Greatest Hits: Book Reviews
More recent book reviews can be found here.
'To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine' by Newt Gingrich
I enjoy seeing Newt on television. His speeches are logical and full of common sense.
I wanted to like this book. My problem is that everything in it is something I've read or heard before - on television, in blogs or in other books.
The first half of the book is an indictment of President Obama. It is truthful but, to me, it was tiresome and repetitive. The second half proposes specific solutions to America's problems, often presented in chapters written by guest authors.
For someone who wants an introduction to contemporary conservative thinking, this book may be a good primer. I found it boring. (posted 10/19/10, permalink)
'Declaration: The Nine Tumultuous Weeks When America Became Independent, May 1-July 4, 1776' by William Hogeland
The fascinating story of American Independence is far more complex than history textbooks reveal. Reading Hogeland's book, you'll come to realize that it is a miracle that independence was declared at all.
In May 1776, the Continental Congress had no serious intention of breaking off from England. But the furtive, behind-the-scenes, conspiratorial activity of Samuel Adams, John Adams and cohorts to overturn the Pennsylvania government made the difference and reversed the sentiment.
Several historical icons, particularly John Hancock and Ben Franklin, are portrayed in less than favorable terms by Hogeland.
The book tells a great story but I struggled to read it. Because this chronological tale often meandered, it was a difficult read. Sentences were often overly long and confusing, requiring mental diagramming to clarify their meaning. I could only handle a chapter at a time.
Nevertheless, the informative history lesson was worth the bother. (posted 10/4/10, permalink)
'The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt' by T.J. Stiles
The author offers a thorough, authoritative biography of a titan who arguably fostered the Industrial Revolution.
Born in humble circumstances on Staten Island during George Washington's presidency, Commodore Vanderbilt rose from a lowly boatman to boat owner (financed by his tough mother who made him pay interest on all loans), to operator of the nation's largest fleet of steamships to railroad magnate.
The Commodore had his fingers in the California Gold Rush, backed a war in Nicaragua and was one of Lincoln's confidants during the Civil War. Vanderbilt also constructed the original Grand Central Terminal in New York and cleverly and ruthlessly assembled the mighty New York Central Railroad system connecting New York with Chicago.
Reading books such as this reminds me of the lameness of school history textbooks, particularly when it comes to coverage of the Industrial Revolution and how capitalists and politicians interacted.
'The First Tycoon' is the epic tale of a man and a nation maturing and prospering together. Stiles provides a powerful, detailed account of a man who helped create the modern economy we live in today. (posted 9/9/10, permalink)
'Appetite for America: How Visionary Businessman Fred Harvey Built a Railroad Hospitality Empire That Civilized the Wild West' by Stephen Fried
This book chronicles the rise and fall of the famous Fred Harvey hospitality empire. And how FH enabled the growth and development of the American West.
Prior to reading this well-done, fact-filled tome, my exposure to Fred Harvey had been limited. FH never expanded east of Cleveland, so there were no Harvey establishments in Philadelphia. (I suspect, the closest thing to it was Childs Restaurant in Atlantic City.) I remember seeing 'Fred Harvey' signs on those dining establishments which straddled the Illinois Tollway when I used to travel the Chicago area in the early 1970s. In 1987, my wife and I stayed at the spectacular El Tovar hotel on the south rim of the Grand Canyon. It was a Harvey creation and I remember that our dinner there was spectacular.
British-born Fred Harvey was the inventor of the restaurant chain and, arguably, the first creator of 'branding' as a marketing tool. His entrepreneurial vision helped shape American culture and history for three generations. Fred Harvey restaurants grew up with the railroads in the American West (beginning in the 1870s), with opulent dining rooms in major train stations and renowned eating spots at more remote railroad outposts. Eventually, the Fred Harvey brand spread to 65 restaurants and lunch counters, 60 dining cars and a dozen large Harvey-owned hotels.
In 1905, when moving fresh food across the country remained a challenge, Harvey restaurants served up over 6 million eggs and 2 million pounds of beef, much of it for his famous 'Plantation Beef Stew on Hot Buttermilk Biscuits'. Fred Harvey's name became synonymous with good food, efficient service and comely, polite young women. Harvey Girls, who staffed company restaurants at railroad depots throughout the West, were the "first major female work force in America."
Stephen Fried has delivered an uplifting tale about railroads, cowboys, Indians, airplanes and America's westward expansion. This 500+ page endeavor is full of enlightening facts about American history, commerce the Southwest, railroads, air travel and, of course, the hospitality business. I recommend it. (posted 8/13/10, permalink)
'In the President's Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect' by Ronald Kessler
This is an interesting and lively narrative, loaded with details about the inner workings of this federal protective organization. It is full of readable gossip, including tales of an often-drunk, philandering Lyndon Johnson (characterized as a truly "insane" individual), the extra-marital antics of family-values champion Spiro Agnew, Hillary Clinton's angry clashes with low-level White House employees and Nancy Reagan's cold, controlling ways.
Amy Carter was a spoiled brat. David Eisenhower, grandson of President Eisenhower and husband of Julie Nixon, is presented as clueless doofus. Jimmy Carter was petty and mean-spirited. Jerry Ford was a lousy tipper. The Bush twins were party animals.
Kessler's work also expressed serious concerns about the current status of the Secret Service - underfunded, understaffed, and underequipped. But it is often a disjointed read, jumping back and forth between juicy stories and sober examples of internal departmental weakness. It seemed repetitive in spots and the pace was uneven.
While I enjoyed it, I felt that the book needed better editing. (posted 7/30/10, permalink)
'The Irish Americans' by Jay P. Dolan
Drawing on his research abilities as a professor-emeritus of history at Notre Dame University, Dolan has produced a detailed overview of Irish immigrants and the history of their life in America.
From the early 18th Century, when a decline in the linen industry in what is now Northern Ireland initiated a rush to America, through the exodus of the dispossessed during and after the Great Famine of Catholic Ireland, through the chain immigration of the late 19th and early 20th Century, the book traces the rise of the Irish in the U.S. and their contributions to American culture, politics, society and prosperity.
This book, full of facts and real-life stories, demonstrates the paths taken by Irish immigrants to overcome prejudice and gain social acceptance. It is an interesting, informative read and is, therefore, recommended. (posted 7/20/10, permalink)
'Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America's Most Wanted Gangster' by Jonathan Eig
This book appears to be well-researched and written in painstaking detail - sometimes too much so for the casual reader. It pretty much destroys the legend of Elliot Ness and all the fictional hype surrounding Ness and 'The Untouchables' - both the movie and the television series.
'Get Capone' is even-handed; it doesn't refute Capone's role as the kingpin of Chicago's violence, death and corruption. But it also portrays him as a shrewd businessman providing the illegal products and services that people wanted.
I was surprised to learn of Herbert Hoover's almost-obsessive quest to put Capone behind bars and the seemingly-credible theory about Capone's innocence in the infamous St. Valentine's Day Massacre.
Verdict: Worth a read if you're into gangster lore. (posted 7/2/10, permalink)
'You Can't Get to Heaven on the Frankford El' by Thomas J. Lyons II
If you're of a certain age, you'll really enjoy Tom's memoir about growing up in the golden age of postwar America and finding his place in the turbulent, fast moving 1960s. It is an affectionate and nostalgic look back at the late 1940s through mid-1960s. Tom's book is set in Northeast Philadelphia; if you're a Philly native, the names of old hangouts and NJ shore stuff will make you smile and nod. As will the tales of the Frankford El, Philadelphia's ancient, rattly crosstown elevated transit line.
If your ancestry is Irish and your religion and education is Catholic, you'll be rewarded with additional recollections of prototypical priests, nuns, altar boys and Irish grandmothers. Were this a movie, it might be titled 'Going My Way - 15 Years Later'.
Tom's book is far more uplifting than Joe Queenan's dark and mawkish Philly memoir, 'Closing Time.' It is more insightful and better written than Jack Myers' 'Row House Days: Tales from a Southwest Philadelphia Childhood', another local reminiscence.
In 'You Can't Get to Heaven on the Frankford El', you'll learn how to play wire-ball, buck-buck, how to party at the Jersey shore, banking at the Corn Exchange, how to stay at a New York hotel for almost nothing, being rushed to the hospital in a Freihoffer bread truck and tales of dining on burgers with Joey Dee and the Starlighters.
I must disclose that Tom is my cousin and we lived next door to each other as kids for over 10 years. I know many of the people in the book, including most of the 'characters' (like The Crazy Baker Who Argued With Himself). There's even a picture of Tommy and me in the book, sitting in a Flyer red wagon at age two and eating candied apples. Regardless of my peripheral connection to it, 'You Can't Get to Heaven on the Frankford El' is a fast-paced yet thoughtful tome and is well worth your investment in time and money. (posted 6/29/10, permalink)
PS: Contact Tom directly for information regarding price and availability.
'Bailout Nation: How greed and easy money corrupted Wall Street and shook the world economy' by Barry Ritholtz
Having read many postings on the author's blog, I was looking forward to his book. Unfortunately, it is an uneven work. At times, arguments are carefully constructed to support the author's position. On other occasions, opinions are tossed about without supporting information. The logic deteriorated as the book raced to the last page.
For example, Ritholtz believes that the federal government "affordable housing" regulatory fetish contributed nothing to the crisis, and fully exonerates the biggest buyers of subprime paper, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, as innocent victims of the evil mortgage originators. Huh?
As the chapters unfold, Barry touts big government and offers childish-regulatory solutions. He does a classic liberal dance, shifting the blame from the left to the right and protects the real villains (Rep. Barney Frank, Sen. Chris Dodd, Franklin Raines, Maxine Waters, et al). He blames Bush - naturally - and excoriates Alan Greenspan, minimizing the fact that Greenspan stopped the '87 crash in its tracks, prevented the Asian meltdown from devastating the U.S. economy and warned of the "irrational exuberance" of the mid-'90s stock market. The spendthrift Congress - a wasteful, pork-laden bunch regardless of which party is at the helm - mostly gets a pass from Barry.
I have previously written that "You can't combine big wars and big social programs - you must pick one. If you insist on choosing both, you will pay dearly in less than 10 years. We observed the results of the excesses of the 1960s when Lyndon Johnson's failed and expensive Great Society program was launched just as the cost of the Vietnam War was escalating. The result was the Misery Index of the late 1970s - a number resulting from high inflation combined with a stagnant, high-unemployment economy.
Blame it on both Republican and Democratic administrations from 1965 through 1980. In 1981, Ronald Reagan and Paul Volcker limited spending and cut taxes; we also had a period with no big wars. Things got much better. The Misery Index disappeared from the nation's vocabulary.
Everything changed after 9-11. Suddenly we were fighting two wars - Afghanistan and Iraq - but without a necessary reduction in funded social commitments. Instead of wartime frugality, we witnessed an increase in social programs, labeled 'compassionate conservatism': aid to Africa, the Medicare drug program, No Child Left Behind, etc.
All of these added to the federal deficit. Now, as in the 1970s, we are beginning to pay the price. Inflation is virtually guaranteed to increase as the president and congress continue to spend money we don't have. The economy will stall; the Misery Index is likely to return.
Once again, the blame will be on both Republican and Democratic administrations."
The book ends with a hodgepodge of poorly though-out suggestions. Many are ludicrous. This could have been a great book. It began with promise. It was sad to watch it deteriorate with every chapter. (posted 6/23/10, permalink)
'Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition' by Daniel Okrent
This is a well-researched, interesting and entertaining book on the Great War on Alcohol. Okrent describes in detail the factors leading up to the crafting and passage of the 18th Amendment and offers a fascinating glimpse into this unfortunate segment of American history.
I learned many things from this book, including:
• In 1810, the average American imbibed three times as much alcohol as today. Town bells would ring at 11:00 am and 4:00 pm to signal 'Grog Time'.
• Most prohibitionists were smug liberals. In 1872, the Prohibition Party endorsed many causes including forest conservation and the elimination of the electoral college. Many were vegetarians as well. Later, Prohibitionist forces were an odd alliance of suffragettes, the Klu Klux Klan and anti-Jewish, anti-German and anti-Catholic forces as well as Boston puritans and rural sharecroppers.
• Carrie Nation was a destructive unabashed self-righteous lawbreaker, who employed terror tactics - not unlike a modern-day Earth Firster.
• Many Darwinist Progressives believed that "alcohol, by killing off generation after generation of the unfit, was acting as a progressive factor in natural selection and improving the race."
• Anti-German sentiment was so high during World War I, that sauerkraut was rechristened as Liberty Cabbage. (And I thought it was just a Grandpa Simpson joke.) German books were burned in Wisconsin and playing Beethoven in public was banned in Boston.
• A Packard Motor Car executive publicly blamed the brewing interests for encouraging "the drunken darkies' orgies and white slavery." He later apologized under orders from Packard's president, Henry B. Joy.
• The Thompson machine gun was nicknamed the Chicago typewriter.
• The 18th Amendment was potentially devastating to bar owners, distilleries, breweries, wineries and other involved in the production, distribution and retailing of alcoholic beverages. At first, Congress considered compensation for the affected parties but it was opposed by people like Rep. Daniel F. Garrett of Texas who declared that after the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, four billion dollars of "property" had been rendered valueless. Liquor and beer interests must "pocket their losses just as our fathers had to pocket theirs when you took their niggers away from them."
The Congressional Record noted that his statement provoked "applause and laughter."
• One Prohibition cocktail, a mix of gin, brandy, apricot brandy and lime juice, was named the Bridge Table because "after a few of these, your legs will fold up."
Overall, 'Last Call' is a remarkable and enjoyable history book. (posted 6/18/10, permalink)
'Anything Goes: A Biography of the Roaring Twenties' by Lucy Moore
Recent decades have seen the rise of local food and wine festivals, designed to promote nearby eateries and purveyors of drink. The idea of offering a vignette - a sampler of a bistro's culinary offerings - as an inducement to get prospects into the establishment for a full-priced meal seems to work.
In the writing biz, vignettes are short, impressionistic pieces often published in magazines that provide a trenchant impression about a character, era or event. This sampler hopefully induces the reader to go out and purchase a book by the author. Or a selection of the author's vignettes strung together in book form. Tom Wolfe has made this into High Art, moving deftly from a newspaper features editor to an Esquire vignette producer to an accomplished writer of novels.
Lucy Moore has produced a collection of vignettes, proffering the book as a history of the Roaring Twenties. It is not. It is a breezy, uneven tome full of flappers, bootleggers, jazz and assorted literary characters.
I'm by no means a historian but in casual reading picked up more than one error. To wit: She describes the modern '20s woman's yearning for nylon stockings - more than once - when they weren't commercially available until 1940. The versatile thermoplastic compound wasn't even invented until 1935 and was first used for toothbrushes (1938), not stockings. And the renowned crown of the world-famous Chrysler Building in NYC was not "chrome-plated." (It was fabricated of Nirosta stainless steel.)
The 1920s decade was a flavor-packed America era, full of compelling personalities with great stories - a literary feast with many sauces. Moore offers mostly meringue - initially entertaining and sweet but ultimately unsatisfying. (posted 6/9/10, permalink)
'Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight' by Karl Rove
A self-confessed political junkie, Karl Rove ran the national College Republicans at age twenty-two, turned a Democrat-dominated Texas into a Republican stronghold and made George W. Bush a household name. Because of his success, Rove has been accused of everything from campaign chicanery to ideological divisiveness.
In this frank memoir, Rove responds to critics and defends the choices he made on the campaign trail and in the White House. He paints Democratic stalwarts like Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Barack Obama and Tom Daschle as cynical and two-faced, providing lots of examples.
As in any memoir, 100% objectivity isn't possible but I think Rove tries to present a fair picture of events. I was taken with his unique perspective on what transpired on September 11th, as someone who spent the entire day with President Bush.
I was riveted (and often angered) by many of the behind the scenes stories: Despite Bush's push for meaningful Social Security reform in his 2005 State of the Union address (with specifics offered), his plan "was rebuffed by Democrats and Republicans alike." Thanks, Congress.
As to the financial mess, in April 2001, the Bush Administration had warned Congress of problems with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. A Bush-proposed bill "would have subjected Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to the kinds of federal regulations that banks, credit unions and savings and loans have to comply with. No Democrat supported it and, most important of all, Senator Chris Dodd threatened to filibuster if Banking Committee's chairman Richard Shelby, Alabama's senior senator, attempted to bring it to the floor. Dodd got his way - and thus helped pave the way to the largest financial crisis since the Great Depression."
In 2003, the Bush Administration's concern grew when Freddie "had to restate its earnings for the past three years because of accounting problems. On its board during part of this period was Rahm Emanuel, who later became President Obama's chief of staff." Oh, that Rahm Emanuel. Connect the dots.
Rove has written a thorough and compelling account of how he and the 43rd President reached the White House. A self-taught political strategist, Karl Rove has produced a book which should be required reading for anyone who wants to succeed in politics. (posted 5/11/10, permalink)
'Closing Time: A Memoir' by Joe Queenan
This autobiography is the Philadelphia version of 'Angela's Ashes' told with a decidedly nasty bent. Joe Queenan takes readers from his 1950s Philadelphia elementary school days through the death of his abusive father in 1997.
Queenan is a humorist, critic and author with several books and numerous magazine pieces under his belt. But this tome is unexpectedly weary and burdensome. Reading it, one would think that every Irish Catholic family was full of besotted cruel-but-charming rogues.
Mr. Queenan writes that his parents "were charter members of an ethnic group that lacked the capacity to enjoy anyone else's good fortune." And: "We told great stories, we had an odd, unsettling sense of humor, we were fiercely devoted to our mothers without actually enjoying their company, we wished our fathers were dead, we spent most of our lives being depressed, we drank ourselves to early graves, we were Irish."
That's an insult to a mostly-fine ethnic group and certainly not representative of the Philly Irish-Americans I have known.
Much of the book is devoted to his childhood poverty, with occasional insightful comments: "Poverty goes far beyond not having money or food. Poverty means that when you do have money and food, the money gets spent unwisely and the food is not nutritious. ... Poverty is ... an agglomeration of bad habits."
Queenan paints himself as an upbeat lad dedicated to self-improvement, generously crediting uncles, employers and his friends' parents with teaching him positive habits and values. But when this industrious, drug-shunning student tries to commit suicide with a handful of pills, the reader is left mystified as to the run-up, cause and any insights gained from later therapy.
He makes much of his Catholic upbringing - positive and negative. The Church appears frequently throughout the book. But the former seminarian never explains how he went from active Catholicism to not believing in God at all. Or why.
Queenan's father was a deadbeat, a drunk and a child-beater. Two of his sisters cut the old man off and even refused to visit him on his deathbed. But Queenan mawkishly drifts in and out of his dad's life and remains conflicted even at the end, as his father lay dying of cancer: "I didn't want him hugging me. The nerve-endings he was trying to reach had been dead for thirty-five years. ... He had done bad things to God's children, and now God was doing bad things to him."
This is a sad, uneven 'Daddy Dearest' book, lacking in nobility. Verdict: don't bother. (posted 4/28/10, permalink)
'Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong' by Terry Teachout
The Louis Armstrong I remember was an aging black gentleman who played a pretty good trumpet on the Ed Sullivan Show, usually in between Señor Wences and a plate-spinning act. By then Armstrong was well-past his prime and, like many elder performers, relied on playing his old stand-bys rather than keeping up with the times.
I found this biography to be quite an eye-opener; there was more to Satchmo I ever realized. Terry Teachout has penned a very comprehensive tome and he is well-qualified to do so - a professional musician, music scholar, historian and writer. 'Pops' examines the legendary Mr. Armstrong, not just as a musician, but as a creative force, who reshaped jazz and American culture. And, as a man who responded with dignity and creativity to the various injustices he encountered throughout his life.
Louis Armstrong was one of the greatest musicians of the twentieth century and, even as a sixty-something, managed to knock the Beatles off the top of the charts with his rendition of 'Hello Dolly'. The success of Satchmo's record caused the producers of the musical to change its name from 'Dolly: A Damned Exasperating Woman'. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Born to a prostitute in the poorest part of New Orleans and saddled with a rocky, hardscrabble childhood, Armstrong was more complex - and a lot tougher - than most people realized. Teachout paints an interesting, touching and inspiring story on the canvas of the oft-unfair and prejudiced America of Satchmo's era. Teachout explained, "Faced with the terrible realities of the time and place into which he had been born, he didn't repine, but returned love for hatred and sought salvation in work."
Louis had quite a sense of humor, too. During a 1949 private audience with Pius XII, the Pope asked if Armstrong and his wife had any children. Satch replied, "No, Daddy, but we're workin' on it."
This is a wonderful book - full of surprises which will engage readers and maintain the interest of musicians and non-musicians alike. (posted 4/14/10, permalink)
'Banquo's Ghosts' by Richard Lowry and Keith Korman
I read a lot of fiction - there's always a paperback on my bedside table - I just don't usually write about it. I'm making an exception for this book.
National Review editor Richard Lowry and fiction-writer Korman have produced an intelligent, supercharged thriller chock full of action, assassination and international intrigue.
The writing is smart and funny - several notables are parodied: look for thinly disguised clones of the New York Times' Frank Rich (Neville Poore) and The Nation's Katrina vanden Heuvel (Josephine von Hildebrand).
It starts with Peter Johnson, a buffoonish, drunken liberal writer, being recruited by CIA agent Stewart Banquo for the assassination of a top Iranian nuclear scientist. And gets better every page from there. A great read. (posted 4/5/10, permalink)
'Applied Economics: Thinking Beyond Stage One' by Thomas Sowell
The heavily-reworked 2009 update of Sowell's 2004 classic book is nearly 50% larger than the first edition. It now includes a chapter on the economics of immigration and new topics such as the 'creative' home financing that led to the subprime mortgage crisis.
Sowell's tome is a fascinating read; he explains everyday economic concepts with real-life examples - both contemporary and historic. He explains how politicians are always in search of stage one 'quick fixes' which often lead to bigger problems and more economic woes in the longer term.
I found the section on the economics of slavery very enlightening: "Where they were expensive and not easily replaced, as in the American antebellum South, the need to preserve the existing slaves often led their owners to hire Irish immigrants to do work considered too dangerous for slaves. During Frederick Law Olmsted's celebrated travels though the antebellum South, he was puzzled to see black slaves throwing 500-pound bales of cotton down an incline to Irish workers who were at the bottom, catching these bales and loading them onto a boat. When Olmsted asked about this surprising racial division of labor, he was told that slaves "are worth too much to be risked here; if the Paddies are knocked overboard, or get their backs broken, nobody loses anything."
It was likewise common to use the Irish for other work considered too dangerous for slaves, such as draining swamps that might be malarial, building levees that might collapse on the workmen, building railroads, or tending to steam boilers that might blow up."
Sowell also offered an interesting story on the futility of foreign aid, noting that "South Korea is a country whose rise from abysmal poverty to one of the more prosperous nations in the world began right after the United States drastically reduced foreign aid." In 1960, South Korea's real per capita income was below that of Haiti. But, by the mid-1960s, Korea had turned itself around and achieved an unprecedented near-double-digit growth rate.
Applied Economics is never dull; I enthusiastically recommend it. (posted 3/23/10, permalink)
'Liberty and Tyranny' by Mark R. Levin
Proclaimed as a "conservative manifesto," this book was penned by nationally-syndicated conservative talk radio host Levin. Having read some of his postings at National Review Online, I anticipated an interesting read. Ten minutes into 'Liberty and Tyranny', I fell asleep.
Levin is a lawyer by training and the book reads like a lease contract. Principles were expounded with textbook-like dullness. In laying out the grand history of the United States, its Declaration of Independence and Constitution, Levin utterly failed to bring exciting history to life.
Anyone exposed to conservative talk radio, blogs or books will learn nothing new. All has been presented before by more talented, entertaining and persuasive writers - Jonah Goldberg, Ann Coulter, Bill Bennett, Thomas Sowell, etc.
Sum-up: Don't bother. (posted 3/23/10, permalink)
'1960 - LBJ vs. JFK vs. Nixon: The Epic Campaign That Forged Three Presidencies' by David Pietrusza
The 1960 presidential campaign season was dominated by three men, each of whom became president. One was assassinated, one was shamed out of office and one resigned in disgrace - just ahead of impeachment.
David Pietrusza chronicles the tales of each, the interactions, the flaws and the election itself where race and religious bigotry played major roles. 1960 was the first presidential race of the modern era of campaigning, using media and branding. The author relates the events seemingly without bias; even after completing the book, I couldn't guess his political leanings.
The supporting cast is amazing: meddlesome old Eleanor Roosevelt, the witty, and indecisive egghead Adlai Stevenson, a bitter Harry Truman, mob boss Sam Giancana, Judith Campbell Exner, the mistress Giancana shared with JFK, explosive-tempered Frank Sinatra, calculating Chicago mayor Richard Daley, professional SOB Bobby Kennedy, an overwhelmed and outgunned Hubert Humphrey, a skeptical Republican-leaning Martin Luther King Jr. and many more.
I remember the election of '60; it was my political awakening during high school; the campaign, personalities and issues were much discussed amongst my friends. But there was so much new information that I learned from this book:
• How much Ike had dumped on VP Nixon, seemingly at every opportunity over eight years
• The anti-Catholic propaganda put out by the Humphrey campaign in Wisconsin and West Virginia
• Richard Nixon's tempestuous Iowa backseat meltdown
• John F. Kennedy's amphetamine-fueled debate performance
• Why Nixon looked like death warmed over in the first televised debate
• Lazy, patrician Republican VP candidate Henry Cabot Lodge took afternoon naps in his pajamas on the campaign trail and wouldn't work after 6 pm.
• Boston's Cardinal Cushing boasting that he and Joe Kennedy got JFK elected
• Lyndon Johnson's overt racism. Robert Parker, LBJ's long-suffering manservant, said, "He especially liked to call me 'nigger', in front of Southerners and racists like Richard Russell (senator, D-GA)." Johnson told Parker he'd never be called by his Christian name: "Let me tell you one thing, nigger, as long as you are black (and) you're gonna be black till the day you die, no one's gonna call you by your goddamn name ... you're just a piece of furniture." Wow ... just wow.
• Frank Sinatra berated Teddy Kennedy when Teddy showed up at a campaign stop in Honolulu with three cheesy-looking bimbos. Sinatra, his sense of decorum offended, loudly cursed Teddy for hanging with seedy hookers and told him off in front of dozens of high level Kennedy supporters. Teddy quickly left. In the end, nearly every state Teddy K. oversaw lost to Nixon.
• On Election Day, Richard Nixon ran off to Tijuana, Mexico and lunched on enchiladas.
This book is not merely dry history; Pietrusza has created a riveting, larger-than-life page turner. I highly recommend it. (posted 3/11/10, permalink)
'Going Rogue: An American Life' by Sarah Palin
The author paints an intimate portrait of growing up in the wilds of Alaska, her political endeavors (local, state and national) and the joys and frustrations of trying to balance family life and a high-profile elected office. She explains who she is and defines clearly what she stands for. Her story is compelling and her words resound with folksy sincerity.
Her strong Christian beliefs resonate throughout the book. She writes frankly yet lovingly about her five children. She acquaints the reader to the specifics of hunting, fishing and raising babies. The book is well-written, interesting and an easy read. I strongly recommend it.
Some East Coast press reviews opined that this was a get-even book, with Sarah vindictively criticizing those who opposed her. My impression was that she truthfully related events, without mean-spiritedness. Many of her tales were self-deprecating, written with good humor. If that irritates Katie Couric, so be it.
I was, however, disconcerted by multiple references to 'moose lasagna'. I remembered Moose Lasagna as a South Philly loan shark. In Alaska, there's apparently a dish named after him.
At the end of the book, she discusses a way forward for America, espousing what she calls 'common sense conservatism'. Many of the Beltway 'experts' - including conservative pundits - are dismayed that she's not doing the Things Everyone Must Do to be a viable political candidate: hobnobbing at D.C. functions, making rounds at the appropriate cocktail circuits, spending time in Iowa, releasing high-toned Policy Position Papers on International Matters, schmoozing with top-tier journalists, etc.
Instead, Sarah is posting her opinions and reactions to important news developments on her Facebook page, where her musings are unfiltered and uncontaminated by the mainstream media. That may be the Ultimate Smart Move, an end run around political business as usual, and the beginning of 21st Century Politicking in America.
Time will tell. (posted 1/8/10, permalink)
'Common Sense' by Glenn Beck
This is a not a bad book but quite brief (192 pages, including a reprint of Thomas Paine's original work of the same name) and not particularly deep. It stresses that this country was founded on liberty, the right to self determination and personal responsibility, noting that our government has strayed substantially from these ideals.
Beck points out that Congress continues to pass laws that apply to others but not Congress and that our legislators and president think they know what's best for people instead of letting individuals make their own decisions. Nothing to disagree with here but I have found other conservative tomes far more insightful. (posted 9/8/09, permalink)
'The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression' by Amity Shlaes
The conventional wisdom, as expounded in 'approved' history textbooks and countless PBS documentaries, is that the Roaring Twenties was a period of low morals, speakeasies and rampant stock-trading on margin. And that the Great Crash was its comeuppance. And that Herbert Hoover turned the Crash into a Depression through his obdurate refusal to take control. Then St. Franklin Roosevelt came along, produced the New Deal and the 'patient' was on his way to recovery. And everyone sang, "Happy days are here again."
Of course, you can find opposing viewpoints which demonize Mr. Roosevelt: Goldberg's 'Liberal Fascism' and Coulter's 'Treason' are two well-written examples.
Amity Shlaes has written an insightful reinterpretation of the Great Depression, presenting - I think - a more balanced view. Shlaes traces the mounting agony of the New Dealers as they discovered their proposed mini-utopias didn't work. She shows how both Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt failed to understand the prosperity of the 1920s. She attempts to answer why the Depression lasted so long and why it took World War II to bring it to a close. She chronicles the inept Republican attempts at communicating the shortcomings and shortfalls of Roosevelt's various schemes. And Shlaes shows how the Depression truly devastated the Forgotten Man - the hard-working American taxpayer. The real heros portrayed in the book are neither the bureaucrats nor the politicians but rather the ordinary hardworking taxpayers and business owners who fought the Depression and the draconian National Recovery Administration in their own ways.
I was in the midst of reading 'The Forgotten Man' and had gotten to the part where the Roosevelt Administration was trying to change the name of Hoover Dam to Boulder Dam in order to further diminish the ex-president when the news broke that some folks "on Capitol Hill" were planning to yank former President Ronald Reagan's name off the local airport and return it to its previous generic moniker: Washington National Airport. Déjà vu.
Shlaes makes a substantial argument that private business success has been the key to U.S. economic expansion and that each step of the New Deal was a further blow to business confidence.
This remarkable book gave me a new perspective on the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt's role and the lessons to be learned from government intervention - no matter how well-intentioned. (posted 7/17/09, permalink)
'Remembering Northeast Philadelphia' by Dr. Harry C. Silcox
When you live in a particular area, you're often oblivious to its rich history, the significance of street names or particular buildings. I was reminded of this as I read and reread this fine book.
I grew up in Frankford and Northeast Philadelphia but was unaware of much the region's history. I learned that many of its main roads dated back to the 17th Century: Bridge St. and Frankford Ave.(1683), Oxford, Bustleton and Adams Avenues (1693). The Jolly Post Inn and Tavern opened its doors in 1682 and hosted such colonial-era luminaries as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, French general Marquis de Lafayette and George Washington himself. It stood on the west side of Frankford Avenue, just north of Orthodox Street until its demise in 1911.
The various neighborhoods of Northeast Philadelphia vibrant stories to tell and Dr. Silcox presents them in an informative and entertaining way. Frankford was the site of the nation's first psychiatric hospital as well as the popular Unity Street open-air market in Frankford. (Hey, that Unity-Frankford grocery name had to come from somewhere.)
Years before the civil rights movement, Greenbelt Knoll (near Holme Ave. and Welsh Rd.) became Philadelphia's first planned racially-integrated housing development. The country's first solar energy-powered device was developed in Northeast Philly. The first photographic portrait of a human face was made by man whose summer residence was located in what is now Wissinoming Park. He purchased trees for his residence during his travels throughout the world. Many can still be found in the park.
I learned about the Holmesburg, Tacony and Frankford Trolley Co. which operated on Levick St. from the 1900s to the 1920s. Residents nicknamed it the 'Hop, Toad and Frog Line.' Silcox wrote that it was a "classic Toonerville Trolley Line. Featuring open cars covered by canvas during winter, with outside rear platforms and no heat, the line did not provide the most luxurious of rides. The cars became overcrowded at peak travel times and often required passengers to disembark at the Levick Street hill to push the trolley up the slope to Magee Street."
Even though I once lived about three blocks from Boulevard Pools and swam there as a child, I had never heard the amazing alligator wrestling story. Or that the place once had sandy beaches and was called "the Northeast's Seashore."
If you're from the area or have an interest in Philadelphia history, I recommend this well-written, readable book. (posted 7/1/09, permalink)
'Driving Like Crazy: Thirty Years of Vehicular Hell-bending' (subtitled: Celebrating America the Way It's Supposed To Be - With an Oil Well in Every Backyard, a Cadillac Escalade In Every Carport and the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Mowing Our Lawn) by P.J. O'Rourke
Mr. O'Rourke is familiar to regular readers of The View Through The Windshield; he has been awarded the Quote of the Day on several occasions - an honor which confers more prestige than two free Big Mac Extra Value Meals or four Grammys.
O'Rourke was born with a vested interest in cars. His family owned a Buick dealership in Toledo, OH. Ever the auto enthusiast, P.J. became a scribe and was soon famous for his satirical world-view and his writings about politics, popular culture and cars. He has published 14 books, including three New York Times bestsellers.
'Driving Like Crazy' is a compilation of some of the best O'Rourke automotive pieces, from a career writing for publications like Car and Driver, Automobile, The National Lampoon, Playboy, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic Monthly, The American Spectator, and The Weekly Standard. He has taken the trouble to update many of the older essays, something not done often enough in compilation books.
At his best, P.J. O'Rourke is a thoughtful Hunter S. Thompson, with considerably lower systemic drug levels. His trademark rapier wit, often seen on various on-air gigs, shines through in the book. Here is a sampling:
I won't even begin to reveal the details of dinner in the midst of a 1979 motorcycle trip by a bunch of drink-loving car enthusiasts. It begins at a restaurant bar with one of them ordering "a pig trough full of bourbon." Just buy the book and read the whole story.
• O'Rourke believes that our nanny-government bureaucrats (he refers to them as "Fun Suckers") "think cars will run on six AAA batteries. And that might work too. Put half a dozen batteries in a sock, hit a gas station cashier over the head and steal thirty gallons."
• He describes the Ford Flex as a "Sport Futility Vehicle."
• "After the World Trade Center attack, Patriot Act largesse was showered on police departments. New Hampshire's small towns used the money for extra traffic patrols in case Osama bin Laden has one taillight out."
• "I always rent Town Cars for that nostalgic "Avast, matey! Right full rudder!" road feel."
• On his adventure driving the Grand Trunk road in India: "The road was celebrated in Rudyard Kipling's 'Kim' and dates back at least to the fourth century B.C. - especially in the matter of stoplights and lane markers."
• During a 1986 visit to a Philippine auto shop, the noise "was enough to break a word processor's adjective key."
• At speeds of 50 mph or more, his improperly aligned Jeep Cherokee caused "more of a shudder than the details of Monica Lewinsky's private life."
'Driving Like Crazy' is 288 pages of vehicular hilarity. (posted 6/1/09, permalink)
'Liberal Fascism' by Jonah Goldberg
I finally finished this 400+ page tome. I struggled through it off and on for five months. This was not because it's a poorly-written or dull book. Rather, it was because the information presented was so dense. I would read a few pages and then have to stop and absorb the facts and ideas therein. And mutter 'Holy Cow' a lot. (Perhaps I'm the one who is dense.)
The book changed the way I think about history and fascism - a word tossed around loosely these days as a vague tyrannical insult.
Goldberg makes a compelling case for the fascist roots of modern American liberalism, exposing Margaret Sanger, Woodrow Wilson and, yes, St. Franklin Roosevelt his-own-self as those who believed that an all-powerful People's State should always trump the individual, controlling the citizenry's culture, education, information and health - a Nanny State.
Jonah writes, "It is my argument that American liberalism is a totalitarian political religion." Yes, and its most recent doctrinal encyclical was Man-made Global Warming. Thomas Sowell has called 'Liberal Fascism' "the most outstanding political book of 2008." Francis Porretto of Eternity Road has praised it as well.
I highly recommend this book. I found it well worth my (many hours of) time. (posted 1/12/09, permalink)
'The Small-Mart Revolution: How Local Businesses Are Beating The Global Competition' by Michael Shuman
The title is very misleading. I expected bulleted, specific step-by-step How-Tos for small retailers. Got general platitudes instead. I wanted Tom Peters' 'In Search Of Excellence'-style detailed success stories. Got unhelpful Profiles Lite instead.
This book is mostly a woe-is-us rant from a ... (more >>>) 1/9/08
'Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely Life and Times of Doc Pomus' by Alex Halberstadt
Jerome Felder was a white Jewish guy with polio who, in the '40s, changed his name to Doc Pomus and became a renowned blues singer in New York's black club scene. In the 1950-60s he gained more fame as prolific, chart-topping songwriter. How unlikely is that? ... (more >>>) 8/6/07
'America: The Last Best Hope (Volume II): From a World at War to the Triumph of Freedom' by William J. Bennett
In my August 3rd posting, I reviewed Volume I of Bill Bennett's book and gave it high marks, declaring it "a readable, down-to-earth overview of American history." Volume II is more of the same, covering the period from the outbreak of World War I through the end of the Reagan presidency.
This volume was, for me, an ... (more >>>) 8/15/07
'America: The Last Best Hope (Volume I): From the Age of Discovery to a World at War' by William J. Bennett
I've never liked history textbooks; even in my day, they were dry, dumbed-down and controversy-filtered in order to increase salability to various school districts. Today, such textbooks are - additionally - vetted by the PC police, making sure that Indians are portrayed as nature-loving, Chock-Full-O-Native-Wisdom saints, slavery is presented as The American White Man's Evil Invention and the Founders' references to God are removed. Or changed to Gaia.
In contrast, Dr. Bennett has produced a readable, down-to-earth overview of American history. Filled with interesting facts and tidbits ... (more >>>) 8/13/07
'The Men Who Loved Trains: The Story of Men Who Battled Greed to Save an Ailing Industry' by Rush Loving
This work covers 50 years of behind-the-scenes railroad corporate intrigue and boardroom battles - all in less than 350 pages. ... (more >>>) 8/1/07
'America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It' by Mark Steyn.
Steyn has written an easy-to-read, oft-witty but very serious book on a scary subject. He posits that the struggle to save Western Civilization will fall on the shoulders of America, alone - hence the title.
Mark presents a compelling argument that the world will be soon divided between America and a new medieval Islamic order. For our sake, America had better win.
If you care about the world in which your children or grandchildren will live, this book is a must-read. (posted 12/29/06, permalink)
'Always Magic in the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era' by Ken Emerson
This book enthusiastically recreates a wonderful and historically significant time in music - those 10 or so years beginning in the mid-to-late 1950s, when rock-and-roll and do-wop merged into a mainstream American sound. It chronicles 14 songwriters; all inhabitants of two music buildings in New York City, the Brill Building and 1650 Broadway. It's full of gossip, biography, music critiques and sociology. Tales are well-told and interwoven into a very readable work.
Here are some gems I gleaned from reading it ... (more >>>) 8/21/06
Two of the books I received at Christmas were remarkably similar on the surface. Both were written by very funny Jewish celebrities. Both authors are similar in age. Both books are about growing up in New York.
'The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue' by Robert Klein details his life from ages nine to 25. He's an smart guy but the book's content was soooo self-indulgent. Sometimes it seemed that this tome's primary focus was the author's sexual encounters. Other characters in the book - parents, girlfriend, etc. were minor players without substance. It's All About Robert.
'700 Sundays' by Billy Crystal is a pleasant memoir. Crystal details his relationship with his father (who died when Billy was 15) and how that affected other aspects of his life. The book is funny and poignant. The stories are memorable, ranging from Crystal being taken to his first movie by Billie Holiday to his grandmother suggest to Louis Armstrong that he fix his trademark phlegmy voice by "coughing it up." The book quickly settles in as a sentimental journey in time and an enjoyable read.
While I admire Klein's intellect, after reading both books I think Billy Crystal's the guy I'd rather have a beer and conversation with. (posted 2/9/06, permalink)
'Argomania: A Look At Argus Cameras And The Company That Made Them' by Henry J. Gambino
Allow me to begin by admitting that I'm not a camera guy. To me, they're just something to point and shoot. Nevertheless, I found this book about cameras surprisingly interesting.
Argus Camera is an American business saga - with clever inventiveness, creative marketing schemes, financial cliff hangers, soap-opera ownership changes, etc. It is a story well-told by Henry J. Gambino, a prolific author and camera buff. He brings drama to ... (more >>>) 9/9/05
'The Journal Of Ride Theory Omnibus' by Dan Howland
This collection of articles, facts and trivia about amusement parks is interesting and amusing, especially some of the 'inside dirt' on Disney's parks.
One article noted the demise of Disney's Mr. Toad's Wild Ride in 1997. It was replaced by a tame, lame Winnie the Pooh ride. Angry protesters wore green T-shirts which read 'Ask Me Why Mickey Is Killing Mr. Toad'. Meanwhile, certain Disney Imagineers had shirts made up bearing the message 'Pooh Happens'. When we first visited Disneyland in 1972, Mr. Toad had the longest line of any ride - it was quite popular.
There was some mention of Disney India: I have a "preview" of this proposed Disney park here.
A section on Bad Ideas has an illustration of a ride never constructed - a Ferris wheel running on a roller coaster track. Scary!
There was also an segment about various world's fairs. One mentioned was Expo 67 - the Montreal's World's Fair which was held at Ile Ste-Hélène on the St. Lawrence River. The centerpiece of this 1967 fair was the U.S. pavilion - covered by a gigantic, 20-story, see-through geodesic dome, designed by R. Buckminster Fuller. The segments of Bucky's dome were glazed with bronze-tinted Plexiglas acrylic sheet.
There were four or five different shades of transparent bronze used. The pieces near the top had the darkest shades; the ones near ground level were the lightest to create a gradient effect and reduce heat loads near the top. Hexagonal acrylic flat pieces were heated and free-blown (with air-pressure) to form low-rise bubble shapes. These were bolted to the welded steel skeletal structure. Because acrylic was flammable, the entire structure was sprinklered. As I recall, there was one sprinkler head for every Plexiglas panel.
The sprinkler system was plagued with leaks (low-bidder quality problems?), so the sprinkler system was turned off most of the time. In 1976, some welding repairs to the steel structure were being carried out. Despite the presence of an open flame neat the combustible acrylic, the sprinkler system was off and, when a fire started, no one present knew how to turn it back on. By the time it was turned on and the system repressurized, the dome was engulfed in flames. Poof!
At the time of the dome's construction, I worked for Rohm & Haas - then the maker of Plexiglas. (R&H has since sold off its Plexiglas operation to a division of oil giant ElfAto - now known as Total, a French-Italian conglomerate implicated in the U.N. Oil For Food scandal.) Anyway, R&H decided to send one of their professional engineering photographers to get some documentary photos of the structure.
The photographer worked for a manager named Bob who was an arrogant, ex-military guy and professional know-it-all. (Think Dilbert's boss but with better posture and a military brush cut.) Bob bumped the photographer from the trip and went himself. (Montreal - a chance to eat, drink and carouse on the company's money.) Even though he had no knowledge of photography, Bob declined any lessons.
He shot ten rolls of 35 mm film. When developed, all were blank. It was rumored that Bozo Bob never removed the lens cover. What an idiot! And what a pack of idiots were the R&H senior managers who never fired Bob.
Idiotic senior managers played a large part in my decision to leave Rohm & Haas in 1978.
I highly recommend Dan Howland's book; it's very entertaining. Dan has a blog, too. (posted 7/28/05, permalink)
'An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power' by John Steele Gordon.
This book is a history and celebration of the American economy. Gordon is a financial journalist and columnist for American Heritage magazine.
This work begins in pre-Colonial times and ends with the 9-11 bombings. Gordon explains America's seminal economic moments - from the careful financial and economic plans of Alexander Hamilton to the Cold War boom and the era of technology. The book is full of fascinating nuggets - the extremely high prices paid by great Britain for American horses during World War I was the primary reason that tractors so quickly replaced them on American farms.
The writing was straightforward and entertaining, unlike those soulless history texts used in schools. I highly recommend this interesting and informative book. (posted 7/22/05, permalink)
'America's Bishop: The Life and Times of Fulton J. Sheen' by Thomas C. Reeves.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I began reading it just as another great 20th Century religious icon, Rev. Billy Graham, was finishing up his final crusade in the twilight of his life. Like Sheen, Graham - in his prime - was a charismatic preacher who converted countless unbelievers. Both had a mutual admiration - Graham called Sheen "one of the greatest preachers of this century."
The book is no mere hagiography - Bishop Sheen had faults and flaws (pride and a fondness for luxurious things - like long black Cadillacs). Reeves' balanced and well-researched book reveals a sincere, generous and holy man who was committed to his faith.
The book is full of American history, too - and reveals things not found in most history books. Sheen regarded Franklin Roosevelt as an religious bigot - and once wrote to Eleanor: "Your record of anti-Catholicism stands for all to see ... documents of discrimination unworthy of an American mother." Sheen referred to Franklin's WWII deal thusly: "At Yalta, three men with a pen delivered the Eastern part of Europe up to a Godless nation."
As a Catholic, Sheen had a bit of trouble finding a house in 1938 D.C., finally selecting one with a deed which explicitly excluded "blacks, Jews, Armenians, Persians and Syrians." It is easy to forget how bigoted this country was seventy years ago. Sheen probably had do some searching to find a neighborhood that didn't ban Papists.
Sheen's television show, 'Life Is Worth Living', which debuted in 1952, drove Frank Sinatra's variety show off the air and threatened the ratings of Uncle Miltie's (Milton Berle's) TV show. (Bishop Sheen sometimes referred to himself as Uncle Fultie.) Actor Martin Sheen took his stage name from the good Bishop. I used to watch 'Life Is Worth Living' as a child.
I once saw Fulton Sheen in person and, at the time, felt privileged to be in the presence of a probable future saint. Reading the book has not changed my feelings. (posted 7/13/05, permalink)
'Playing With Trains: A Passion Beyond Scale' by Sam Posey
My friend and fellow car/train nut from Pennsylvania sent me this book. I wanted to like it because the author is a former race car driver and train buff. Unfortunately ... (more >>>) 10/16/04
'Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul' by Tony Hendra
In this tribute to his spiritual mentor, Father Joe is presented as a wise but unassuming Benedictine monk who brings common sense and truth to the problems Hendra offers him over a 40-plus year period. A stuttering, big-eared, ungainly man, cloistered in an ancient abbey on the Isle of Wight, Father Joe is a good listener and deeply spiritual. He is undoubtedly a saint and, for Hendra, an anchor in a storm-tossed life.
Of Tony Hendra, things are less certain ... (more >>>) 9/15/04
'Devil In The White City' by Erik Larson
James Lileks is apparent spending part of his vacation reading this book. It's an excellent choice. I received my copy as a Father's Day present from my daughter in 2003. Erik has a wonderful way with words and paints interesting verbal pictures that make you want to read more.
The book is based on real events at and around the 1893 Exposition in Chicago. It was disturbing for me to learn that the murderer in the book was later hung at Moyamensing Prison in Philadelphia and buried in Holy Cross Cemetery in nearby Yeadon, PA. So, my late parents are now sharing real estate with a convicted serial killer.
It's a good book, though. Worth a read. (posted 8/12/04, permalink)
'Concept Cars' by Larry Edsall
As a young lad, perusing Motor Trend, Motor Life, Mechanix Illustrated and the like in the 1950s, I was always fascinated by photos of 'dream cars' created by Detroit. And by Bertone, Pininfarina, etc. The ones with soaring fins, bubble tops, sparkling pearlescent paint mixed with crushed fish scales and acres of chrome. I never thought I'd ever get to view any in person. Looking over this book, I'm surprised at how many of these show cars I have seen over the years - at the Henry Ford Museum, Pebble Beach, the original Harrah's in Reno, Concours Italiano, the New York Auto Show, etc. Even today, I still salivated over the excellent photos of the early dream cars in this book.
It has been published by Barnes & Noble as a 'B&N Exclusive' - meaning that B&N can price it any way it wants without fear of price cutting by Overstock.com, Amazon or the like. A car buddy gave the book to me as a gift. It cost him sixteen bucks or so - and, for the price, the book is a good value. But it is by no means a comprehensive view of the subject. I found several errors. And the book gives short shrift to early dream cars, focusing heavily on recent models. There are too many sketches at the expense of photos. Too much emphasis is on design schools and individual stylists. The cars and photographs of them should be the stars here.
Interestingly, a book with the exact same title was produced by B&N in 2000; the author was Chris Rees. While the photos weren't as good, the book covered the subject a little more comprehensively. That said, both books offer a superficial hot wax spray, rather than a thorough detailing of the subject.
The best and most comprehensive concept car book ever published is 'Ford Design Department Concept & Showcars' by Jim & Cheryl Farrell (1999). Unfortunately, it only deals with FoMoCo products. Another fairly detailed book is 'Dream Cars' by Jean-Rodolphe Piccard from 1981 - it covers many automobile marques. For GM fans, I'd recommend 'GM Motorama: Dream Cars of the Fifties' by Bruce Berghoff from 1995.
Finally, 'The Last Dream-O-Rama' by Bruce McCall (2002) - a hilarious parody of the GM Motorama - is a must for any '50s dream car aficionado. Happy reading! (posted 7/12/04, permalink)
'Big Russ and Me: Father and Son - Lessons of Life.' by Tim Russert
The host of NBC's Meet The Press has penned a tribute to his dad, Big Russ. His father grew up poor, survived a plane crash in World War II and, later, supported his wife and four children by working at two jobs for thirty years. The book offers well-deserved praise from a son to his dad. The problem is that the much of the substance of the book had already been revealed in countless hype-the-product television interviews (especially a disgustingly saccharine one with a fawning Tom Brokaw) before I even got to page one of my Father's Day gift. Including the oft-repeated Ford Crown Vicky versus Cadillac story.
I rarely watch Meet The Press but I enjoy Russert's Saturday MSNBC show. I was prepared to like this book. And I did. But it didn't reveal much that I hadn't already heard in the rounds of on-screen promotional appearances. To be sure, I was exposed to some funny anecdotes. But there was little depth or insight in the 352-page tome - almost no mention of his siblings or his mom. And he quickly glossed over his parents' late-in-life divorce.
Privately published and presented to friends of Big Russ, this would have been a nice little book of praise. But, as a mainstream publication by a big-time television talking head, it pales in comparison to books by the late David Brinkley, Peggy Noonan and others. 'Big Russ and Me' has been given much free publicity and kind words by Mr. Russert's esteemed colleagues - perhaps in the hope that he'll return the favor for their next book.
One wonders if a book titled 'Big Jim and Me', written by an earnest, loving, non-famous son in Podunk, Iowa, would have been so uncritically reviewed ... or even noticed. Presented as a top-of-the-line Cadillac DeVille, 'Big Russ and Me' is a mediocre vehicle - not even a Crown Victoria. More like an off-lease, bare-bones Ford Taurus. A underperformer, failing to measure up to the hype. (posted 6/30/04, permalink)
'The End of Detroit: How the Big Three Lost Their Grip on the American Car Market' by Micheline Maynard
This excellent book discusses all of the things my friends and I always complain about - American cars are used to be great; now they're getting beaten in every way and in almost every market by ultra-reliable Japanese vehicles. Of course, the book goes into great depth about How This Came To Be. I found myself nodding in agreement as I turned the pages.
There is an odd quote from Bob Lutz opining that the current-model Toyota Camry is "the ugliest vehicle on the road today." This from the vice-chairman of General Motors - a company which produces the hideous Pontiac Aztek! And its unappealing soulmate, the Saturn Vue SUV. And the boxy, Über-butch Hummer H2. And the blocky, repulsive Cadillac CTS. And don't forget that Lutz was an executive at Chrysler in the 1980s when they were producing all those homely K-car variants.
Personally, I like the lines of the Camry. It has the traditional 'three box' sedan shape, not unlike the shape of the shoulder-carried palanquins in which royalty traveled in previous centuries. A very noble and worthy silhouette. (posted 6/15/04, permalink)
'The Last Good Time' by Jonathan Van Meter
I truly enjoyed this book about Skinny D'Amato, his 500 Club and Atlantic City. I learned many things - Atlantic City was founded in 1854 when a rail line was constructed from Camden, New Jersey to Atlantic City. The first permanent boardwalk was built in 1883; the wicker rolling chairs on the boardwalk were leftovers from the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition.
John Phillips Sousa played for 20 summers on Steeplechase Pier, beginning in 1903. In 1900, Philadelphia had one saloon per 1,000 people; New York had 5; Atlantic City had 14.55!!
In those days ... (more >>>) 6/1/04
'Crosswords of Commerce - The Pennsylvania Railroad Calendar Art of Grif Teller' by Dan Cupper.
Here's the official description: "Each year, starting in 1925, the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) commissioned a striking oil painting of a PRR engine in a dramatic setting, which was featured on a large wall calendar that the company distributed by the hundreds of thousands to customers and the public. Grif Teller painted 27 of the 33 scenes. This book reproduces his paintings in full color and recounts his life and career."
And beautiful paintings they are - carefully reproduced in this softbound book. Teller also did work for other railroads and transport companies and did privately-commissioned paintings on various subjects. Surprisingly ... (more >>>) 5/22/04
'Thus Spake David E.' by David E. Davis Jr.
This book is a compilation of Davis' columns in Car & Driver and, later, Automobile. Fine ... but the authors of such compilations have to be very careful when stringing columns together.
First, you have to edit out duplications and repetitions. Secondly, you must amplify and clarify your thoughts - since you're no longer restricted to a 500-700 word limit. For Davis, this meant fleshing out some of the people mentioned. Finally, you must explain yourself more thoroughly - you're writing for a broader and possibly less-knowledgeable audience. Unfortunately, none of this was done and Davis' book suffers for it.
Davis refers to Elmore Leonard but never says who Elmore is. (He's a prolific writer of novels and screenplays, including 'Get Shorty'. Leonard's probably not well-known to the average car nut.)
He never explains who Jean Lindamood is and why he values her opinion so. And what the big deal is about her ratty Dodge truck. I was puzzled by his desire for a Volvo 242GT and a Lotus Elite - both crap cars - and that Volvo 242 GT is so dull and ugly.
Davis tends to cross the line from raconteur to bloviator sometimes but I did like his comment that if Ford could offer Eddie Bauer editions of its SUV, why couldn't Chevrolet offer a Brooks Brothers Blazer?!
He also has the wrong derivation of the word Yuppie. Its not Young Upwardly Mobile Professionals (yumpie) as he claims; it's Young Urban Professionals. And, since most of the yuppies in London live in the Sloane Square area, the British don't call them yuppies. Over there, they're known as The Sloane Rangers.
The photos in the center of the book don't match up well with the stories in the book. Davis devotes an entire chapter to driving the obscure Aston Martin Bulldog concept car of 1980, but doesn't include a photo of it. (Car nut that I am, I had never heard of it and had to do some research to find out what it looked like.)
One of the other photo captions refers to a raccoon destroying the interior of the Davis' Ferrari 328S - and says that AAA paid for it. Nowhere in the book is this meager caption fleshed out into what must have been an interesting tale.
The golden rule is to never speak ill of the dead - unless you fully justify it to the reader. We're told that his friend and fellow auto writer Henry N. Manney III was bitter in his later years. How did he get this way? What happened?
John R. Bond (legendary editor of Road & Track) was "eccentric, suspicious and out-of-touch" - this needs to be explained. How could a suspicious guy be described in the next sentence as "lovable"? And Elaine Bond - there's a chapter about her, too - but, when you're done reading it, the chapter's not a profile - it's a lightly-penciled unfinished sketch. And of the still-living: Davis doesn't like Lee Iococca but likes Carroll Shelby even though Shelby apparently cheated Davis out of money. Huh? Why? Justification, please.
That said - I still found much of the book enjoyable - another aging car-nut who likes adventure, good food and wine. How could I not enjoy it?! (written 4/5/02, permalink)