Book Reviews (2017) by Joseph M. Sherlock
'The Devil's Mercedes: The Bizarre and Disturbing Adventures of Hitler's Limousine in America' by Robert Klara
You know how you go to a party and there's a sudden lull as conversations halt when everyone seems to run out of stuff to say? Here's a way to liven things up: Just ask, "Did you know that Howdy Doody was once in Hitler's car?" More on that later.
I had low expectations for this book. A story about Adolf Hitler's Mercedes seemed more suitable for a magazine article than a 350-plus page book. But author Klara is an excellent storyteller and manages to flesh out the pages quite well.
The 20-foot long, 10,000 pound Mercedes-Benz 770K armored open touring car, also known as a Großer Mercedes, is an interesting car unto itself. It had a 467 cubic-inch straight-eight engine with a supercharger loud enough to wake the dead. The beast rode on a 153-inch wheelbase and was a truck-like 81 inches wide. These open cars were favorites of the Nazi high command and there are several photos of Hitler riding in one.
The build quality on these automobiles must be experienced to be believed. Twenty-five years ago, I had a chance to closely examine one of these armored Nazi Mercedes undergoing restoration. The massive bullet-proof doors were thick and heavy and swung on humongous hinges. But the balance was so precise I could move the door effortlessly with just two fingers.
The car most often used by Adolf had a front passenger seat tilted up, revealing a raised platform on which Der Führer stood as he did his Sieg Heil salute with one hand and held on to a special windshield grab bar with the other during parades. The platform also made Hitler appear six inches taller than he really was. That particular Mercedes-Benz is a dark blue example and is displayed at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa in mostly unrestored condition. But it took a long time to figure out that this example was the Actual Hitler Car and the story of the quest to identify which parade car was which makes for a fascinating tale with many characters, carnies and hustlers involved.
In 1948, a vehicle thought to be Hitler's parade car arrived in the U.S. and was displayed at Rockefeller Center. That's when Mr. Doody occupied the front passenger seat where Der Führer would have sat. Buffalo Bob was behind the wheel and some Peanut Gallery kids were in the back seat, holding balloons.
Today, everyone in the old car business knows Barrett-Jackson. But, when Tom Barrett and Russ Jackson held their very first vehicle auction in the early 1970s, two Mercedes-Benz 770K Phaetons that formerly served as German dictator Adolf Hitler's staff cars went under the gavel. One of the Phaetons more than tripled the previous world auction record for automobiles, selling for $153,200.
This vehicle, often referred to as 'Hitler's car' was presented as a gift to Finland's Field Marshal Mannerheim in 1942. Hitler only rode in the car briefly. Eventually, the car was purchased by General William Lyon, a well-known connoisseur of fine vintage aircraft and automobiles. Lyons had the derelict car properly restored over a twenty-year period. At the 2014 Pebble Beach Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, Lyons' black 1941 Mercedes-Benz 770K W150 Offener Tourenwagen won first place in its class.
Here's another automotive tidbit: In 1948, the Swedish American Line's MS Stockholm carried the Mannerheim Mercedes-Benz 770K to America in its hold. The Italian ocean liner SS Andrea Doria was sunk in 1956 after the MS Stockholm collided with it. When the Andrea Doria sank, a one-of-a-kind concept car - the Chrysler Norseman - was in its hold and went down with the ship. The Norseman was designed by legendary stylist Virgil Exner and built by Ghia of Turin. It was scheduled to make the rounds of various American auto shows as the crown jewel of the Chrysler exhibit. Alas, the Norseman remains at the bottom of the Atlantic and relatively few photos of the car exist.
There are many twists and turns in the stories of these rare Mercedes automobiles and the various tales and foibles make the book a very worthwhile read.
Verdict: Highly recommended. (posted 8/17/17, permalink)
'How The Hell Did This Happen: The Election Of 2016' by P.J. O'Rourke
Once upon a time, O'Rourke wrote brilliantly witty books on a variety of subjects. Apparently he no longer does so. Instead, his publisher has released a 256-page compilation of previously-published material about the 2016 presidential primary and election with a few new paragraphs added. This is sad because I particularly enjoyed his 2009 offering: 'Driving Like Crazy'.
'How The Hell Did This Happen' was devoid of even a laugh or a chuckle. The pages are filled with cheap shots about every candidate. P.J. can't get enough of Chris Christie fat jokes. He saved his best 55-gallon drum of unfunny vitriol to pour over the head of Donald Trump.
In the end, O'Rourke, an admitted Republican and unadmitted Never-Trumper, held his nose and voted for Hillary.
Verdict: An epic fail. So is the book. (posted 8/11/17, permalink)
'Agent 110: An American Spymaster and the German Resistance in WWII' by Scott Miller
I enjoy reading a good spy novel. Unfortunately, stories about real-life spies often fail to live up to the standard set by novels.
Such is the case with 'Agent 110'. Allen Dulles seems to be a dull character. His wife didn't think much of him either. Clover Dulles once said, "My husband doesn't converse with me ... It took me a long time to realize that when he talks it is only for the purpose of obtaining something ... He has either to be making someone admire him, or to be receiving some information worth his while; otherwise, he gives one the impression that he doesn't talk because the person isn't worth talking to."
This 368-page account of Dulles' spymaster activities in Switzerland during World War II is slow going. He encouraged Germans who wanted to overthrow Hitler but those efforts bore no fruit and the agents seemed hapless.
Verdict: A tedious tale. (posted 8/7/17, permalink)
'The President Will See You Now: My Stories and Lessons from Ronald Reagan's Final Years' by Peggy Grande
This 262-page book is exactly as the title promises, with lots of good stories. Peggy Grande, Ronald Reagan's longtime personal assistant, worked closely with the president for 10 years after he left the White House and has penned a moving memoir about the former president's twilight years. As a long-time fan of President Reagan, I looked forward to reading it.
The book is respectful, although Grande comes off as a little too perky and enthusiastic at times. Some of her observations border on sappy and, like Tom Wolfe and Elaine Benes, she is much too fond of exclamation points!!!
Nevertheless, this is a unique portrait of our late president and reveals much about his post-presidential years.
Verdict: Good read overall. (posted 8/1/17, permalink)
'The Jersey Brothers: A Missing Naval Officer in the Pacific and His Family's Quest to Bring Him Home' by Sally Mott Freeman
This is the extraordinary story of the three Mott brothers of New Jersey and their experiences in the U.S. Navy during World War II. The author is the daughter of one of the brothers and she was born well after the war ended. Here knowledge of the war is deep and, as far as I could tell, impeccable given that she spent 10 years researching this book.
Interwoven in the brother's biographies is this history of the war itself - the fighting, the planning, the inter-branch military disputes and the effects of the war on civilian lives, especially the life of the boys' mother.
This book is no friend of General MacArthur, his toady Courtney Whitney or the Pacific Army Command in general - the backstabbing and political maneuvering was often detrimental to the overall war effort and deadly to enlisted men.
Appointed Chief of Naval Operations in the post-Pearl Harbor shake-up, the brilliant and irascible Admiral Ernest J. King, was suspicious of the Army and the British; he felt that both conspired to deprive the Pacific Naval Theater of support and materiel in order to get more supplies for the European Theater. After his promotion to CNO, he reportedly quipped, "When they get in trouble they send for the sons-of-bitches." Many key players such as Admiral King are referred to in this book. They are not presented as lightly-sketched personalities. The author describes people so well that one feels as if one has actually met them.
The author's lengthy quest for hard-to-locate details is familiar. My dad got out of the Navy around May 1946 and, like most vets, quietly returned to normal civilian life. He rarely spoke of the war. The few things I've learned about his wartime experiences, I found out from shipmates after his death. There are no more answers or details available any more - all of them are now gone.
My mom's first cousin - a Jesuit priest - was, like Benny Mott, a POW in the Philippines. Father John was liberated the day before his scheduled execution. As a kid, I found him to be a quiet and kinda-scary guy; in those days, little was known about PTSD. He obviously suffered from it and had difficulty coping. Nevertheless, he continued to serve his religious community actively until his death in 1981.
The heroics found within the book's pages are very moving - right up there with 'Flags Of Our Fathers' by James Bradley and 'Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption' by Laura Hillenbrand.
The author vividly relates the horror of the Japanese POW camps during the period. Japan imposed atrocity, torture and death on a staggering scale. Japan held 132,000 POWs - one in four died while imprisoned, compared with only 1% of Americans held by Nazis and Italians. They were beaten, burned, clubbed or otherwise tortured. Knowing that they were going to lose the war, the Japanese military planned to execute all POWs. Thankfully, the atomic bombs stopped them from carrying out that mission to its fullest.
Verdict: Highly recommended. Sally Mott Freeman is a masterful storyteller and her book is a great and poignant history lesson. (posted 7/28/17, permalink)
'Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis' by J.D. Vance
Here's how this book begins: "My name is J.D. Vance, and I think I should start with a confession: I find the existence of the book you hold in your hands somewhat absurd. It says right there on the cover that it's a memoir, but I'm thirty-one years old, and I'll be the first to admit that I've accomplished nothing great in my life, certainly nothing that would justify a complete stranger paying money to read about it." He's right. You'd be nuts to pay 16 bucks for this sob story, peddled by the publisher as "riveting .. inspirational and essential reading."
First - a disclaimer. My only experience with hillbillies was when I watched a few minutes of 'Hee-Haw' many years ago. That said, there's nothing unique about Vance's story because it's not really about hillbillies. It's about any group of poor people, who have limited options because of dysfunctional family situations, lack of education, bad decisions, drugs, and/or an inability to adapt to a changing world. Similar stories could have been found in hypothetical books such as 'Ghetto Elegy', 'Rust Belt Elegy', 'Biggest Employer Left Small Town Elegy', etc.
This 272-page book is said to be "part memoir, part historical and social analysis." There's not much analysis and what's there is pretty superficial. Vance was rescued by caring grandparents as well as other family members, when his biological parents failed him. He worked hard as well and he's become a successful attorney and "principal at a leading Silicon Valley investment firm." That's great but Vance's story is not particularly unique. There are tens of thousands of disadvantaged children who also overcame obstacles because of intervention by caring relatives. And because they toiled diligently to met their goals.
I found no message in this book. Vance doesn't offer solutions for others, except perhaps that he escaped because of helping hands and perseverance and that, maybe, others can do so, too.
Verdict: Not particularly 'riveting'. Skip it. (posted 7/24/17, permalink)
'Creative Industries Of Detroit: The Untold Story of Detroit's Secret Concept Car Builder' by Leon Dixon
In the 1970s, I spent time in the Detroit area, working with automotive manufacturers and their suppliers. The industrial sections of the metro area were chock full of small companies which made their living supplying components and services to the Big Three automakers. These thousands of firms were unknown to the public at large. Creative Industries was one of them.
This book is about the many achievements of Creative, including behind the scenes looks at some well-known prototypes, concept cars and limited-production vehicles. Company owners Fred Johnson and Rex Terry are profiled within the pages. Both were amazing entrepreneurs who built their company by intensely focusing on the needs of their transport-related clients. And offering solutions to unanticipated problems.
The majority of the book looks at the postwar period through the 1960s. Readers will learn the back stories behind iconic showcars, dream cars and prototypes, such as the Ford Atmos-FX, Mercury XM-800, Dodge Granada, Packard Balboa, Packard Panther, Packard Request, Packard Predictor, Ford Mystere, Dodge Charger I and Plymouth VIP show cars, the El Morocco (a poor man's Caddy Eldorado) and the bizarre-looking winged Plymouth Superbird.
It's a very good book - full of interesting information - but not a perfect one. Dixon's writing style lacks polish and I found a few mistakes, not about Creative, but aspects of the outside auto industry. The book leaves many questions unanswered, not because of a lack of research by the author, but because much of the Creative's work was done in secret and subsequent files are missing or were destroyed. The book is a 192-page large-format (8.5 x 11) paperback and contains lots of images. I wish some of the photos were bigger.
The book provides an illustrated, behind the scenes trip through an important time when American automakers ruled the industry and were free to dream big. Dixon concludes his book with contemporary photos of the mostly-abandoned Creative Industries physical locations. It is sad to see but it's representative of what Detroit has become. Onerous federal regulations means car companies now spend their money on compliance issues rather than dream cars. The annual model restyle is a mere dust mite in the eye of auto history. Foreign competition has reduced profits, forcing supplier consolidation. Urban decay forced many suppliers to leave the metro area for more pleasant surroundings, especially now that Detroit is no longer the epicenter of the car biz.
My last visit to Detroit was in 1995 for the Diamond Anniversary Lincoln Celebration. FoMoCo provided me a Lincoln Mark VIII to evaluate and, as I drove around, I was appalled by the poor condition of the roadways and the number of abandoned commercial and industrial buildings. Obviously, things have gotten much worse since then.
Verdict: Recommended. I learned a great deal from this book and it was a fun trip down automotive memory lane. (posted 7/20/17, permalink)
'The Man Who Designed The Future: Norman Bel Geddes and the Invention of Twentieth-Century America' by B. Alexandra Szerlip
The jacket blurb for this book opened thusly: "Before there was Steve Jobs, there was Norman Bel Geddes." This was my first clue that disappointment might lie ahead. Bel Geddes was an innovative theatrical set and lighting designer, who revolutionized stage plays in the 1920s. He later moved on to industrial design, styling radios, kitchen ovens and the 1934 Electrolux refrigerator. His most notable accomplishment was Futurama, the spectacular General Motors exhibit at the 1939-40 New York World's Fair. But Norman Bel Geddes never came up with market-disruptive, insanely-great, industry-changing products the way Steve Jobs did.
I'm no expert in design history but I found numerous mistakes in this book:
• Ms. Szerlip discussed Lucite, a clear acrylic plastic, as a decorative theatrical element in the 1928-31 period. But acrylic sheet was not offered in commercial quantities until the late 1930s.
• The author claimed that Bel Geddes consulted on the initial design of the ill-fated Chrysler Airflow. Knowledgeable automotive historians say that he had nothing to do with the design and development of the original Airflow but was called in to 'improve' the car's appearance because the homely 1934 model was a sales disaster. Bel Geddes reportedly endowed the 1935 models with a new hood, ending in a V-shaped grille (replacing the unloved waterfall unit of '34) which visually lengthened the hood and made it look less stubby. He also rearranged some trim and bumpers. The result was an improvement but it didn't help sales much.
Chrysler offered a more conventional-looking automobile, the Airstream, starting in 1935. In 1936, Chrysler sold only 1,590 of its Airflow four-door sedans. In contrast, over 6,500 Airstream four-door models found buyers that year. The unpopular Airflow was discontinued after the '37 model year. Ms. Szerlip provides a lot of detail - an entire chapter - about the Airflow and its development. I think most of the content is dead wrong and the Airflow story doesn't belong in this book because Bel Geddes' involvement was so minimal.
• Her lengthy soliloquy to the Airflow ends with the assertion that the June 1938 issue of Action Comics No. 1 has Superman smashing a Chrysler Airflow. This is stunningly erroneous. The generic green sedan on cover of the epochal comic seems to be blend of a '38 Chevy and '37 Dodge. Her repeated claim that the failure of the Airflow was not due to its odd appearance has been refuted by many auto experts.
• The author wrote, "In 1936, Raymond Loewy was given permission to make suggestions for improvements to Pennsylvania Railroad's ... GG-1 [sic] locomotive." Actually, Mr. Loewy restyled the prototype in 1934. The author derided the smooth, seamless, welded construction of Loewy's production GG1, as though this approach is nothing special. The fact is that Loewy's idea of fully-welded body construction was somewhat unique in the railroad field. Other famous early streamliners did not use smooth, seamless welds - the Union Pacific M-10000, debuting in early 1934, had a riveted body. The stainless steel Burlington Pioneer Zephyr, constructed in April 1934, featured rough, shotwelded construction.
It should also be noted that, unlike well-known industrial designers Henry Dreyfuss (New York Central's Mercury train and Twentieth Century Limited's streamlined Hudson steam loco) and Otto Kuhler (Milwaukee Road's Hiawatha), Bel Geddes never designed a production locomotive, although he sketched a concept in 1928. BFD.
Raymond A. Loewy also designed Pennsy's distinctive S1, K4 and T1 streamlined steam locos, as well as some of the railroad's passenger coaches.
• There are numerous instances in the book where Ms. Szerlip belittles Mr. Loewy, one of Bel Geddes contemporaries in the industrial design field. Yet Raymond Loewy secured steady design work with an impressive roster of corporate clients over a 40+ year career, while Norman Bel Geddes seemed to have a erratic output of work - and cash flow - throughout his shorter career.
Loewy designed such automobile icons as the postwar three-box 1947 Studebaker, the 'European Look' 1953 Studebaker Starliner coupe and the sporty and sleek 1962 Studebaker Avanti. He also designed the Shell, Exxon, TWA and BP logos, the Greyhound Scenicruiser bus, Coca-Cola vending machines, the Lucky Strike cigarette package and Coldspot refrigerators. In 1961, at the request of Jacqueline Kennedy, he restyled Air Force One. The exterior paint scheme he recommended is still in use on the current iteration of Air Force One. Loewy also helped design the Skylab space station while under contract with NASA.
Raymond A. Loewy died rich and famous; Norman Bel Geddes died broke and relatively obscure. Nuff said.
• The author noted that, while a prototype television was displayed at the 1939 World's Fair, "more than a decade would pass before it would become commercially available." Not so. In fact, the first official, paid advertising to appear on American commercial television occurred on July 1, 1941, over New York station WNBT before a baseball game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies. Shortly after World War II, numerous daily television shows were broadcast in major U.S. cities. For example, 'Face to Face' - a game show - debuted in May, 1946. The ground-breaking drama series 'Kraft Television Theater' first appeared in May 1947; it was a very popular show and ran through 1958. The legendary Howdy Doody made his TV debut in late 1947 to the delight of children who had access to a television set. By the end of 1949, the small town of Greensboro, NC (population: 74,389) had 7,325 television sets in use.
• Ms. Szerlip wrote, "Xerox's first copier would appear in 1959." Haloid/Xerox's Model A was the first xerographic copier and debuted in 1949. Ten years later, the Xerox 914 was introduced and became the first successful copier to use plain paper.
• The author opined that the 1939 World's Fair was "rife with sexual innuendo," citing as one example the "eighteen-story breast-buttock Perisphere." How one finds breasts or buttocks in a giant, round white ball is a puzzle to me.
Based on the mistakes I found (I'm sure there are more that I didn't uncover due to my lack of expert knowledge in many areas), I wouldn't trust anything typed by B. Alexandra Szerlip, even if she had her fingertips notarized. Furthermore, she has produced a boring, tedious, 400-plus page tome. Even though Bel Geddes was reportedly a theatrical master of light and color, there are no color plates in the book. His pinnacle achievement, Futurama, should have merited several full-page color images. The sparse number of black and white photos are small in size - a disappointment. I wanted to see more of Mr. Bel Geddes creations, including larger, more detailed images; the man was, after all, a designer.
Bel Geddes was obviously talented but was distracted - a womanizer, spendthrift and drinker, apparently. He also failed to focus on one major field; instead, Bel Geddes jumped around between theater set design, film production, circus layout, industrial design, game development, model-making and architecture. Perhaps that's why, almost 60 years after his death, this is the first in-depth biography of the man. And it's not a good one.
Verdict: Don't bother. (posted 7/14/17, permalink)
'The Making Of The President 2016: How Donald Trump Orchestrated a Revolution' by Roger Stone
Political journalist and historian Theodore H. White once owned the term 'The Making of the President', writing in-depth books about the 1960, 1964, 1968, 1972, 1976 and 1980 presidential elections. While Mr. White was a Democrat, he tried his best to mask his political leanings and report accurately. Of course, in the 1960s, most Democrats were centrists and not that different from Republicans. Campaign insiders were happy to talk candidly with Mr. White because they felt he would report things fairly.
Fast-forward to today. Theodore White is long-dead and campaign insiders are too busy writing their own tell-all books and have no interest in giving interviews to potential competitors. So, when the inside jacket of Roger Stone's book begins with "In the tradition of Theodore White's landmark books ...", you must take such blurbery with a
grain ton of salt.
That said, 'The Making Of The President 2016' is a pretty good book. It contains material culled from many news accounts with the added insider knowledge that Stone, a one-time Trump advisor, contributed. As I read it, the book rekindled a lot of detail that I had forgotten. Trump won the presidential election handily with over 300 electoral votes. He did so without the media's support and without the backing of numerous establishment Republicans. No matter - Mr. Trump took his case directly to the people and lots of people liked what they heard.
The 2016 presidential election was a revolt by the common people against the elites - Republicans, Democrats, Uncaring Bureaucrats with cushy, protected government jobs (Lois Lerner, for instance), Corrupt Corporate Insiders, Too-Big-To-Fail Banks, the IRS and others - who have betrayed their trust.
Hillary lost because she was an unlikable person. Barack Obama may well have been a failed president (only time will tell for sure), but he was generally well-liked. Many people thought that they'd enjoy having a beer - or a joint - with him. Hillary shrilled the messages 'You Owe Me' and 'It's My Turn', a fatal mistake made previously by John McCain, John 'Reporting For Duty' Kerry, Al Gore, Bob Dole, various Bushes, Teddy Kennedy and others. Hillary offered neither merits/accomplishments, nor a vision. Then there were the many Clinton scandals, including those e-mail bombshells. Democrats stayed home in droves.
During the final three months of the campaign, Donald Trump had twelve times as many attendees as Hillary at rallies. Hillary's speech on November 4th drew only 126 live participants, while Trump's same-day rally garnered over 12,000 people. Trump always drew large, enthusiastic crowds but no one had ever correlated crowds with votes before.
In the book, Stone pointed out that Donald Trump performed stronger among black and Hispanic voters than Mitt Romney did as the Republican nominee in 2012. Trump outperformed Romney by two points in each voting bloc. Trump claimed 29% of the Hispanic vote compared to Romney's 27% in 2012. With blacks, exit polls showed Trump claimed 8% of the vote to the previous Republican nominee's 6%. Trump won 58% of Cuban-American voters.
Trump/Pence won the overall Catholic vote 52-45. They won white Catholics 60-37, but lost Latino Catholics 67-26 - though among non-Spanish speaking Latino Catholics the margin was likely significantly closer. The pair won the evangelical vote 81-16, better than either Romney or Bush 43.
Stone is definitely partisan and doesn't hesitate to make his feelings known. He doesn't like the Bushes, Ted Cruz, Ed Rollins or Cory Lewandowski and makes no bones about it. Teddy White would have been more circumspect.
Verdict: Recommended. A well-written book which brought back a lot of campaign memories. Donald Trump ran an unique campaign the likes of which had never been seen before. Roger Stone captured and capsulated it quite well, even if he's no Theodore White. (posted 7/10/17, permalink)
'The Hidden White House: Harry Truman and the Reconstruction of America's Most Famous Residence' by Robert Klara
The White House was built on a swamp in the late 18th Century. The British set it afire in 1814 and seriously damaged the structure. Various presidents have made changes to the house; many of the changes put undue strains on the already questionable structure.
In 1948, President Harry Truman was enjoying a bath on the White House's second floor when he and the tub almost plunged through the ceiling of the Blue Room and literally crashed a party. Shortly afterwards, Margaret Truman's piano broke through the floor of a second floor room. The White House was declared unfit for human habitation and the Trumans had to live at Blair house for the next four years.
In essence, the building was gutted; only its four exterior walls remained standing. Inside a new steel beam building was constructed with new footings which extended below the swampland. Additional changes were made during construction such as the addition of a large fallout shelter when it was discovered that the Russians had secretly exploded an atom bomb.
Author Robert Klara revealed what been little understood about this episode. Klara offered a detailed and interesting story of the delays, squabbles, budget problems and political machinations behind the rebuilding project. As you might expect with a government project, some of the key players never got the recognition they deserved, especially hard-working general contractor John McShain.
I found the book informative, enjoyable and full of interesting tidbits. I only wish that far more photographs were included with better captioning.
Verdict: Recommended. (posted 7/5/17, permalink)
'What A Time It Was!: Leonard Lyons and the Golden Age of New York Nightlife' by Jeffrey Lyons
The author's dad, Leonard Lyons, was a gossip columnist for the New York Post from 1934 to 1974. The book is mostly a collection of material from his columns. It is almost 500 pages long, but chapters are short. This tome is chock full of funny anecdotes and quips about famous people. Many were interviewed at the tony Manhattan night clubs of the era, such as Sardi's, El Morocco, the Stork Club, Toots Shor's, and the Copacabana.
One tale that caught my eye was about FDR. President Roosevelt was too busy during the war years to do his famous fireside chats, so an actor was hired to read the script over the radio while mimicking FDR's voice. The then-obscure voice-over actor selected was the yet-to-be famous Art Carney. Who knew?
Verdict: A palette-cleansing fun read. (posted 6/30/17, permalink)
'Target: JFK - The Spy Who Killed Kennedy?' by Robert K. Wilcox
This 356-page book claims that clandestine operative, René A. Dussaq, a man born in Buenos Aires and educated in Geneva and Cuba - an International Man Of Mystery, if you will, was the man who killed John F. Kennedy.
In this slow-moving story, the author uses conjecture, innuendo and hearsay to support his conspiracy theory. The book is both monotonous and simply not credible. How tedious was it? Well, if we had time travel, Kennedy-haters could send this book back to 1963 and present a first-edition copy to JFK. He would have died of boredom. Mission accomplished.
If you're interested in details and discrepancies surrounding the killing of JFK, there have been many good books written over the years; I've probably read twenty or so and would recommend 'High Treason: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy - What Really Happened' by Groden and Livingstone, published in 1989. It's a good starting point and an eye-opener.
Verdict: Not worth a minute of your time. (posted 6/28/17, permalink)
'Panic On The Pacific: How America Prepared for the West Coast Invasion' by Bill Yenne
Americans everywhere were stunned by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, but those who lived on the West Coast felt extremely vulnerable. In those, pre-freeway days, north-south main roads were sparse and easily attacked. There were few east-west railway connections; a calculated bombing run by the enemy could knock all out of commission. This was a potential disaster in a time when America moved 97% of its freight by rail.
This book is all about the 'invasion' which never happened, although there were genuine submarine, small aircraft and aerial balloon attacks. People were panicked; when retail stores didn't comply quickly enough to the newly-imposed blackout rules, mobs threw rocks at lit windows and neon signs, precipitating a Seattle riot near 4th and Pike Streets. Over 1,000 people were involved and police, fire and civil air raid wardens had difficulty quelling the violence. Auto accidents soared as drivers tried to navigate the dark in vehicles with neither headlights nor taillights.
Hollywood set designers camouflaged West Coast aircraft factories; the book has two impressive photos of the results. Then there were those controversial internment camps for Japanese-Americans because of a feared "fifth column" of enemy collaborators.
The book is quite detailed and lays out the ineptness of military arbitrarily imposing martial law on confused citizens as well as DC's indifference - due to bigger problems and the relative obscurity of the states involved.
This is an interesting story and I learned much although the book bogged down in spots and I found the chapters on 'What If There Had Been An Invasion' irrelevant to the main story.
Verdict: Recommended. (posted 6/22/17, permalink)
'Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans' by A. J. Baime
I clearly remember when the Ford GT40 debuted and the Ford-Ferrari racing battle which ensued. Baime's book provides the colorful backstory. Yes, the book does an outstanding job telling the many stories surrounding Ford's winning years at Le Mans, particularly the big win in 1966. But there's so much more in the book - the clash of two famous automakers by their two ego-driven top execs each of whom had their names on the buildings and the cars, the rise and fall of well-known race drivers of yore, the role of Carroll Shelby in making the Cobra and the GT-40 a success, the story of Lee Iacocca and his rise to fame due to his ability to turn racing performance and image into car buyers.
The book took this reader on a wonderful and exciting journey to a risk-filled, bygone era in racing and in American car culture. It revealed much that I didn't know and offered a unique insight about the cars, the men and the times.
Verdict: Must read. (posted 6/14/17, permalink)
'The Smithsonian's History Of America in 101 Objects' by Richard Kurin
Jokingly referred to as America's Attic, the Smithsonian Institute is America's largest repository for the objects that define our nation's heritage. This book offers thumbnail sketches of America's history using 101 examples from the Smithsonian's vast collection. Author Kurin sheds light on famous objects, such as Lincoln's silk top hat, John Bull (America's first steam locomotive), Dorothy's ruby slippers from 'The Wizard of Oz', Julia Child's kitchen, the Discovery space shuttle and John Deere's steel plow which greatly increased farm productivity. Kurin wrote that in 1800, 80% of America's labor force was involved in agriculture. Fifty years later, it was down to 50% due to improved plows, threshers, harvesters and the like.
Kurin is an anthropologist and cultural historian. He serves as Under Secretary for Art, History, and Culture at the Smithsonian. Despite his credentials and expertise, selecting 101 things to represent America is a difficult call. Not everyone will agree with his choices. Or omissions. I would have liked to have seen Howdy Doody with stories about early children's television instead of the Aids quilt. Or instead of Cesar Chavez's union jacket. That said, there's a lot to like in this book. And, for those of you who are also upset at not seeing Mr. Doody, here's a picture I took during our 2004 Smithsonian visit:
Each item selected has its own chapter and, while things are presented in more-or-less chronological order, you can safely skip any chapters which do not hold your interest. Chapters are short, which makes it easy start/stop, rather than trying to read the 750-plus pages in a eye-straining marathon.
For subjects that interest you, it may seem that the accompanying text oversimplifies history or lacks sufficient detail. I sympathize with the author: When I wrote the texts accompanying my various AutoSketches, I usually limited myself to descriptions of 5-800 words. I occasionally hear from extremely anal-retentive types complaining that I failed to list the trunk capacity for the 1950 Studebaker or provide all the factory exterior color combinations for the 1960 Ford. I suspect that author Kurin's response would be similar to mine - a reply ending with "and the horse you rode in on." Another minor gripe: I found some of the photographs didn't seem to be properly posed or lit.
Verdict: Recommended - mostly enjoyable and informative. (posted 6/8/17, permalink)
'Bobby Rydell: Teen Idol On The Rocks - A Tale Of Second Chances' by Bobby Rydell
While I was reading this autobiography, my wife had several friends over for a gathering. I mentioned the book and the almost universal reaction of these women (ages ranging from 68 to 80) was, "Bobby Who?" I must say that I was shocked. Singer Bobby Rydell had a succession of top ten records in the early '60s, including 'Wild One' (Billboard #2), 'Volare' (#4) and 'Swingin' School' (#5). His 1963 recording, 'Wildwood Days', has become the anthem of the southern New Jersey shore. In all fairness, none of these ladies grew up on the east coast, so maybe that explains it.
In the 1950s, it was common for regional versions of a song to become hits in various parts of the country. 'Volare' was covered by several artists, including Dean Martin and the McGuire Sisters; people outside Philadelphia may never have been exposed to Rydell's version of the hit song.
'Butterfly', a 1957 hit for Andy Williams, can't hold a candle to the 1956 Charlie Gracie version released on Philadelphia's Cameo Records label. It was a far bigger hit in the NY-NJ-Philly universe than the lame Williams rendition.
The first time I ever heard the song 'Hot Rod Lincoln' was in 1960 on WIBG - Radio 99 - in Philadelphia. The singer was Johnny Bond. His version was the one that caught on in the Philadelphia area. The proliferation of such regional hits is why many of those reissued compilation albums have songs or artists you don't recognize. Charlie Ryan recorded 'Hot Rod Lincoln' in 1955; it became a hit for him during the 1957-60 period, depending on what area of the country you looked at. I never heard his version until I bought - you guessed it - a car song compilation album in the mid-1960s. Nevertheless, the creator of Hot Rod Lincoln is Charlie Ryan. He fashioned both the real car (a Model A Ford with a Lincoln engine) and the song.
Breaking on the recording scene in 1959, Bobby Rydell was part of Philadelphia's Cameo-Parkway Record's golden years. In addition to Rydell, Cameo-Parkway introduced such pop icons as Chubby Checker, The Dovells, Dee Dee Sharp, The Rays, Charlie Gracie, The Tymes and The Orlons. Because the record label had a close relationship with Dick Clark, host of the national television show, 'American Bandstand', Cameo's artists readily gained national exposure and, often, almost instant fame. Bobby Rydell's early career path is Exhibit A of this career building method.
Unlike his contemporary, Fabian - who had little discernible talent, seventeen year-old Rydell had a versatile singing voice, acting chops and the ability to craft a credible stage show that boosted his career into movie roles (singing and dancing with co-star Ann-Margret in 'Bye Bye Birdie'), appearances at the Copacabana and, later, Las Vegas. As his career waned, he found steady work in concert performances - often with fellow Philadelphians, Frankie Avalon and Fabian - and on cruise ships as well as in casinos.
This easy-to-read, 266-page book has an authentic feel to it. It's as if readers are sitting at a table with this pop/rock raconteur, listening to his stories. Rydell presents interesting tales of pre-Beatle pop stardom. And they're honest ones, too. Bobby R. doesn't hold back, sharing the high points and low points of his life. He openly discusses his drinking problems and the second chance given to him when he received a double organ transplant to replace his shot liver and kidneys in 2012.
Verdict: Recommended. (posted 5/31/17, permalink)
'Last Girl Before Freeway: The Life, Loves, Losses, and Liberation of Joan Rivers' by Leslie Bennetts
Joan Rivers lived a tumultuous and adventuresome life. The legendary comedienne, was a tireless workaholic even at age 80. Her career mixed peaks of success with rocky times and this juicy 400-plus page book seems to reveal all you'd want to know. And, sometimes stuff you didn't want to know.
Although the book is chock full of material from other sources, including Rivers' own books, it does a good job weaving together a readable narrative, with much behind-the-scenes information. Joan was generous but her barbs - comedic and otherwise - could be hurtful. She was often unhappy and was always worried about her daughter Melissa's lack of talent.
Verdict: I enjoyed the book. If you liked Joan Rivers, you'll probably enjoy it, too. (posted 5/25/17, permalink)
'Natalie Wood: Reflections on a Legendary Life' by Manoah Bowman
This oversized, coffee table-style, 320-page picture book includes commentaries by husband Robert Wagner, daughter Natasha Gregson Wagner, Courtney Wagner and others. It is not really a biography, rather a series of written sketches about specific periods in her life. Nevertheless, I learned some new things about Natalie Wood and enjoyed the stories and photos. It's apparent that she is remembered by her children and her husband with fondness and much love.
Ms. Wood was one of the few child actors to make the transition to adult stardom. She began acting in movies at the age of four and, at age eight, was given a co-starring role in the iconic 1947 Christmas film 'Miracle on 34th Street'. She continued with her movie career and gained additional movie fame for her role in 'Rebel Without a Cause'. Then she played the starring role of Maria in the 1961 film, 'West Side Story.' She is part of a by-gone era of film-making and her death at age 43, left her as forever young in the minds of fans.
Verdict: Recommended, especially if you are a Natalie Wood fan. (posted 5/17/17, permalink)
'The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds' by Michael Lewis
In 2014, I read and reviewed 'Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt' by this author. I found it informative, noting that "the author keeps things interesting, even for the lay person."
Not so for 'The Undoing Project'. The cover blurb states, "Forty years ago, Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky wrote a series of breathtakingly original studies undoing our assumptions about the decision-making process. Their papers showed the ways in which the human mind erred, systematically, when forced to make judgments in uncertain situations." Really? Reading the book, I found their approaches to decision-making tentative and random.
Daniel Kahneman eventually settled in at Princeton University and was awarded a Nobel Prize. It is interesting to me that, in the 1960s, two PhDs from Princeton, Charles H. Kepner and Benjamin B. Tregoe, developed techniques for decision-making and problem-solving which were widely adopted by industry. "In 1958, based on extensive field research, Dr. Tregoe and his partner, Dr. Charles H. Kepner, formulated a systematic thinking process for problem solving and decision making. At the time, these activities were typically considered to be a function of instinct and 'gut feel'." Today over 400 of the 1,000 largest companies worldwide use Kepner-Tregoe management methods. I was taught the Kepner-Tregoe method when I was 30 or so and have used it to great benefit throughout my life.
Back to 'Undoing': I found it both uninteresting and boring. The book is an epic fail as an explanation of Kahneman and Tversky thesis and as a biography of these two quirky and inscrutable Israelis.
Verdict: A waste of time and paper. Skip it. (posted 5/11/17, permalink)
'Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future' by Johan Nordberg
We are awash in a turbulent sea of bad news. You can't get ratings, sales or profits if your news organization's daily message is, "All is well. Good day." The mantra in the news biz is: "If it bleeds, it leads."
Yet, there is much to celebrate in this 21st Century: Food is plentiful; no longer is the Third World full of starving children. Every decade yields real progress in the availability of clean water and good sanitation practices. People live longer and childhood deaths have decreased dramatically. Literacy is becoming the norm. By every measure, poverty has fallen dramatically. War, violence and their consequences have diminished. The environment is improving worldwide. There are fewer people whose lives are controlled by dictators and tyrants. Equality - social, racial, religious and gender - is becoming the norm.
Author Nordberg is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. His book offers affirmative, documented proof that Things Are Getting Better over the long haul. It is a respite from the waves of Woe-Is-Us, Ain't-It-Awful negativity which seem to surround us. Plus, it's an easy read.
Verdict: Highly recommended. Read this book and get happy. (posted 5/3/17, permalink)
'JFK And The Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters' by James W. Douglass
This is a dreadful book - a 565-page bore-fest. The author would have readers believe that John F. Kennedy was killed by a Grand Conspiracy carried out by military and intelligence agencies after JFK became a peace-loving dove. And a better Catholic. (Ask Marilyn Monroe, Angie Dickinson, Judith Campbell Exner as well as various White House interns and staffers about that 'better Catholic' stuff.)
The author is a peace activist and amateur Catholic theologian. He begins the book with a connect-the-dots rant about how all assassinations of peace-lovers are connected. JKF, Malcolm X, RFK, MLK ... hey, how did Malcolm X get in there? Why not include George Wallace and Patrice Lumumba, too? How about John Lennon - he was for peace as well? And let's not forget Gandhi. Maybe he started the whole thing.
Mr. Douglass also believes that if the U.S. got rid of our missiles and nuclear weapons, the rest of the world would follow suit and peace would result. Yeah, right. Tell that to Kim Jong Un. Or Iran.
Various people have suggested that John Kennedy's contract-killing was underwritten by Castro, some disaffected Cubans in the U.S., the Mafia, Frank Sinatra, the CIA and/or TAB diet cola, which debuted in 1963. (I may have made that last one up.)
Look, it's OK to doubt the Warren Report. In 1963, the government (with the press in the cheering section) wrapped up the JFK's murder in a tidy little package as quickly as a 'Perry Mason' episode. They "solved" the murder before JFK was even in the ground (and made sure that the lone official suspect was conveniently and quickly disposed of by a Mafia thug friendly to the Dallas police). Many of us never believed that a chinless little wimp with a cheap rifle could pull off such a thing by himself.
If you're interested in details and discrepancies surrounding the killing of JFK, there have been many good books written over the years; I've probably read twenty or so and would recommend 'High Treason: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy - What Really Happened' by Groden and Livingstone, published in 1989. It's a good starting point and an eye-opener. On the other hand, Douglass' book is not worth a minute of your time.
Verdict: Unspeakable is Unreadable. (posted 4/27/17, permalink)
'Flags Of Our Fathers' by James Bradley
Son of one of the soldiers in the iconic Iwo Jima flag-raising photo, James Bradley relates the story of the battle, the flag raising and the aftermath. It makes for a fascinating and powerful tale as Bradley begins a quest for the real story of Iwo Jima and the many Marines who were killed or permanently damaged by the horror of the fight.
There are many extraordinary tales about each individual flag raiser and the affect this event and the war in general would have on their lives. The poignancy and the heroics found within the book's pages are deeply moving.
Bradley discovered his dad's important role only after his father's death. In life, he wouldn't talk about the war and displayed no copy of the famous photograph in his home, telling his son, "The real heroes of Iwo Jima were the guys who didn't come back."
Verdict: Highly recommended. This unforgettable, well-written book is one of the best ones available about the war in the Pacific Theater. (posted 4/19/17, permalink)
'The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads' by Tim Wu
This book is full of interesting little stories about the last 180 years or so of advertising and its variants. Wu's overall meme runs off the rails and into the weeds occasionally, such as when he delves into the propaganda of the Third Reich and Hitler's speeches. Some of the stories come off as superficial representations of a particular era.
The book ends with the state of online persuasion and the use of click-bait ads.
Verdict: An enjoyable, breezy collection of stories but don't expect deep analysis here. (posted 4/13/17, permalink)
'In Trump We Trust: E Pluribus Awesome!' by Ann Coulter
This book was published in late August 2016, when Ann Coulter was on a short list of Trump Believers. Had she been wrong and had Trump not won the election, this book would have failed to sell even in remainder bins. But, to the amazement of the know-it-all political consultants, smug analysts, the chattering classes and the unctuous talking heads, Donald Trump won the presidency. Ann was an early Trump supporter along with a few others: Jeff Sessions, the Newtster, Mark Steyn, Jan Brewer. Mike Huckabee. Sean Hannity. and Lou Dobbs.
Ann noted that Trump won the nomination "by spending no money, hiring no pollsters, running virtually no TV ads, and just saying what he truly believed no matter how many times people told him he couldn't say that." Mirabile dictu! He vanquished 16 Republican opponents who spent a combined $701,293,230. 'Jeb!' Bush alone wasted over $130 million on his presidential quest.
Anti-Trumpers such as George Will, Ben Stein, Bill Kristol, Hugh Hewitt, Mitt Romney, Pope Francis, Jonah Goldberg, Charles Krauthammer, Karl Rove, the entire National Review staff (the magazine devoted a full issue to 'The Case Against Trump') and most of the generally spineless Republican Congress dissed The Donald as the muffin stump of their cloistered political world. But real people liked his "can-do" attitude. Donald Trump led a political revolution that was long overdue.
I particularly enjoyed Ms. Coulter's acerbic wit. I found the book a pleasurable pre-election walk down Memory Lane and liked her inclusion of all the negative quotes from experts, including the date of each quote. Ann hoisted each commenter by his/her own petard.
As I write this, it is too soon to know how the Trump presidency will turn out. He's certainly a busy president and is trying to fulfill his campaign promises, although he doesn't seem to get much help from Congress.
Verdict: Recommended - an easy, fast and fun read. (posted 4/4/17, permalink)
'JFK and the Reagan Revolution: A Secret History of American Prosperity' by Larry Kudlow and Brian Domitrovic
This is an easy-to-read, information-packed 256-page book. Economist Larry Kudlow and historian Brian Domitrovic show the connections between the John F. Kennedy proposed tax cuts (enacted shortly after his assassination) and Ronald Reagan's tax cuts and how both improved the nation's economy, demonstrating the validity of supply-side economics. The authors also discuss how these programs were mangled by various presidents, starting with Nixon.
I do have one minor quibble: On page 154, the authors state, "Automobile purchases went up by 60% in the 1960s, having increased barely at all in the 1950s." I think that the authors are painting auto prosperity with a very broad brush. The problem is that new car auto sales vary greatly on a year-to-year basis, depending on a household's micro-economy, styling appeal, keeping up with neighbors, deals offered by sellers, etc. It is true that sales in 1950 were at the same level as 1960. But it is also true that sales of U.S. produced cars were at about the same level in 1970 as they were in 1960. In the 49-year period from 1967 to 2016, monthly sales have fluctuated wildly between an annualized rate of eight million light vehicles per year and 22 million/year. But the annual growth of light vehicles in the U.S. has increased by less than 1%/year during those 49 years.
That said, I found this book to be well-documented. The economic history discussed matched what I remember and experienced during my lifetime. Kennedy was a pragmatist - he started as a Keynesian disciple but, when he found it didn't work, embraced Robert Mundell's fiscal/monetary policy mix, now known as supply-side economics. Fellow-pragmatist Ronald Reagan left an economic legacy - the Reagan Revolution - which, sadly, unravelled under the stewardship of his successor, George H.W. "read my lips; no new taxes" Bush.
Verdict: Highly recommended. I think you'll learn a lot. I did. (posted 3/30/17, permalink)
'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 (20 cigs/pack) 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 California.
In the 1950s and '60s, the Golden State 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 industry 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 year 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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