Eddie Rickenbacker, for me, has always been one of those names from 20th century history that I had heard of and even knew a tiny bit about…but not mu...moreEddie Rickenbacker, for me, has always been one of those names from 20th century history that I had heard of and even knew a tiny bit about…but not much more. I knew he was an American flying Ace from World War I and generally well regarded but have long wished to know more about him, his life and the times he lived in.
General George S. Patton famously said, “Wars may be fought with weapons, but they are won by men. It is the spirit of the men who follow and of the man who leads that gains the victory.” He was talking about leaders like Rickenbacker, America’s leading ace of WWI with 26 kills. The story of how he got there is simply incredible. From an adventurous youth demonstrating a genius for machines and mechanics to becoming a renowned race car driver (racing in the very first Indy 500), to becoming America’s ‘Ace of Aces’ pilot in WWI, his story reads like one of those thriller novels where the hero constantly encounters incredible danger but always survives. It’s so refreshing to read of a person who actually lives up to the hype of history and who learns from his plentiful mistakes throughout his life. This quote from him sums it up: “I've cheated the Grim Reaper more times than anyone I know, and I'll fight like a wildcat until they nail the lid of my pine box down on me.”
Most of the book is devoted to the two main “eras” of Rickenbacker’s life: his car racing career and his WWI successes. Less is devoted to his post war career even though that is pretty phenomenal as well: starting up “Rickenbacker Motor Company”, buying and managing the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, clashes with FDR over policy, and a lengthy stint as the leader and eventual owner of Eastern Airlines. There are a couple of nicely done chapters on his near-fatal airplane crash in 1941 as well as his most famous near-death experience, 24 days adrift at sea after a plane that he was a passenger in got lost over the Pacific and had to set down in the middle of the ocean.
I would add that this book is about more than just the life of Eddie Rickenbacker. The title is entirely appropriate in that it is about the times and events and the people that surrounded Rickenbacker during his extraordinary life. These men had what it takes or what later generations would refer to as “the right stuff”. It’s an amazing story and is definitely an example of how true life can be more incredible than fiction.
Biographies tend to fall into one of two categories. They are either lengthy and filled with every conceivable detail and really meant for a serious scholar of that individual, or they are more succinct and serve to introduce a reader to the individual. This book lies in between. There is quite a bit of detail but not so much as to bog it down. I commend the author for finding that balance between too much detail and too much surfing over the events and issues of the time.
As an aficionado of crime fiction, I thought I would dip my toe into the non-fiction world of real life crime. Like many people, I had heard bits and...moreAs an aficionado of crime fiction, I thought I would dip my toe into the non-fiction world of real life crime. Like many people, I had heard bits and pieces about various criminal celebrities of the 1930s, like Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Ma Barker, and Bonnie and Clyde. Part of my brain realized their real life stories were probably far from what has been depicted in the movies, TV, etc. so at the recommendation of a good friend who studies this era of crime, I chose to read this book about Bonnie and Clyde.
What an eye opener! Forget everything you may have heard or seen particularly if you have seen the movie starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. Jeff Guinn, the author of this book has meticulously researched this saga, and provides an extensive source listing. It’s so complete that it seems almost every line in the text is sourced from a letter, an interview, police reports, etc. Hats off to his comprehensive research efforts.
I was struck by the story of these two people, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. Growing up in the West Dallas slums and maturing only as the Great Depression hit obviously had a huge impact on them. But plenty of other people lived through those exact same circumstances and did not make the same choices. To see how a combination of their life situations, extremely bad luck, their self-image, and extremely good luck led them to their life paths is fascinating reading.
1) Clyde Barrow was the absolute leader of the duo as well as of all the reincarnations of the Barrow Gang. Bonnie was really just along for the ride. In fact up until the Warren Beatty movie, they were known as “Clyde and Bonnie” or more often, “The Barrow Gang”, not “Bonnie and Clyde”
2) It’s hard to believe how much the law enforcement community was shackled during that era. Very little ability to communicate, very poor resources, no federal support (J Edgar Hoover was just getting started). They couldn’t even pursue a criminal across state lines. Difficult to believe they ever caught anybody!
3) The overall time frame of Clyde and Bonnie’s time in the sun, so to speak, was really very short. From their rise to national fame after the Joplin incident to their ultimate death by ambush was a mere 14 months.
4) The Barrow Gang (as did Dillinger) continuously robbed National Guard armories to get their weapons. Dozens of times. That seemed far easier for them than robbing a bank or even a supermarket.
5) Up until 1934 when the duo died, there were no penalties for harboring fugitives. Clyde and Bonnie (and other members of their gang) visited their home in Dallas many, many times during their rampage. This was well known by the local police but they simply didn’t have the resources for a stake out. And the family and friends never worried about the consequences of harboring. But, as a result of Clyde and Bonnie’s saga, the laws were soon changed.
6) The myth of Clyde, Bonnie, and the Barrow Gang arose largely due to the times. Depression era Americans were usually desperate for entertainment to take their mind away from their troubles. Journalists of the era were more like fiction writers and frequently printed headlines with no basis in fact. Both Bonnie and Clyde loved reading about their larger-than-life selves in “True Detective” magazine and the newspapers and yet also complained when they were blamed for crimes with which they had no involvement.
Overall, this is a fascinating read. I actually took my time reading it so as to absorb the impact of each chapter. To be there at the scene of a getaway when the Barrow Gang is trapped with no way out…and yet they somehow manage to escape is incredible. And it wasn’t due to mastermind-like intelligence either. Neither Clyde nor Bonnie displayed much smarts in their lives but they sure did benefit from mother luck. Many times various members of the gang were wounded horribly but kept on going. Bonnie herself was almost crippled after Clyde, a dangerously fast driver at all times, slid off the road and the resulting accident spilled battery acid down Bonnie’s leg. After that, Clyde had to carry her wherever they went. Their lives were not glamorous in the least but rather lived day-to-day, mostly camping out and eating on blankets. By the end of their lives they were both extremely thin and, due to various injuries, could hardly stand.
I could go on and on about various scenarios but suffice it to say, real life can, indeed, be stranger, and more unbelievable than fiction. Reading this book has made me yearn to learn more about other “celebrity criminals” of the era. (less)
I've raved about Jeff Shaara's historical fiction before and I won't let up this time either. Whether he is writing about the Civil War, World War II,...moreI've raved about Jeff Shaara's historical fiction before and I won't let up this time either. Whether he is writing about the Civil War, World War II, or the American Revolution, I have always loved them. I think it's because of the way he relays the accurate history but in a style that is easy to absorb. He provides insights to the historical periods, helping the armchair historians to better understand what was happening and not bogging us down with the minutia of the moment. He also presents the story as just that, a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, with pacing of the plot while adding in fictional character perspectives to compliment the actual historical/biographical points of view.
This particular novel is the third and final volume of his WW2 trilogy. (Not counting an added on 4th book that focuses on the war in the Pacific). It begins just after the Normandy invasion and takes us right to the end. Most of the "view" is from an American soldier on the front lines, and what we experience along with him is absolute down-in-the-dirt real warfare. All the fear, bravado, panic, and bitter cold reality is right there for you. We also get views from some of the big leaders of the moment, including Eisenhower, Patton, von Rundstedt, and Speer. We're in the room with others as well including Churchill, Montgomery, Bradley, Goebbels, and even Hitler. This is a fascinating cast of real characters. Over the 3-volume trilogy, Jeff Shaara does an amazing job of distilling the vastness of the European theater of WW2 down into great reading.
Jeff Shaara is a must read for all that enjoy American historical fiction done right.(less)
This was a hand-me-down book from my dad and as such, has been in my TBR shelves for years. Essentially, it is the diary of the author who, as a stude...moreThis was a hand-me-down book from my dad and as such, has been in my TBR shelves for years. Essentially, it is the diary of the author who, as a student at Harvard in the 1830s, suffered a bout of measles which affected his vision. He decided to enlist as a common sailor, planning not to write a rousing sea adventure tale but rather to expose many of the hardships faced by common sailors.
The author and the crew sailed from Boston, around Cape Horn to the early California coastal towns where they worked the California Hide trade, ultimately returning to Boston in what turned out to be a two year journey.
This could have been very dry material, as the author does spend quite a bit of time describing in detail the everyday life aboard the sailing ships. But he also offers his insights into the people he encounters, both his shipmates and the native peoples of California. The book is one of the few that exists about that time in California and with the onset of the gold rush in 1849 has become a valuable historical resource for that period. Herman Melville was also, reportedly heavily influenced by this book.
An interesting read, told in a narrative style but certainly an opportunity to gain some insight on sailing ships of that time and how they operated.(less)
I first became a fan of James Burke back in the 70's when I was in high school and was exposed to a few of his "Connections" documentaries on PBS. But...moreI first became a fan of James Burke back in the 70's when I was in high school and was exposed to a few of his "Connections" documentaries on PBS. But then I promptly forgot all about him until last year when I was paging through my Netflix recommendations and realized the entire series was available. My wife and I watched them all and I was so intrigued that I went ahead and bought this book for my library.
I've long been fascinated with history in general, and inventions in particular so I suppose the material in this book was bound to be of interest. Just as in the TV series, Mr Burke does an amazing job of tying in all of the steps (planned or accidental) that lead from one innovation centuries ago all the way to our modern day conveniences. Tracing the modern ballistic missile back to the development of cannon-balls, or the cell phone to medieval church postal services, or the atomic bomb back to the stirrup, is fascinating stuff. But the author delves deeper than that, into the very nature of how change occurs and how change effects society itself. What most amazes me, I think, is the way so much of what we take for granted today is the result of so many tiny innovations having taken place across the globe, seemingly unrelated to one another. Of course we all know how accidents lead to inventions but to actually follow the path makes for a fun time. It also opens one's eyes to see just how dependent we are on the state of technology today.
In addition, it was extremely helpful to my understanding to see all of the pictures, diagrams, maps, etc that accompany the text in this book. If you've seen the TV show, then many of the topics presented here will be an updated review. But the 'connections' are so numerous and overlapping, that I doubt you'll be bored.
I've long wanted to read the biography of Winston Churchill, one of the true giants of modern history and I would be hard pressed to find a better one...moreI've long wanted to read the biography of Winston Churchill, one of the true giants of modern history and I would be hard pressed to find a better one-volume biography than this one. The author, Martin Gilbert, is known as Churchill's official biographer so there are few people who know the facts behind the man as well as Gilbert does.
This is a huge book, somehow much larger even than its 959 small-print pages plus maps and lengthy index. And yet it is amazing that this one man's life can fit into so "few" pages. Churchill was a prolific author in his own right, a detailed chronicler of the events of the 20th century, and author of thousands of letters to friends, family, and colleagues. So there is lots and lots of source material. In fact, for every event in which Churchill was involved, it is possible to present his own words, arguments and his true intentions. Mr Gilbert is to be commended not only for writing such a poignant biography of this amazing man but also for managing to boil down so many facts in such an eloquent way.
This is not a book to read in a week or two but rather absorbed over quite a long time. This is a full and rounded picture of Churchill's life, in both its personal and political aspects. I consider myself to be an amateur historian and am familiar with most of the events encountered in this book, but to experience them again through Churchill's eyes, and indeed his very words, is to understand them on a whole new level.
Every time I read a great biography, I am drawn to read others that relate to it. When I read American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880 - 1964 it lead me to Eisenhower: Soldier and President and now to this one and others. Unfortunately that web doesn't get smaller and so now I feel compelled to seek out biographies of Patton, Roosevelt, Omar Bradley, and perhaps even Stalin and some of the lesser known participants in the shaping of the 20th century. I already have Truman ready to go.
Highly recommended for those who have some patience and perseverance to appreciate the scope of a biography such as this.(less)
I seem to be one of the few human beings alive today that has not been well educated on the era of King Henry VIII of England. My wife and I had recen...moreI seem to be one of the few human beings alive today that has not been well educated on the era of King Henry VIII of England. My wife and I had recently finished watching all the seasons of the TV show, "The Tudors" and, while enjoyable to watch, I had heard that the show was not all that historically accurate. Coincidentally, this book, "The Six Wives of Henry VIII" had been sitting on my bookshelves since the early 1990s when my wife bought it. So, I decided to give it a go.
I'm very glad I did for it is written very well and provides many details that, of course, the TV show could not include. I read this book over quite a long time, as I tend to do for long nonfiction reads but it always kept my interest. It certainly provides numerous details, almost too many sometimes, but reads more like the story of those years rather than a textbook. The reader certainly gets a lot of information about the King himself, but it is important to realize this book is about the wives and, particularly their influence on the King and his policies as well as the other way around. Thus the book does not end with Henry's death for there is still much to relate about his final wife, Katherine Parr.
All in all, an enjoyable and informative reading experience. And now I feel like I need to read more of this history, especially the details of Henry's children, Mary, Elizabeth, and Edward. I suppose that's how people get hooked on it all.(less)