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Non-Fiction


FORGE OF EMPIRES

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FORGE OF EMPIRES by Michael Knox Beran

Free Press, October 16, 2007, 496 pages

Much like Jay Winik’s recent book, The Age of Upheaval, this book attempts to track a pivotal, (or revolutionary), time in history and the leaders driving that change. In parallel this author chronicles Otto Bismarck and the unification of Germany; Tsar Alexander II, who “freed” the peasants and brought a rule of law to his “Mother Russia”; and Abraham Lincoln and his role in the American Civil War and the end of slavery – over a the 10+ year period of 1861-1871. Each of these “developments” was critical in their own right and collectively set the world stage for the 20th Century and beyond.

Sounds fascinating but you’ll note I used the word “attempts” in the above paragraph. The author has written two previous books which I have read on Robert Kennedy and Thomas Jefferson. Both shorter and more limited in scope than Forge of Empires and read as “Reflections” on their subjects, incorporating anecdotes, quotes, etc. to make a point and which works reasonably well. Unfortunately this same writing style doesn’t work in this book – the characters, topic and thesis are too broad – and what begins as a collection of interesting facts concerning each of the leaders and their times quickly becomes minutiae, drowning the reader in details on attire, mistresses, palace furnishings and dining menus including wine lists. Granted there are some fascinating tidbits here but they’re too few for the effort and unfortunately obscure the focus of the book.

Pass on this one.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 19 August 2009 05:13
 

THE PLAYER – CHRISTY MATHEWSON, BASEBALL, and the AMERICAN CENTURY

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THE PLAYER – CHRISTY MATHEWSON, BASEBALL, and the AMERICAN CENTURY by Philip Seib

When I was given this book, the gift-bearer informed me that it was the perfect gift for me, "... a book about baseball and U.S. history.” Being the grateful recipient of said gift I of course bit my tongue, didn't respond, "How do you separate the two?", and accepted the gift in the spirit it was given. Now, after reading it, I realize how smart my niece is. The book is indeed about both, and without wandering too far from its subject, (Christy, in case there is some confusion), is a very engaging read. Similar books about this time period in baseball tend to get repetitive and somewhat choppy to read by piecing together newspaper reports and box scores. This author alleviates that problem by also tracking events in the U.S., (and the world as 1914 approaches), while Christy pitches his way through his baseball career. This is recommended for baseball novices, hard core fans and anyone in between as it's a nicely written book.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 12 August 2009 14:38
 

A WORLD UNDONE

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A WORLD UNDONE by G.J. Meyer

 

If you're looking for an excellent history of The Great War or simply a great non-fiction book you've found it. In a nutshell what makes this book work is its balance, not necessarily in its handling of events and personalities - the author has no problem critiquing policies, people and decisions - but in the flow of the narrative. Meyer does an excellent job jockeying among the battlefields, world capitals, politicians, civilians, soldiers and generals, economies, technologies and much more with excellent writing, using long and short chapters, (the latter used almost as footnotes to elucidate a point), without becoming bogged down in details or losing track of the narrative. (Just trying to describe how well the author succeeds in doing this is proving difficult.) Without getting too carried away I found the writing and this book very Catton-esque. Highly recommended.

 

A VERY THIN LINE

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A VERY THIN LINE by Theodore Draper

 

This is a book I’d been meaning to get to for years. In a nutshell the author has reviewed the voluminous data, (transcripts, interviews, personal logs and diaries, etc.) and has written a coherent and engaging book documenting an extremely convoluted and complicated foreign policy initiative, (actually several initiatives) during the Reagan presidency. Aid to the contras, weapons sold to Iran and the diversion of funds from those weapons sales are tracked from inception to implementation to the exposure of these "affairs". This includes all the high hopes and noble causes, the "zeal" of the Americans involved, the greed and corruption of the middlemen used for the transactions, and at times the sheer incompetence which led to the inevitable exposure of what was really happening behind the scenes.

 

This last item being the crux of the book - the hijacking of US foreign policy in the Middle East and Central America by a handful of men, (at times overworked, completely over their heads and out of their league), outside of any purview, oversight or review by the White House, Cabinet or Congress. As for who knew what and when, from President Reagan on down, the author also does a very good job documenting this time line and each of the major players involved. (As an aside, Sec. of State Schultz's involvement, or really conscious lack thereof, was an eye opener for me.) As for the timeliness of re-visiting this affair 20+ years later and any lessons to be learned, if any, .... All I know is I found this book both fascinating and a little scary.

 

Last Updated on Monday, 20 July 2009 16:22
 

WITH WINGS LIKE EAGLES

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WITH WINGS LIKE EAGLES by Michael Korda

(Above right – British Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding)

 

If you are somewhat reluctant to pick up a military history book because of a lack of familiarity, (or interest for that matter), in weapons, technical terminology or military jargon but still like your war history then this is a book for you. Without jeopardizing any of the historical import of The Battle of Britain while not bogging the reader down in military detail, the author has written an engaging and informative military narrative by focusing on the personalities involved and their actions/decisions. The key players are of course Churchill and Hitler but there were other major characters and the author does a good job incorporating their stories and contributions into the narrative.

 

An example - British Air Chief Marshall Hugh Dowding, the chief architect of the British air defense which included building up its fighter force, centralizing Air Force HQ and its communications, dividing his country into defensible zones, setting up a network of “watchers”, (many of them women), for advanced warning and most importantly, installing radar towers along the coast-line. This was all done against immense resistance from both the British government and Dowding’s peers. For instance Dowding got on Churchill’s bad side when he continually disagreed with sending British air fighters and pilots to France before its surrender. (This controversy makes for some interesting reading in Churchill’s War memoirs as Dowding was right and Churchill was wrong - something Churchill never took well under any circumstances.)  

 

 

The Battle of Britain started July 10th, 1940. To put things in perspective remember that Germany’s invasion of Poland, the beginning of WWII, was the previous September. After Poland’s fall there was a quiescent period, (called the Phoney War at the time), then a clash of British and Nazi troop in Narvik (Norway) in April 1940. Churchill becomes the British Prime Minister in early May just before the Nazis invade France (May 10th, 1940). At the end of May the British army evacuates ion of the British army from Dunkirk and finally the fall of France on June 22nd. The speed of events especially after World War I where soldiers fought in the same trenches for four years shocked everyone including Hitler and Churchill. Because of this Hitler believed that Great Britain was very close to capitulation and was convinced that the German Air Force could bring about its final demise.

 

Fortunately for humanity Hitler underestimated Winston Churchill and the will of the British people and over-estimated Herman Goering’s Air Force.  This is a very good book if you are interested in this topic.

 

 

Last Updated on Friday, 10 July 2009 05:19
 


Page 13 of 14

Comedy Clips of the Week

KEVIN SPACEY

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Producer, director, screenwriter and Oscar award winning actor Kevin Spacey Fowler was born on July 26, 1959 in South Orange, New Jersey. He has starred in such movies as The Usual Suspects, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, L.A. Confidential and American Beauty. One of his many talents is uncanny impersonations of famous people. The clip below is from Inside the Actors Studio as he runs through his repertoire for James Lipton. Highly entertaining and what a mind Mr. Spacey has.

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HERMAN CAIN IS A VERY FUNNY FELLOW….RIGHT!

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If nothing else Mr. Cain has a future in improvisational/sketch comedy.

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Sports

JESSE OWENS

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On August 3rd, 1936 Jesse Owens won the 100 meter sprint in the Summer Olympics held in Berlin. This was the first of his four Gold Medals, which included the Long Jump, 200 meter sprint and as a member of the 4x 100 meter relay team. A record that wasn’t equaled until Carl Lewis did it in 1984.

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JOHNNY EVERS

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Second baseman John Joseph Evers was born on July 21st, 1883.  Known as “The Crab” for his style of play in the field, Evers is also remembered as one of the smaller players to make it in the major leagues, weighing in at 100 lbs as a rookie and never topping out at more than 130 lbs during his career.

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Classic Movies

UNFORGIVEN

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Directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman, Jaimz Woolvett and Saul Rubinek, the film Unforgiven premiered on August 7th, 1993. So often with classic movies the plot here is a simple one, an aging and retired Old West outlaw/gunslinger takes on one more “job” to avenge the brutal beating and disfigurement of a prostitute.

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HANG ‘EM HIGH

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Directed by Ted Post and starring Clint Eastwood, Inger Stevens, Ed Begley and Pat Hingle, the film Hang ‘Em High premiered on August 3rd, 1968. Fresh from filming the Dollars Trilogy with Sergio Leone in Europe and known to the American TV viewing public from his time on Rawhide, Clint made this movie – which really wasn’t much of a stretch. Playing a man wrongfully lynched – he’s rescued by a US Marshall just in the nick of time – Eastwood goes to work for the “local” judge, (Hingle), as a Marshall with the goal of “finding” the men who strung him up. This theme of frontier revenge/justice one that Clint would “revisit” several more times in his career. In this movie we meet Alan Hale, Jr. – the skipper from Gilligan’s Island – and a young Bruce Dern and Dennis Hopper. And even this early in his career Eastwood had an eye on the future; this movie was the first to be produced by Eastwood’s Malpaso Company.

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Dates In History

GULF OF TONKIN RESOLUTION

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On August 7, 1964 Congress passed what is now known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, giving President Lyndon Johnson “the power to take whatever actions he deems necessary to defend Southeast Asia, including the use of armed force.”  Although not a formal declaration of war, the Resolution was used by the Johnson Administration as the legal basis for the future conduct and escalation of the war in Vietnam.

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PT-109

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On August 2nd, 1943 the Patrol Torpedo boat skippered by future President John F. Kennedy was rammed and split in half by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri. The PT-109 sank within minutes taking two of its crew with it. The remaining 11 survivors grabbed what they could and began swimming the 3.5 miles to the deserted Plum Pudding Island - in the Pacific among the Solomon Islands. Two of the crew members were badly injured, Kennedy towing one to safety by taking the injured man’s life preserver strap in his teeth while swimming. The crew was rescued six days later after a coconut with the crew’s location carved into it was passed along to a Solomon local who passed it along to the US Navy. The coconut with its SOS message was preserved and adorned the JFK Oval Office as a paperweight.

 

Music

LOUIS ARMSTRONG

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One of the founders of jazz; musician, singer, entertainer, and trumpeter extraordinaire, Louis Daniel Armstrong was born on August 4, 1901, in New Orleans, Louisiana. Much has been written and said about “Satchmo” – genius, friend to many but close to few, comical, optimistic – whatever – to appreciate the man and his legacy listen to his music. Louis Armstrong was one of a kind.

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ADAM DURITZ

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Lead singer and founding member of The Counting Crows, Adam Duritz was born on August 1st, 1964 in Baltimore, Maryland. The son of two Jewish doctors Adam admits he is “impersonating African-Jamaican”, starting with the dreadlock hair extensions. In articles I’ve read Adam described as morose, tortured, melancholy and pretentious. And maybe he is. All I know is that when he and his band mates get together and make music something happens and it’s a good thing. The Counting Crows are still one of the best bands to see live for my money.

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Political Clips

HUNTER S. THOMPSON

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Hunter S. Thompson, the father of gonzo journalism, counter-culturalist, iconoclast, and someone who seemingly took Richard Nixon’s existence on this earth personally, was born on July 18, 1937, in Louisville, Kentucky. He was a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone, it was his book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas that combined all that made Thompson either loved or reviled – Drugs, alcohol, guns and contempt for authority – as the protagonist and his attorney make their way through Sin City. His follow up book, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign trail ‘72, tracked that year’s Presidential election and Thompson’s ever growing hatred of President Nixon.

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NOT THAT JOE WALSH …THE CRAZY ONE

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I’ve mentioned our local (Illinois) collective Congressional embarrassment before –

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Crime

WILD BILL HICKOK

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On August 2nd, 1876, James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok was shot and killed while playing poker in a saloon in Deadwood, located in the Dakota Territory. Prior to his final stop in Deadwood, he’d been a Union soldier during the Civil War, specifically as a scout and a marksman. After the war he became a stagecoach driver and then a lawman in Nebraska and Kansas. After turning in his badge Hickcok had toured the East with Buffalo Bill and after giving an interview with Harper’s magazine was now famous as a gunslinger – Wild Bill claiming that he had killed at least 100 men. If the number seems preposterous, it should be noted no one argued with Hickok’s claim.

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PUBLIC ENEMY #1

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On the very warm Chicago evening of July 22, 1934, John Dillinger exited the Biograph Theater after watching “Manhattan Melodrama”, (a gangster movie), starring Clark Gable, William Powell and Myrna Loy. With Dillinger was his new girlfriend, Polly Hamilton, and her “landlady” Anna Sage—“The Lady in Red”—who was actually clad in orange that evening.

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