sported a tilt in his kilt"... and rubbed way too close to his Queen.  Or an Indian fellow, "Munshi" Abdul Karim, whose sexual promiscuity was legendary... if not offensive.
You can read all about it here -- or at least what's available to tell.  Victoria ruled the British Empire for more than 60 years.  She gave birth to a family of rulers across Europe.  And her influence is reflected in much of the way the civilized world is today.  Not trivial.  Pull up a spot of tea.  Find a soft seat.  Enjoy.

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American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant Cover Image
ISBN: 9781400069026
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Random House - October 4th, 2016

November 8th.  Election Day.  No, not 2016 but 1864.  If there ever was a need of a hero to help Abraham Lincoln gain a 2nd term, Ulysses S. Grant was it.  A rather uncivil war was raging.  The country was torn apart at the seams -- with its fate hanging in the balance.
Grant was living proof that heroism can spring from the most unlikely places.  Born next to nowhere in the American western frontier, Grant -- the little "tanner boy" -- lucked into an appointment to West Point, where he graduated 21st in a class of 39 students.  His personal invisibility as "a quiet man" and dislike for self-promotion, unlike so many others around him, molded him a man of uncommon character.  The Mexican War and defensive stints in Panama taught him leadership... and off he rode into life.
At every turn, Grant proved a talent for bringing people together in the most complicated situations to succeed .  How?  He was a brilliant and selfless strategist.  He could erase shortcomings, look through walls, imagine all scenarios on the fly, deal with dilettantes and smash adversaries -- simultaneously.  Rivals sought to paint him as a sot.  (While he was assuredly not.)  Where other generals proved inept, Grant bulldozed his forces through enemies who scattered around him.  He knew how to fight.  And if one could use the word "decency" in the same sentence as "war", Grant was in the room.
U.S. Grant was an unlikely candidate to become a hero.  He was only 5'8" in height.  Quiet, even pensive.  His normal attire was scruffy at best.  His somewhat plain wife for life was even a bit cross-eyed -- but Grant never saw her in a bad light.  Coming from homes with slaves, he matured to be passionately against slavery and unjust treatment of Native Americans.  The oppressed became his cause throughout life -- although he was surrounded by so many others who cared less.
If Grant had a fault, he trusted his loyal friends too much.  After the Civil War and when he was President, temptations of wealth ate away at morals of men close to him -- and resulted in tarring Grant himself.  He dabbled with shysters who lured him into what turned out to be "get poor quick" investments.  And he spent his waning days perilously close to poverty.  Fortunately, one devoted friend was Mark Twain -- who saw greatness in Grant and convinced him to write a memoir which was finished on Grant's death bed in 1885.
When he died, a column of mourners accompanied his body through New York City -- stretching seven miles long.  Today, he doesn't get "his due"... particularly in these times when we need legitimate heroes.  So, be a hero, read this book -- even though its over 650 pages.  Hey, it's apt to be a long winter.November 8th.  Election Day.  No, not 2016 but 1864.  If there ever was a need of a hero to help 9781400069026

November 8th.  Election Day.  No, not 2016 but 1864.  If there ever was a need of a hero to help Abraham Lincoln gain a 2nd term, Ulysses S. Grant was it.  A rather uncivil war was raging.  The country was torn apart at the seams -- with its fate hanging in the balance.
Grant was living proof that heroism can spring from the most unlikely places.  Born next to nowhere in the American western frontier, Grant -- the little "tanner boy" -- lucked into an appointment to West Point, where he graduated 21st in a class of 39 students.  His personal invisibility as "a quiet man" and dislike for self-promotion, unlike so many others around him, molded him a man of uncommon character.  The Mexican War and defensive stints in Panama taught him leadership... and off he rode into life.
At every turn, Grant proved a talent for bringing people together in the most complicated situations to succeed .  How?  He was a brilliant and selfless strategist.  He could erase shortcomings, look through walls, imagine all scenarios on the fly, deal with dilettantes and smash adversaries -- simultaneously.  Rivals sought to paint him as a sot.  (While he was assuredly not.)  Where other generals proved inept, Grant bulldozed his forces through enemies who scattered around him.  He knew how to fight.  And if one could use the word "decency" in the same sentence as "war", Grant was in the room.
U.S. Grant was an unlikely candidate to become a hero.  He was only 5'8" in height.  Quiet, even pensive.  His normal attire was scruffy at best.  His somewhat plain wife for life was even a bit cross-eyed -- but Grant never saw her in a bad light.  Coming from homes with slaves, he matured to be passionately against slavery and unjust treatment of Native Americans.  The oppressed became his cause throughout life -- although he was surrounded by so many others who cared less.
If Grant had a fault, he trusted his loyal friends too much.  After the Civil War and when he was President, temptations of wealth ate away at morals of men close to him -- and resulted in tarring Grant himself.  He dabbled with shysters who lured him into what turned out to be "get poor quick" investments.  And he spent his waning days perilously close to poverty.  Fortunately, one devoted friend was Mark Twain -- who saw greatness in Grant and convinced him to write a memoir which was finished on Grant's death bed in 1885.
When he died, a column of mourners accompanied his body through New York City -- stretching seven miles long.  Today, he doesn't get "his due"... particularly in these times when we need legitimate heroes.  So, be a hero, read this book -- even though its over 650 pages.  Hey, it's apt to be a long winter.

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The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War Cover Image
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ISBN: 9780385540575
Availability: Hard to Find
Published: Doubleday - October 11th, 2016

Yes, MacArthur was brilliant.  And a military leader par none.  But as put by a compatriot, General Omar Bradley, "MacArthur was a megalomaniac."  (Ouch!)  Bradley would say, "he held an obsession for self-glorification and a contempt for the judgment of his superiors".  Sounds like a great team player, huh?
So, here's Truman, trying to juggle the global and domestic pieces on a chess board where the squares are in constant motion.  While MacArthur -- wildly popular as a great American hero -- began careening like a loose canon across the Pacific.  In a matter of time, dominoes looked like they were falling, as some said.  Kim Il Sung (Un's grandfather) decided it would be lovely to attack South Korea -- probably getting approval from Stalin.  One thing led to another and Field Commander MacArthur had himself another opportunity to shun peace and bloody some bastards.
On one hand, Truman -- working with the fledgling United Nations -- wanted to avoid WWIII.  MacArthur wanted to take it to The Reds -- once and for all.  MacArthur there, in the thick of it.  He was bigger than life.  (Just ask him!)  He'd teach those commies.  And he'd ram his way right down their throats -- with a touch of theatrics that would put Shakespeare to shame.
So an unfortunate Korean War waged on.  Truman, the State and Defense Departments, not to mention the Chiefs of Staff voiced contrary directives.  MacArthur basically did whatever he wanted to.  Disagreements stayed sub rosa, until Truman finally pulled the plug -- to a firestorm from an adoring public.  Politics were only about 1/2 inch below the surface of actions by a partisan Congress.  Truman survived, but decided not to run for another term.  And the world bumped along into The Cold War and all the inanity we see today as the West frays from the East.  (You might ask, "Why can't we all just get along?")
Could we have descended into redeployment of our potent nuclear weapons?  How close to triggering WWIII were we?  Were we simply dancing with appeasement -- while the communists were eating our lunch?  Say hello Joseph McCarthy!   The author, H.W. Brands, does a fine job of driving us through the dark days that should have been nothing but rosy as our troops returned from the horrors of war.  And here we are.  Quite a bit different.  But quite a bit the same.

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Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill Cover Image
ISBN: 9780385535731
Availability: Backordered
Published: Doubleday - September 20th, 2016

Alexander, Hitler and countless others probably were once snotty-nosed little kids.  Many were impulsive.  Impudent.  Even indolent.  And so was adolescent Winston Churchill.  Judging by his lore -- not to mention his extraordinary writing legacy -- one skips the "young whippersnapper" in Churchill.  But Candice Millard dials back Big Ben to beget the "braggart" of Winston's early days.
From the beginning, Winston was consumed by war.  His grandfather, John Churchill, was seen by friend and foe as England's greatest general.  As an apple falling from this tree, young Winston staged mock battles by the hours with his 1,500-plus toy soldiers.  Privilege surrounded him.  Yet he held an itch to "break out".  Glory became his thirst.  And self promotion the lubrication to gain it.  Many years later, an old flame would exclaim:  "The first time you meet Winston you see all his faults, and the rest of your life you spend in discovering his virtues."
And so, off to war.  Way before Gallipoli there was India... The Sudan... and The Boer War in Southern Africa.  He attracted peril like mosquitoes to fly paper.  Young Winston just had to get in the thick of things.  Maybe part of this yen was to shed his precious and delicate upbringing.  But even in the hellish places he would land, he would drag along his aristocratic tastes and somehow achieve special treatment.
Winston thrust himself into Africa -- traveling with the British Army and signed on as a correspondent with a newspaper.  The imbed turned heroic, even a daring leader of men.  He tackled dramatically dangerous situations.  Saved lives.  (Not bad for a writer.)  Became a valuable aristocratic prisoner.  Managed a miraculous escape.  And lived to mature and begin his next life -- one oft chronicled by others.
Millard is an accomplished story teller.  And, as with The River of Doubt, focusing on a troubled time in Teddy Roosevelt's life, she picks an obscure period in Winston Churchill's past and brings it to lively light.  (Did you know during the Boer War, Thomas Burberry developed "gabardine" for men fighting in trenches -- thus, the "trench coat?)  My, my.  Rudyard Kipling was around.  Mohandas Gandhi was as well.  And when you pick up this book, you will be too.

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The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey Cover Image
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ISBN: 9781451659160
Availability: Hard to Find
Published: Simon & Schuster - June 30th, 2015

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.


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Reagan: The Life Cover Image
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ISBN: 9780385536394
Availability: Hard to Find
Published: Doubleday - May 12th, 2015

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.


Bob Wells

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Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania Cover Image
ISBN: 9780307408860
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Published: Crown - March 10th, 2015

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.

 Bob Wells

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Victoria: A Life Cover Image
ISBN: 9781594205996
Availability: Special Order
Published: Penguin Press - October 23rd, 2014

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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Isabella: The Warrior Queen Cover Image
ISBN: 9780385534116
Availability: Special Order
Published: Nan A. Talese - October 28th, 2014

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.

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Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson Cover Image
ISBN: 9781451673289
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Published: Scribner - September 30th, 2014

"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.

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In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette Cover Image
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ISBN: 9780385535373
Availability: Hard to Find
Published: Doubleday - August 5th, 2014

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

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Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America's Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941 Cover Image
ISBN: 9780812982145
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Random House Trade Paperbacks - January 14th, 2014

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.

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Ike's Bluff: President Eisenhower's Secret Battle to Save the World Cover Image
ISBN: 9780316091039
Availability: Special Order
Published: Back Bay Books - September 10th, 2013

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.

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Thomas Jefferson: President and Philosopher Cover Image
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ISBN: 9780385387491
Availability: Hard to Find
Published: Crown Books for Young Readers - September 9th, 2014

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.

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Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman Cover Image
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ISBN: 9780679456728
Availability: Hard to Find
Published: Random House - November 8th, 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.

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Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War Cover Image
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ISBN: 9780805091533
Availability: Out of Print
Published: Henry Holt and Co. - October 25th, 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.

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Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President Cover Image
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ISBN: 9780385526265
Availability: Hard to Find
Published: Doubleday - September 20th, 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.

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The Floor of Heaven: A True Tale of the Last Frontier and the Yukon Gold Rush Cover Image
ISBN: 9780307461728
Availability: Special Order
Published: Crown - April 26th, 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.

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The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the Rush to Empire, 1898 Cover Image
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ISBN: 9780316004091
Availability: Hard to Find
Published: Little, Brown and Company - April 27th, 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

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George, Nicholas and Wilhelm: Three Royal Cousins and the Road to World War I Cover Image
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ISBN: 9781400043637
Availability: Hard to Find
Published: Knopf Publishing Group - March 23rd, 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

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In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin Cover Image
ISBN: 9780307408846
Availability: Backordered
Published: Crown - May 10th, 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.

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A Full Cup: Sir Thomas Lipton's Extraordinary Life and His Quest for the America's Cup Cover Image
ISBN: 9781594487606
Availability: Special Order
Published: Riverhead Hardcover - July 8th, 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