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 can remember growing up reading the Ripley's "Believe-It-Or-Not" comic strip every Sunday morning in our local newspaper. Fond memories indeed but w...moreI can remember growing up reading the Ripley's "Believe-It-Or-Not" comic strip every Sunday morning in our local newspaper. Fond memories indeed but when I saw that there is now a new biography of the man behind the art, I was chagrined to realize that I knew so little about him. I suspect many of us are in this same boat as there hasn't been much biographical work on Robert Ripley. It's almost like the cultural institution that is Believe-It-Or-Not was invented by a publishing house or something and there was no actual person named Ripley.
Fortunately this book is here to set the record straight. It does a great job of providing many details of the man's life and especially how his life reacted and inter-related to his times. To witness the transformation of a shy, odd-looking, buck-toothed, stutterer into one of the world's most successful and popular celebrities is fascinating. I never realized how famous and popular he was in the 1930's and 1940's. The author does a very nice job of showing us the man behind the legend, including his extreme work ethic and constant and driving creative talent. Never one to rest on his laurels, Ripley was constantly seeking new projects and ways to bring the Ripley "brand" to new audiences and in new formats (comic strips, radio shows, museums, live on-scene radio broadcasts, and finally television).
This biography does not shy away from the warts though. Ripley often drank to excess and was an over-the-top womanizer, and was apparently prone to violent outbursts, especially in his later years. Reading such things made the overall reading experience "real" even if not always enjoyable. I think we like our protagonists to be more on the perfect side than the less-than-perfect, but such is the nature of biographies. I was pleased to see that if the author, a journalist by trade, had any bias at all toward his subject, he kept it well hidden. He delivers a straight forward fact-driven biography that not only tells the life story of an extremely interesting man, he does it in such a way that we really feel we know him and what makes him tick.
I've always liked Tony Danza and I know I'm not alone in that sentiment. It's not just the characters we've seen him play but somehow he's always seem...moreI've always liked Tony Danza and I know I'm not alone in that sentiment. It's not just the characters we've seen him play but somehow he's always seemed "genuine". Now I've never been a teacher but I've certainly been a student for a whole lot of years and I've been a parent to two children who have made it through the school system successfully. I've had ample opportunity to observe teachers in action and have always felt a reverence for them and what they do.
This book is a great portrayal of what it is like to be a first year teacher in a large public, inner-city school in Philadelphia. It's nicely organized with the general flow of the school year, but he includes a section called "Teacher's Lounge" at the end of each chapter where we get to see Mr. Danza learn an important lesson or receive advice from the other teachers on how things really work. But the main parts of the book are the classroom interactions with the students and the struggles that Mr. Danza goes through when dealing with the rules, the administration, the amazing amount of work that teachers have to put in, and the ever present threat of layoffs and/or downsizing. But he freely admits his advantages compared to the other teachers. First and foremost he only teaches one class a day, an English class which, as a voracious reader, is near and dear to my heart. I really enjoyed the discussions he has with the students about their studies. But where this book really shines is his interactions with those students, both in class, and one-on-one as he tries to engage them in their work. Before he knows it he is in their lives and they are in his. He tells some pretty powerful stories of these kids and what they must live through outside the classroom. It's a bit like watching the movie "Freedom Writers" starring Hilary Swank (which two of his students insist he watch during the last week of school). To his further credit, Mr. Danza eats a lot of humble pie throughout this book, and constantly must learn from the experienced teachers and administrators around him; nor does he write about his own successful career in show business except for some brief mentions when it comes up when dealing with the students. And we are treated to quite a few personal glimpses of Mr. Danza's own troubled school days as he tries, sometimes desperately to relate to his students.
All in all this is a very uplifting book that does not shy away from the myriad problems affecting today's public education system in America. A very worthwhile read that will energize you and motivate you to make a difference. (less)
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 don't pretend to have any great knowledge of art. I fall into that category of, "I know what I like when I see it" crowd. Having seen a few examples...moreI don't pretend to have any great knowledge of art. I fall into that category of, "I know what I like when I see it" crowd. Having seen a few examples of Dali's work at various museums around the world, I tend to enjoy its boldness, vivid colors, and usually clear, almost picture-like clarity of images. But until reading this book (not just look at the pictures) I didn't realize just how much lay behind the limp watches, phallic symbols, and other famous images of his work.
I still can't decide if Dali was brilliant, insane, or simply a huge egomaniac with a brush, but it really doesn't matter. He had a huge impact on the art world of the 20th century and I thought this book, while not intended to be a complete biography of the man, served adequately to give a good taste of him and even provided some insight into his character. And if you just want to look at the artwork, that is beautifully presented here.(less)
Got this one from my parents' library when they downsized earlier this year. All in all, a fairly light read but interesting for somebody from my gene...moreGot this one from my parents' library when they downsized earlier this year. All in all, a fairly light read but interesting for somebody from my generation to learn about an entertainment icon from my parents' generation. This isn't the sort of "tell-all" biography full of juicy tidbits here-to-fore unknown, as Jack Benny was a pretty down-to-earth celebrity. His daughter, Joan tells most of the story and obviously idolizes her father. Her mother, Jack's wife, on the other hand, comes across as one very self-centered, insecure lady. This is purely from Joan's point of view though as it seems Jack simply adored her in all ways.
I did get a little tired of Joan's name-dropping though. I really didn't care about what famous actors/actresses came to her birthday parties and multiple weddings, nor who she played golf with, etc; I was reading to learn more about Jack. In the end, I feel like I did that, having gained not only insight into his life and character but also into the the history of the entertainment history from the late Vaudville days, through radio and into early television. A nice experience.(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)
What a title! For a blog post or a book, that's gotta be one that grabs your attention. Call Me Puke, A Life on the Dirt Circuit is an autobiography b...moreWhat a title! For a blog post or a book, that's gotta be one that grabs your attention. Call Me Puke, A Life on the Dirt Circuit is an autobiography by Mark Sieve, better known as "Puke" of the "Puke & Snot" comedy duo seen nationwide, mostly at Renaissance festivals. My family and I love to go the Ren Faires and have been to several in the US, Germany and England. But it wasn't until a couple of years ago, in 2008, when we visited the Colorado Renaissance festival near Larkspur for about the fourth time that we actually saw the Puke & Snot show. Unfortunately, later that year, Joe Kudla, who played "Snot" passed away, only a couple of weeks after we had seen the show. This year, my wife and kids went back to the festival and saw Puke & Snot once again, with a new "Snot" in play. They were lucky to have been a bit early to the show and lo and behold, Mark "Puke" Sieve sat down next to them and starting shooting the breeze. As a souvenir, because I couldn't attend, they brought home this book as a gift for me, autographed by the author. Cool!
This is a great little autobiography and, not surprisingly, won the Midwest Book Award. Mr. Sieve does not tell his life story in direct chronological order but rather mixes it with other, themed vignettes. He does a great job of being humble (but not overly so like some autobiographies that just make you want to...well, puke). We get to experience his life, from his early days working in his parents’ cinema, to his potential major league baseball career, and through his early days as a public school teacher. But always there was his love for performing comedy and getting the audience to laugh. Together with his partner, Joe, they carried the Puke & Snot show for about 35 years, usually on the "Dirt Circuit" as he calls it but elsewhere too...even Disney. Along the way they've met and worked with some memorable characters including some you've heard of like Penn & Teller who got their start in similar circumstances. Mr. Sieve writes from a very personal point of view and it's never more heartbreaking than when he serves tribute to his long time partner.
This book is a collection of letters and personal diary entries from George H. W. Bush throughout his life. The book is divided into major sections th...moreThis book is a collection of letters and personal diary entries from George H. W. Bush throughout his life. The book is divided into major sections that align with what he was doing at the time. It includes letters to his mom back when he voluntered to enter the US Navy after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and goes all the way up until the date of publication of the book, just prior to his son's campaign for president. It includes sections during his time as an oil man in Texas, as a congressman, as the US Ambassador to the UN, as the Chairman of the RNC (during the Watergate era), as the Director of the CIA, as the US liaison to China, and of course as the Vice President to Ronald Reagan and ultimately as the US President. We get to see his thoughts on historical events like the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Panama invasion, Somalia, and, of course, Operations Desert Shield/Storm. But we also get to read his thoughts on infamous events like his upchucking on the Chinese Premier and the fallout from "Read My Lips" etc.
I have not read very many political autobiographies, at least not of the modern era. I figure they are pretty much attempts to justify their own actions, show things from their point of view, etc. But since this was a collection of actual letters written at the time I think that phenomenan is lessoned. Overall, I was very happy to have read this book...it was a far better experience than I was expecting. Afterall, George Bush, our 41st president is usually considered forgetable, despite Desert Storm. This is probably due to being only a one term president sandwiched between the personalities of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. It was fascinating, however, to see what his thoughts were regarding all of the events he participated in. He spent a lifetime at or near the top of huge events in this world and that fact can be easy to forget. But more importantly than the events he describes, I was struck by the very nature of the man. This book confirmed my impressions of him, showing him to be a compassionate man, who holds high ideals, who loves his family above all else, and who tends to give everybody, even his political foes, the benefit of the doubt. Of course an arguement can be made that only the letters that showed him in a positive light were included but there is just too much here to dispute the very nature of the man himself.
Pick up this one and enjoy the journey, no matter what your political beliefs might be.(less)
As others have said, Mr Coleman goes out of his way to demystify Lord Nelson in this book; indeed even to go far toward the other side of his legend a...moreAs others have said, Mr Coleman goes out of his way to demystify Lord Nelson in this book; indeed even to go far toward the other side of his legend and present him as a much more human character, suffering from a large ego and power hungry for more and faster self promotions than most people believe. The very first chapter calls out predecessor biographers as falling for the propoganda that was put out at the time of Nelson's death at Trafalgar and producing haphazard facts based on sloppy research. Mr Coleman, who has a journalistic background,I understand, claims to use all available documents including letters in and among senior British Navy personnel, personal letters between Nelson's relatives including between he and his wife, etc. And to give him credit, he includes a lengthy bibliography to support his depiction for those that may want to check his sources.
But Coleman doesn't "trash" Nelson. He takes pains to also point out instances where Nelson backed underlings despite risking his own reputation and he is shown several times taking care of his crew and foregoing standard punishments for his men such as flogging or hanging. That's not to say that he never did that but rather he seems to have taken into account all angles of a situation before issuing orders. There is no doubt that Nelson had one of the largest impacts on the history of sea warfare that we know. And there is no doubt that he achieved some remarkable successes. This book however spends less time on the military engagements and more on the motivation of the man himself. After all, a sea captain/admiral who gave up eyesight in one eye, lost one arm, incurred a possible skull fracture, and ultimately gave his life in the name of doing his duty, is certainly to be admired. Surely his bravery is beyond question. Nor does Coleman question it other than to suggest his bravery was unnecessarily foolhardy. His death at Trafalgar, for example, seems as if it could easily have been avoided. I've read biographies of other great military men and it seems that trait is a common thread whether we are talking about Nelson, or Custer, or Crazy Horse.
So I'm sure Nelson worshippers will prefer other "more positive" accounts of Nelson's life and career but this one worked fine for me.(less)
Blood and Thunder, subtitled, "The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West", was written by Hampton Sides and was an important...moreBlood and Thunder, subtitled, "The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West", was written by Hampton Sides and was an important book for me. You see, I grew up in the Southwestern US, namely New Mexico, and have since lived all over the western US including California, Utah, and Colorado, also spending lots of time in Nevada, Arizona, and Texas. And yet, I have long felt my historical education of the region has been aquired in bits and pieces only with no real handle on how it all fit together. I was first attracted to this book by the great cover art and the subject of Kit Carson since I had always wanted to read about his life. But this book turned out to be about quite a bit more than just Kit Carson's life.
Don't get me wrong, Kit Carson's life and deeds are incredible. He seems to have been everywhere in the West, at most of the important events, often effecting them in astounding ways. We read of John Charles Fremont and his Pathfinder expeditions, with Kit Carson as his guide. We follow the Civil War events in New Mexico (a good followup to the set of four novels I read last year by P.G. Nagle), as well as learn about General Stephen Watts Kearny, the conquerer of the West. And through it all is the plight of the Navajo Indians, and their leaders. These events and characters just scratch the surface of what this book covers. I highly recommend this book to anybody interested in a good all-around discussion of the history of the American South West.(less)
Every time I take a trip somewhere, I always buy a book to add to my library. As often as possible I try to get a book about the area I am visiting. A...moreEvery time I take a trip somewhere, I always buy a book to add to my library. As often as possible I try to get a book about the area I am visiting. About a year ago I took a trip to Washington DC for about the 12th time but since I've seen just about every tourist attraction there is to see there, I decided I would finally visit that which I had been putting off all this time...the Pentagon. I had never been all that excited about the Pentagon; when you get right down to it it's just one of the world's largest office buildings. But I did go, and while I was there, I saw a hallway tribute to Eisenhower and thus, the book, Eisenhower, Soldier and President by Stephen E. Ambrose, came into my possession. I also chose it because I thought it might be a good companion volume to the major biography I read last year, American Ceasar, by William Manchester, a biography of Douglas MacArthur. Since I knew Eisenhower served as MacArthur's exec officer in the Phillipines, I was curious if there would be a different point of view presented.
Mr Ambrose is known as one of the great US historians, having written some 20 books, several of which have become quite well known. Among them is a comprehensive 2-volume work on Eisenhower as well as this one which is a consolidation of those two volumes. In my view Mr Ambrose does a good job of presenting Eisenhower's faults along with his positive traits, his failures as well as his triumphs. Undoubtedly Eisenhower was a great general and as the primary architect of Operation Overlord (D-Day invasion), he deserves the accolades of his military accomplishments. But what I really like about a well-done biography is to see the early years, the childhood influences which led to the way the subject reacts to experiences in adult life. Mr Ambrose provides that for us here, taking the little boy from Abilene Kansas all the way to the Presidency. Unfortunately, my hopes for the tie-in to MacArthur's Phillipine experiences were dashed as that realtionship was glossed over almost completely. I suppose a biographer needs to keep to his subject and not let other notable figures of the time take over.
Most of the book deals with the Eisenhower presidency, a time in the 50's that most knowledgeable people refer to as the age of missed opportunities and Eisenhower himself as the "do-nothing president." While Mr Ambrose does point out Eisenhower's penchant for stearing down the middle of the road, pushing off any responsibility in dealing with the racial divides of the country, and unwilling to deal with McCarthyism in any definitive way, he also spends time on the positive things such as keeping the budget in balance, establishing the Interstate Highway System, and keeping the peace for his entire 8 years as president.
Along the way we do get to witness some great moments in history and meet the towering figures of the time such as Montgomery, Churchill, DeGaul, Stalin, Truman, Nixon, McCarthy, and his own family of Maime and son David. I came away from this book with a much greater appreciation for the era of the 50's (I've never studied much from that decade) as well as a better understanding of how all of that led us to the 60's. Mr Ambrose, I know, came under fire several years ago for plagarism (something about quotes not used correctly) but this book does not seem to ever be mentioned as a case of that. This biography still is known as the definitive Eisenhower biography and I, for one, appreciate it. I certainly have a much better understanding and "feel" for one of my nations true heroes while at the same time appreciate one of our more under-rated presidents.