Book Reviews (2017) by Joseph M. Sherlock
'The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War' by H.W. Brands
On the 1980s television series, 'Hart To Hart', the promo tagline was "And when they met, it was murder." And so it was when General Douglas MacArthur met President Harry Truman. MacArthur was the ultimate egotist and fabulist. The General engineered stunning triumphs, which he made sure were very-well publicized, as well as humiliating defeats, which he tried to gloss over or conceal. Truman was hard-nosed, hard-headed and his thin skin didn't like MacArthur's seeming disrespect.
In this 448-page book, the author tries to present a balanced view of Truman, an unpopular president who squeaked out a victory in the 1948 elections, and MacArthur, a popular figure who helped create a modern, non-militarized postwar Japan, but was caught flatfooted during the early days of the Korean War. Pages are full of vivid, detailed accounts of the many events which culminated in MacArthur's firing by Truman.
In the end, both men lost. Truman left office as an unloved president, although most historians have elevated his reputation over time. MacArthur never got the presidency he sought and his fame, like many old soldiers themselves, simply faded away.
Verdict: A good read which provides lots of fascinating details on this period in American history. Recommended. (posted 3/22/17, permalink)
'Killing The Rising Sun: How America Vanquished World War II Japan' by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard
This book is a collection of tales and gossip about the final year of World War II in the Pacific Theater. While the book is a fairly easy read and entertaining, I am suspicious about the veracity of certain items in this book. This is not surprising, based on the errors found in 'Killing Patton' and 'Killing Kennedy'.
The 336-page tome begins with the stench of falsehood, that Franklin Delano Roosevelt saved America during the Great Depression. In 'The Forgotten Man', Amity 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.
In 'Killing The Rising Sun', the authors claim that FDR smoked 20 cigarettes per day. Other books, describe Roosevelt as a "heavy smoker," consuming multiple packs each day. Photos often show him with a cigarette and trademark holder in his mouth or in his hand. The authors also pointed out that Roosevelt was ill during the various allied forces conferences. As pointed out in 'Stalin's Secret Agents', Franklin Roosevelt was a truly sick man in 1943 and gave away too much to Russia, egged-on by the Communists who had infiltrated the Roosevelt administration.
O'Reilly's and Duggar's book focuses on the final year or so of combat in the Pacific Theater and the use of the atomic bomb against Japan. The book is a bit superficial, seemingly written for a history novice. Perhaps that's the target audience. In any case, there are many much better books out there. Not that my opinion means much, because the 'Killing' series of books are now a franchise. They sell well not on their own merits but because Bill O'Reilly mega-hypes them on his nightly 'Factor' show. Even as you are reading this sentence, ol' Bill is on his knees, praying for another famous obituary, so he can write something like 'Killing Larry King'. Or 'Killing Carol Channing'. Bet on it.
Oh, wait ... here's a preview of Bill's next book:
Verdict: I guess that 'Killing The Rising Sun' is an OK starter book for those who know little or nothing about World War II. (posted 3/16/17, permalink)
'Speaking American: How Y'all, Youse, and You Guys Talk: A Visual Guide' by John Katz
I mostly review serious nonfiction books but, after awhile, it's nice to have a light-hearted palette cleanser. Speaking American is a perfect example.
John Katz's offering is a delightful exploration of American dialects and regional word usages. The information is presented graphically with segments overlaid atop maps of America. That makes it easy to separate the pop and soda regions of the U.S. My first memorable introduction to regional dialects was when we arrived in Oregon from the metro-Philadelphia area and ordered ice cream. When asked about preferred toppings, I said, "Jimmies." The server had no idea what I was talking about. I pointed to the jar of jimmies. "Oh, you mean sprinkles," she said.
Where does scratch paper become scrap paper? Where are garage sales called yard sales? Or rummage sales? Or tag sales? Where do you 'cut the grass' rather than 'mow the lawn'? This book will provide answers.
I found this to be an enjoyable, easy read. One drawback is that the book never addresses the Thanksgiving filling/dressing/stuffing conundrum.
Verdict: Recommended ... just for fun. (posted 3/8/17, permalink)
'Good Vibrations: My Life as a Beach Boy' by Mike Love and James S. Hirsch
In this New York Times best-selling autobiography, perennial Beach Boy Mike Love relates five-plus decades of his life as one of the founding members of the iconic group - arguably the most popular American musical group in history. Love sings lead on many of the Beach Boys most memorable songs; he wrote or co-wrote many of them.
To many in my age group, the Beach Boys represent an era - those magical few years of the early '60s before JFK was shot - when California was viewed, by those who had never seen it, as the next best thing to heaven. This view was personified in the 1973 film, 'American Graffiti' which was set in 1962.
In the 1950s and '60s, California was perceived as America's dream, especially Southern California - a land of warmth and sunshine, blue ocean and beaches not far from the city. Then there were the palm trees, modern freeways, interesting and novel (for me) architecture and lithe, tanned people dressed in sharp clothes who drove gleaming, desirable autos. Just watch old '50s television shows set in the Golden State - such as '77 Sunset Strip'. Kookie, Kookie, lend me your comb, indeed.
This book is Mike Love's story and he acknowledges that "for those who worship at the altar of Brian Wilson, I will always be the Antichrist." Brian Wilson is often portrayed as a tortured genius, abused by his domineering father who also mismanaged the Beach Boys. But Brian is no saint and went from neurotic to a drug-addled nutcase. Most of the group had issues of one sort or another - and most of those issues were fueled by alcohol and/or drugs. The group's members allowed themselves to be mismanaged. Parts of the story are ugly and the problems make for slow going at times but, overall, this was a mostly-enjoyable and informative read.
The upside: it's amazing that the group is still around and touring - no Beach Boys tribute band required.
Verdict: Recommended. (posted 3/2/17, permalink)
'The Intimidation Game: How the Left Is Silencing Free Speech' by Kimberly Strassel
Kim Strassel is a political columnist at The Wall Street Journal and is one of the pundits often seen on various cable news shows, especially Fox News Sunday. Her book provides a frightening look at how the political left uses various underhanded tactics to bully conservative Americans out of their free speech rights.
Especially disturbing is the Obama administration's politicization a number of federal agencies including the FEC, FCC, SEC and, most especially, the Internal Revenue service. After reading the book, my first question was, "Why is Lois Lerner not in jail?" The content of the book was chilling and the documented government actions were positively Orwellian.
I read this book just before the November '16 election and saw Ms. Strassel's assertions brought to light, thanks to the many Wikileaks releases and the Project Veritas videos.
Although it is less than 400 pages, this is a dense book because of the detail provided and is not a breezy read. But it is definitely worth your time, because the Left is still around and trying desperately to abolish all things non-liberal.
Verdict: Recommended. (posted 2/22/17, permalink)
'Destiny Of The Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President' by Candice Millard
This is the latest form of biography: Biography Lite, where James A. Garfield's early years are summarized in the first 100 pages or so. An admirable man, he rose from poverty to become a scholar, Civil War hero, congressman and president.
The majority of the book focuses on his assassination; by page 132 of the 300+ page book, the president has already been wounded by bullets. Garfield was shot less than four months after he was sworn in as president; he lingered - his health steadily declining - until he died less than three months later. During his last days, he asked to moved from sweltering Washington, DC to the breezy New Jersey shore, near Long Branch, where the salt air might be beneficial. The president traveled in a specially-cushioned railway car. A spur line to the seaside mansion was built in a night by volunteers.
Garfield was beloved by the populace. The country grieved for his loss almost as much as it had done for Lincoln. More than 100,000 citizens passed by the coffin as his body lay in state in Washington. In Cleveland, more than 150,000 - a number equal to the entire population of that city - paid their respects to the fallen president. A grand multi-story mausoleum with an observation deck was constructed to house his remains and those of his family. The closed caskets of Garfield and his wife, Lucretia, are still displayed in the lower crypt.
When Garfield's assassin was captured in the same train station where he shot Garfield, across the street from the station a "group of enraged black men, joined by a growing chorus, began shouting, 'Lynch him!' and the lethal momentum of the mob became all but unstoppable." Only heavy police presence prevented a lynching. One newspaper suggested that the assassin be "tried in the court of Judge Lynch." During his short presidency, Garfield had appointed African-Americans to his Cabinet and was generally a strong proponent of civil rights.
Justice was swift in those days. Charles J. Guiteau, a deranged, self-important, petty criminal who was angry at Garfield because Guiteau failed to secure an ambassadorship, was indicted within two weeks after Garfield's death. He was found guilty in January of the following year and was executed by hanging less than six months later.
The book weaves together the stories of Garfield, Guiteau, the president's primary surgeon, Dr. Willard Bliss, and Alexander Graham Bell, who tested his bullet-finding invention on an ailing Garfield.
There are books that develop several characters and build the suspense until they meet. It doesn't work so well here. Dr. Bliss was a controversial figure, who was late to the game in adapting the antiseptic practices developed by British surgeon, Dr. Joseph Lister in 1861. Twenty years later, many U.S. surgeons failed to even wash their hands before surgery. Author Millard wrote, "Doctors who lived in the country, away from the soot and grime of the industrialized cities, argued that their air was so pure that they did not need antisepsis. They preferred, moreover, to rely on their own methods of treatment, which not infrequently involved applying a hot poultice of cow manure to an open wound." An autopsy on Garfield implicated Bliss, due to the massive infections found throughout the president's body. People quipped sardonically, "Ignorance is Bliss." One doctor wrote that Bliss had "done more to cast distrust upon American surgery than any time heretofore known to our medical history." Bliss was also arrogant and kept other, possibly more competent doctors away from Garfield.
Alexander Bell's inclusion in this book, while interesting and informative in itself, does little to move the narrative along. This makes the book dry and uninteresting in spots. Garfield's funeral and the post-Garfield treatment of his presidency are given short shrift. Although I did learn that Lucretia established the first Presidential Library and its vault still contains the funeral wreath sent by Queen Victoria. But the author never reveals who was running the White House during the three months when Garfield was incapacitated.
Verdict: Worthwhile read, with reservations. (posted 2/16/17, permalink)
'The Fractured Republic: Renewing America's Social Contract in the Age of Individualism' by Yuval Levin
I wish that I could say something positive about this book. Sadly, it is boring and pointless. The subtitle suggests that solutions will be offered in the book, but I found no how-tos or bullet lists. The focus is mostly on Woe Is Me, Things Ain't What They Used To Be. Well, duh!
Other books offer solutions to America's problems, notably 'Exceptional: Why the World Needs a Powerful America' by Dick and Liz Cheney, 'The Way Forward' by Paul Ryan and 'One Nation: What We Can All Do to Save America's Future' by Ben Carson, MD.
Verdict: Not worth your time. (posted 2/8/17, permalink)
'In Such Good Company: Eleven Years of Laughter, Mayhem, and Fun in the Sandbox' by Carol Burnett
In this book, Carol Burnett reveals the backstory of her successful, Emmy-winning (25 of 'em) weekly variety show which ran from 1967 to 1978. 'The Carol Burnett Show' was one of the last comedy/variety shows on television, following in the footsteps of iconic 1950s shows from Sid Caesar, Milton Bearle, Gary Moore and others.
If you are a fan of the talented Ms. Burnett and/or were a regular viewer of her show, you'll find this book to be a pleasant trip down memory lane and an easy read, as well.
Verdict: Recommended. (posted 2/2/17, permalink)
'Who Needs The Fed?: What Taylor Swift, Uber, and Robots Tell Us About Money, Credit, and Why We Should Abolish America's Central Bank' by John Tamny
In 2015, I reviewed Tamny's previous book, 'Popular Economics'. I recommended it with two important reservations.
Tamny's latest book is far less impressive and I have numerous issues with the author. I agree with him that the big banks shouldn't have been bailed out. Too big to fail is a bad precedent. I also believe that the auto bailouts shouldn't have happened either.
The author posited that the financial crisis and resultant great recession was not due to the mortgage meltdown but rather the price of gold. Huh? Said meltdown was caused by unprecedented and irrational lending practices by mortgage lenders, encouraged by the government. This brought about a grave financial crisis, in my view. For details, see my review of 'Hidden In Plain Sight: What Really Caused the World's Worst Financial Crisis and Why It Could Happen Again'.
Peter Thiel, whose book 'Zero To One' I enjoyed and recommended, is frequently mentioned positively in this tome. But 'frequently' is part of the problem because this book is chock full of repetition. It's a thin book - 180 pages plus notes - and could have easily been cut by half. He failed to provide a coherent argument for eliminating the Fed, the steps he'd recommend to get rid of it and failed to get specific about what would replace it.
Verdict: Don't bother. Following on the success of his last book, I don't think Tamny put much effort into this one. (posted 1/25/17, permalink)
'The Scandal Of Money: Why Wall Street Recovers but the Economy Never Does' by George Gilder
Mr. Gilder authored 'Wealth and Poverty'. First published in 1981, his book spread the gospel of supply-side economics to a broad audience. I enjoyed reading it.
I found Gilder's latest 224-page book to be very difficult to understand. Maybe it's me. George Gilder has been praised by many as brilliant. But now, Gilder wants to unleash economic growth by returning to the gold standard, using some variation of Bitcoin.
He correctly identifies the problem: "a famine of growth during the Obama years." But then he goes off the rails, shaking his fist against a dead Richard Nixon for taking America off the gold standard in 1971. He mourns the good ol' days of Bretton Woods. He no longer likes Milton Friedman. He hates index funds, claiming that they cheat investors somehow. Huh?
I would remind Mr. Gilder that Bethany McLean of Fortune magazine wrote, "Building a portfolio around index funds isn't really settling for the average. It's just refusing to believe in magic." The Vanguard Index 500 Fund - now 40 years old - mirrors the S&P 500 Index. It has, over almost any 10 year period, outperformed more than 90% of all other mutual funds.
I would also point out that gold is usually a bad investment. In January, 1980, the market price of gold was $875 per ounce. At the time, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average was in the range of 875. Today, gold is $1,300 or so, while the Dow is over 18,000. So, would you rather have invested your $875 in gold and get a gain of less than 50% in 36+ years? Or would you rather have invested your money in a basket of blue chip stocks for a gain of over 1,900%?
Verdict: Disappointing and incomprehensible. Skip it. (posted 1/19/17, permalink)
'1932 - The Rise of FDR & Hitler - Two Tales of Politics, Betrayal, and Unlikely Destiny' by David Pietrusza
Anything author Pietrusza writes about politics goes on my must-read list. I have previously written favorable reviews about '1920: The Year of the Six Presidents', '1948: Harry Truman's Improbable Victory and the Year that Transformed America' and '1960 - LBJ vs. JFK vs. Nixon: The Epic Campaign That Forged Three Presidencies'.
'1932' illustrates the struggles of two iconic leaders as each battled to rise to the top of their respective nations. Conventional wisdom says that Franklin D. Roosevelt had an easy victory over his reviled opponent, Herbert Hoover. He did but he had a far more difficult time securing the Democratic presidential nomination. Adolf Hitler's path to leadership was even more treacherous and almost didn't happen.
For those readers who are car aficionados, I would point out that 1932 was the first years of the Ford V8 engine.
While the 1932 Ford wasn't the first V8 produced, it was still such a new idea that people worried that gravitational forces might cause the bottoms of the slanted cylinder walls to wear out. They were wrong and every male in America lusted after the distinctive rumble which only a V8 can produce. How could all those early hot rods have been developed without a flathead Ford V8 to move them?
Here are some tidbits from the book:
• From the beginning of FDR's battle with polio, there was a conspiracy to spin the facts. Big Jim Farley, chairman of the New York Democratic Party and FDR's campaign manager (1928-32), said, "His lameness, which is steadily getting better, has no more effect on his general condition than if he had a glass eye or was prematurely bald." As I was reading this book, the Hillary Clinton health crisis erupted and I was reminded of the similar deceptions by spinmeisters to keep the press and the public in the dark.
• Hitler had a Catholic upbringing and was once an altar boy.
• Not everyone liked Roosevelt. Legendary Democratic Boston ward boss Martin Lomasney lambasted FDR as "an aristocrat, a demagogue, and a double-crosser who has capitalized his invalidism and was using it to generate sympathy."
• In the 1932 election, there was bad blood between Roosevelt supporters and those for Al Smith. There were many meetings and negotiations to 'patch things up' so that the party could present a united front. I suppose things never change; the details reminded me of the Hillary-Bernie situation and the Trump-Cruz drama.
• Other 1932 American races were interesting, too. In the North Carolina senate race, Democratic challenger Robert Rice Reynolds, a thrice-married, blond county attorney, positioned himself as one of the "po' folks" by campaigning "in threadbare suits and worn shoes, often faking car breakdowns before arriving in small towns. To equally ragged audiences, Reynolds would reveal that his wealthy rival Morrison lived in Washington's opulent Mayflower Motel. Brandishing a Mayflower menu, he would read prices from it. "What do you think he eats?" Reynolds thundered. ... My friends, think of it, Senator Morrison eats caviar!""
• By September 1932, U.S. unemployment reached 27.9%.
• In 1932, Columbia Pictures released the documentary film, 'Mussolini Speaks', "a Lowell Thomas-narrated paean" to the Italian leader, praising him as "a man of the people whose deeds will ever be an inspiration to mankind." Produced for $100,000, it grossed a phenomenal million dollars.
This book is more than mere history; Pietrusza has brought 1932 to life and created a compelling page turner. I highly recommend it. (posted 1/11/17, permalink)
'MacArthur At War: World War II in the Pacific' by Walter R. Borneman
After a brief look at Douglas MacArthur's ancestry, childhood, family and World War I service, this 600-plus page book spends its time on his days in the Pacific Theater during World War II.
The General engineered stunning triumphs, which he made sure were very-well publicized, as well as humiliating defeats, which he tried to gloss over or conceal. MacArthur was the ultimate egotist and fabulist. One-time assistant Dwight Eisenhower once remarked, "I studied dramatics under MacArthur for seven years." The author presents a balanced picture as possible, neither attempting to hide MacArthur's flaws and failings nor overly glorifying his successes.
The book is very detailed - too detailed for me - and I soon found it boring. Nevertheless, for serious historians, this is probably an excellent choice of reading material.
Verdict: Recommended only if you're a determined WWII or MacArthur buff. (posted 1/5/17, permalink)
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copyright 2017 - Joseph M. Sherlock - All applicable rights reserved
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