Historian David Eisenbach and Hustler publisher Larry Flynt teamed up to catalog what most of us already knew - men ambitious enough to make it to the...moreHistorian David Eisenbach and Hustler publisher Larry Flynt teamed up to catalog what most of us already knew - men ambitious enough to make it to the presidency most likely have powerful sex drives too. Put that together with the fact that power is attractive to a lot of women, and it becomes clear that faithfulness, as seemingly found with W and Obama, is the presidential exception rather than the rule.
So now that Eisenbach and Flynt have made it abundantly clear that founding fathers, presidents, and other politicians have sex, from Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Lincoln, James Buchanan, FDR, both JFK AND Jackie, and, of course, Bill Clinton, no doubt we'll be able to set aside the whole issue, along with the gotcha journalism and partisan attacks that helped derail the country in the otherwise glorious 90s.
What? You don't think so? Then what's the point of this book? Just titillation? Ya think?
Well, Flynt does go into a bit of a tub-thumping attack on the hypocrisy of it all, but the truth is, that's the least enjoyable part of this easy-to-read history. Nothing wrong with a little titillation with your history, after all. Might get more kids to pay attention.
This is one of the best memoirs ever written, and certainly the best book I've ever read about Cambodia. I know that reveals some Euro-centric bias on...moreThis is one of the best memoirs ever written, and certainly the best book I've ever read about Cambodia. I know that reveals some Euro-centric bias on my part; I agree that some of the memoirs of the Killing Fields written by Cambodians are just as eloquent and perhaps show an even clearer picture of Cambodia during the awful ascendency and throttling years of Pol Pot.
Still. Bizot was the only Westerner taken and released instead of killed by the early Khmer Rouge squads. In his case, his captor was no less a monster than Duch himself, murderer of hundreds of his countrymen and women.
Bizot was heroic during his days in Cambodia. The genocide going on there wasn't really his war; he was just an anthropologist, he could have gone home. Except it was his war - he was human. And he loved the people, the country, and its history. For me, his insights into what happened and his descriptions of how it happened are brilliant - and the book is a page-turner. It's amazing that he survived, and amazing how many people he saved. (Not many, considering the numbers who died, but considering the circumstances, many indeed.) It's as if the Raoul Wallenberg of Cambodia were also a gifted writer. (less)
Here's Michael Sean Winters's review at NCR. Winters writes:
"The most startling religious fact about the year 1200 in Paris was that for much of the
...moreHere's Michael Sean Winters's review at NCR. Winters writes:
"The most startling religious fact about the year 1200 in Paris was that for much of the year the city was under interdict. The King had taken an almost instant dislike to his queen, and he set her aside and took another. The Pope did not like the arrangement and, after failing to persuade the King to return his queen to her proper place, he placed the Philip’s realms under interdict. Baldwin writes, 'Throughout the city the doors to churches and the gates to cemeteries were closed, and the sacraments were withheld from the faithful. Only baptism was administered to the newborn and the consecrated host given to the seriously ill. These draconian measures affected all levels of the clergy and the laity. Regular observance of mass [sic] and confession ceased; the special occasions of confirmation, marriage and the conferring of holy orders were suspended; and the stench of unburied bodies infected the air.'
I remember a few years ago agents were saying "enough of the World War II books! Enough!"
That was three, four years ago, and all the books they were...moreI remember a few years ago agents were saying "enough of the World War II books! Enough!"
That was three, four years ago, and all the books they were talking about have been being released, in 2011 and 2012, and I get it. Enough! Even though many are great books - like HHhH, by Laurent Binet - there are also a lot that are stinkers, like The Palace and the Bunker: Royal Resistance to Hitler. I've just had enough.
In the Garden of the Beasts by Erik Larson is the exception. This book is so good I may read it again. It's the exasperating story of the U.S. ambassador to Germany from 1933 to 1937, nine-tenths of it focusing on his first year there, 1933 to 1934, which included the Night of the Long Knives, 30 June 1934, which really should be called Hitler's purge, where he and his minions simply murdered maybe 500 people during a time when there was hope that Hitler and the Nazis might be restrained.
That ambassador ended up spending too much of his time denouncing the good old boys club that was/is the State Department and the country's system of appointing ambassadors. He didn't take as strong a stand as he should have against the Nazis, never, for instance, insisting that Americans should not be visiting Germany, considering the fact that they were frequently beaten for not doing the asinine heil hitler salute. Still, he was one of the few voices speaking out against the nazis.
His daughter Martha's story is also an important part of the book. She slept around, vigorously, and at first loved the Nazis. The book is partly about her realizing that she'd been making excuses for brutality and evil when she shouldn't have.
This book reads like a novel, but it's pure history. You won't be able to put it down.(less)
Great little book on crime and cons and magic during Tudor days in not-so-merry olde England. This is about a credulous (possibly downright stupid) no...moreGreat little book on crime and cons and magic during Tudor days in not-so-merry olde England. This is about a credulous (possibly downright stupid) nobleman trying to rid himself of inconvenient people with expensive magic. His luck in this deadly effort is so bad it's almost comedic, think I Love You To Death, the 1990 movie where Keanu Reeves and William Hurt are stupid hit men trying to kill Kevin Kline.
There's gambling, syphilis, magic, murder - and it's all true, and after reading its few pages I walked away with a far clearer, more vivid picture of Tudor society.
Read it together with Mary Sharratt's wonderful novel Daughters of Witching Hill, also a great book and an eye-opener about those long-ago times. (less)
I reviewed this book for the Historical Novel Society's review magazine. They're a great organization if you love historical novels and history.
It's a...moreI reviewed this book for the Historical Novel Society's review magazine. They're a great organization if you love historical novels and history.
It's a good read, a history (non-fiction) about Benedictine Brother Peter Morrone (1210-1296), who took his last name from a mountain in the rough Italian Abruzzi. He lived there as a hermit—but not just any hermit. Morrone was a rock star hermit, attracting crowds of followers and fans. He even founded a strict but popular religious order, the Celestines. When the pope died in 1292, the College of Cardinals spent two years bickering over who would be the next pope. Peter sent them a message to hurry it up. To his horror, they immediately chose him. He was consecrated Pope Celestine V in August 1294 and resigned, the only pope ever to have done so, five months later. His successor imprisoned him and he soon died, a suspicious hole in his skull. That’s the bare outline of a story that’s rife with self-flagellation, hermitic visions of naked seductress demons, murdered and murderous popes—even the Franciscans are divided and torturing one another. It turns out St. Thomas Aquinas’s death, en route to the Second Council of Lyon in 1274, was also suspicious.
I didn’t find much mystery (as the title promised) surrounding the elderly Celestine’s abdication. The book is all the same an enjoyable albeit blood-curdling read, filled with marvelous details. (less)
In January 1943, the Nazis shipped 230 French women, members of the Resistance, to the death camp Birkenau, in Poland. Author Caroline Moorehead chron...moreIn January 1943, the Nazis shipped 230 French women, members of the Resistance, to the death camp Birkenau, in Poland. Author Caroline Moorehead chronicles their deaths here, but also the survival of 49 of them -- a percentage that defied the odds. The women survived through a hard-headed dedication to solidarity, an understanding that their only hope was in working together.
It's unlikely that this book will be widely read, because of its grim subject matter. Indeed, it sat on my shelves for months before I made the plunge. It was worth it. Moorehead is a good writer, and one who shows us not only the terrible pathos and tragedy, but who brings to life the grandeur of the spirit in its worst extremity of suffering - the servant energy, the fact that the women survived by focusing on one another.
The book's two parts wonderfully memorializes their courage: first, what they did to bring the Nazis' wrath down upon them; their work in the Resistance. Second, how some of them survived the horrors of the French châteaux de la mort lente (castles of slow death), and then Birkenau.
There's a lesson here. Those maternal, sisterly prisoners, absolutely doomed, were as brave and resourceful as any band of brothers. Recommended.(less)
How to Survive the Titanic is great history -- always seeking to understand, sympathetic, literate, witty, and, in the end, tragic. The book begins wi...moreHow to Survive the Titanic is great history -- always seeking to understand, sympathetic, literate, witty, and, in the end, tragic. The book begins with two quotes, one from J. Bruce Ismay, owner of the Titanic, at the New York inquest about the tragedy: "I took the chance when it came to me. I did not seek it." The other is from Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim: "Ah! What a chance missed! My God! What a chance missed!" The chance Ismay was referring to, of course, was the chance to save his life, and step into a lifeboat with empty seats. There were no women or children nearby, the lifeboat was about to be lowered into the sea. Ismay did what most of us would have done -- and most of us mothers, sisters, and daughters would have wanted our sons, brothers, and fathers to have done. Ismay never recovered from that decision on 14 April 1912. He was vilified around the world and his position in society lost. One observer, at an inquest in London, wrote that you would never guess that Ismay was a captain of industry. He'd told the investigators that he was like any other passenger, and everything about his demeanor spoke to that. He had been revealed a common man, in its worst sense. The first half of the book covers what happened at sea, including information from the inquests, from Second Officer Charles Lightoller's book, and other sources. There was plenty here that was new to me -- but then I'm not a Titanic aficionado. For instance, Ismay's faith in the ship was so fierce that he evidently gave the order to keep moving even after they hit the iceberg. Lightholler defended the shipping line in the inquests, but:
According to Lightoller's granddaughter, Louise Patten, the officer confided to his wife a very different version of events. What he told her was kept a 'family secret' for nearly a century. Following the collision, when he had gone to the bridge to ask if the blow was serious, Ismay had told the Captain to continue moving 'Slow Ahead'. The ship, which had stopped following the collision, now started up again and continued at a speed of around 5 or 6 knots until 12.15 a.m., when the Captain sent down the order to once again stop the engines. In pushing her forward, Lightoller believed, Captain Smith had allowed water to pour through the damaged hull at hundreds of tons a minute and to burst through six watertight compartments, one after another. Had the Titanic stood still, 'the whole ship would have assumed a fairly acute and mighty uncomfortable angle, yet, even so, she would, in all probability have floated -- at least for some considerable time, perhaps all day. Certainly sufficient time for everyone to be rescued'.
The second half of the book moves through more investigations and castigations of Ismay, including Conrad's insights and Ismay's betrayal of his family with a woman he fell in love with on the Titanic's sole voyage, Marian Thayer. Author Wilson's beginning quotes - about a chance taken to save one's own life vs. the hero's chance to go down with the ship (the buck stops where?) gives focus to this book, revealing a man who lost his own life even as he saved it. This book has the twists and turns you'd expect from a psychological thriller -- with characters shifting from bad guys to victims and back again; and good guys revealed to have less than pure motives. It's good reading. * I received this book through a firstreads giveaway.(less)
It's a page-turner. I have a deep-seated bias against O'Reilly, but I knew that he had the money to get this edited right and the sense to co-author i...moreIt's a page-turner. I have a deep-seated bias against O'Reilly, but I knew that he had the money to get this edited right and the sense to co-author it with someone.
It reads like a B+ historical thriller, weighed down now and then with annoyances like, "The man with fourteen days to live is himself witnessing death." (Why do some writers think it's so cool to leave protagonists nameless? That was chapter one's first sentence.) O'Reilly also has a penchant for ending chapters with reminders of the assassination to come, thus chapter two ends with "The man with thirteen days left on earth is pacing"; chapter three ends with "President Lincoln has just twelve days left to live"; and chapter eighteen ends with Booth thinking about Lincoln, "who now has only five days left to live." Got it. Lincoln is definitely going to die.
There are also unexplained asides that I could only assume were pandering to O'Reilly's right-wing fans. On page 119, for instance, Lincoln's secretary of war Edwin Stanton "did more than any other to treat the South like a bastard child." OK. That would be the South that was at war with the United States? That South? How was Stanton supposed to treat the Confederate Army? On the other hand, O'Reilly notes several occasions when Grant and other Union officers and soldiers were unreasonably compassionate to Confederate soldiers, who by the war's end were pitiful indeed.
The Civil War, and especially those days in April 1865, present an unusually powerful and clear allegory of good and evil - just as World War II did. So just because other authors have already covered this ground isn't much of a criticism. A boatload of authors should be writing about this. O'Reilly and his co-author do a fine job jumping back and forth between the last marches and battles of the war; Booth's egotistical and hate-filled scheme; and Lincoln's actions and words in his last days. The maps and photos and sketches are also marvelous; my favorite is the one of Custer. I also kept flipping back to the page with the photos of six of Booth's fellow conspirators, most of them fine-looking men.
I remember a PBS program on Lincoln's assassination, and this book reminded me of that. It's pop history, history without all the details that would slow it down. It evidently has a couple errors (Lincoln, for instance, meets Grant in an Oval Office that wouldn't be created for decades), so it probably won't please those many Americans who have read hundreds of books about the Civil War. But it pleased me. Enough details were there to give it color and form and no more, and it got the important details right. I finished it less than 24 hours after I'd received it (through a first reads giveaway). And I hand it to O'Reilly - although he was careful to offer up some tidbits of anti-American flimflam, it's obvious that he sees Lincoln as a hero, a man willing to die for the love of his country - as opposed to dying for the hatred of his enemies. Lincoln left the hating to others. That comes through loud and clear in these pages. That's not something that O'Reilly's most rabid followers are likely to forgive him for.(less)