Going into this book I was thinking that John Wilkes Booth is one of the most iconic figures in history and yet I didn’t really know too much about hiGoing into this book I was thinking that John Wilkes Booth is one of the most iconic figures in history and yet I didn’t really know too much about him. As do most people, I knew he was a well-regarded actor from a family of actors, was a Southern sympathizer, that he shot Lincoln at Ford’s theater on a Good Friday shortly after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, and that he escaped for a while before being captured and shot to death in a barn. Beyond that, I really didn’t know much.
After reading this book, I have filled in many details but those are still the high points. Really, the life of John Wilkes Booth wasn’t very remarkable other than his one act on the stage of history. It is important to keep in mind the subtitle of this book: “The Biography of John Wilkes Booth”. It is not “The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln.” It is a true biography, laying out the chronological path of Booth’s life, from beginning to end. Most of that life was spent as an actor and so the first half of the book is spent on his acting career. There is lots of detail about where he was playing and in what roles and with whom he was sharing the stage as well as how audiences were reacting to his rising star power. Also much is presented about the Booth family of actors and how John interacted with them. It does serve for the reader to get to know Booth in many respects but let’s face it. If not for his later act of assassination nobody outside of theatrical historians would know his name today and his acting career would not be of much interest to most readers.
Many testimonials by Booth’s acquaintances are also included but many are contradictory. Most are related after the assassination and along the lines of “I knew him when...” So it’s difficult to sort out what is true and what is exaggerated. What emerges is a portrait of a man of contrasts: nice/mean, brave/cowardly, a fine actor with major star appeal/not as good as his father or brother. But despite this I did feel like I was getting a fairly good sense of who the man was.
The second half of the book was far more interesting to me as the Civil War winds down and we get closer to the climax. Many people today don’t realize that Booth’s plot to assassinate Lincoln actually began much earlier with a plan to kidnap him and ransom him for the return of Southern prisoners. Several attempts were made by Booth and his associates but repeated failure only served to heighten Booth’s enmity towards Lincoln and raise his level of frustration. As the book zeroes in on the actual event at Ford’s theater, the tension grows and I was thoroughly absorbed in the details of what happened that day. The actual assassination and the conspiracy to take out VP Johnson and Secretary of State Seward, as it turns out, was planned in only a single day.
The 12 days immediately after the murder are also laid out in excruciating detail and filled with numerous eyewitness accounts. The book does do a great deal to debunk some urban legends surrounding the plot to abduct/assassinate Lincoln as well as provide incontrovertible evidence that Booth really was killed in the barn at the Garrett farm. Like all events with such import, many conspiracy theories took root, especially the one about how Booth had actually hired a double to escape Ford’s Theater and who was ultimately captured and shot in the barn while Booth escaped to live a long and fruitful life in other parts of the world. But the evidence is clear that the history books have it right.
In summary, one can read the Wikipedia article on John Wilkes Booth and get 95% of the story. If you want to try to understand the man himself, what made him tick, what caused his attitudes toward Lincoln, etc. this book will certainly help with that although I can’t honestly say I have close to a perfect understanding even now. It is extensively researched and exactingly referenced. The book includes ~100 pages of reference notes all footnoted from the text. I recommend it for those seeking a high level of detail in a biography of John Wilkes Booth. ...more
"In Chicago at the end of the 19th century amid the smoke of industry and the clatter of trains there lived two men, both handsome, both blue-eyed, an"In Chicago at the end of the 19th century amid the smoke of industry and the clatter of trains there lived two men, both handsome, both blue-eyed, and both unusually adept at their chosen skills,"
I can’t recall ever reading a book quite like this one. It is a non-fiction account of the Chicago Worlds’ Fair of 1893 (more formerly known as The Columbian Exposition) but it is told in more of a story-telling/historical fiction way. That is to say, it is very readable and told from the major character’s points of view, while at the same time providing a thorough understanding of the people and forces behind the Fair. On the surface, it is the story of two men, Daniel Burnham who was the primary designer and architect of the exposition, and Dr. H. H. Holmes, the infamous serial killer who used the Fair to lure numerous victims to his mysterious “murder castle”.
More fundamentally, this is the biography of the event itself. Coming as it did on the heels of the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris, (famous for the unveiling of the Eiffel Tower), the Chicago Fair was under extraordinary pressure to be bigger, to be even more successful, to have more visitors, and to signify America’s arrival on the world’s stage. The result was an exposition which was an influential social and cultural event that had a profound effect on architecture, sanitation, the arts, Chicago's self-image, and American industrial optimism. Its scale and grandeur far outstripped previous World’s Fairs and became a symbol of American exceptionalism. The list of innovations brought on by the very existence of this event is a long one with many common aspects of modern day American life tracing their roots back to it, including the birth of the Pledge of Allegiance, the Ferris Wheel, Cracker Jack, Juicy Fruit, and shredded wheat. The “War of the currents” took place during the Fair’s construction with Westinghouse introducing their safer and more reliable alternating current (AC) vs General Electric’s more expensive direct current (DC). Many famous personages contributed to the fair or had some relevance, among them Thomas Edison, Nicholas Tesla, Susan B. Anthony, Jane Addams, Clarence Darrow, Frank Lloyd Wright, the Archduke Francis Ferdinand, Buffalo Bill, and Helen Keller. Many looked to the fair as a source of inspiration, from Walt Disney, whose father, Elias, helped build the Fair, to L. Frank Baum and his illustrator, who visited the fair and created the grandeur of Oz based on what they saw. I could go on and on about innovations of the time or the architectural themes which led to the “City Beautiful” movement, but I would suggest you read the book to get a better understanding.
Most of the book is devoted to the extraordinary effort that was required to accomplish the exposition, even though much of it was unfinished on opening day. Interspersed with the story of its creation and management is the bizarre story of Dr. H. H. Holmes (born Herman Webster Mudgett), the handsome and charismatic serial killer and his victims. His body count is up for debate but many place the higher estimates as much as 200 people dead by his hand. This was just after the Jack the Ripper era in London and it’s shocking to see just how easy it was to kill in those days and get away with it, and kill again, and again. It is not until the final chapters when a detective is able to stumble on to Holmes’s case, due to insurance fraud.
In summary, this is simply a marvelous book. I came away with a very satisfying understanding of a major event in US history that has largely been forgotten today. It didn’t read like a reference work or a typical biography and it included some very juicy bits from a serial killer that puts the likes of Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy to shame. Its style worked perfectly to simultaneously inform and entertain.
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 muEddie 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 andAs 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. ...more
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 wI 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 seemI'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. ...more
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 oneI'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....more
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 examplesI 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....more
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 geneGot 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....more
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 recenI 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....more